Search Party was one of last year’s stunning TV surprises. Part bantering-twentysomething city sitcom, part digital-era mystery thriller, the TBS series began with Dory (Alia Shawkat) learning about the disappearance of Chantal (Clare McNulty), the kind of friend-from-college you used to forget about before Facebook kept you looped in on their vacation schedule and their profound political beliefs.
Dory’s hunt for Chantal was initially a lark — she was bored in a long-term relationship, had a listless professional future — and Search Party presented as a stylish comedy-of-millennial-manners. As Dory’s besties, John Early and Meredith Hagner were breakout comedy presences, shading what could’ve been vapid Brooklynite types with screwball anxiety. John Reynolds (who played one of Hop’s deputies on Stranger Things) turned boyfriend Drew into a tall drink of ice water, a boringly nice dude who just wanted everything to go back to normal. Then came the first season finale, a plot-shocker that pushed the show’s dark whimsy into full-blown Camus territory. The last shot of season 1 was Dory looking at herself in the mirror, Shawkat’s face staring straight out of the camera. It was impossible to say what we were looking at, precisely. It was like we’d seen someone self-actualize into oblivion.
So go watch season 1 if you haven’t yet. And then stop, maybe? To get spoiler-y and specific here, the first season left off with Chantal cheerfully alive but somebody else quite dead. Sadsack private eye Keith (Ron Livingston) chased Dory and her friends up to Canada. There was a strange scuffle, and Drew wound up bashing Keith’s head in. It was the kind of bold move that left you breathless — and hoping that the writers knew what they were getting into.
I’m not sure they did. Season 2 of Search Party picks up moments later, with an extended subplot about corpse disposal that leads into a season-long paranoid slow burn. The show’s narrative switch has flipped. Last season, the friends were trying to solve a mystery. Now they’re the mystery. It’s a bold reconsideration, but it feels like the show’s horizons have dimmed as a result. In the six episodes I’ve seen, all four leads are playing different variations of anxiety, if not outright mania. (Someone walks through the streets of New York City with no clothes on. That’s not, like, a sequence, it’s a running plot thread.)
Dory in particular seems two perpetual seconds away from coming unglued. Shawkat sells the stress, but it’s the only real note she has to play this year. That’s a significant comedown from last season. Episode to episode, Dory felt like a uniquely specific generational avatar, bored into activism, self-conscious enough to wonder just how much self she really had. The whole mystery framework gave her space for playful energy: In the show’s best episode, she staged a dinner party as an interrogation trap. This season, she seems trapped on a personal spiral. “I don’t have a partner, I don’t have a home,” says Dory. “I literally have less than I had before I started looking for Chantal.”
If that sounds depressing, keep in mind that that last bit is true of everyone. It’s like the cast members have each been locked into their own Mr. Robot season 2 prison allegory. Early’s Elliot has a book deal, but can’t bring himself to write, breaking out in a rash that makes him look like Chris Elliott in There’s Something About Mary. Hagner’s Portia has a new part in a project about Charles Manson (so hip right now!), which features one of the hundred Duplasses as a method-y director. Newly single Drew seems to be going full Raskolnikov, driven by guilt into deeper immorality.
Reynolds is especially good, giving poor sap Drew the peculiar trajectory of a regular guy genially evolving into Patrick Bateman. But the problem, I think, is that the presence of an actual corpse has driven the show to extremes, so a lot of the droll charm has been lost. Chantal’s a big part of the season, and McNulty plays her as a millennial grotesque, self-important with zero self-awareness. Her sheer awfulness is played for broad laughs, but the whole show feels a little broader now. Chantal’s family were occasional characters last season, thinly sketched in the manner of all detective-story red herrings, their lack of definition seeming malevolent. Now they’re just all goofs, boozy or oversharing.
The middle of the season welcomes an intriguing new character played by Tymberlee Hill, who brings energy simply by suggesting that the plot gears are grinding forward. Dory’s journalist ex-boyfriend Julian (The Mayor‘s Brandon Micheal Hall) is still sniffing around the sidelines, suspect that something is amiss. Co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers are frequent episode directors, and they give the show a consistently vibrant look.
But it feels like Search Party has genre-skipped, from a comedy with thriller elements to a full-blown thriller. In so doing, it’s reaching into a more familiar toolkit. There are a couple of sequences so shocking they are inevitably (sigh) dream sequences, and there’s a mysterious taunting written I KNOW WHAT YOU DID letter that looks beamed in from Pretty Little Liars.
“I feel like you want things to go bad,” someone tells Dory, “So you can go on one of your adventures.” It’s meant as an insult, but I found myself agreeing. Yes, Things, Get Worse! Let This Woman Go Adventuring! The party isn’t over, but I miss the thrill of the search. B-