“Search Party” Dared Me to Imagine Myself at the End of the World
HBO’s genre-hopping dark comedy pulls no punches when it comes to insufferable millennials
Midway through the pilot episode of HBO’s genre-hopping, endlessly inventive dark comedy, Search Party—which just debuted its fifth and final season in January—millennial NYU graduate Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) is turned down for a job. “I read all four pages of your personal statement,” the interviewer tells her. “And it seems to paint a picture of someone immobile. Someone stuck, perhaps.” In the immediate aftermath, Dory’s ineffectual boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), attempts to lift her spirits. “This is not the end of the world, let’s just take a deep breath, all right?” he suggests. “When I get overwhelmed, I like to just chill out and think about things I’m grateful for: you, my mom …” Before he can list any further gratitudes, however, Dory erupts at him. “I don’t want to take a deep breath and think about what I’m thankful for,” she says. “I just want you to shut the fuck up.”
While the series will recontextualize this moment over the course of its 2016-2022 run, the pilot is deliberately constructed to put the audience firmly in Dory’s corner. After all, upon being informed at brunch earlier in the episode of their college acquaintance Chantel Witherbottom’s (Clare McNulty) mysterious disappearance, Dory’s three closest friends react with a level of narcissistic disregard that makes her look downright saintly in comparison. Their responses are varied but equally damning: vain influencer Elliot (John Early) dismisses Chantel as having “nothing to offer,” mere moments before tweeting out performative concern for her safety; fledgling actress Portia (Meredith Hagner) feigns shock and dismay until enough time has passed that she can change the subject to her sex life; and Drew ignores Chantel’s disappearance entirely, opting instead to flag down a waiter for a bottle of ketchup. These characters, the show initially seemed to argue, are the self-absorbed hipster Brooklynites that you’ve been warned about. Their exaggerated awfulness allowed me to pat myself on the back, at least for a moment, for being fundamentally better than them: more empathetic, more self-aware, and certainly, well, less shitty.
Like Dory, when I first watched Search Party’s pilot, I too was feeling aimless and anxious about my future, procrastinating on job applications and residency portfolios as I stared down the final semester of my MFA. Early on in the series, very little had been established about Dory beyond her general longing for purpose, and so she works, functionally, as a cipher for the audience to imprint onto. And so, just as implicitly relatable sitcoms once trojan-horsed me into connecting to poorly aged protagonists like Ted Mosby on How I Met Your Mother and JD on Scrubs, of course I related to Dory, recognizing in her my own desire to scream at a world that masks apathy and inaction with vague platitudes about self-care and gratitude. Sure, I thought. Her fixation on a relative stranger’s disappearance might be a little self-serving, but, holy shit, at least she’s not numb to it. Watching her verbally berate Drew on the sidewalk, I couldn’t help but think, Hell yeah, lay into him.
But then the episode—written by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rodgers, who co-created the series alongside Michael Showalter of The State and Wet Hot American Summer—did something that surprised me. Dory yells at Drew to shut the fuck up a few more times, but then instead of following her as she storms off, the camera lingers on Drew as he stands there, looking genuinely hurt and confused as a bystander films him on an iPhone. Watching this, it strikes you that he’d really thought he was saying the right thing. He really thought that he was helping.
That’s when I realized: I may as well have just watched someone lay into me.
It was one of the most discomfiting viewing experiences I’ve ever had. In Drew’s vapid response to his partner’s disappointment, his unintended minimizing of her emotions, and his half-assed appropriation of therapy language, I saw a specific critique and depiction of millennial behavior—and, to be as clear as possible here, my own behavior—that I’d never really seen before. And, honestly, it felt a little too real for what had been billed as a half-hour comedy. Suddenly, I wasn’t looking down at the characters for their reactions to Chantel’s disappearance; rather, I was implicated in them, scanning through my own responses to tragedy for the times that I’ve posted something disingenuous for social clout, for the times that I’ve changed the subject, and for the times that I’ve reached for the ketchup instead of saying anything at all.
As the show progresses, Search Party refuses to let a single one of its characters off the hook. Although initially presented as at least somewhat altruistic in comparison to her friends, Dory’s single-minded obsession with tracking down Chantel is reframed first as a selfish co-opting of an acquaintance’s ostensible tragedy, and then, as the series progresses, a compulsive urge to reimagine her life as capital S significant, regardless of her action’s collateral damage. And while Dory and the audience assume Chantel to be a victim, she too is eventually revealed to be anything but, having orchestrated her own disappearance in an elaborate attempt to “find herself,” a decision motivated primarily by jealousy of her sister’s impending nuptials. She is, in a word, the worst. They all are.
Whether it’s characters selling out their values for a paycheck, returning over-and-over-again to a toxic partner, or overanalyzing every single incident as a signpost along their Personal Journey of Growth™, Search Party captures my generation’s most insufferable tendencies like nothing else on television. And although Search Party is likely to be most remembered for its wild and unpredictable genre-hopping—season one plays out like a mystery, season two a neo-noir, three a legal drama, four a psychological thriller, and five a full-on, apocalyptic fantasy—its genius lays in its ability to make drastic tonal shifts while keeping its characters grounded in its unsettling critique of millennial psychology.
The series’ first drastic escalation comes at the end of the first season, which finds Dory and Drew accidentally killing private investigator Keith Powell (Ron Livingston), and then roping in Elliot and Portia to help cover up the crime. Even with stakes that are much higher than your traditional comedy—it’s difficult, for instance, to imagine New Girl’s loft-mates covering up a murder—the show forces us to continue relating to its increasingly despicable characters by keeping the series grounded in the implicit relatability of the sitcom form.
At the beginning of the second season, for instance, a familiar sitcom trope—an uncomfortable social situation that our protagonists would like to exit as quickly as possible—is twisted to fit the dire, heightened circumstances. Having just shoved Keith’s corpse in a closet, Dory and Drew want to deal with the body immediately, but are informed by Elliot that, in order to keep up appearances, they’ll have to attend a dinner with the recently “rescued” and increasingly grating Chantel. “We are going to go to dinner,” Elliot tells them. “Then we’re going to come back from dinner. Then everyone else is going to go to sleep. And then the three of us are going to deal with the thing and we are going to be done with it. But right now, I need all of us to do our best to pretend that we are good, normal, non-murdering people.” The effect is downright eerie, taking what would otherwise be an unrelatable experience—covering up a murder!—and making it feel far more emotionally plausible than it should. Well, the series seems to ask, what would you do in this situation?
Even as the series’ status quo continues to spiral wildly out of control, its protagonists burying bodies, tampering with evidence, defending themselves on trial, rescuing a friend from a kidnapping, and—in a final season twist—inadvertently starting a world-altering zombie outbreak, Dory, Drew, Elliot, and Portia remain resolutely petty, self-involved, and narcissistic. Search Party’s escalating genre experimentation reflects the increasing proliferation of political, ecological, and public health catastrophes that have developed across the show’s lifetime, continually forcing its audience to recognize their own worst traits in the face of these disasters. It’s a move that forces us not only to repeatedly relate to the detestable characters at the show’s core, but also to project forward and imagine ourselves as incurably and insufferably ourselves in the face of unimaginable existential threats and total annihilation.
Which is to say: it forces us to see who we are, right now. And, mostly likely, who we’ll continue to be as things get worse.
Written and filmed in 2021, it’s no coincidence that Search Party’s final season uses its zombie apocalypse to reflect the reality of life over the last two years, evoking everything from COVID-19 to the increasingly visible acceleration of climate catastrophes to 2020’s mass uprisings against police brutality. It’s a lot to tackle over the course of a few short episodes, but its thesis remains impressively consistent with the rest of the series: we mostly just give a shit about ourselves.
Shortly after the zombie outbreak is unleashed in the series finale, the camera cuts to two 20-somethings sitting inside a fancy restaurant. “It’s sublime,” the young woman says, bragging about what it’s like to raise chickens in Brooklyn. “I’m having fresh eggs every single day.” As they continue talking, though, panicked New Yorkers begin to race by outside. When a zombie tackles someone against the window and violently devours him right in front of them, the young man shakes his head as blood splatters against the glass. “Don’t make eye contact,” he says, evoking an infamous photograph from the early days of the George Floyd protests. “This neighborhood is changing.”
To their limited credit, Search Party’s protagonists take the end of the world much more seriously than the couple in the restaurant, but they’re still beholden to their own desires and neuroses. “I was gonna go back to school,” Elliot’s husband Marc (Jeffery Self) moans as he begins to zombify, getting angrier and pettier as his condition deteriorates. “I’ve never been enough for you, have I?” he shouts at Elliot and friends in his final moments. “You all never made me feel included.” Committed to saving face until the very last, Drew shouts back as he runs away, “It’s normal not to make your friends’ partners feel included!”
Once they’ve escaped the threat of imminent death, the four return almost immediately to their habit of aggressively narrativizing their lives. Holed up in an underground bunker alongside a handful of other survivors, Dory, Drew, Elliot, and Portia take stock of their apocalyptic circumstances. “You know what, guys?” Portia asks, her eyes wide like she’s on the verge of an epiphany. “This is like, the ultimate test, to sort of trust that you’re just in the exact right place that the universe wants you to be in.” It’s a statement that recalls some of the early, Very Online discourse surrounding the pandemic: the reframing of global crisis as an opportunity for self-reflection. It’s in this moment that Search Party specifies its generational critique: everybody’s self-involved in the face of calamity, it seems to argue, but millennials in particular are prone to masking that self-involvement by way of an externally processed and easily digestible personal narrative. What’s a global pandemic if not a reminder to practice gratitude? What’s a missing acquaintance if not an opportunity to give yourself a renewed sense of purpose?
Just as I had recognized myself in the depiction of Drew in the very first episode, here, too, at the very end of the series, I was unnerved to find myself looking into a sort of mirror. It made me think back to March 2020, and how, once the severity of COVID-19 had become crystal clear, one of my first instincts was to think about what it all meant for me. After all, when the pandemic hit, I was fresh off a breakup, a cross-country move, and a career change, finally starting to feel comfortable in my Central Illinois college town and hoping, essentially, to restart my life. This couldn’t have happened at a worse time for me, I remember thinking, even as my heart sank reading early (and, in retrospect, optimistic) estimates that the pandemic would claim between 100,00 and 200,000 lives in the United States alone.
What Search Party gets right is that, even if I didn’t vocalize these thoughts the way some of its characters might, I still had the impulse to make the mass-death event unfolding across the globe all about me. And, Search Party seems to argue, so did pretty much everyone. For as surreal as the pandemic has felt, the series’ commitment to plugging its loathsome (yet still relatable!) characters into increasingly heightened scenarios demonstrates an understanding that we, too, may soon find ourselves in even more precarious situations than the one we’ve been locked into the last two years. Be it climate collapse, an AI apocalypse, an even more virulent variant, or, god forbid, nuclear war, the show’s writers dare us to imagine what we might look like inside of those moments of crisis, forcing us to consider that even in the face of certain death, we’ll be stuck with all the worst parts of ourselves.
And so, with this in mind, when I picture myself and how I might react on the edge of oblivion—when the sirens start blaring, for instance, or when the nukes begin flying across the sky—I’m now also imagining the possibility that in those final moments, I might not be thinking anything profound or meaningful or altruistic; instead, I might be wondering if I’ve been excluded from a friend’s end-of-the-world party, if so-and-so is angry with me, or if the apocalypse couldn’t have come at a slightly more convenient time.
Thanks, Search Party. I guess.