On the new TBS series Search Party, Alia Shawkat of Arrested Development plays Dory, a doe-eyed, world-weary young woman with an abundance of education but lacking purpose and prospects. One day while meandering through Manhattan, Dory spies a flyer offering a reward for locating a missing person named Chantal. Dory recognizes the face. They went to the same college, and she has a hazy memory of Chantal once showing her a kindness during the briefest of encounters. Dory becomes obsessed with finding her, and the more she keeps swimming toward the truth, the more she becomes convinced that a super-fishy cult is responsible for Chantal’s disappearance. As Dory gets closer to the answers, we begin to wonder what might be more troubling: Chantal’s fate or the true meaning of Dory’s perplexing fixation with an almost perfect stranger.
Is this TV’s next must-see, follow-the-clues puzzle box? Not quite. It’s something more curious, more challenging, and, for me, more fulfilling. Search Party is a tonally eclectic oddity — a mix of cultural satire, alt-comedy absurdity, and cliff-hanger mystery, and a hybrid of single-camera sitcom, binge serial, and maxi-series. It evokes a number of influences— postmodern detective stories, Gone Girl thrillers, and rom-coms about twentysomething sex and self-realization in the big city. It seems destined to be a late-night cult classic, mostly because TBS is programming it like one: The network is launching the 10-episode season on Monday, airing two episodes on five consecutive nights at 11 p.m. At first, you might assume Search Party is a small, nasty lampoon of those damn millennials. But producers Michael Showalter, Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers (all worked on Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp), and Lilly Burns (Younger) craft something smarter and broader: a social-media-era allegory for “friend” and “like” culture where everyone is enmeshed in each other’s business, where our search for fulfillment is crippling our capacity for empathy and rendering us profoundly unlikable.
Fittingly, your enjoyment of Search Party will hinge largely on how well you can tolerate Dory’s Scooby Gang of self-absorbed pals. Their bonds are flimsy (they’re college buddies who don’t realize they’ve outgrown one another); they’re Facebook friends brought to life. Drew (John Reynolds) is Dory’s clueless lover, selfish in bed and heartless out of it. Elliott (John Early) is gay to the bone but otherwise a total phony; his scheme to finance a water-for-Africa charity is all about look-at-me glorification. Portia (Meredith Hagner) is an actress of limited talent whose vapidity belies a deep, angry insecurity. Stick with them and you might just grow to care for them.
What I admire most about Search Party is how well each episode works as character-driven detective story and character-revealing comic scenario. The season is peppered with great cameos and supporting players, but elevating and humanizing it all is a magnificent performance by Shawkat. She turns Dory into a funny, affecting, even profound cautionary tale about finding meaning in someone else’s life. Chantal is her addiction — and also her redemption. There’s enlightenment at the end of the story. Whether Dory sees it is another one altogether. A-
Search Partydebuts Monday at 11 p.m. ET on TBS.