How ‘Search Party’ and ‘The End of the F***ing World’ convey existential despair through music
I spent a good half of this past weekend binge-watching the latest season of TBS’s “Search Party” and Netflix’s newest series “The End of the F***ing World.” The former is a witty murder mystery about four Manhattan 20-somethings, led by the anxiety-riddled Dory (Alia Shawkat, “Transparent”), who struggle to cope after having accidentally killed an innocent private investigator in search of their missing friend. The latter is a twisted British comedy that follows two teenagers — one a self-identified psychopath (Alex Lawther, “Black Mirror”) and the other a coarse misanthrope (Jessica Barden, “The Lobster”) — who decide to embark on a road trip to escape their boring hometown.
Having engrossed myself in both shows in such a short span of time, I couldn’t help but notice that “Search Party” and “The End of the F***ing World” share more than just a sick sense of humor and young, conflicted protagonists fed up with life’s mediocrity. Like any good TV soundtrack, the music curated on each show plays a hugely influential role in informing us about the inner turmoil of the characters, articulating the motivations behind their actions and the emotions buried underneath. More specifically, the particular type of music used in “Search Party” and “The End of the F***ing World” illuminates the humanity of the ostensibly irredeemable protagonists, each of whom are, coincidentally, guilty of committing murder.
For a program like “The End of the F***ing World,” you’d expect the soundtrack to be filled with venomous punk rock in the style of The White Stripes, The Clash or even Green Day to match the rebellious angst of its central couple, James (Lawther) and Alyssa (Barden). Surprisingly, however, the show takes a much more unconventional approach in regards to music genre. Over the course of the first season, each episode is peppered with a diverse musical palette — sweeping doo-wop ballads, romantic acoustic rock and dreamy French pop.
It’s a bit jarring, especially for a show where the two main characters are criminally insane, dangerous and frequently insufferable — think “Moonrise Kingdom” meets “Natural Born Killers.” But underneath the surface of the show’s cynicism, the light-hearted soundtrack benefits James and Alyssa’s cause for acting out. “The End of the F***ing World” establishes this right from the start: In the first episode, James explains his psychopathy as Bernadette Carroll’s “Laughing on the Outside” plays in the background, and later, Alyssa explains her misanthropy over the sorrowful tune “Where is the Love” by the Monzas. Both songs sonically and lyrically ache with such forlorn tenderness that it’s impossible not to feel sympathy for these two and how they grew to be so alienated from the world around them. The music offers a more tangible understanding of James and Alyssa’s shared suffering — absent parents, loneliness, childhood trauma — that would otherwise seem dull or trite if the music was edgier and more on-the-nose.
Other important scenes are made only more poignant, romantic and clever with the undercurrent of music cues. When James and Alyssa break and enter into a stranger’s mansion in episode three, they dance to Hank Williams’s “Settin’ the Woods on Fire,” having just blown up their car in the previous episode. Later on, James stabs the stranger, who attempts to strangle Alyssa after catching her in his bed, while singer Brenda Lee croons her 1960 single “I’m Sorry.” The two frame the murder in the next episode to the tune of Timi Yuro’s cover of Charlie Chaplin’s “Smile.”
Perhaps these jingles are only meant to soften the blow of the show’s disturbing, grisly violence. I’d argue it serves a greater emotional purpose: The music not only literalizes the shock and despair James and Alyssa experience in these situations, but it also excavates the innocence concealed beneath the darkness of their actions. Their love for one another intensifies, even as they stray further away from sanity. This idea continues onto episode four, where James’s woeful monologue about the loudness of silence feels all the more potent with the sound of Ricky Nelson’s “Lonesome Town.” The scene marks the first time James and Alyssa are separated, and we can actually start to feel heartbreak for both characters as Nelson sings, “There's a place where lovers go / To cry their troubles away / And they call it lonesome town / Where the broken hearts stay.” Being a confused, frustrated teenager often does feel like the end of the world, but the soundtrack for this off-kilter coming-of-age story offers hope and guidance for lost souls like James and Alyssa.
As for “Search Party,” the music choices are a bit more subtle, but still just as effective. Like “The End of the F***ing World,” one would guess that “Search Party” would incorporate a more indie rock-based soundtrack to reflect the stylings of its hipster-millennial characters. Instead, the show opts for a more ambient electronica sound, using songs by obscure chillwave musicians Boga, Tender, Little Ashes and Roosevelt. Sometimes, the music is used as a tool for comedic irony — Beat Club’s “Something Better” provokes an impromptu dance party in the season two opener, as Dory and her friends mask the guilt and shame of killing the private investigator Keith Powell (Ron Livingston, “Loudermilk”) just hours before. Other times, “Search Party” relies on the glum, melancholy synths of its soundtrack to evoke the fear stirring within the four friends as they suppress the truth. In the last shot of episode two, Dory and her friends contemplate the repercussions of lying about murdering Keith, sitting solemnly in the car as Fear of Men’s “Sane” lingers in the background. The title of the song pretty much says it all.
These music choices affect Dory in particular, who, since season one, has experienced a quarter-life crisis of listlessness and anhedonia, heightened even more by the trauma of killing Keith and subsequently burying him with her friends to cover up their tracks. The dirty regret bubbling inside Dory culminates into an all-time low in the seventh episode when she envisions jumping off a rooftop to Tender’s “Belong” — a song that mirrors her terror of being found out, especially with lyrics like, “No I don't belong, to anyone / But I wish I did / Then maybe I won't feel the shame.”
Strangely enough, the music in “Search Party” and “The End of the F***ing World” ruminates on very similar ideas about how scared people in this generation are to confront their own existence. Dory, James and Alyssa repress not only the truth about the mistakes they made, but also who they are as people. None of them feel like they can live up to societal expectations, and instead of reckoning with the issue upfront, they do their best to bottle everything up as much as possible, often leading to disastrous consequences. But the soundtracks in both shows do their best to validate the remorse these characters face. Music itself can often be a cushion for characters like these, just as it can be a source of solace for people who feel just as lost, angry, misunderstood and burdened with a need to do everything right.