In the new sour-bordering-on-bitter comedy Search Party (TBS), Alia Shawkat’s Dory lives in the same Brooklyn neighborhood as Lena Dunham’s Hannah — if not strictly in geography, then certainly in spirit. Both Girls and Search Party focus on the tattoos-and-mason-jars set: college-educated twentysomethings sans children, serious S.O.s, and acute job stress who nonetheless don’t feel anywhere near as carefree as they’d like to be. Young adulthood might be unhampered by traditional burdens, but the two shows also know that it’s a life stage uniquely filled with vulnerability, especially for women.
Dory’s biggest unhappiness is her dead-end personal-assistant gig until she learns that a college acquaintance, Chantal (Clare McNulty), has gone missing. Debuting today (November 21), Search Party begins as an acerbic, if not quite funny, satire of millennial narcissism. Dory breaks the news of Chantal’s disappearance to her indifferent boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), and their two friends over brunch. Inhaling a gasp, Portia (Meredith Hagner) asks, “Did I sleep with that waiter a few years ago?” Later, at a vigil for Chantal, Elliot (John Early) sneers at the plastic candles distributed to attendees — he would’ve opted for real ones. Their self-obsession is simultaneously a caricature and a mirror of reality.
TBS smartly rolls out the rest of the well-plotted, bitingly sharp 10-episode season by Friday, November 25 (and is making it all available online immediately), since Search Party’s twisty mystery and compelling cliffhangers are probably best binged. After spotting Chantal through a restaurant window, Dory turns amateur sleuth to figure out why she’s running and from whom. Dory suddenly sees the shadows lurking in her gentrified Brooklyn — previously a bubble-wrapped hipsterland of privilege and frivolity. Chantal’s life could have been undone by any number of local catastrophes: domestic abuse, an exploitative cult, having no one she can ask for help. Each new branch of Dory's investigation takes her closer to danger — and, in her skeptical friends’ minds, further away from sanity.
Search Party is bound to put off some viewers with its characters’ vain insufferability, even if the show gets as close to it as it does in order to shiv it as many times as possible. But the series is as much about the eternal struggle of separating out the altruistic desire to do good from the selfish wish to be seen doing good as it is about parodying Williamsburg subcultures. Co-created by filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (along with Michael Showalter), Search Party also shares with the writing-directing team’s Sundance-award-winning indie Fort Tilden the main characters’ dawning realization that they are bad and alarmingly reckless people. The mystery’s conclusion is boldly and appropriately harsh, even scathing, with enough tauntingly cruel irony for a Coen brothers movie.
With her open, intelligent face — and the banshee rant she rightly unleashes on her needy boyfriend in the pilot — Shawkat never convinces us that Dory’s the doormat she’s supposed to be. Still, it’s a pleasure to see the Arrested Development actress in a substantial role again, as she’s one of our very best everywomen. Dory seems too grown-up to hang out with the imbecilic Portia and Elliot, characters who drag down the later episodes with their one-dimensionality despite surprising revelations about their histories. More believable is her dying relationship with Drew and her thorny bond with her ex, Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall), an investigative journalist Dory strangely never gets around to asking for help. In addition to Shawkat, a slew of other familiar comedy faces make guest appearances, like Ron Livingston, Rosie Perez, Christine Taylor, and Parker Posey in a very Parker Posey role.
“Something terrible is happening everywhere, all the time,” shrugs Drew early on, practically begging to be absolved of any dutiful sadness about Chantal. Search Party is nobly and drolly ruthless about how hard it can be to act selflessly and make the world a better place, even for just one person. And yet it’s not a dismissal, but a challenge — to dig deeper to find our better natures, buried under bottomless mimosas, habitual detachment, and the navel-directed myopia that is our most natural reflex.