Search Party, a new dark comedy airing on TBS, turns a sly eye on a scene everyone loves to hate: the hip streets and haunts of gentrified Brooklyn, teeming with (to tweak a phrase) a tattooed herd of independent minds. The world of Williamsburg and Greenpoint, of Lena Dunham and N+1, occupies a space in popular culture almost comically disproportionate to its size and significance, and its appearance in Search Party might elicit eye-rolls. Here we are again, with the overexposed denizens of hipsterdom: the errant millennials with their technology-enabled narcissism, their brittle relationships, their anxious deferral of adult commitment.
Search Party might have settled for an easy takedown of its subjects, a group of selfish twenty-somethings who knew each other in college and now live adrift in a world that offers little stability. Fortunately, the first season of the series—which TBS has released for five hours of binge watching—mines this material for something more unsettling. The story centers on Dory Stewart (Alia Shawkat), a young woman whose life after college has stalled. Dory makes a living doing odd jobs for a lonely rich woman. Her boyfriend is well meaning but spineless, unable to act even when he hears an outbreak of domestic violence in the neighbor’s apartment. (When he belatedly visits the apartment to offer help, his efforts are so tentative that the victim emasculates him with a torrent of insults, sending him away defeated.) Dory’s ensemble of friends approach life and friendship as a permanent campaign of self-promotion, and their behavior is frequently repulsive—a trait played for painful laughs. These friends include Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner), a middling TV actress grasping for affirmation and gaining little return; a serial liar named Elliott Goss (John Early), who exploits a water campaign in Africa and a story about his past to bolster his image; and Gavin (Griffin Newman), an ex-boyfriend who exhibits a higher degree of intelligence and maturity than his peers but demonstrates little empathy.
Alia Shawkat came to prominence as Maeby Fünke on the cult television series Arrested Development. As a member of the amoral, self-absorbed Bluth family, she made her way thorough a madcap version of Orange County, which mostly reflected her family’s skewed ethics and weird behavior. But Search Party does more than simply mock its characters (a strategy that made Arrested Development unwatchable after the second season). The humor here is savage, but the story calls us to witness, and to share, a woman’s earnest quest for a meaningful narrative in a disjointed world of status updates and fugitive commitments.
The search begins when she learns from a flyer that Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), an acquaintance from college, has gone missing and is presumed dead. Shortly thereafter, she spots Chantal through the window of a Chinese restaurant and tries to confront her, but the latter dashes to the restroom and out the back window, leaving behind a single piece of evidence—a copy of Anna Karenina, which Dory scours for clues. Convinced that Chantal has become ensnared in a dark scheme that threatens her life, Dory commits herself and her friends to unraveling the mystery.
Dory’s past “relationship” with the missing woman—an encounter in a dormitory stairwell, related in a gauzy flashback—was brief and forgettable, but Dory invests it with poignant meaning to justify her current actions. It often seems that events will justify her obsessive sleuthing and a real plot will emerge, culminating, perhaps, in a dreadful revelation. But the show signals that things will turn out otherwise. The arch tone gives ample warning, from the episodes’ old-school titles (“The Woman Who Knew Too Much”; “The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony”) to the missing woman’s name, which sounds like a punch line. It is also clear that Dory’s need to find meaning in Chantal’s disappearance reveals something about her own psychology. Dory herself explains that she embraced Chantal’s cause because she identifies with the missing woman. She feels overlooked and wonders whether her friends would care about her disappearance more than they care about Chantal’s.
In that sense, her quest does not differ so much from her friends’ self-regarding pursuits. Like Elliott Goss and his water charity, Dory uses a sad case for her own ends. Nevertheless, Alia Shawkat, in a superb performance, imparts to Dory’s character a sincerity largely missing from the rest of the dreadful cohort. As the story progresses, we begin to share her hope that events will coalesce and reveal a pattern that connects all the dots, something powerful enough to jolt these people from their drifting lives. We recognize that such a development will not likely occur—yet we tag along, like Dory’s friends, for an adventure in self-delusion. We note the standard elements of a made-for-TV thriller: the mysterious, noirish private eye with whom Dory becomes romantically involved and the antics of a creepy birth cult, whose members apparently have something to hide (besides, of course, their membership in a creepy birth cult). Episodes end with traditional cliffhangers, hinting at big revelations. Perhaps the next episode will bring clarity.
A revelation comes, but not the one Dory expected. It has to do with the fragmentation and loss of fellowship in the technology age. “I thought you had ghosted me,” the private eye says to Dory when she fails to show up or return his calls for an extended period. Being “ghosted” (i.e. dropped without the courtesy of a formal break) is exactly what Dory fears, and it is a fitting concern for a world without enduring connections or narratives that give unity and significance to everyday life.
In her copy of Anna Karenina, Chantal highlighted several passages, including the famous first sentence. This “clue” is played as a joke: Not only is the sentence well known and often cited, but it seems odd to underline a book’s first sentence. Another famous first sentence would be more appropriate to Dory’s plight. I am thinking of Joan Didion’s in The White Album: “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.” Didion spent her early career analyzing the breakdown of narrative in midcentury America, of which the upheavals of the sixties and seventies were, in her view, symptomatic. “At some point between 1945 and 1967,” she says in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, “we had neglected to tell these children the rules of the game we had been playing. Maybe we had stopped believing in the rules ourselves, maybe we were having a failure of nerve about the game.” She speaks here of the sixties counterculture in San Francisco, but her description of a generation bereft of rules or direction could apply as well to the millennials of Search Party. When we see them interact with their elders, we understand that their self-absorption and indifference did not come from nowhere, or even from Twitter. The world they inhabit is the one they inherited.
In The White Album, Didion speaks of her loss of faith in the narratives she had once counted on to “freeze the shifting phantasmagoria which is our actual experience.” Dory and her friends have not lost a narrative, because they never had one to lose; they have lived their whole lives cut adrift from tradition or guiding context. When Dory encounters a “story” that will give her life significance, she jumps in with both feet. Search Party has received praise for its performances and cutting wit. But the series succeeds because it goes beyond generational caricature and hipster-bashing and lays bare an aching human need for narrative and connection—a need that recedes, for people like Dory, further and further from reach.
Richard T. Whittington serves as a priest for the diocese of Little Rock.