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The dream of the 90s is alive in Search Party

Sam Brooks watches Search Party, the indie-inspired comedy that contains as many mysteries as it does 90s stars. 

If you were to make a webseries in the 90s, somehow having the same crazy technology as of today, you would probably make Search Party. You’d also immediately burned for being a witch, because that’s what they did back in the 90s. 

Macall Polay

The TBS series, now on Lightbox, stars Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development and Rose Matafeo-lookalike fame playing a character called Dory. She’s a disaffected twenty-something, like almost every protagonist in a web series, but her life is thrown into self-destructive disarray where she finds a missing poster for a girl she knew in college: Chantal.

What Search Party proves itself to be, quite quickly, is a mixture of mystery and satire. The series, created by Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Roger (on their first show) and Michael Showalter (The State alumni, decidedly not on his first show) savagely skewers the millennial desire to make everything about ourselves, to find meaning in the world to give ourselves a purpose, and to find pathos in the simple act of being disaffected.

Stylistically, it’s more similar to the ’90s indie films of Hal Hartley (Surviving Desire, Henry Fool) than it is to anything out now. The comedy is offbeat and weird, and it doesn’t seem to really care if you like it. It’s aiming at more than just laughs, it wants to be about something. This ’90s-ness also rests on much of the supporting and guest cast. Look at this list of ’90s stars: Rosie Perez, Judy Gold, Parker Posey (the Hal Hartley queen herself), Christine Taylor, Ron Livingston, Christine Ebersole. As much as it’s a delight to see them have fun, it gives the show a certain feeling of being out of time.

When Search Party gets stuck in, the thematic ambition really pays off. The episode that revolves around a cult is rife with tension; the whole thing is fantastic. You get the feeling that this isn’t a show made about millennials by boomers who hate them, but a show made about millennials who genuinely understand the experience and want to honour it – as much as skewer it.

Ali Shawkat as Dory in Search Party

But when the ambition doesn’t work, it can fall flat. Largely this is to do with the style of the show. Search Party doesn’t look any different to other contemporary shows made in this style. If you played it next to an episode of Broad City, for example, you could be forgiven for mistaking one for the other. This gives the whole show a feeling of sameness that it shouldn’t have, not when the content is as smart as Search Party’s.

Where the show does shine is in its supporting cast. As the lead, Shawkat is great, often having to hold the weightier moments and providing a necessary anchor for the show. While that’s not always the most fun to watch, what is fun are the supporting characters of Elliot (John Early, star of the fantastic Vimeo webseries 555) and Portia (Meredith Hagener, who I’ve never seen before but who is excellent).

Dory (Ali Shawkat), Elliot (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagener)

Elliot and Portia are the worst people you’ve ever met. Elliot is the egotistical gay guy lying to everybody around him; Early has enough charisma to stop it feeling like nails on a chalkboard. His sense of comedy, standing outside the character while also totally embodying him, works beautifully for Elliot and the style of Search Party.

Similarly, Portia is a proto-Jenna Maroney, and Hagener goes all in on the character. She’s the one who gets most of the big comedic moments in the show, and Hagener’s performance is smart enough that Portia never feels like the butt of the jokes. She’s just as real and fleshed out as Dory.

While Search Party isn’t perfect – the plot feels very much spread out over it’s ten episodes when it could’ve been wrapped up in five – there’s something fascinating in the blend of satire and murder-mystery that it’s aiming for.

Search Party been just been renewed for a second season and, based on how this one ended, I’m not sure what the hell they’re going to do with it. Still, I’m keen to see some millennials get gently skewered for the sake of some laughs and some awkward feelings.


Click below to watch the complete first season of Search Party, available exclusively on Lightbox:

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