Hello and welcome to Previously On, a weekly column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week Liz Baessler takes a look at the new season of Search Party on HBO Max. This review does contain spoilers for the first two seasons of the show, which is on HBO Max.
Search Party appeared in late 2016 as an original series on TBS with little fanfare. Following Dory (Alia Shawkat) as she searches for her missing college classmate Chantal, the show was bizarre, suspenseful, and incomparably funny, a send-up of New York Millennials written and performed with biting familiarity and more than a little affection.
The first season sees Dory recruit her friends Drew, Elliott, and Portia (John Reynolds, John Early, and Meredith Hagner, respectively) as she slides further into obsession and her search becomes more convoluted, strange, and dangerous. And it culminates with them (spoilers!) actually finding Chantal, who it turns out was never in any danger.
They also, in the span of the same few minutes, murder a man. Whoops.
The second season follows the four friends’ frantic attempts to cover up their crimes and move on with their lives. This goes about as well as can be expected, and over the course of ten episodes, they each succumb, in their own ways, to guilt. The finale ends with Dory arrested for murder.
These two seasons are exceptionally well done: an incredible, hilarious portrayal of the generation everyone loves to hate for its vapidity and self-obsession, searching for meaning, finding it, and suffering the fallout from it.
That second season ended in the fall of 2017, with the next forever promised but never appearing. Now here we are, two and a half years later, and Search Party has finally returned on HBO Max, a service that was still a twinkle in some WarnerMedia exec’s eye when the previous season aired.
This new season picks up immediately where we left off: Dory is in police custody, holding a tape recording of her own murder confession. It’s a hell of a strong way to start, and it has definite echoes of the frantic, agonized panic of last season’s cover-up.
But then it starts to slow down, a little bit, as Dory’s friends are also arrested (this scarcely counts as a spoiler — it’s early and pretty darn inevitable) and we enter the season-long proceedings of a high stakes, higher-profile murder trial.
Some of the slowdown is due to the well-worn nature of the courtroom drama. Murder cases are intriguing, sure, but we’ve all seen a thousand of them before, and by their very heavily-scripted nature, they lack some of the adrenaline-fueled, panic-inducing thrills of a group of amateurs stumbling down a rabbit hole after a missing person or covering up a murder. The best moments of the first two seasons were the most cringe-inducing, the ones that made you want to hide under a pillow and scream “why” until they were over. And this season just doesn’t have as many of those.
Another, larger problem is the splintering of the core group of protagonists.
The previous two seasons have seen Dory, Drew, Elliott, and Portia all in it together. Especially in season two, the friends were bound tightly with the shared burden of the crime they committed. They each dealt with their demons in different (and remarkably dumb) ways. But the demons, and the fear, were the same.
But this year, only Drew and Dory are on trial for murder.
Elliott and Portia serve as witnesses and, while this does serve to create some tension, more than anything it sidelines two main characters who maintain the same amount of screen time but, suddenly, have much less at stake. Their parts of the story are far less interesting, and their characters more static. And that’s a shame because the ways they’ve dealt with pressure in the past have been fascinating.
None of this is to say that the show isn’t still amazingly fun to watch. Because it is.
There are some incredible new additions: Shalita Grant as Dory’s lawyer Cassidy is fantastic — exuding staunch self-confidence even as she practices the closing statement of her very first case to her stuffed animals, she’s a slap in the face of impostor syndrome, another all-too-familiar facet of Millennial culture. And Michaela Watkins as Polly, the prosecuting attorney, is wonderfully abrasive and forward. In fact, one thing the show has always excelled at, and only seems to do better each year, is creating hilarious, unique roles for women. The women of Search Party are allowed to be uncouth, socially inept, and just plain wrong, in a way that makes them feel effortlessly real. Plenty of other shows could take notes.
Maybe the most intensely cringey moments of the first season are gone, as are the most agonizingly suspenseful of the second season. But in the end, watching Search Party is still like watching nothing else.
There’s a series of recreations of C-list entertainment shows that are a little too pitch-perfect for comfort. There’s a gloriously, stupidly decadent wedding. (The theme of the ceremony is “attention.”) There’s an ill-timed invite to a play about a community garden that had me roaring. There’s a juror who refers to herself multiple times as a goblin. (If there’s an explanation for that, please let me know because I sure as hell missed it.)
Basically, as has always been the case, there’s no joke too big, too small, or too weird for Search Party to go for and completely nail.
And Alia Shawkat, in her portrayal of Dory’s continuously morphing understanding of herself and manipulation of the world around her, is transcendent. When all is said and done, this is Dory’s show, and it will perhaps be remembered more than anything as a many-part evolution of a killer.
As proof that God loves us and wants us to be happy, the show has already been renewed for a 4th season, so we can continue to watch her ascent/descent, hopefully with a shorter wait than last time.
The third season of Search Party hits HBO Max on June 25th.