'Search Party' Season 3: TV Review

Jon Pack
A blast from the past, and yet strangely prescient of 2020.
6/25/2020

The mystery-comedy starring Alia Shawkat and John Early — formerly on TBS — returns on HBO Max after a three-year hiatus.

When Search Party debuted in 2016, shortly after Trump's election, it was widely received as a razor-edged also-ran in the flotilla of satires about (mostly white) millennial Brooklynites that launched in Girls' wake. The mystery-comedy, then on TBS, boasted a flawless comedic cast in Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, John Early and Meredith Hagner; a formidable joke density in its first season; and pitch-perfect parodies of pampered Park Slopers and pathologically narcissistic 20-somethings. It seemed everyone could agree: Millennials were the worst generation.

And then the last four years happened. The media finally seemed to remember that, until Gen Z came along, millennials were America's most diverse generation — and that rather than being defined by their privilege and penchant for avocado toast, they are, economically speaking, "the unluckiest generation in U.S. history." Even Search Party seemed to get that its raison d'être was quickly fading into obsolescence.

Early in the third season, dropping in its entirety on Thursday, June 25, a prosecutor (Michaela Watkins) determined to make Shawkat's Dory, who has been charged with murder, into a cause célèbre says of millennials, "People love to hate them. It's like a national obsession." Her colleague is slightly more in tune with the times: "I don't think people really care about millennials anymore. I feel like that kind of talk has died down, actually."

Though it was shot two years ago, Search Party's Season 3 is surprisingly relevant to, even prescient of, the political winds of 2020. That's in large part due to the lacerating observation that creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter have threaded through the series since its earliest days: That women — especially highly privileged women — who only see themselves as victims in any situation or context can be alarmingly dangerous to others.

Search Party began with Dory's obsession with a missing-persons case involving her college acquaintance Chantal (Clare McNulty), whom our protagonist automatically assumed was in trouble despite seeing her alive at the end of the pilot. Dory imagined Chantal first at the mercy of a tetchy ex-boyfriend and later a cult, but it turned out that the self-absorbed acquaintance was hiding out in a fancy vacation home, for free, to nurse a broken heart, while her family feared her dead.

But after conjuring so many threats to Chantal, Dory — with the help of her boyfriend Drew (Reynolds) — ended up the villain of her story, accidentally killing, in a paranoid frenzy, the private investigator, Keith (Ron Livingston), that she was cheating on Drew with. And at the end of Season 2, Dory killed her mentally ill neighbor, April (Phoebe Tyers), who attempted to blackmail the hipster couple with a recording of their screamed confessions through their building's thin walls.

Despite a masterful performance by Shawkat, it's a little difficult to square the guileless Dory of Season 1 with the sociopathic conniver that she has become by the start of Season 3. But that's ultimately a quibble with Search Party's thoroughly satisfying third season, which finds a middle ground between the satirical buoyancy of the series' first year and the mournful surreality of its second. Dory and her friends — which include actress Portia (Hagner) and cancer and publishing scammer Elliott (Early) — do become the hated poster children of privilege that the D.A. office engineers to render them.

The irony is that, even in their persecution, they enjoy unfair advantages. Dory and Drew are charged for murder, but only Keith's. For most of the season, the only person who knows that April is dead is Dory, who's haunted by visions of her victim's rage-filled, water-bloated corpse (Tyers gives a bleakly funny turn).

Though it never lets the central quartet off easy, Search Party's third season is less a condemnation of a (narrow slice of a) generation than a portrait of Dory's increasing arrogance and self-delusion. Her smirking mugshot becomes a media sensation, leading to tabloid nicknames like "Gory Dory" and "the Butcher of Brooklyn." When Dory tells the paparazzi parked outside her apartment that, despite the overwhelming forensic evidence, Keith's death wasn't an understandable case of self-defense but wholly unrelated to them, she handcuffs the defense strategy of her Elle Woods-minus-the-charm lawyer (Shalita Grant). Rounding out the guest stars are Louie Anderson and Chelsea Peretti as fellow defense attorneys and Cole Escola in a small but crucial role too delicious to spoil.

The season largely plays out as a just-this-side-of-tolerably-broad legal spoof, with Watkins' prosecutor chronically exasperated that the youth and beauty that she resents in Dory and Drew also present an unfair benefit in the media and courtroom. It's a justified critique but hardly the series' hardest-hitting one. Also missing a parodic edge is the fifth episode, in which Dory's immigrant parents (Jacqueline Antaramian and Ramsey Faragallah) fly in from out of town to help present a supportive facade to the public. It's a rare representation of an Arab-American family in TV comedy outside of Ramy, but the episode's lack of cultural specificity and even character development make it a sorely squandered opportunity.

Still, it's hard not to admire the well-paced plotting of Season 3, as well as its careful attention to tying up the loose ends from the previous season. The 10 episodes constantly veer toward an unreality, with the latter third of the season, in particular, threatening to take the series from dramedy to horror-thriller. But Search Party ultimately remains tethered to our world, full of cautionary warnings about predators who can't see themselves as anything but prey.

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

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

Showrunners: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers

Premieres Thursday, Jun. 25, ET/PT on HBO Max