Find Time to Binge Watch Search Party

By  · Published on December 1st, 2016

The existential mystery comedy is available in full online.

Can we please stop comparing things to Girls? Reviews of the series Search Party have called it “Girls meets ‘Nancy Drew,’” “Girls meets Columbo,” “Girls meets Veronica Mars,” and other combinations of Girls plus any familiar mystery brand. It’s been almost three years since I displayed annoyance with how anything set in Brooklyn and featuring a young, categorically “hipster” ensemble is likened to Lena Dunham’s HBO series. SXSW winner Fort Tilden was one of the peaks of unfair comparison, and now that the film’s directors, Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers, are co-creators of Search Party alongside Michael Showalter of Wet Hot American Summer and The Baxter fame, it should go without saying that they’re still not trying to piggyback on Girls or anything else.

The 10-episode show was broadcast nightly on TBS last week and was also immediately released in full online (censored and uncensored versions, both requiring a cable subscription gateway). It follows four twenty-something Brooklynites as they become more and more involved in a missing persons case. Alia Shawkat leads the group’s quest as Dory, who spots a flyer indicating the disappearance of a college acquaintance (but continued Facebook friend). Bored of her personal assistant job and unsatisfied in her relationship with nice guy Drew (John Reynolds), she takes on the mission to find the girl in what’s clearly and also literally pointed out as being an excuse to have some meaning in her own life. It also has to do with her dread of potentially not being important enough in others’ lives.

Search Party is a sort of detective story rooted in existentialism, but it never gets too deep. It’s more satire than contemplation, and even then it’s fairly light. The silliness expected from something from Showalter is present but also not too much. The main foursome, which includes the conceited duo of TV crime show actress Portia (Meredith Hagner) and her charity-founding roommate Elliott (John Early), are all ridiculously obnoxious, somewhere between the gangs of Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. While the bulk of the searching is done by Dory (joined at times by recurring guests Ron Livingston and Rosie Perez), they each have their own storylines, mainly having to do with careers over romance. There’s some relationship drama, but less than you’d think from a show set in this age group.

And unlike other shows focused on a small circle of friends, this one isn’t driven much by character. None of the central four is particularly interesting enough for that to be the case, and so it’s really all about the plot. Search Party is not a show that would work as well watched week-to-week over two and a half months. It may not even hold everyone in its form as a loosely marathoned event program spread over a week, as TBS is doing (they plan to rebroadcast it the same way during the week of Christmas). This is a series requiring a binge watch, because it plays, much like fellow 2016 minis Stranger Things (also about a missing person and also featuring Reynolds) and Fleabag (also about the loss of a friend), like a long, tightly premised movie as opposed to an ongoing show with continuing narrative threads.

There are some very episodic pieces to the whole, such as the too-brief addition of Griffin Newman as the missing girl’s strange ex-boyfriend. When he arrives as a major component in the fourth episode (“The Captive Dinner Guest”), Search Party goes from good and intriguing to great and very funny, just on the strength of his performance. Newman, who broke out slightly with Fort Tilden and has been on the rise this year with Vinyl and the pilot for Amazon’s The Tick, is proving to be one of the best new character actors of his generation. Sadly, he never returns after that episode, and so while the series remains great it’s never better than that peak moment. Other enjoyable compartments include an episode based around a cult’s dinner party led by Parker Posey and TV on the Radio’s Tunde Adebimpe.

Still, this is a show that is ultimately about getting to that final destination. Though not necessarily for answers to the mystery or to anything else. What’s great about a series like this is it’s the opposite of stuff like Westworld where viewers are obsessed with theories rather than focused on character or story. In fact, the way Search Party concludes, it speaks rather negatively to that stuff. If watched more episodically with similar distance between each installment, the show would likely have fans trying to figure things out along with Dory and her friends, but when viewed and concentrated upon all at once, there’s less time for the kind of speculation that would only lead to disappointment. Intrigue is fine, as is some investment in the investigation story, but basic curiosity is all that’s needed for the finale to be satisfying.

When You Love a TV Show But Don’t Want a Second Season

Because Search Party has such a well-contained story and because the main characters are not people you can’t wait to meet again, it is yet another show this year for which there should be no continuation, no second season or more. Mystery movies and series can have sequels when the protagonists are detectives, but there is no other story that would make sense for this ensemble relative to that of the “first” season. So, find some time to see all of the half-hour episodes in a short span of time (it’s only about four and a half hours total), and let it exist on its own – unless they want to give Newman’s character a spinoff, that’d be fine. And if you’re hungry for more of the same or something similar afterward, don’t go to Girls or Veronica Mars. Seek out Fort Tilden as well as the 2010 indie mystery Cold Weather.

Watch Episodes of Search Party on tbs

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Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.