So much is said about the anti-hero, a morally ambiguous individual who lacks any conventional heroic traits, who is often noble but not always for selfless reasons. Their endearment lies in their well-meaning and reluctance to join the herd. They also ultimately do the right thing – and that’s why we love them.
But what of the entirely unlikeable protagonist? The not-at-all hero who rarely gets it right and whose intentions are often selfish as they traverse their own journey in finding a purpose and, hopefully, attention? It’s a tough sell, and yet there is no better way to define the central four characters who lead this charge in Search Party, a dark comedy that originally quietly premiered on TBS in 2016, and whose four seasons have now finally arrived in Canada on Crave.
Oft and probably best described as “cringe comedy,” the series follows a group of misfit friends who interject themselves in the search for Chantal, a missing woman who they vaguely may have once known years before in high school but probably definitely interacted with via social media – they’re not entirely sure. The mystery appears so exciting to Dory (Alia Shawkat, who has never been more engaging) – as if out of a movie – that she grows obsessed, believing she’s seeing Chantal on the streets of New York, and eventually pushing her friends into a half-assed search of their own. Why? Because they have nothing else to do.
Their search party includes Dory’s spineless boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds); Elliott (John Early, getting to flex every single comic muscle he’s got to great effect), a self-proclaimed liar and narcissist; and Portia (Meredith Hagner), an airheaded actress who takes a few minutes longer than everyone else to catch up to each scheme.
There are a few major obstacles standing in the group’s way, however – none of them are all that bright, and each has a tendency to make a situation a far bigger mess than it was before. And even with the best intentions, they manage to make everything regarding this missing girl about themselves. In that sense, you could say Search Party is an incredibly millennial show – or as is eventually said during the series itself, “everything that’s wrong with young liberals.”
Take, for example, the moment when the gang discovers (mild spoiler alert for Season 1) that Chantal is alive and well – and wasn’t actually missing. She just ran away after the married man she was seeing for two months refused to leave his wife for her. When Dory asks her to admit who she’s really running from, Chantal says with a great deal of introspection, “Myself, honestly.”
But it’s too late – because the gang has already gotten themselves into the situation far too deep. From there, we watch as they haphazardly try to cover their steps and become even more embroiled in a mystery of their own making, which includes everything from an affair to a cult to actual abductions. By the end of each season, one thing is clear: none of this would have happened if Dory and her friends had just stayed out of it. But for four messy people in their 20s with little to no purpose, that’s an impossible ask.
With a singular sense of humour that will feel gloriously familiar to very online types and offbeat to others, Search Party makes for a bizarre genre-bending half-hour in a way that serves as a callback to the classic screwball comedy but also feels like something new and impossible to recreate.
The series feels almost akin to a paperback mystery from childhood come to life in all the best ways, though it doesn’t follow any narrative rules: common sense is thrown to the wind, good things only ever happen by accident and alliances – and facts – are as flighty as the wind. Cops, lawyers and confidantes also happen to be as dim as they come. It’s Difficult People meets Bored to Death meets something entirely else.
You almost hope that Dory, Drew, Elliott and Portia fail, because not only do the hijinks prove endlessly hilarious, but the resultant pathos feels uniquely reflective of this very moment. What’s most fascinating, after all, is the way they all seem to feed off the chaos as much as it wrecks them and tears them apart. That’s entirely due to the clever cast and the sideshow of guest stars who drop in here and there as if they were always embedded in this oddball version of New York, played by everyone from veteran actors Susan Sarandon and Griffin Dunne to writer R.L. Stine.
It’s clear, as with most underrated things, that its cult status has afforded the show the space to be as strange and unusual as it is, nakedly begging viewers to hate the still somehow charming characters at its centre while urging the foursome to give up on the rabbit hole they seem to fall deeper and deeper into. And yet, here I am, clawing right alongside them.
All four seasons of Search Party are available now to stream on Crave
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