Search Party, the strange, often unsettling invention of co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter, begins as many “millennial” comedies do—with brunch. In fact, as Dory (Alia Shawkat), freckled and soft-spoken, brings up the disappearance of a college classmate, Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), the series might be mistaken for one of its more unpleasant forebears: Dory’s bespectacled boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), tries, in vain, to grab their server’s attention; the slick, capricious Elliott (John Early, perfectly slimy), performs his upset on Twitter; the slightly daft Portia (Meredith Hagner), an actress, pretends, unconvincingly, to cry.
Search Party is, in this sense, at once a merciless critique of TV’s one-dimensional millennials and the fullest distillation of the trope. It’s a series precise enough to acknowledge the rise of the phrase “to piggyback off of that,” familiar from certain undergraduate seminars circa 2005; it’s a series broad enough to suggest that everyone who lives in the big city in their twenties eventually goes missing in one way or another. It’s mean-spirited, mysterious, recklessly funny, and relentlessly eccentric, strung with composer Brian H. Kim’s ambivalent bleats; it’s as if you blended Broad City, High Maintenance, and Without a Trace into a sorrow-salted margarita.
It’s also—and here is its most distinctive feature, the one that transforms it, by degrees, into one of the year’s best new TV series—poised on the precipice of genuine terror, of the sort that other entries in its burgeoning subgenre comfortably skirt. Search Party’s center of gravity is the world’s inky, sinister heart, and one woman’s desperate, even deranged effort to change it.
Though its trappings—#ComeHomeChantal, #IAmChantal—reflect the modern, alienated affect of the Great Recession set, then, the series’ substructure is altogether more slippery. When Dory glimpses Chantal in the first episode’s closing moments, for instance, she collects her onetime acquaintance’s abandoned copy of Anna Karenina, and the message she gathers from Tolstoy’s epic is half inspiration, half misdirection: “The pleasure lies not in discovering the truth, but in searching for it.” (“I’ll save you 400 pages,” a fellow subway passenger warns her, forebodingly. “She dies at the end.”)
Against Dory’s profound dissatisfaction, the purpose she gains from the quest to “save” Chantal is bracing, breathing new life into a routine of anodyne work, microwaveable meals and awkward sex. It doesn’t matter that the connection between the two women was, and is, vanishingly thin: For Dory, of course, the search isn’t solely for Chantal, it’s also for herself.
In Search Party, to wit, the characters’ selfishness operates in the guise of altruism—often in inappropriate places and at inappropriate times, from candlelight vigils and charity fundraisers to pregnancy cult rituals. (I told you it was strange.) The series’ action unspools without social norms to act as guardrails, always on the verge of losing control; despite the sunny humor of Dory’s wealthy, soused employer, Gail (the terrific Christine Taylor), or the genial satire of those of us raised on burned CDs and parental praise, there’s a shadow of fear thrown across Search Party that’s sui generis.
The sojourns of the women at the series’ dark heart thus assume the cruel complexion of David Fincher’s blackly comic cyanide capsule, Gone Girl, as much as the more general ennui of Lena Dunham’s Girls. For Chantal and Dory, “anything is better than lies and deceit,” as Tolstoy had it, only in their case, as in Amazing Amy’s, the principal falsehood is the promise of Sex and the City’s third wave feminism: The notion that the “right” choices—the “right” career, the “right” shoes, the “right” man—might create some semblance of liberation.
That Search Party bristles with violence, with fury, isn’t simply an effort to defy convention, it’s also a courageously forthright reflection of a culture in which the oft-repeated saw—”Men are afraid that women will laugh at them. Women are afraid that men will kill them”—rings as true as ever. Domestic disputes, menacing ex-boyfriends, pedophilic fantasies, up-skirt photographs, public humiliation, stalking, gaslighting, rape, death: Search Party chronicles and condemns the abuse of women by angry men with such commitment that it seems unjust to describe it merely as a “millennial” comedy. It’s an agitated, embittered, bawdily funny call to arms, to the extent that Chantal’s earliest moments on screen—slinking down in the seat of a bus, destination unknown; startling at a floorboard’s creak—are cast in the prurient green of Hitchcock’s Vertigo. Imagine, Search Party asks, if Kim Novak fought back.
With the season finale, “The House of Uncanny Truths,” a stemwinder of surprising force and impeccable balance, the series turns the screw once more, as if to remind us that neither Chantal nor Dory’s motives need be pure for their distress to deserve our attention. Search Party’s purpose, it turns out, is to tie the fretful excesses of men—raging, screaming, crying, insulting and demanding with abandon—to the disappearance, the invisibility, of women: “Ever since [Chantal] went missing, I realized that I overlooked her,” as Dory confesses to a private investigator (Ron Livingston) at season’s midpoint. “And it might sound annoying, but I feel like people have overlooked me sometimes.”
Whatever the consequences of Dory’s quixotic expedition to find Chantal—and they are dire indeed—it’s the dueling desires to escape and stand firm that send the series’ dark heart racing, as much as the desire to change. After all, as Tolstoy’s Anna remarks, “You won’t get away from yourselves.”
Search Party is now available on TBS On Demand and TBS.com.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.