When Search Party returned for its third season in 2020 after a three-year hiatus (and a move from TBS to HBO Max), the increasingly difficult-to-categorize series came back as a legal farce, with Dory (Alia Shawkat), a murderer of two, exploiting her newfound tabloid celebrity and socioeconomic advantages to will a “not guilty” verdict into being. Despite her killing no one that season, last year’s episodes found Dory at her most alienating, the one-time lost millennial finding a dark purpose in channeling the conniving sociopath she didn’t realize had been lurking within her all along.
Early in the fourth season — to be released in three batches over two weeks, starting today — the show flashes back to Dory, her sometimes-boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) and their narcissistic friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) at their college graduation, all eagerly awaiting their “easy” years to start. In spite of Dory and Drew’s acquittal, it’s hard to reconcile their fresh-faced, college-grad selves with their 30-something reality — especially that of Dory, which involves being chained to a chair, her head forcibly shaved and her friendship desperately desired by Chip (Cole Escola), her baby-faced kidnapper.
The sight of Dory and her friends in their graduation robes also reminds us how drastically the characters — and the show — have changed since their introduction. Season 4 is a horror-comedy, with Dory’s imprisonment deep within Chip’s decadently wealthy aunt’s home (as well as in his sad but control-obsessed imagination) serving up constant tension and suspense. The batty, overeducated Chip is a moral abyss in twink form, but, like Dory, he’s somewhat relatable as a criminal mastermind, which is to say he isn’t one at all. Like the extravagant foliage in the busy wallpaper behind him, he’s never been held back or pruned. Escola and Shawkwat make for fantastic scene partners, and the actress in particular seems determined to showcase her wondrous range this season.
The first half of the 10-part season is much more compelling than the second, which borrows a few too many twists from daytime soaps. But the initial five chapters are Search Party at its best, especially in its satire of showbiz and the media. The supporting characters’ careers are stalled either by the murder trial or their own history of pathological lying: Drew flounders, throwing himself into a new romance with a woman who’s got her own reasons for wanting to lose herself in love, while Portia and Elliott search for ways to profit off their notoriety. Naturally, Portia approaches a terrible true-crime production called Savage: The Dory Sief Story with utter eagerness. But it’s the verbally dextrous Elliott’s latest heel turn as a gay-conservative-for-pay that elicits the most laughs — and brings us back to the show’s thematic throughline: Its core quartet would rather sink lower into moral turpitude than give up an ounce of their privilege or sense of entitlement.
In addition to Escola, Season 4 boasts guest appearances by Busy Philipps, Ann Dowd and Susan Sarandon, the latter two in delightfully brassy roles. An episode dedicated to Chantal (Clare McNulty) — last seen caught in a money-laundering scam — brings back into the fold a character whose usefulness to the story had seemed to have run its course, as well as a streak of the kind of goofy absurdity largely crowded out by the dread of Dory locked in her creepy, dollhouse-like cell. The show’s farcical lightness returns somewhat when Dory’s friends finally get around to looking for her, but as with previous seasons, there’s a purposefully unsatisfying weightlessness to the mystery storyline.
If Dory spent much of the second season fearful of the external consequences for her actions, she spends this one as terrified of herself as she is of Chip. Her perturbing coldness in retreat, Dory is forced to reckon with what’s inside her, and why she ever let it out. Her attempts at a do-over become too literal in the later chapters, but at least they get at an awful truth: Sometimes there’s no such thing as a fresh start.
Cast: Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, John Early, Meredith Hagner
Creators: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter
Showrunners: Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers
Premieres Thursday, Jan. 14, ET/PT on HBO Max