When my friend Ben suggested that I check out a series hidden away on Channel 4’s streaming service, All4, I have to say I groaned a bit: another crime drama hidden away on a streaming service, on top of all the other crime dramas on regular, terrestrial channels? I surely didn’t have the time. But when Ben said that he would write a post for the site (read it here if you’d like to), and I put it up, I was intrigued – this sounded like something interesting, fresh and worth a watch. So, today I managed to cram in the 10, 20-minute episodes of Search Party on All4 to see what all the fuss was about.
NB: Spoilers abound
I’m a bit late to Search Party, admittedly. It was originally broadcast on US network TBS in November of last year and then streamed in its entirety on All4 from late December. Since then, articles in newspapers and magazines from The Guardian to Marie Claire have been gushing in their praise for Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter’s series. ‘Girls meets Nancy Drew’ said one of them, and that’s a pretty good description of where it sits tonally: it’s a heady mix of dark comedy and mystery. It tells the story of a twentysomething Brooklynite, Dory (Alia Shawkat), and her gang of millennial wannabe It people. There’s a seemingly vacuous young actress called Portia (Meredith Hagner) and a narcissistic art-person-cum-entrepreneur Elliott (John Early). Add on Dory’s goofy, malaise-ridden boyfriend Drew (John Williams) and you have a gang that’s hardly likeable – they’re classic millennials, desperate for status and validation, wracked with an existentialist search for meaning and purpose, spending time together watching their smartphones and scanning the room for any important people, and engaging with people at media parties only if they can assist them with their climb up the social ladder.
I was watching the early exchanges between these characters and laughing out loud, such was their glaring stereotypes; their empty, meaningless conversations about everything and nothing. “Did I sleep with that waiter a few years ago? He’s acting like he doesn’t remember me,” whimpers Portia. “I told my barista once my name was Chloe,” said Dory during a what’s-the-worst-lie-you’ve-ever-told game.
Make no mistake: Search Party is as much of a satire on modern life as it is a mystery, and there are such savage blows landed here it’s impossible to not rail against our modern world, even if I do recognise a lot of my own life in these characters and the bubbles of self-importance they operate in.
These four go about their daily meaninglessness until Dory – desperate to find something in her life with meaning – sees a poster on a lamppost asking for information about a missing girl she knew from college, called Chantal Witherbottom. As she stares at the poster something clicks inside her, and she’s instantly drawn to the missing persons case. She’s also just stood in dog shit. (It’s that kind of comedy.)
And so Dory – in true Nancy Drew style – begins her own investigation and is convinced she can find Chantal. Her partner – yes, Drew – isn’t happy with the idea of Dory getting so involved, if only because this is a man who’s comforted by routine, is a bit of coward and is ultimately jealous of Dory’s new-found energy, excitement and purpose. His life consists of an internship at a dull company in downtown New York, eating microwave meals and engaging in an intimate life with Dory that consists of a kind of non-contact sex, and a lot of self-masturbation. We’re talking about a person (and people, actually) who cut themselves off and are afraid of true contact with other humans.
For Dory, though, this case, this investigation, represents a way to find not only Chantal, but to find herself. Her job of personal assistant to a dreamy, rich woman is driving her crazy, her routine-based and non-intimate relationship with Drew is driving her crazier, and she’s desperate for excitement and purpose. Finding Chantal gives her that chance and she’s tenacious in her approach to her investigation to the point that she becomes obsessed and selfish in her own pursuit of the truth. Her truth. When she sees Chantal in a Chinese restaurant in episode one (only to see her escape through a bathroom window), she finds a copy of Anna Karenina at her table with the sentence, ‘the pleasure lies not in discovering the truth, but in the searching for it,’ highlighted. If it was true for Chantal, it was also true for Dory.
During the course of her investigation, Dory goes along to various social events and meets quirky, odd people, while still managing to collect slithers of information that she believes takes her one step closer to finding Chantal: a pregnancy scan, pilfered emails from an ex-boyfriend, partnership with a private detective called Keith, and even infiltration into a pregnancy cult.
Even if the characters and humour are quirky (there’s a superb episode where Dory invites Chantal’s ex-boyfriend around for a dinner party in order to get information from him, which turns into an Abigail’s Party-style nightmare, internet generation style), Search Party follows fairly conventional mystery structures and procedural rules: Dory follows clues and leads, and one thing leads to the next until we get to the big reveal at the end, the protagonist’s journey granting (in this case) her a rites of passage she was desperately looking for.
So when the finale happens, it’s a surprise to find that when they do eventually find Chantal, in Montreal, her story doesn’t match Dory’s. In fact Chantal’s story doesn’t match anything Dory had imagined. Chantal ran away, she explained, because of a broken heart and because she wanted to be alone for a while. Not because of anything sinister, not because of any pregnancy, not because of any cult and certainly not because of a man called Keith (the private detective who Dory concluded was actually a killer). Dory’s desperate search for meaning and purpose in her life made her exclude any logic or sound thinking – everything she assumed to be correct turned out to be her own work of fiction, fitting with what she wanted to believe. In many ways, Delusional Dory was her own unreliable narrator.
Some people will thank that this ending won’t be satisfying, but I think it fitted in well with the overall tone of the series.
Even though Search Party was a decent if sometimes inconsistent amateur mystery populated by a seemingly hip and quirky young cast of characters, it was a timely study of modern life and how many in today’s noisy society – where everyone has a platform, and everyone is desperate for the ever-churning addiction of validation that these platforms provide – will go along with anything, even leaving logic and truth to one side, to make sure what they see fits with what they want to believe. The fact that the finale basically said to us that a journey and conviction held so strongly and undertaken so fervently all meant nothing in the end left me a bit deflated and asking: is this what we’ve really become?
In this era of ‘fake news’, ‘alternative facts’ and a society that is content to see only what it believes, Search Party – with fine performances across the board and a razor-sharp script – might just be more important than many will give it credit for.