‘Search Party’ Was Many Things — Its Characters Were More

(This article contains spoilers for the final season of Search Party as well as the entire series to date)

Who else but Search Party could end their series with a zombie apocalypse and still feel appropriately restrained?

Last Friday, HBO Max released the fifth and final season of Search Party, the dark comedy mystery starring Alia Shawkat which debuted in 2016 on TBS where it ran for two seasons before moving to HBO Max in 2020. Despite the series never quite gaining the necessary traction to elevate its viewership beyond its core fanbase, in the end, a cult following was the perfect audience for a farewell season that dove headfirst into exploring the thin line between influencer culture and savior worship.

From the beginning, Search Party was two stories. It was first and foremost a story about its main character, Dory Sief (played by Shawkat), trying to fill a void in her life despite the costs to those around her (we’re not talking emotional scarring — the girl’s body count had commas). What made the series so unique was how its creators took that relatively banal proposition, and instead of simply exploring what happens to someone when their journey fails to make them whole, they took it ten steps further. Rather than asking “what happens when the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is not a pot of gold at all?” they wondered, “what happens when the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow is actually a bomb, which is only detonating because you came here?” The framework of that question — that the journey might not only be costly, painful, and perhaps even meaningless, but it might also create destruction that wouldn’t otherwise exist — is the connective tissue of the entire series.

Throughout Season 1 we follow Dory’s furious search for Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), an old classmate she hardly knew who had gone missing. This search, born of an all-too-real mid-20’s restlessness and desire for fulfillment, results in the murder of an innocent man, the destruction of lives, and finally, the realization that Chantal was never missing or in any danger to begin with. Each season in the series adopts a different genre as a thematic backdrop to the story. Whereas Season 1 imbues the feeling of a detective mystery, seasons 2 through 4 present as a psychological thriller, a courtroom drama, and a kidnapping horror, respectively — and yet, despite these significant shifts in tone and genre, one constant theme is this destructive search for someone or something that is not there.

When we arrive in Season 5, Dory has awakened from a near-death experience with a newfound sense of enlightenment, and an unyielding desire to ensure the rest of the world can share that same feeling. Her obsession with sharing this nirvana, likely as a way to prove to herself that it is real and not simply her subconscious attempting to bury the fact that she’s a complete monster, results in an attempt to commodify the sensation one gets from temporarily dying. It’s manufactured into a candy-like pill, and this candy-type enlightenment pill, **surprise surprise**: doesn’t provide enlightenment. Instead, it turns whoever eats it into a flesh-eating zombie, establishing a final casualty (or 5,000,000) of Dory’s quest for fulfillment while providing viewers the least expected genre homage of the five seasons.

This show deserves plenty of praise, but whatever success Search Party had can and should be attributed, primarily, to its core cast. Shawkat, as Dory, played a half dozen personas ranging from crestfallen to maniacal, oftentimes within the same scene. Meredith Hagner’s Portia as the bubbly, directionless best friend was pointed — never verging on caricature and always demonstrating depth below the surface. John Reynolds as Drew was a fuming volcano of restraint, and finally, John Early as Elliott, and the way that he portrayed someone for whom a lack of growth is not a point of denial but rather a point of disinterest, was truly a joy.

Along with the rest of the cast, the ensemble was phenomenal, but what made this foursome so appetizingly hilarious and pathetic was that, outside of their self-destruction and absurdity, they were inarguably relateable.

The friendship was the other story of Search Party, and the reason you kept coming back. The show was about Dory unsuccessfully and disastrously trying to feel complete, sure, but it was also a story about four college friends with absolutely no idea what they were supposed to do in the real world. They lied to themselves about who they really were and to each other about their motivations and relationships. They lied to the world around them — John Early’s character Elliott legitimately lied to everyone he knew about having cancer as a child. Yet despite all the deceit and how terrible their combined effects were — quite literally ending the show as proxies for the four horsemen of the apocalypse — they came back together because, in the end, that was really all they knew how to do.

Search Party offered a buffet of narratives to enjoy. It skewered millennial apathy — “We’re adults, and adults don’t care about making a difference” as Elliott said proudly in the Season 5 premiere — and never shied away from making its viewer's skin crawl (as it did for the majority of Season 4). It gave us deep psychological exploration, but also a chance to watch Berger from Sex and the City (Ron Livingston) get his head smashed in by a trophy.

The reason this series will endure and why we’ll continue returning to this world, though, is undoubtedly the core group of Dory, Portia, Drew, and Elliott. They’re the reason my reaction to a series that included several murders and kidnappings, multiple characters institutionalized, infidelity, alopecia, and a zombie apocalypse, was: there’s still meat on this bone. Honestly, Search Party was one story for these characters, but if you're asking me whether I’d sign on to watch if HBO Max decided they were going to give us a True Detective/ The White Lotus style pivot, wherein we pluck these four lunatics and drop them into a new world to see what happens? Yes.

1,000 times yes — I’m in.

Unfortunately, there won't likely be a Search Party-verse. Luckily for us though, just how Dory, Drew, Portia, and Elliott continued coming back to one another, we can come back to them whenever we’d like as well (so long as you have an HBO Max Subscription; last I checked it’s $14.99 a month but check before you subscribe because there’s a chance it’s included in your cable plan and it’s also worth it to check in with friends and family because you really just never know).

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NYC by way of PDX — Writing about TV, culture, and sports.

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Jordan A. Kirsch

Jordan A. Kirsch

NYC by way of PDX — Writing about TV, culture, and sports.

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