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‘Search Party’ Season 4 Goes Back to Its Missing Person Roots

The new season delivers the show’s original premise with a twist: this time everything’s real.
Search party season 4
By  · Published on January 13th, 2021

Welcome to Previously On, a column that fills you in on our favorite returning TV shows. This week, Liz Baessler reviews Season 4 of the HBO Max series Search Party.

In 2016, Search Party appeared quietly on the scene. An Alia Shawkat-led comedy/thriller with an impeccable grip on cringe and a loving but brutal understanding of millennial culture, it checked off so many boxes viewers didn’t even know they had. Now it’s back on HBO Max with a fourth season that’s very different, but still brilliant.

The first season followed Dory (Shawkat) as she and her friends searched for a missing acquaintance, digging deep into secret pregnancies, mysterious cults, and private investigations. It ended (SPOILER ALERT) with a glorious revelation: nothing sinister was going on after all. Dory’s grand conspiracy was just a series of coincidences, culminating in the most mundane, lackluster, agonizingly normal explanation possible.

It was perfect.

That season also (EXTRA BIG SPOILER ALERT) ended in a murder, which Dory and her friends then had to cover up. This led, in subsequent seasons, to Dory being thrust further and further into the dark and sinister world she mistakenly thought she was tapping into. She finally got to be part of something bigger, but at the cost of several lives, multiple friendships, and her soul.

In Search Party Season 4, Dory is the one missing, and this time seemingly every possible explanation for her disappearance, no matter how off the wall, is true. The show begins its new season where the last finale left off: with Dory, freshly found not guilty of murder, attacked and kidnapped by an obsessed “fan.”

And it just gets more bonkers from there.

There’s brainwashing, gaslighting, and murder. There are disguises, shady conglomerates, and secret children. There are car chases, daring escapes, and strange bunkers. Heck, somebody even winds up in a coma. In other words, the show is diving headlong into everything Dory fervently wished for in the first season, right down to a sinister kidnapping that leads to a mysterious missing person case. Turns out the potential for all this madness was actually always out there, lurking. Maybe we just couldn’t see it.

Maybe Dory willed it into existence.

It’s a funny direction for a show to take, leaning so hard into what was essentially the punchline of its first season. But it’s also a fascinating direction, and possibly the one it was destined to take all along. First, the soap opera-esque intrigue existed only in Dory’s mind. Then she made it real. Now it’s coming for her, in all its hyperbolic, melodramatic, Twin Peaks glory.

Of course just like Twin Peaks before it, Search Party occasionally goes off the deep end and starts to feel like a parody of itself. In particular, the parts surrounding Chantal (Clare McNulty), the show’s original missing person, are a bit over the top and feel especially useless when they’re revealed to be not much more than a plot device. And sometimes the extent of the intrigue is a bit much. (Susan Sarandon‘s new character is a trip.)

But even with all those things considered, it’s still a fantastic ride. As always, the show has some of the finest writing and delivery of disingenuous dialogue you could ever hope to see. John Early is the only actor I’ve ever seen who so expertly lets the light leave his eyes as he loses faith in the words that are coming out of his mouth. Cole Escola, as Dory’s captor, Chip, is a delightful blend of bright-eyed wonderment and truly terrifying rage. Ann Dowd even shows up for a while with the kind of chilling, aggressive plainspokenness only she is capable of.

And Alia Shawkat herself is phenomenal. For the headliner of a comedy, she doesn’t get the chance to be particularly funny — taken alone, her scenes could just as easily have her starring in a full-fledged psychological horror. And she is very, very good at it.

Search Party Season 4 isn’t utterly smooth, and it isn’t utterly perfect. But gosh is it fun. It’s a remix of its first season that gives itself permission to be gloriously, unapologetically weird. As always, Search Party is one of the greatest shows around, and I will keep saying so and banging my drum until someone takes it away from me.

The first three episodes of Search Party premiere on HBO Max on January 14th. The next three come out on January 21st, and the final four release on January 28th.

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Liz Baessler is a frequent contributor and infrequent columnist at Film School Rejects. She has an MA in English and a lot of time on her hands. (She/Her)