It’s that thing that can’t seem to be avoided in any new show these days–that overarching theme: millennial ennui and lack of direction/purpose. While Search Party–named for a literal reason and for that more figurative one about searching for oneself–is about more than just this, it can’t help but bleed into the entire motive for Dory’s (Alia Shawkat) seemingly random obsession with wanting to find a missing girl named Chantal (Claire McNulty) who she went to college with.
In the opening episode, “The Mysterious Disappearance of the Girl No One Knew,” co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers establish the distinct breed of self-involvement cultivated by the current generation in the form of Dory’s friends, Elliott Goss (John Early) and Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner). Then there is her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), arguably the most humane of the quartet, but too “noble” for Dory to appreciate. Upon seeing the MISSING flier for Chantal, a woman on the street passes her by and notes, “Girl, you standin’ in shit.” This statement is kind of a blanket one, as Dory has no concept of just exactly what she’s about to get into on her hunt.
Drifting aimlessly in her own life and not making any progress in her career, Dory works for a rich woman named Gail (Christine Taylor), who treats her in the same doormat fashion as everybody else. This leads Dory to apply for a more meaningful job in the Women Leading Women program, only the interviewer, Paulette Capuzzi (Judy Gold), doesn’t exactly do much to boost her self-confidence, remarking, “These girls need to be challenged and I just feel like with you, they’d be bored out of their minds.” This sentiment is one echoed by Dory’s constantly reappearing ex-boyfriend, Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall), a journalist with a generally “too amazing for you” air. With the fear that her blandness and directionlessness can be sensed from a mile away, Dory laments to Paulette, “Everybody can tell me what I can’t do. But nobody can tell me what I can do.”
Trapped in the same position as before, Dory decides to make finding Chantal her sole mission in life. Find Chantal, find some arcane meaning. The fact that she spots her hiding out in a Chinese restaurant in Flushing only further propels her lust for gumshoe greatness. Plus, Chantal leaves behind a seemingly clueful copy of Anna Karenina.
In the second episode, “The Woman Who Knew Too Much,” we’re given the blessing of seeing Rosie Perez onscreen again as Lorraine, a realtor who Dory encounters at the police station when she’s reporting her sighting of Chantal at the restaurant. When Lorraine tells Dory that she, too, saw Chantal, the former’s faith in her sanity is restored and the two convene at a coffee shop to discuss what they know, though it becomes gradually apparent that Lorraine is either some sort of schizophrenic or just garden variety New York crazy. Still, a corresponding doodle in the copy of the book she finds lines up with the one seen on Chantal’s video of her ice bucket challenge (she’s a real do-gooder type, that one), and it lends Dory the continued glimmer of hope she needs to keep searching.
This sets up the series of “suspects” Dory and her friends unearth at a vigil for Chantal in the third episode, “The Night of One Hundred Candles.” Among the prospects are her ex-boyfriend, Gavin (Griffin Newman), and the adultering “nanny daddy,” Chuck (William Ragsdale), that Chantal babysat for. Unfortunately, from the outset, it’s clear to everyone in attendance that Dory, Drew, Elliott and Portia are outsiders, and it highlights the way in which people of the twenty-first century have this tendency to grieve in a selfish way, one that allows them to showcase it to everyone just to get the point across that they really care. But Dory, a person that genuinely does, is cast out by the family because she’s not deemed close or relevant enough to the situation. Nonetheless, in keeping with the more underhanded person she’s becoming every day, Dory manages to find a sonogram in Chantal’s room that leads her to believe this is part of the reason she’s on the run.
Assuming that Gavin might be the father, Dory invites him over in “The Captive Dinner Guest,” much to Drew’s dismay. In point of fact, the search for Chantal serves only to accent the latent rift that has long been developing between Dory and Drew. And in inviting Gavin to their apartment, Dory only summons the worst qualities about him, as he, too, is almost as emotionally unstable as Lorraine. Interestingly, the most alarming thing about the case is how many nutjobs it draws to Dory, indicating the notion that the lack of caring in the current era has turned everyone coldly psychotic. By the end, however, Dory knows one thing for sure: a private detective–one that’s been following her–named Keith (Ron Livingston, always happy to step in for an antagonistic role) is also looking for Chantal.
As the two team up in “The Mystery of the Golden Charm,” Dory suddenly feels more alive and exhilarated than she ever has–taking on this sort of female version of Jonathan Ames (Jason Schwartzman) in Bored to Death. But excitement comes at a price, as she soon steps into the bizarre alternate universe of Chantal’s former apartment, where her ex-roommate, Penelope (Bridey Elliott), offers visitors an “immersive and non-interactive intimacy experience” (yes, it’s very Brooklyn) for those willing to pay her price. While Penelope has no problem expressing her contempt for Chantal’s hygienic habits, she doesn’t offer much in the way of clues–which is precisely why Keith steals a necklace from the box Chantal left behind, leading them to Bellow & Hare, the store where she bought it from. According to Elliott, however, Bellow & Hare is a notorious cult run by a woman named Brick (Parker Posey, never not willing to make an NYC-based cameo).
While Dory gets deeper and deeper into the quagmire of Chantal’s disappearance, her friends remain wrapped up in their own lives–Elliott trying to raise funds for a bottled water company for Africans and Portia caught up in landing a role on a cop show as an ambiguously “ethnic” rookie named Courtney Garcia. Though, yes, the two remain willing to help when it’s convenient, it’s evident that this quest is all on Dory. And when Brick invites her to their next meeting, she falls further down the rabbit hole. As the first of three episodes written by Ryan McFaul, it speaks to the concept of how susceptible the current twenty-somethings are, how willing to take chances on obviously bad ideas for the sake of feeling something at all.
“The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony” drives home this point, as Dory drags Elliott and Portia to the dinner she was invited to by Brick, promising Drew she’ll be done in time to meet up with him and his family in the Theater District later. Drew constantly being pushed to the backburner and taken for granted is the most overt way of displaying Dory’s brand of self-interest, preferring to crack the case than consider the needs of one of the only people who’s actually there for her no matter what. And as Drew is sitting down at Sardi’s for dinner, Dory sits down for her own fucked up “family” gathering, with the head of the cult, Edwin (Tunde Adebimpe), criticizing another member for giving him the worst blow job of his life last night.
During the time the cult members wait for “the moment” to happen–which we later find out is a birth, hence everyone at the party being pregnant–Elliott, Portia and Dory flee when it finally occurs. Except Dory can’t resist going inside to see what’s really going on. As she watches the birth, her cell phone goes off, and everyone looks over at her. It is for this reason she believes she gets a threatening note in her own home, warning, “STOP LOOKING FOR CHANTAL.”
Of course, she can’t. She has no other purpose now, as “The Riddle Within the Trash” resuscitates Lorraine once Dory and Keith find a check made out to the cult from the same real estate company, TW Brownway, Lorraine works for. In the midst of this major find, Dory gets caught up in the thrill of the danger–the sexual energy that’s been developing between her and Keith, which, yes, is kind of gross. It is this indiscretion that prompts her to stop the search, horrified by her behavior and the fact that Drew felt guilty just for watching their deranged neighbor sexily dance for him to Grace Mitchell’s “Runaway” and confesses it to her in elaborate detail. She, on the other hand, is a monster–a cheating, self-consumed monster adrift in the kind of latent narcissism that at least Elliott and Portia put on blast.
“The Return of the Forgotten Phantom” offers special emphasis on Elliott, who has been lying for half of his life about beating Stage 4 lymphoma cancer. But before the truth comes out, Julian dupes him into believing that New York Magazine wants to cover the benefit he’s putting on for his bottled water geared toward Africans. Catching Elliott in his own web of deception when it’s over, he instead uses the space in the magazine for an article entitled “The Millennial Who Cried Cancer,” which comes out the next day–the very nature of this title speaking to the self-indulgence and absurdity of millennial comportment. Meanwhile, Dory tries to act as though her search never happened, even toying with the idea of taking the job Paulette from the Women Leading Women program wants her to have when she runs into her at a coffee shop.
Yet the dull aura surrounding Paulette now makes her return to the mystery, especially after she learns of Lorraine’s death by subway mow-down, an act she believes to be murder. In another instance, this scene explores the insensitivity factor of most these days, as the women she worked with as a temp laugh at and mock her death.
With the stakes getting higher and higher in “Password to the Shadows,” and Keith’s identity revealed to be something other than who he said he was, Dory tracks down one of Chantal’s friends, Agnes Cho (Jennifer Kim), that she saw in security footage of the Chinese restaurant. Admitting that she knows where Chantal is, Agnes is willing to give the information only for the price of $5,000 (the zoo she works at won’t give her enough funding for the animals). Painted into a corner, Dory tries to ask Elliott and Portia–obviously well-off–for the money. Their refusal is yet another testament to the friendship prototype of the twenty-first century: sure, I’ll be your friend, if it doesn’t inconvenience me too much or dip into my bank account. But Drew, now just as good at this scheming thing as Dory, offers the idea for Portia to blackmail Chuck a.k.a. “nanny daddy” for the money.
“The House of Uncanny Truths” is when all of the pieces at last come together for Dory, even though she realizes they’re not the pieces she thought they were. Traveling to Montreal with Elliott, Portia and Drew, Dory throws Keith off the scent by telling him she found out from Agnes that Chantal is in Miami.
On the drive there, Elliott once again fucks up the continuity of his lies, thereby unearthing to Drew that Dory has cheated on him. He pulls the car over and the two get into an argument that leads Drew back to that narcissistic conclusion, “This whole thing has been for yourself.” Still, he’s trapped on this journey with her, and must see it through.
Ultimately, the true motive behind why Chantal decided to go missing is so disappointing and so void of meaning that Dory can’t handle it–and, in the process of it all, there’s now a dead body on her hands, which will inevitably color most of season two. With this level of insignificance as a result after all the hard work she put in and all the risks she took, Search Party becomes an allegory for so many people’s lives.
Blending the surrealism of Twin Peaks at times–in addition to that whole searching for a missing girl thing–and the sinisterness of Stranger Things, Search Party is a new take on millennialism with far less of an annoyance factor. Further, it’s really going to help give TBS a sorely needed edge.