'Search Party': TV Review

Macall Polay/TBS
Alia Shawkat of 'Search Party.'
'L'Avventura' as a sitcom.
11/21/2016

TBS' ambitious, simultaneously off-putting and addictive mystery-comedy stars Alia Shawkat as a hipster investigating the disappearance of an old friend.

You probably won't like the characters in TBS' new mystery-comedy Search Party, but chances are good they wouldn't think much of you either.

Imagine Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura as a Brooklyn-set single-camera comedy and you may get a sense of how simultaneously off-putting and frequently ambitious Search Party is, as it weaves its twisty whodunnit around a funny portrait of generational disaffection.

Alia Shawkat plays Dory, a directionless young woman stuck in a pointless job as an assistant/paid friend to a rich housewife, living with spinelessly innocuous dullard boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) because of inertia as much as anything. When a friend from college goes missing, Dory finds new inspiration in her conviction that Chantal isn't dead, and that her disappearance, rather, is part of a conspiracy of hipster oddballs. She enlists Drew and buddies Elliott (John Early), a narcissistic philanthropist, and Portia (Meredith Hagner), a narcissistic actress, to join her investigation. As it turns out, Dory and Chantal weren't really friends. They barely knew each other. But in this vague acquaintance's possible tragedy, Dory finds a path to introspection and her friends find an avenue for additional self-obsession as they stumble upon one suspect and clue after another.

"I think you've decided that this matters to you because you have nothing else," Dory's ex (Brandon Micheal Hall) tells her, but he's almost a villain in the piece because he has a regular job, tells people the truth and isn't impacted by the malaise effecting everybody else.

Search Party was created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter, with Bliss and Rogers writing and directing most of the episodes, producing a clearness of its odd vision that has more in common with micro-batch British comedies than the network comedy model. TBS was able to send all 10 episodes to critics and the first season unfolds its mystery to a conclusion that fits both the adrift anti-heroes, but also the tradition of juvenile gumshoe fiction honored in episode titles like "The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony" and "The Mystery of the Golden Charm."

From Encyclopedia Brown to The Bobbsey Twins to Nancy Drew and The Hardy Boys, youthful detectives have been unified by inquisitive civic pride, a connectedness to close-knit communities and their potential wrong-doers. Dory and her friends are united in generationally specific urban disconnectedness, by the illusion of empathetic tweeting and hashtag activism, but when Dory tries applying for a mentorship position in the pilot, a perspective boss cuts her down with, "These girls need to be challenged and I just feel that with you, they'd be bored out of their minds." Yet for poorly motivated sleuths, they push the narrative along and tension builds with surprising effectiveness, especially in a pair of dinner parties that blend farce and suspense. TBS is wisely thinking outside the box with the all-episodes-in-one-week premiere schedule starting on November 21, because certain Search Party episodes find a lot of humor in millennial mockery, but other half-hours are more mystery-driven and aren't funny at all. It isn't a streaming service show — bleeped swearing punctuates a lot of punchlines and offers a constant reminder that there are restrictions — but it's designed to be plowed through.

Or maybe it's designed to be straight-out rejected, which is also a possibility for many viewers. These characters are initially variably insufferable and you'll probably know before the end of the pilot if you're feeling any affection at all for people who essentially view an amateur murder investigation as an activity on par with brunch, but not a cause for urgency. Even if what they're doing is a good thing, they're doing it for a lot of the wrong reasons and engaging in some bad stuff along the way.

Of course, a lot of people felt the same about the family at the center of Arrested Development, so it's fitting to have Shawkat in place as the lead. The same preternatural maturity that let Maeby Fünke masquerade as a teenage Hollywood studio chief fools audiences into thinking that Dory has her act together and then makes her frustration all the more amusing. With a haircut that recalls Tom Baker's Fourth Doctor, Shawkat's determination in the face of her inexperienced bumbling anchors the show and lets the other actors push for more overt humor. Elliott is a very broad creation, but Early's performance teases us with occasional resourcefulness and kindness. Portia, amusingly miscast on a TV procedural, is sometimes used for dumb blonde stereotyping, but Hagner makes her both sympathetic and just a bit wicked. Reynolds' mopey, entitled Drew is the hardest character to warm to, but he has a goofy charm (when you aren't rooting for Drew to get hit by a bus or by a vicious neighbor) and, depending on the scene, seems to be channeling both Josh Radnor and Jason Segel, as if demonstrating versatility for a How I Met Your Mother remake.

One thing Search Party gets very right is the sense of friendship between the main quartet, with just enough reminders that they're there for each other and that their passive-aggressive conversations aren't meant to be cruel, so there's fine interplay between the main quartet.

Guest-starring as various eccentrics associated with the case are Parker Posey, Ron Livingston and Rosie Perez, all giving the impression that Search Party is an indie film from the mid-90s.

Like Showalter's Wet Hot American Summer, Search Party strikes a tone that defies categorization and will probably alienate some viewers. It's characters on the verge of stereotype in a genre piece that's on the verge of parody, but by the tenth episode I found myself invested in Chantal's disappearance and even if I didn't like all of the main characters, I found myself sneering at them in a way I think they'd respect.

Network: TBS

Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Early, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, Brandon Micheal Hall

Creators: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter

Premieres Monday, November 21 on TBS.

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