'Life is cringey and humiliating, but also beautiful': A Search Party oral history
Warning: The following contains spoilers from all five seasons of Search Party, including the series finale, which dropped Friday on HBO Max.
Search Party, to quote star John Early, is the little show that could. What started out as a low-budget satirical TBS comedy starring Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, and Early as a group of self-involved Brooklyn millennials searching for their missing college acquaintance and, more importantly, purpose in its acclaimed first season, has evolved into a hit HBO Max series that seamlessly moves between genres (from Nancy Drew to Hitchcock and courtroom drama) without losing its unique and stinging point of view. As murders were committed, court cases were tried, and brunch was consumed, the show critically explored what it means to grow up by taking the consequences of each characters' arrested development to the absurd yet somehow meaningful and logical places.
With the 10-episode fifth and final season arriving on HBO Max today, EW broke out our murder board, interrogated the cast and crew, and retraced the show's step from conception to the truly shocking series finale. Before you read on, though, here's another SPOILER WARNING that the end of this oral history discusses the entire final season, including the series finale. (This oral history contains quotes from recent and, where noted, past interview conducted by EW.)
In search of a show and first season
The story of Search Party, like the relationship between the four main friends, begins at NYU, where co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers met each other and their future partner Michael Showalter, who was one of their screenwriting teachers.
CHARLES ROGERS (Co-creator, executive producer, director): Sarah-Violet and I went to NYU Graduate Film School. We were making shorts, but we were both making comedy stuff and just kind of naturally inclined to be friends based off the stuff we were making. We decided to make a feature film called Fort Tilden in our third year of film school. We had the idea at the beginning of summer 2013, and we dared ourselves to make the feature by the end of the summer. That was our thesis film. We sent it off to film festivals and that did well. It kind of told the world that we had this millennial, satirical point of view. We felt like the next step was to make a TV show, but we moved to L.A.
MICHAEL SHOWALTER (Co-creator, executive producer, director): I was an adjunct professor at NYU and got to know them a little bit then, and knew at the time that they were both really talented and I liked them both a lot. They came out to L.A. and we started talking about working on something together. They wrote on [Netflix's] Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp. They did a wonderful job there and were developing something around Fort Tilden that kind of morphed into Search Party, which was sort of [about] a group of millennials or hipsters. It was going to be set in L.A. and Silver Lake. Part of the thing was to sort of differentiate ourselves from Girls and also Broad City and sort of trying to find a way to tell a story with that demographic [without repeating] what had already been done so successfully with these other shows. It was kind of about somewhat aimless youth, but with all of their brilliant and funny ideas, which felt like it was missing something magical to make it feel more necessary and not just another show like that. My feeling about it from a producing perspective was what we need is a hook.
ROGERS: People kept throwing ideas at us for how to like put a hook on our voice. And nothing felt right until Michael Showalter and [New York-based production company] Jax Media came up with the idea of putting a murder mystery hook to our satirical, millennial commentary voice.
SHOWALTER: What was happening in the culture at that time was Serial. We were working on Wet Hot and we were all listening to Serial and talking about it. And the hook was, what if there's a mystery to solve [and] where you had these kind of Brooklyn intellectuals, driving around in the middle of the night in a dangerous part of town, and then we kind of ran with it from there.
ROGERS: It was the quickest premise writing we've ever done in our life.
LILLY BURNS (Executive producer, Jax Media COO/Head of Prodction): Jax Media thought that their tone was so unique and specific that it was going to be possibly hard to sell. [We imagined] we would take it to a development executive at a network and they'd be like, "Yeah, but what is it? It's not a comedy. Or is it a drama? Make it a drama." This was before the time [when] every show was a hybrid. So it was definitely something we felt that we needed a proof of concept. So we decided to put our own money up — and we were a total mom-and-pop shop — and financed the pilot, which was a crazy financial risk, but we really believed Sarah-Violet and Charles, and we really believed in the show.
With the pilot presentation greenlit from Jax in 2015, the producers got to work finding the right actors to play the core friend group: the aimless Dory Sief, who becomes obsessed with finding her college acquaintance Chantal Witherbottom; her aloof boyfriend Drew Gardener; gullible aspiring actress Portia Davenport; and burgeoning scam artist Elliott Goss.
ROGERS: Michael, Sarah-Violet, and I had lunch with Alia and it was like a date. It felt like a date where everyone was trying to be like their coolest version of themselves for each other. And it was effortless. Like she wanted to do it and we wanted her to do it.
ALIA SHAWKAT (Dory Sief, producer, director): We were at Little Doms in Los Feliz and I had read the pilot and I really liked it a lot. I was on board from reading it. I met with them and had some ideas about the character, just like an actor does when they talk about it. I wasn't chit chatting, I was, "Yeah, I like the script, but here are my notes." It was probably my way of putting on a front, "I'm a professional, okay." And they seemed so open to my ideas and really understood what I was trying to say or how I saw Dory. I wanted to personalize Dory more, which we ended up doing. It just seemed like a natural, really good fit right away. I could tell that they were really open to collaborating on this and building it together, which was something I was really interested in at the time.
JOHN EARLY (Elliott Goss): I filled in for Cole Escola [who recurred in seasons 3 and 4] in Fort Tilden for one day. We got along beautifully, and I think there was a real kind of match in sensibilities. They just sent me the script to the pilot. I kind of initially seized up when I saw that my first scene was me at brunch on my phone. I was really scared. I had kind of privately vowed to myself that I wouldn't play the kind of caustic gay guy at brunch, but I also knew that they were smarter than that. The scene is great [and] deliberately there on purpose. It's consciously playing with the trope that was so kind of in the culture at that point.
MEREDITH HAGNER (Portia Davenport): I did a movie called Hits that had just come out, and it was this weird little movie that premiered at Sundance and Charles had seen me in it and was like, "Oh, I want to work with that girl." And I just had an audition and [read] the scenes in the pilot.
JOHN REYNOLDS (Drew Gardner): I remember there's a casting director in New York who liked me, I guess, but I thought she hated me so much because I would only go in when my friends had a project and then I would audition for it and not get it. But I guess she liked me, and she put me up and then Charles and SV cast me.
CLARE MCNULTY (Chantal Witherbottom): So Sarah-Violet Bliss and I went to college together and became very close friends in college. [Bliss and Rogers then] cast me in Fort Tilden. And then after Fort Tilden, I was always kind of hearing about what was happening with the development of Search Party. I had some idea that there might be something in there for me, but I didn't know what it was going to be. And so [the role of Chantal] was written for me. I didn't audition.
BURNS: So we put together this incredible cast and Sarah-Violet and Charles directed it, and we did it on a shoestring [in 2015].
SARAH-VIOLET BLISS (Co-creator, executive producer, director): It just felt so similar to an indie film and throughout the years, it still feels that way.
REYNOLDS: I had no money and I booked it and I was like, "Oh God, I'm going to have some money now!" This was Jax Media's first independent pilot, so it didn't have a network attached so they had no money. And that was the second time it had happened to me, and I was like, "Goddammit, when do you get paid in this business?" But thank God it worked out and yeah, it's a life changer.
EARLY: There was no hair and makeup trailer. There was just whatever room we were shooting in, there was just a chair and a s---ty mirror in the corner. I didn't know anything about what it meant to have a job in TV, and so I remember the hair person just taking some clippers and like [makes a razor cutting noise while pantomiming a haircut]. I just assumed like, "They know what's best." I didn't know you could collaborate and say something. It never crossed my mind that I would be stuck, for at least a season, with that haircut, for continuity. I just was horrified. In a split second I was stuck with an alt-right haircut. I was walking around Brooklyn like, "No, no, no. No, this isn't me."
HAGNER: Literally I'm wearing clothes that the costumer came to my own closet and picked stuff out.
CHRISTINE TAYLOR (Dory's boss Gail): We were [shooting in] I think the production designer's apartment in Brooklyn that he was using as a holding place. Wardrobe was in there, hair and makeup. We changed in his bathroom. And I just remember there were two cats in the bathroom [and a sign] saying, "Don't leave the door open. Don't let the cats out." It was just this thing of everyone meeting each other. I think Alia and I probably did a million takes of them going on and on, and Gail just talking about the things that they were going to do and this friendship together. And this was great because Alia was the straight man reacting to this craziness, so I just went for it.
EARLY: I remember finding out Judy Gold and Christine Taylor were in the pilot. I grew up on the Brady Bunch movie. That is deeply influential to my sense of humor and especially her performance. I knew something was special was going on in that I just knew like, "Oh, this is not your typical casting."
HAGNER: The first scene we shot [as a friend group] was the brunch scene in the pilot. Tone is an interesting one and it's sort of this elusive thing where I think it really comes from symbiosis with creators and actors and all kind of having a similar taste in a way.
EARLY: I was very starstruck by Alia when we were shooting that brunch scene — her thoughtfulness about it, her dogged curiosity in the script, and making beats make sense, and making sure the scenes really kind of led into the next scene. She was really good at tracking the emotional arc of all of our characters and just making sure it felt real and not like we were a bunch of paper dolls.
HAGNER: I remember feeling like we were all kind of pushing a little bit in the comedy and Alia, very delicately and wisely would be like, "Let's just run it a few times and really talk like real people." And it was just this moment where I really remember feeling like I was finding what the tone ended up being.
REYNOLDS: I still hadn't fully grasped the idea of eating on camera. So they were bringing a bunch of chicken out and I was like, "Oh my God I love this." And I ate so much chicken in the first take and forgot about what coverage was, and I was so full by the end of the day. And also I remember Drew didn't have a lot to say in that scene, so they just said I could improvise anything. I just think I asked for ketchup a million times. But yeah, it was a really nice day, it was a summer day and we're sort of in this atrium like, outdoor brunch spot. So it was pretty idyllic and just fun because it was fun to watch everybody sort of act and find my way in through that.
SHAWKAT: Then I remember after we shot the pilot, I was like, "Well nice working with you. I'm never going to see you again." I loved it. I thought it was really fun. And I was surprised because it was unexpected, I guess. I was like, "Of course this is never going to go, because I like this one." And then yeah, who knew it ended up being this wild, crazy ride.
After completing the pilot, the producers shopped the show around to several networks. While having a completed episode made explaining the show's unique mix of comedy, drama, and mystery easier, it still took some time to find the right partner. Eventually, Search Party landed at TBS, which immediately picked it up to series. After that, Brandon Micheal Hall was cast in the series regular role of Julian, Dory's ex-boyfriend and journalist.
BRANDON MICHEAL HALL (Julian): I had just finished LFE, which was a medical drama [pilot] that I got right as I was graduating from Julliard, but the medical drama didn't go. I'm in New York, and I'm like, "Man, I don't know what to do. Whoop de whoop." I thought I had everything sorted out. I get on a plane and I'm going to L.A. to do a testing. As I'm flying back to New York, I run into Lilly Burns and [executive producer] Tony Hernandez on the plane. And I guess from LFE and from me doing The Characters right before then, they were like, "Yo, we love your work. We have this thing called Search Party that's coming up. Be on the lookout." I was like, "Ah, whatever. I don't know how this thing works. If it happens, it happens." Lo and behold, I have to send in a tape for the audition and they accepted my tape. I remember getting the role and Tony Hernandez hitting me up and being like, "Yo, remember we had met on the plane." I was like, "Oh, my God, that was months ago."
Lacking any real sense of self or purpose, Dory throws her entire being into finding the missing Chantal, which leads to her teaming up and cheating on Drew with a shady private investigator named Keith (Ron Livingston). Meanwhile, Julian profiles Elliott, who claims to be running a water charity, and breaks the news that Elliott has been lying about having cancer as a child, a story he based much of his public persona around. That twist was memorable for Hall and Early for very different reasons.
EARLY: My first day of shooting was this big speech in episode 2 of season 1 where I talk about having cancer. I knew there was a certain level of falseness to what he was doing, but we hadn't talked about his arc being that he would be caught in this lie. Now, I think they probably assumed that I would've read all the scripts, but I hadn't at that point. So, when I was doing this speech, what you're actually seeing in that scene is me thinking his cancer was real and that he was milking it for attention. That's what I thought. I thought the joke was he was exploiting something that had actually happened to him, mercilessly.
I remember doing the speech and Charles walking up to me kind of confused. He was really struggling with how to give me the note. He was like, "Can you do it where it's just more real?" I got so confused, because in my head I was like, "Well, it was real. He did have cancer." But then I think in his mind, him knowing that the cancer wasn't real, he didn't want me to give it away so quickly.
Then this director who directed a few episodes later in the season came up to me a couple weeks later and he was like, "Episode 7, are you excited?" I had no idea what he was talking about. He was like, "Elliott's breakdown, it's amazing." I was like, "I don't even want to talk about it," because I truly had not read it. Then when that happened, I was like, "Okay, what's going on?" Then I finally read all the scripts, and I was like, "Oh my god, he's lying." It was so embarrassing, but that scene in the second episode still works, because again, I think my interpretation still kind of stands a little bit that he's milking this trauma, even if it's not even a real trauma.
HALL: I figured out [the show's unique tone] when there's a scene that John and I have when I revealed to him that I know his cancer story is a whole lie, and I remember I couldn't get the line out. It just did not click. In that particular moment I saw John Early, I saw him as a comedic genius [and thought], "I don't want to mess up in front of John, he's always improving and working." But I remember right before we had taken our lunch break, because we could not get the take before the lunch break, I remember John reaching over to me and was like, "Yo, you went to school for this. Just breathe. Just relax." And in that moment, he helped me ground into who Julian was, the good and the bads of Julian and it's nice.
The gang tracks Chantal down to a house in Montreal. Keith follows them there and winds up in a physical altercation with Dory after she breaks up with him. In the fray, Dory and Drew accidentally kill Keith.
ROGERS: We figured out later that it would be cool if there was a private eye and then we also felt like someone needed to die at the end. We had like a placeholder for who that person would be. There were like a few options that we were like playing with, but it just made the most sense that the person that Dory was having like a romance with would end up being the person that she murders. But yeah, that wasn't something we figured out until a few weeks into the writers room.
REYNOLDS: I started being excited for the chance to play that scene. The whole first season, the point is sort of about millennial ennui and there's no stakes really, or you're not sure what they are. So then when the murder happens, it completely changes everything. It was just a really juicy moment. Filming those definitely also was a departure from sort of the light, "what is this?" type of on set vibe too. It's like, "Okay, now we have to act, and these are real stakes."
SHAWKAT: Back then I was very like, "I can't talk to anyone today, very serious scene." I've loosened up a lot more. I remember just pacing in the kitchen for hours. There was a lot of choreography for that scene. It was just really important for us to get that timing around the kitchen table and everything was really specific.
RON LIVINGSTON (Keith): I remember being way more into [the fight and death scene] than I probably have any right to be. I never had a big action career, so whenever I get to do that stuff, I feel like a kid. Tonally, the whole thing to me was just that I wanted to make sure that in Keith's head, he's the wronged party, even though he's choking her and screaming at her. That was an image I just really liked of he's choking her and screaming, "I love you," at the top of his lungs. But he somehow feels like he's the victim here. That allows it to come into play later of, "Well, I don't know, was he? Is it self defense?" Because yes it was, but there's a way that you can look at it that it's like, well, it seems to be a big misunderstanding.
As if committing murder wasn't enough, the group discovers that there was no mystery at all when they finally reunite with Chantal. It turns out Chantal was never missing. She simply decided to ghost everyone after a bad break-up. In other words, Dory's quest for meaning created all of this chaos. That twist both elevated the show's entire premise and clarified things for the entire cast.
ROGERS: We all came up with the reveal that nothing was going on and that it was really all about Dory projecting onto something that wasn't there on the first day of the writers. And when we had first pitched the idea to networks, we had sort of a stand in idea for that, which was that Chantal was going to be like sociopathic, essentially like Dory was assuming that Chantal was a victim, but lo and behold, she was actually like a terrible person. This new idea came to us the first day of the writers room. And it was obviously just like a deeper, sort of more realized version of what we were aiming at.
MCNULTY: I thought it was genius. I really thought that I agreed with them, that there was absolutely no other way that this should go. It took me a second to reorganize how I thought about Chantal, you know? And so that was probably complicated for me for a little bit, but once I figured out where she was going to live, I got pretty excited about it.
SHAWKAT: I felt like they had to tell it to me a couple times. I was like, "Well what do you mean there's no mystery? You mean it's all in her head? It's not like some kind of dream sequence, like, Mr. Robot or something?" It's just definitely a lot more boring than that. It's just like you saw it or you made it all happen. And none of it really happened. I thought it was genius.
MCNULTY: The day that we shot Chantal's first monologue was really challenging because, first of all, I was intimidated by my costars, and my first time meeting them, I was delivering this monologue across the table from all four of them. I wanted to do a good job for all of them. I also wasn't totally sure how Chantal was supposed to be. So, I was learning a lot about her as we were directing the scene. This is the first big project for me, so I was learning about all of those things at once and trying to act. And it was really hard, and it made everything else after it more fun. I feel like I had my headphones with me, and in between takes, I would listen to like a little bit of Sufjan Stevens to try and make myself cry. I realized pretty quickly that that really wasn't going to do it this time. So I just had to lean into the reality of it, which was good because acting requires that ultimately.
SHAWKAT: And then I remember being in the bathroom for the very last shot of the first season. And I tried to make myself, not really throw up, but just gag a little so my eyes got all watery. I was just like, "Okay yeah let's do this." And I just remember that last moment and them being like, "It looks really good. It looks really crazy."
How to get away with murder in a second season
Picking up immediately in the aftermath of the finale, season 2 followed Dory and company as they covered up Keith's murder and dealt with the emotional fallout of their actions. Whereas season 1 was inspired by Nancy Drew, season 2 drew from Hitchcock.
ROGERS: Season 2 is the idea thatthey covered up the murder and now they're just trying to move on with their lives. But then like the new swing is that somebody is blackmailing them and knows about it. Season 2 and season 4 were our hardest season to write, because the big swing part of it, where like in every season sort of has like a turning point, is around the middle of the season.
BLISS: All I can think of is the trauma of trying to write it and getting a ear infection that lasted six weeks.
EARLY: Season 2 is personally my favorite season. Our job description got so specific. In order to make season 2 work, we had to actually really try to reckon emotionally with what they did. My arc in that season was so deeply satisfying. It's one of my favorite [things to portray] — kind of repressing anxiety and it coming up against your best attempts at keeping it down, and the ways in which it comes up, like through the hair loss, or the full body rash, or losing control of my bowels. Then just the total freak-outs, like running around the street in my underwear, asking for fresh ice. That just was such a dream for me. I've always wanted to do that Julianne Moore in Safe kind of paranoia, anxiety, kind of slow-burning breakdown, so it was such a dream for me.
HAGNER: That was the first moment that I feel like Portia's stuff started to get a little dramatic and then it was the beginning of playing [with] when a millennial's problems actually are problems versus just sort of the problems. I loved all this stuff with Jay Duplass. That was the beginning of her sort of psychological descension into not wanting to look at herself and actually do any sort of work and just try to numb by being susceptible with other people.
REYNOLDS: We had to constantly remind each other [of the stakes] in between having fun on set. "This is serious, we murdered someone." John and I can get very silly on set, and then when the cameras would go up, John would say, "Okay, we murdered someone, we murdered someone, we murdered someone," and then it would sort of ground everybody.
The lack of a central mystery made the season rather difficult for the writers because it took some time to figure out the ending. Season 2 ends with Dory purposefully killing her neighbor April (Phoebe Tyers), who found out about the murder and was blackmailing the friend group. Shortly thereafter, the police arrested Dory for Keith's murder.
BLISS: It was so hard to get to a place where we felt comfortable to take that big swing where Dory intentionally kills someone. Like a lot of the problems that we were having with writing that season were like, "But would they be that dumb to blah, blah, blah, blah?" I remember one of our writers said, "We have to allow them to make mistakes." It was like, "Oh, yes. It's just like we have to allow them to make huge, dumb choices over and over again and get to the point." And in the spirit of that, like make the worst choice at the end of the season in order to protect themselves and their friends. That was rough.
ROGERS: We didn't know our ending until later, until towards the end of the writing process. And that just makes it so much more excruciating because things reveal themselves about the story leading up to the ending after you discover the ending. So then you have to go back and look at everything all over again. For some reason our even seasons were impossible to write and our odd number seasons, we knew what we were doing.
SHAWKAT: Season 2 was tricky because the first season was so clear where it started and where it went for Dory. So for the second season, I'm like, "Well, she starts like this, then where does she go? Like where were we going if she's anxious?" They write the whole season before we shoot anyways even if they make edits, [so I knew] it's that she kills April. So, [I realize] where I'm going is I'm willing to do anything to take care of my friends, to protect myself really. So the first season I'm looking at myself in the mirror at the end. So the idea is, it's all about search for identity. And when you find out who you are, do you like that person? So the end of the first season, I'm looking in the mirror, the end of the second season, I'm looking in a mirror that's cracked. Like I've split myself. The way it's written is so tight that I always know as an actor where I'm going to land.
Season 3 goes to trial
It's the trial of the century as Dory and Drew are tried for Keith's murder. Gail's rich friends agree to post bail for Dory if she hires their fresh-out of law school daughter Cassidy (Shalita Grant) as her defense attorney. On a series filled with excellent comedic actors — not to mention a season that featured Michaela Watkins and Louie Anderson in recurring roles — Grant stole every scene.
SHALITA GRANT (Cassidy Diamond): I auditioned. When I looked at the character description I immediately thought this is going to go to a white girl. I didn't know if I should take this seriously. I talked to my reps and they were like, "No, no, no this is actually a recast. They're really serious about finding the right actress for the role." Because of that, I was like all right let me just take a look and see if this is the show that I would want to do, because by that point I had had this boundary with taking jobs that I only want to do jobs that I would actually watch the show. So I watched the first episode, and then I watched the season, and then watched the entire second season and I was like I have to be a part of this show actually. So, I sent over my tape, and to my surprise, I got a call back and they flew me out to New York. I met Alia and Charles, and SV, and did their callback.
SHAWKAT: Shalita was such a gift to the show also, not that the show was getting old, but it's really fun when a guest star comes in and shakes up the set. I read with her and it was just instant. We were just like, "Okay, well I don't know who that person was, but that is it." Like the character she created, we were like, "What is that?"
GRANT: My process is I look up everything. When I saw the vocal fry [in the character description], I immediately thought, "Oh, white girl. This is going to be like a Kardashian kind of thing." Because of that judgment, it was really important for me to actually look up the vocal fry. When I looked it up, I learned that that frying sound is a result of not you trying to make your voice higher, but you trying to make your voice lower. The phenomenon is these young millennial women are trying to sound more professional because there is that sexist stereotype that women's voices are too high to be taken seriously to be professional. When I saw that, I was like, "This is a character that is really taking herself seriously."
Then I'm also a Black woman, so I always bring as much of myself as I can. I'm like this is a Black woman with a vocal fry, so how can I really place her in a way that people feel like this is authentic? I thought about this vocal fry and how inappropriate it is, and how people shun it. I was like, what are some vocal ticks that people are like, "Black people are not professional if they sound like this?" I thought of the clicking and was like, why can't she do that too? Then I thought about how we have an incredible affinity for language. We take words and pronounce them a certain way, and that connotes a feeling. I went to Julliard and we had these books called Speaking with Distinction. It's basically [explains] how to properly say words and sounds. It's based off of the words and sounds of a news reporter, or radio personality from the '50s. To speak with distinction, "circumstances" becomes "cir-cum-stences." No one talks like that, but we were brainwashed for four years to believe that there was merit in speaking that way. I was like, "What if Cassidy does the same thing?" For the audition, what they gave me was the opening monologue. That was one of the themes. I worked that monologue with all of that in mind.
SHAWKAT: But that's I think what we were so impressed by, it was so easy for her, her natural choreography and timing with everything and also being able to just digest so much dialogue and make it look like it's nothing. When we saw her do the opening statement, we don't have a lot of time on this show so there's no room for error, she just killed it.
GRANT: In playing [the opening statement], my true genuine goal when we were shooting that scene was to crack the jury [Laughs]. These poor people! I was like, "This is real. I really want to crack you. I want to win you over." I had such a good time watching those jurors in those non-speaking roles have to fight the urge to laugh. It was a great time for me, and what I got from Charles and SV that day was "Just keep playing. We're just going to get these angles. Have fun."
As the media frenzy around Dory and Drew's trial escalated and fractured the friend group, Elliott decided to marry his long-suffering boyfriend Marc (Jeffery Self). Unfortunately, the wedding is a disaster because Marc leaves Elliott at the alter and Dory's stalker Chip (Cole Escola) abducts Portia, covers her in honey, and sicks a pack of rats on her.
EARLY: That wedding episode was such a thrill for me because Deborah Eisenberg, who is my favorite writer in the world, has a cameo role as my mother-in-law. I got to hang out with her for a couple of days after having just worked on this play, Marie and Bruce, which [guest-star] Wallace Shawn wrote and is based on their early relationship. It's amazing to me that after everything you've seen Elliott do in the world, but also to his fiancé, that I would like to think you do kind of feel for Elliott when he's left at the altar.
JEFFERY SELF (Marc): I had just gotten married in January , and Charles and SV were obviously at the wedding, and so many other Search Party writers and people. I knew they were writing the show at the same time, and then I knew that they had been talking about [Elliott and Marc's] wedding. When I showed up at the scene, there were so many things that were eerily too similar to just choices of my own wedding. My wedding was in no way as gauche as that. I wore a Mr. Turk suit [in my wedding] and all of sudden we're in Mr. Turk. There were certain people in the episode that were at my wedding, so it was just this really strange parallel.
ESCOLA: I remember that the rats would not do what we wanted them to. I can't remember now but maybe they had to cut them completely out of the episode because they opened the cage and they just stayed in the cage. Meredith's body wasn't actually there. It was like a camera point of view situation and the rats were supposed to rush towards the camera, but it was like end of the night, we were very, very going late, and the rats just wouldn't leave the cage. So I think they probably had to do something in post to make it just seem like they were rushing towards her with sound and stuff. I also remember pouring all of that honey colored shampoo all over her. Even though it was obviously acting, I felt horrible having to do that to her. And it got in her eyes and burned her eyes, and got in her mouth.
HAGNER: It was really terrifying actually. It's funny because my husband was watching it, not knowing the reality of what that shooting day was and he was like, "That's the best acting you've ever done." But in my head I'm like, "I was really actually terrified." But the problem was I wanted it to feel so real. I wanted to really be drenched and Carrie Brownstein, who directed that episode, is a friend of mine. I said instead of honey, let's just do shampoo, but my mouth was open. All the soap went down my throat and into my ears. Right after we yelled cut, I really was kind of choking on shampoo, but we got the shot [Laughs]. Which is probably a dangerous way to [work]... But that really sums up a lot of Search Party to me, is like we got the shot and I ended up being really happy with that scene.
That wouldn't be the last time we saw Chip, who kidnapped Dory in the season 3 finale after a jury finds her innocent.
ROGERS: The idea for Chip's character to kidnap Dory or at least the idea for Dory to be kidnapped at the end of the season came like into the first week of Sarah-Violet and I brainstorming what the third season would be about. Like also just the fact that there had to be a verdict and we liked the idea that most likely she was going to to get off, but that wasn't the final twist. What was also nice about that twist was that all you needed to do was just cut to that character lurking for multiple episodes. We loosely thought up like a million different versions of who that person could be. But once we thought of Cole, the idea of them being that character just clicked in this way that it was like, "Oh, of course, it's Cole. Like Cole has never been in the show. It's so the right tone. It's so the right villain, like we all want to spend time with Cole. It's the right move." We would've never had Twinkies Catering if we hadn't known it was going to be Cole.
ESCOLA: Charles and SV mentioned to me that they wanted season 4 to be a Misery-type situation with me in the Kathy Bates role. I didn't know if they were just using that to get me to take the part in season 3, but I was willing to take that risk. I am fan of them and also friends with them, and friends with John Early and Jeffrey Self. I just was hoping that the show would get a fourth season because then it wasn't confirmed. Yeah, it was fun. People still sometimes point at me on the street and say, "The twink."
Production on season 3 was completed in 2018, but it sat on the shelf for a while because of the impending arrival of WarnerMedia's streaming service. HBO Max not only picked up Search Party, but it also ordered a fourth season, which was filmed in 2019 before season 3 launched mid-2020. So the show filmed two seasons back-to-back in a vacuum.
ROGERS: It was a really weird time because for a long time the execs at TBS were referring to the streamer that was coming and it wasn't clear to them or us that it was going to end up looking like HBO Max. It was all very corporate and kind of over our heads. We didn't know what that would be like. So it was really like a blessing that it ended up being HBO Max and not like some weird thing that like didn't end up mattering. The show was on a hiatus for like two and a half years, but we were still making it like at a basis where we were just shooting a season a year.
BURNS: There was a long delay when this might go to HBO Max, and then there was a delay in our shooting cadence, and there was some nail biting there, but we were overall really excited about the show moving to streaming. It feels like a show built for streaming. It's so binge-y in that way, and every episode ends with the cliffhanger. Frankly, you get more minutes when it's not on linear TV and we'd always felt that hitting the, whatever that is, 21:15 mark, was brutal for a show like this. Yes, half hours work for comedy, but this has a heavy mystery plot and that can be really challenging. So we were really excited about the idea of going over to Max, even though it ended up delaying the airing of the third season. But I think that we felt that it was always really suited for streaming. We were excited when that move happened.
ROGERS: It's good and bad because like it definitely found a bigger life on HBO Max but also like three fifths of the show has come out in the pandemic. And it's weird. Like TBS, for as unusual of an entity as TBS was in its ability to like connect or not connect with audiences, they spent a lot of money on like premiere events for us and making us feel like the show was a big deal.
REYNOLDS: I think the biggest difference was more people watched it when it went to HBO Max and also two seasons came out during the pandemic. I live in Brooklyn and there was a noticeable change going outside after three and four. So everyone finally watched the show. Some people are really cool about it and then some people are not. And then they'll just physically touch and be, "Are you Drew?" And it's, "Yeah, don't grab me by the shoulder."
Did season 4 close the case on Search Party?
Arriving at the beginning of 2021, less than a year after season 3's debut, the fourth season followed Dory's time as Chip's prisoner while her friends searched for her.
ROGERS: Season 4 was also really hard [to write] because it was like, okay, the premise is that now she's kidnapped, but you don't want to just live in that alone for a full season. So the big swing is that she's also being brainwashed into being a new person. We spoke with an expert and made sure that what we wanted to do was like believable on enough of a level that an audience would go with it or that it still felt meaningful or real.
SHAWKAT: That was one that Charles and SV were like, "You got it." And I was like, "Are you guys crazy? I'm going to kill myself on this show."
ESCOLA: It's awful to be doing something to someone and having them scream so convincingly, how horrified they are. But I think also Chip felt that as well because he was always acting as if what he was doing was the right thing to do, like when he hypnotizes. It was easy for me because I just had to be calm and the more relaxed I was the more unsettling it was. It was all Alia doing the heavy lifting for those scenes to seem horrified. She's so good that she can just turn it back off as soon as they call cut, like a real actress I guess you could say [Laughs].
SHAWKAT: Every season I do lots of prep and my own little actor things and get ready for it. I try and track Dory as much as possible. But for this, I remember SV, one of her favorite things which we've referenced several times now, is in Terminator 2 when the hunter is escaping the hospital. So Dory is in survival mode. In a way her greatest strength is that she's actually a tough assed bitch. She's actually someone who really knows how to show up and protect people and protect herself, just sadly she's used it for the wrong reasons many times. For me, the biggest thing in that whole season, which was revealed at the end, is the getting out of the trunk [of Chip's car] and [willingly] getting back in.
ROGERS (in a 2021 interview with EW): We really liked the idea that Dory was withholding some aspect that she knew about herself from herself all this time. We wanted it to be some kind of action that she could take that wasn't necessarily totally out of left field, but could speak to this impulse in her that's always wanting to, for lack of a better way of putting it, keep the story going.
SHAWKAT: And that's still the theme of the whole show that as much as I want to pretend I don't see it, I am choosing to do all of these things, which is a great thing to remember. I remember when we shot that we only did a couple takes. It was a really fun moment, I think, just collaboratively with Charles and SV because they write all this crazy s--- and they're like, "You get it right? You'll be able to pull that off." And I was like, "Yeah, but that's an important moment. If I don't sell that beat, none of it really works, at least my choices." And we all hugged after that at this freezing cold gas station in the middle of nowhere.
When the writers starting working on season 4, they all assumed it would be the final one. But inspiration stroke at the start of the season.
BURNS: We wanted to make sure that the ending of season 4 gave the audience and this show its proper ending. So we wrote with the ending where Dory dies. Then literally on the first day of shooting, I think Sarah-Violet, Charles, and I looked at each other and I was like, "This cannot be the end. This does not feel like the end. Nobody's tired. Nobody's not getting along anymore. This is too fun." So I started heavily petitioning the network on shoot day one, being like, "You've got to pick us up. Or at least let's greenlight an extra day of shooting for an alternate ending." So we started kicking around the ideas of what season 5 could be and devised an alternate ending where she has an out-of-body experience in near death and wakes up. We added that onto the shooting schedule right at the beginning, and the network was down.
SHAWKAT: When we were shooting season 4, honestly every season of any job I do, I'm like "This might be it." Thank God it wasn't the last one. It was such a dark note to end it on [because] the gang, as we like to say, wasn't together the whole time. So it just felt for fans and for us, it just didn't feel right.
HAGNER: I'm like a bit of the cheerleader, like Pollyanna, of the group. I constantly was like, "This isn't the last season. This is not the last season." And they were like, "No, Meredith, it is." They kept saying it was the last season. I'm like, "I totally refuse to believe that."
SHAWKAT: I was so tired after season 4. I was like, "I don't know if I could do this again." But you know, Charles and SV are always thinking and they had the idea already.
BLISS: Before COVID became COVID, like as we were finishing up season 4 [in 2019] and getting excited about the idea of season 5 and what that could be, our idea was like, "Oh, Dory is responsible somehow for like a pandemic disease."
HAGNER: We were all in a little dressing room or something and they were kind of like, "We kind of have this idea," and we're like, "Oh my God, that'd be amazing."
EARLY: I just remember they wanted four to be responsible for the end of the world. The word, zombie, hadn't been used, but we knew kind of this very kind of navel-gazing group of people, there would suddenly be global implications of their behavior.
This is the end of Search Party
Indeed, that's what the fifth and final season is about, except Search Party arrives there in the most unexpected way. In the wake of her near-death experience, Dory feels incredibly enlightened and teams up with an idiosyncratic billionaire named Tunnel Quinn (Jeff Goldblum) to share that feeling with the world by creating a pill.
ROGERS: We talked to a couple people who were experts in near death experience and also people in the science community who could literally speak to, if you were going to create a drug for enlightenment, like what would those chemicals be? What would the idea behind it be?
BLISS: Every season talking to experts like lawyers and the brainwash people, and the near death experience persion, we constantly would be like, "Would this be believable?" And everyone's like, "Yeah, that could happen."
ROGERS: This season was really hard to write because we had to like really think about the meaning behind near death experiences and what it would mean for Dory in particular to be enlightened and how you play that. Alia was really instrumental in that and the way that she came in the room and just sort of talked about how it'd be fun if she just like loved to dance or like was somebody who just suddenly had a lot of joie de vivre. So the idea of Dory being like groovy and down was kind of more unique than her being really removed and sort of Zen.
SHAWKAT: I listened to a lot Ram Dass [to prepare]. It's hard to know exactly what Dory saw when she died. But I think through my own, I guess you could say spiritual practices and things I've read, they all narrowed down to the same ideals of love and understanding and acceptance and bringing people together and destroying your ego. The way that she was written this season was really fun because all of a sudden she had a lot more energy and she's less in her head and just more joyful and connecting to people.
ROGERS: We also had to build out this science storyline and also this like Tunnel Quinn storyline and make it believable that this billionaire would find her interesting and what is the truth of him.
JEFF GOLDBLUM (via email): I was connected to the Search Party team through professional channels and then had a Zoom with Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers — with them on the East Coast and me sitting in my closet. By the end of that call, I was wildly enthusiastic and intoxicated. I hadn't been familiar with the show, but when I mentioned it to friends, they lit up like Roman candles and their eyes became wide as saucers. Being nothing if not conscientious, I immediately watched the first four seasons (40 episodes/20 hours). The time flew by and wheeled like stars — I was hooked (as if I was a fresh water trout hungry for something fast moving and bright). I was attracted to the character because he seemed potentially funny, mysterious, complicated, and possibly possessed of surprising hidden integrity and high minded nobility. Also interesting wardrobe.
SHAWKAT: We were so excited to have gotten Jeff Goldblum to play the role. He always just came fully dressed in these amazing elaborate costumes, fully off book with room to play. His acting style is very musical and he always tries to make it new for himself. And he was such a big fan of the show, which was also very flattering and he really understood on our lower budget, what the show could be, the potential of the show, and how much we all believe in it.
GOLDBLUM: Coming on to the show in its final season was like leaping onto that gorgeous carousel that's right by the Brooklyn Bridge and having a few spins with my favorite people. It was breathtaking and trippy.
As Dory and Tunnel's business venture gets underway, Dory recruits several disciples and essentially creates a cult. Dory is very committed to creating this pill, but Tunnel simply wants to make publicity off of the idea of creating this pill.
BURNS: I think the cult stuff was really derived from Dory as a character. If she starts as this purposeless person, desperate for purpose, and there's always been a deluded egomania to that search, it's like, "Where does that deluded egomania take you?" I think that it is these people with this cult of personality.
BLISS: [We were] working with a lot of different elements of like the Elizabeth Holmes world and also the cult world and what does it mean to be enlightened and have or think that you're enlightened. We both follow like spiritual people on Instagram and see the ways in which they like create their own brand of their own like various sort of cults. Whether or not it's intended to be that way, it's just fun. And then also people who are like not great at doing their thing, like building their self-help world. And switching from that into zombie was sort of like the cult plus the Elizabeth Holmes trying to like turn enlightenment into this thing that's impossible to do into something possible into that goes so bad that it doesn't just destroy her own life, it just destroys the world.
The situation started feeling even more like a cult when Dory starts sleeping Portia, who becomes obsessed with her, and Drew. Elliott eventually tries to get it on it because he feels left out.
HAGNER: I was like, "What the hell?" when they first told me [about] my small obsession. Those first hookup scenes with Alia...It's so much more comfortable, I think, to make out and hook up with someone you meet that week. But I had to have these seductive scenes with one of my close friends. It was just so funny and weird.
EARLY: Rather than the sexual energy, I think we were having more fun comedically with the feeling of being left out and competing, because that's all it is. It's not actual sexual energy. It's just that they're competing for Dory's attention, and they go about it through sex.
SHAWKAT: That scene was also super fun to shoot when we're at the dinner table and one by one they each get up [to go have sex with Dory outside]. When we were shooting, I get up first and then I'm just waiting off camera. So I was watching the camera while they were all doing it. And it was like a real moment where I was like, "Oh my God, these are such brilliant comedic actors, because they're all doing it without dialogue." We were, again a night shoot, out of it. Meredith was falling asleep in between takes. And then the minute they're all on they're just so specific and know exactly what to do. And Meredith flipping her hair and coming back!
HAGNER: When we did that scene, it was just so f—king funny. John Early…I don't know if they kept it in where he sits down at the table after he hooked up with her and is picking hair out of his teeth. He was doing that over and over, and I literally couldn't keep it together.
EARLY: I'm really proud of the bit where I'm picking the hair out of my teeth, back from having sex. The most fun I've ever had in my life was bursting through the door after we have sex and just kind of walking really slowly back to the table.
Dory and her followers actually create this miracle pill; however in a truly shocking twist, it winds up turning people into zombies instead of enlightening them. Thus all of the characters are thrown into a zombie horror movie as more and more people in New York get infected. Not only that, but Chantal, of all people, becomes a survivalist and provides the gang with shelter from the apocalypse. For everyone involved, the ambitious genre flip somehow just made sense for the show's themes.
BLISS: What we liked about her and the friends ultimately causing like the apocalypse [was the idea that] starting from their seed of narcissism and their search for their worth in this world, like the meaning of like who you are and your place in the world, could be become catastrophic.
ROGERS: It just made sense, [for a] story that's about somebody starting in total darkness about their idea of themselves, that Search Party was ultimately about self-actualization through extreme circumstances.
EARLY: I was worried that the kind of zombie-ness of it all might take you out of it, but I actually think it cranks up the stakes in a very immediate way. That's how it felt to act it. We didn't have time to try and rationalize what was going on. You just had to run. It's really, really hard. I don't know how anyone can be on a show like The Walking Dead for so many years. We did it for three episodes, and I literally had back surgery afterward. It hurt my body so much, just like running down streets in my crazy-ass shoes.
SHAWKAT: Those final episodes were really fun to shoot because it was like we were in a whole different show. We were just being like, "Do you remember when we used to do brunch scenes, sitting there talking, just a four seater?"
EARLY: We were doing overnight shoots for two weeks in a row. We were so delirious and doing such incredibly physically demanding stuff. With all the running you don't have time to think about your performance. It just becomes so immediate. I think that really shows. I think everyone's operating totally on instinct. Also, it was when the Delta variant was popping off, and we suddenly had 160 background [actors]. It was chaos. I got to say, it was totally crazy, because now COVID, it kind of multiplies your time spent on a set. There's so many more weird processes you have to go through with the testing and what you're doing in between takes. It was really, really crazy. We're like the little show that could. It's always been a relatively cheap show, but we were doing epic kind of action sequences, tons of background and crane cameras.
HAGNER: I have a 4-month-old baby, and so being up all night, it's just so hard. But we were shooting under the Brooklyn Bridge. It was so incredible and beautiful. You feel high you're so tired. For me, my baby's getting up when I'm getting home so I went days without sleeping at that time.
MCNULTY: Terminator 2 is one of my favorite movies, and as they were writing it, Charles at one point was like, "You're going to be kind of like Linda Hamilton in Terminator." I was like, " What could that possibly mean?" And I didn't find out until I got the scripts. But for me personally, it was really fun.
Production on the fifth season wrapped late summer 2021. The last day began with the show's very final scene, which is set in a post-apocalyptic New York, before transitioning to a couple scenes in the thick of the zombie outbreak.
SHAWKAT: Something hit all of us. It was really cloudy, like a storm was actually coming. And we were all like, "Oh my God, what's happening? It really is the end of the world." And there's a FEMA tent, which is similar to the COVID tents you see. It all really hit us that this is the end of a beautiful chapter of our lives, creatively and personally. And it was the first time we weren't really rushing and we all just took a moment.
HAGNER: I don't remember who the first person to cry was. Maybe it was me, but probably it was me. But no, I think someone else had already kind of gotten teary and the next thing I know everyone was having this really cathartic cry. We all held each other and John Reynolds was crying and it was such a sweet moment.
EARLY: It was very surprising, because it's a ruthlessly unsentimental sow. It was really sweet, so that's a very memorable day. Then at the end of the day, the flash flood started happening in New York [as we shot the scene where] we go back to my house and I see Marc making out with a new guy, and then we're watching the footage [on a computer] and the kid jumps out as a zombie.
SELF: That guy is my husband, August Prew, in real life. It was the weirdest thing of like "Wow, I'm getting to be in the final scene ever shot of this very, very wonderful show that's been such a huge part of my life. Then add to it, that I'm with my actual husband and that this character has now ended up with that person!"
EARLY: That scene got cut short. They literally just had to stop us. Charles and SV walked out with giant bouquets. They're like, "That is a series wrap on Search Party." We were like, "What?" Then they were like, "Go, go." Then John had to put on big boots to get into his trailer because it was flooding. It was a disaster, and we didn't shoot a whole scene because of the floods. There was a whole other scene where we were going to run into a car for safety and watch the Williamsburg Bridge fall. We were so sad, but it was also hilarious.
SELF: My trailer was on the beach in Red Hook that would have flooded immediately during a hurricane. When we got back to the trailer there were literally all halfway under water.
Later in the fall of 2021, the cast reunited for a day of reshoots.
EARLY: We ended up doing two reshoots later of a couple of scenes at the beginning of the season, but the last scene we shot was an insert of the computer screen. It was a laptop with a little green screen on it, and it was our hands on the computer. We were like, "This is the last scene? This is so dinky."
HAGNER: I thought it was so funny that our literal last shot of the whole series was an insert of the computer — something so anti-climatic.
In the finale's epilogue, Dory and Drew get married in a deserted Broadway theatre with Portia, who serenaded them, and Elliott as their witnesses.
BLISS: It doesn't really feel great that Dory and Drew are together, whereas like other TV shows where your two leads like finally get married, that's like a joyous occasion. Watching them, they seem happy, but it doesn't feel really happy. And then Portia is like, "I made it to Broadway." Like, really that's not exactly how we all thought that would look. And just having to continually cope with what life throws at you and see where you want to end up.
SHAWKAT: It makes sense after everything they've been through [that] when the world ends, you always go back to your first. Drew and Dory just have such a beautifully complicated romance. And whether it's based in an unhealthy connection or not, there is some kind of love there, something really sweet about it. At the end of the world they're just like, yeah let's all just hang out.
REYNOLDS: I thought this was as happy as it was going to get for Drew. Throughout all the seasons, the main driving force for Drew is finding some sort of constant and normalcy and semblance of happiness. Yet he has no tools to do that, so he tries to leave the country. He tries to revert to his childhood behaviors. He tries to be a tech bro. He's just sort of putting on these personalities and trying to find happiness, and he can't escape Dory because they're bonded by this sort of trauma, and in the end when it all wraps up, I thought, this is as good as it's going to get. This as normal as it's going to get. It worked out for him I guess in the end in some way.
HAGNER: [Portia is] completely, unself-actualized in the most poetically perfect way. From the first moment you meet that character to the end, and there being less than no growth in the most perfect way. We've just watched her chase her tail and gnaw at it until it's a bloody stump, metaphorically, for five years. And then she finally gets what she wants, where she's [performing] on Broadway. So I think it's the most perfectly poetic and correct ending. I was very happy with it.
EARLY: The sweetness of Elliot actually comes through. Despite all of his eye-rolling and kind of grumpiness and the way he can kind of very quickly and acutely judge and criticize all three of his friends, he's just still always there. Despite all of his protestations, he does want to be around these people and they're all he has. I think there's something really, really tender about the scene of us turning the corner and just kind of somberly reflecting on where we're going to go from there. He says he's going to move to L.A., which is so brilliant. [Laughs] I would like to think that he is just saying that as a way of kind of emotionally distancing himself from his true, gaping need for his friends. I'd like to think that he stays in a post-apocalyptic New York, moves back in with Portia.
The last shot of the entire show is of Dory looking at wall of missing people posters, a callback to her seeing Chantal's poster, the show's inciting incident, in the pilot.
SHAWKAT: It's all the crew members on the missing wall.If you told me season 1, it was going to become like a zombie [movie], I would be like, "Okay, we really jumped the shark." But when you look at season 5, it's still the same themes as season 1, just on this grander ridiculous scale.The core of the character's journey is still grounded. I mean, in that final shot, when I'm looking at the missing wall, it all comes back to the same thing.
ROGERS: Tonally we wanted it to feel a little bittersweet and a little like in reality, you would be dissociating if you had caused so much destruction globally or metaphorically in your life. So there's a little bit of like a Wizard of Oz vibe that we wanted to bring into the finale, and there's also something fantastical about them being in these wedding clothes and it being apocalyptic. But that final shot in particular speaks to the idea that this has always been Dory's story. She's always been seeking and everything has moved around her in her pursuit to have some understanding of self. And that that's ultimately like narcissistic and tragic, but also what the show embodies, which is that life is cringey and humiliating but also beautiful. And it's not something when you step back and look at it and you look at the consequences of your whole life and all of the elements that you can actually make real sense of it. So we like the idea that final look doesn't have any sort of one particular note that it's reducing the whole show down into, it's about her processing it internally. And we only have so much access to what that would mean for her.
Search Party season 5 is available to stream on HBO Max now.