'Search Party' Season 2: TV Review
Having found Chantal, the self-obsessed gang in TBS' mystery-comedy now tries to avoid consequences in a funny, darker second season.
When TBS' Search Party premiered last fall, I went out on an intellectual limb and described the tone-hopping series as "Michelangelo Antonioni's L'Avventura as a Brooklyn-set single-camera comedy."
Season two is premiering Sunday night (with two episodes, rather than in its entirety) and, to go out on less of an intellectual limb, I'd say the first six episodes of the new arc are more like a hipster comic version of I Know What You Did Last Summer, a bit like HBO's Bored to Death if somebody had, literally, been bored to death and the other characters had to spend half an hour per week covering it up.
When we left Dory (Alia Shawkat), Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner), they had found the missing Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) cloistered away in a posh home outside of Montreal. That was good. They'd killed Dory's ex-lover Keith (Ron Livingston), a sad-sack private investigator also seeking Chantal. That was bad.
Creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter pick up in the confusing immediate aftermath, as our ostensible protagonists — I hesitate to call these lovably self-absorbed morons "heroes" — have to engage in that most tried-and-true of prestige cable drama pursuits, namely corpse disposal. While the main characters on The Americans may know exactly how to chop and fold a body for easy elimination and may be aware of the logistics of efficient hole-digging, Dory, Drew, Elliott and Portia do not. And even if they can figure out how to make Keith disappear, they also have to figure out how to make Chantal reappear with as few questions as possible, and then they have to return to their lives of vapid brunches and disappointing jobs, hoping they can each keep secrets and hoping what they did never comes into the light. Spoiler: It's gonna.
The thing that was perhaps most exciting about the first season of Search Party was that whatever failures the main characters had as people — and those failures included narcissism, compulsive mendacity and a social media-birthed inability to relate to humanity in person — Bliss and Rogers structured the 10 episodes as a workable and uncompromising mystery. Dory and her friends followed clues, investigated suspects and overcommitted to red herrings all leading up to a resolution that, within the confines of this universe, made total sense.
In its early going, the second season of Search Party succeeds for the same reasons. Bliss and Rogers don't approach the series as a takeoff on a genre or a parody of a genre. Instead, they take these heightened characters and plunk them into a structure in which the conventions of dramatic genres are honored and, if the characters are consistent to themselves, they react in funny ways. Dory, Portia, Drew and Elliott were, to varying degrees, responsible for killing a man, and the new season is about them trying to get away with it while asking several crucial questions including: Are we still good people? (Hint: They mostly aren't, but they really never were.) Can we go back to our lives? (Hint: They didn't have much by way of lives to go back to, with Portia looking for new acting work, Elliott now lying about writing a book about being a notorious liar, Dory not really having a career path and Drew being boring.)
The inability to go backwards means that the second season of Search Party lacks the silliness and levity that brought laughs to the first season, even as we were supposed to be wondering if Chantal was dead or kidnapped or worse. A lot of the relatability of those early exchanges is also gone. The first season captured something generationally specific about people who think that liking a tweet or utilizing a hashtag counts as solidarity or activism or altruism only to get pulled into something with real consequences. I miss those things and think they made the first season of the show more interesting, but they haven't been removed without something in their place.
What the second season has going for it is a heightened set of stakes and four main characters whose behaviors have been mapped out well enough that we believe their behavioral extremes. It happens that Dory's extremes are highly internalized and self-lacerating, and that while Shawkat plays her freshly tortured character's descent and disorientation perfectly, some of the exhilaration she got to play in the first season is lacking. Reynolds' Drew also goes to a dark place and the character already suffered from a one-note glumness, but here he's redeemed by the awful and in-over-his-head plot he concocts to extricate himself from the situation. Most of my laughs in the second season come from Hagner's Portia, she of the preternatural chipperness that now becomes a cracking porcelain front masking possibly the show's most sympathetic character, and especially Early's Elliott. Established in the first season as already the broadest of the main characters, Elliott's crazed responses this season are fully in character and hilarious.
Because she's the only character who, initially at least, isn't constantly looking over her shoulder expecting to be charged with murder, McNulty's Chantal supplies a little welcome lightness and she turns out, as expected, to be as easy to simultaneously love and hate as the rest of the cast. Also, Brandon Micheal Hall (The Mayor) is now a cast regular as Dory's journalist ex, and I'm not sure the show exactly knows how to use him, though Julian's reportorial interest in Chantal moves the plot along.
Like its characters, Search Party remains a show that's always right on the edge of becoming insufferable and too full of itself. It also remains a show where if it's not your flavor, you're going to know immediately, and even some people who went all the way up to the first-season finale with these characters wouldn't be wrong to think "murder" was a bridge too far. Me, I was pleased that the second season felt like a continuation of what worked for me in the first, with perfectly played awful people continuing to be unaware of their awfulness and generating wry amusement while doing awful things.
Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Early, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, Brandon Micheal Hall
Creators: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter
Premieres: Sunday, 10 p.m. ET/PT (TBS)