Each week Joe and Terry discuss the most recent episodes of HBO Max’s Search Party, alternating between our respective sites.
Spoilers follow for Episodes 1-3: “The Girl In The Basement”, “Something Sharp”, and “Escape To Nowhere”
One of the greatest pleasures about Search Party, Terry, is watching the show reinvent itself each season. What began as a razor sharp critique of entitled millennials in season one turned into a noir investigation in season two, then morphed into a courtroom farce in season three.
Along the way three of the four jag-off protagonists – befuddled everyman Drew (John Reynolds), opportunistic gay Elliott (John Early), and dumb actress Portia (Meredith Hagner) – have more or less remained true to their original characteristics.
This isn’t true for the woman at the center of the series: Alia Shawkat as Dory Sief. For three seasons, Shawkat has been delivering the kind of tour de force performance that on any other show (or network?) would be garnering constant awards chatter. Watching Dory morph from naive, slightly shallow wannabe to a deluded femme fatale has truly be a sight to behold and Shawkat is nothing short of amazing in the role. Were it not for the show’s erratic programming schedule and its off-putting characters, I think a ton more viewers would be picking up what the series in putting down.
But enough complaining, let’s get into the long-awaited season four. In real life, we’ve waited a full year to see the fall-out of Dory and Drew being found not guilty of the murder of Keith Powell (Ron Livingston). In the world of the show, however, “The Girl In The Basement” picks up immediately after the cliffhanger that Dory was abducted and forced to make some kind of dramatic confession on video.
Naturally it turns out that Dory is being held by her “best friend” Chip (Cole Escola), the deranged cater waiter twink who nearly fed a honey-covered Portia to rats back in 3.08 “A Dangerous Union.” This is hardly a surprise (the only other possibility would maybe be Keith’s family?), though the fashion in which Chip has Dory hostage – inside a soft homemade replica of her apartment – is hilariously on brand for Search Party (which is to say that it’s completely and utterly ridiculous).
For these first three episodes, Dory only interacts with Chip in-person, though she does hallucinate interactions with her friends in “Escape to Nowhere” when she suffers through both a breakdown and hypothermia. It’s a challenging narrative choice: take arguably the best character on the show and isolate her from the other cast members for multiple episodes (though I’d argue that it does provide Shawkat some exciting new avenues through which to explore the character). It’s been fascinating to watch Dory take control of her personal narrative, particularly in seasons two and three, so seeing her in such a position of vulnerability has been entertaining to say the least.
With that said, I was more than ready for her to escape from this storyline by the third episode. I got excited when Dory fled while Chip was otherwise indisposed, play-acting as “Aunt Lila” to appease nosey neighbourhood and Christmas decor enthusiast Paula Jo (Ann Dowd, oozing suburban malice).
Alas it was pretty clear that her ordeal wasn’t over when Dory couldn’t find any help, so by the time she was picked up by a kindly gawker, it was obvious that Chip wouldn’t be far behind. I won’t lie, Terry: I groaned.
What are your impressions of Dory and her mini-arc over these first three episodes? And how do you feel about the others? If I had to wager a guess, I’d say you’re most enthused by Andrew (not Drew)’s stint as Prince Grizzly at Merry Merry Land, followed by Elliott’s inevitable sell-out for Fox News stand-in, Right is Right, with Portia’s lead performance in Savage: The Dory Sief Story coming in third.
Joe, I’m so excited to dive back into Search Party! Plus I’m doing it with you this time, which is fantastic. I covered the third season when it premiered and absolutely loved it, but I think this is a show that benefits from a back-and-forth discussion.
You mentioned the way the narrative shifts each season from amateur detective work to an almost Hitchcockian paranoid thriller to courtroom melodrama and when the third season ended I was so excited to see what genre staple Search Party would introduce in the fourth season.
What immediately grabbed me was the way the opening is structured like a horror story. Chip is seen dragging Dory’s unconscious body while ominous music accentuates the home invasion aspect of the story. The music builds to a violin-filled crescendo as Chip’s car tears through a dark and shadow-filled country road…
…and then skips to the scene inside the car as Chip bops along to Deee-Lite’s 1990 smash hit “Groove is in the Heart.” It’s a song that’s played in the first three episodes almost as much as it was during the summer of 1990, when it dominated the airwaves.
Song choice aside, this juxtaposition is what I’ve loved about Search Party throughout each season. It mixes genre tropes with some genuinely silly moments of humor to create something familiar, yet slightly hyperreal. This tension between reality and hyperreality-verging-on-surreality is further tested as Dory is revealed, chained up in an almost Hannibal Lecter fashion. When she wakes up in her room it’s as if she’s left reality and joined Pee-Wee’s Playhouse. As she explores her new felt-lined existence, Alia makes this confused scream-laugh that truly highlights the madness of Dory’s situation.
Basically, Season 4 feels like Pee-Wee’s Playhouse by way of Misery, with Chip’s “I’m your best friend” becoming the ever-reliable stand-in for Annie Wilkes’ “I’m your biggest fan.”
And I’m here for it…mostly.
I completely agree with your assessment that what Season 4 is lacking (so far) is the back-and-forth between our four main characters. I immediately realized that their banter and the friction that arises from the way each of them deals with conflict is what has sustained the previous seasons. Here, we still get that drama as each member of the friend group is forced to deal with the repercussions of their Not Guilty (but totally guilty) situation. It’s fascinating seeing how each character handles it.
Drew, for instance, flees to some childhood ideal of the world at a theme park. An off-hand comment suggests that Drew’s been to Merry Merry Land once when he was a kid and it presents a candy-coated version of reality where princesses and cowgirls and Prince Grizzly can coexist. His devolution into the world of plushy princes and forced giddiness doesn’t feel so far removed from Dory’s cushioned prison…outside of the, you know, consent and pay. It’s an interesting dichotomy, though it feels surface level at best right now.
It’s funny because you made a guess on which of the three side stories I enjoyed the most and while you’re right that I find Drew’s the most interesting as written, I think, if it were given more time and attention, Portia’s story has the most thematic meat on its bones.
I’ve always bemoaned the fact that Portia’s stories don’t ever feel as fleshed out as the other side stories. This was very evident in season three where she floated from a cult to briefly finding religion (a different kind of cult) and then ended the season…back where she started?
Unfortunately, in the first three episodes, her role as Dory in the hilariously titled Savage: The Dory Sief Story has been given the least amount of time for something that could be, pardon the pun, savagely entertaining. I would kill to see Search Party take on a reel-ity look at the reality they experienced in the previous three seasons.
Which, of course, leaves us with Elliott and his “faked” Republican persona. I put faked in quotations because his character has always seemed to be one step away from those Trump Gays: the kind of white gay man who has enough money and loose morals to be more concerned with his pocketbook and sense of privilege than anyone else’s needs. I laughed when the shady network producer asks him how it felt, betraying his people for a 30% salary increase (and…childcare costs??) and he replies, “I feel genuinely fine,” nervously laughs and then says, “uh…oh god.”
None of these characters have learned from their past mistakes and are simply continuing to do things to “feel good” in order to hide the fact that they are actually supremely miserable. It’s as fake as the flowers Dory gives Chip as a way of getting into his good graces.
But I’m curious what you thought of these same side stories, Joe. Ignoring the fact that we both want Dory out and interacting with her friends, did you like the way the stories were structured? Are you as curious as I am about Savage and its version of a Dory that’d put a cigarette out on a squirrel? Are you happy that (so far) Chantal (Clare McNulty) has only shown up in a flashback? And speaking of which, do you think any of the lingering plot threads of Season 3 involving April (Phoebe Tyers), her twin sister June (Claire Tyers) and Julian (Brandon Michael Hall)’s missing phone will eventually show back up?
I’m with you, Terry, about the possibilities inherent in Portia being involved in Savage. I actually think that this will wind up being a significant plot for the remainder of the season (or I hope so) because of the potential to lampoon a) society’s obsession with true crime and b) the show itself and how it has portrayed these characters. Search Party is keenly aware of itself as a cultural property, as well as a satire (I’m thinking back to the news and vlog vignettes that opened each episode of season three) and there’s a lot of comedic fodder to be mined from a truly terrible sounding film version of Dory’s life. The squirrel burning moment alone sounds worthy of a terrible 90s Lifetime movie, no?
So yes, I’m intrigued by that but we need more of it. Right now we’re still too early in all of these plots to really get a sense of where they’re going. Like Drew’s experiences at Merry Merry Land: it could be really great, but I’m not ready to climb fully on board yet.
There is something to be said for how Search Party continues to parallel Dory and Drew’s experience. Her imprisonment feels like a spiritual companion to his self-imposed isolation in a world of make-believe, donning not one but two fictitious personalities – one in oversized felt and one the happy, carefree prince in shiny armour.
That moment in “Escape to Nowhere” when his new girlfriend, Cindy (Rebecca Robles) – who’s natural hair and street clothes we’ve never seen – reveals that she’s a different kind of monster is amazing. Drew hates Dory for how she’s quote/unquote ruined his picture perfect life, but this new girl simply confirms that everyone is fucked up. Merry Merry Land may be a happy place for children, but for the adults who have sought refuge there to reinvent themselves, it’s clearly a place to regress back into fantasy.
Drew can’t survive long here: this isn’t real life. It’s just another delusion.
Which is maybe why I’m least interested in Elliott’s “conversion” to the Right. Not only is it, as you suggested Terry, far too easy to believe, it just doesn’t have a lot of oomph to it. His sparring with Charlie Reeny (Chloe Fineman) in season three was fine because it was contained: their bratty name-calling was an amusing distraction that felt like an appropriate skewering of the kind of shitty “political” content we’re all familiar with in the 24 hour news cycle.
My issue with this becoming Elliott’s ongoing story is that there’s no tension, no room for this to become something meaningful. Being called a traitor by his queer wedding planners isn’t liable to have an impact on Elliott – he’s far too self-absorbed to care about the feelings of anyone other than…maybe Portia (hence his petulant tantrum when she doesn’t support his career evolution the way he purportedly supports hers). I don’t know; right now this just feels too obvious to me.
With that said, one of the things that I have loved the most about season four is the priority focus on our central foursome. Search Party has had a nasty habit of bringing back its – frankly unnecessary – supporting cast for no good reason, so only a brief mention of Chantal and the absence of April and Julian has been very welcome.
Obviously we both want Shalita Grant’s Cassidy to return so we can delight in her amazing vocal fry, but Terry, are there other Search Party cast members that you hope will pop up? Were you tantalized or scandalized by the near-threesome kitchen make-out that Elliott, Drew and Portia had in the opening episode? And now that both Drew and Elliott are wise to the fact that something is amiss with Dory and the twink, how long before Dory is rescued?
Be still my heart, I would be so happy to see Shalita Grant return, Joe. Partly because she was such an intriguing character last season who felt perfectly suited to the humor of the show. But mostly because, after doing a pretty decent job of defending Dory through 90% of the season, she was summarily kicked to the curb. From a narrative perspective it makes sense that Dory would use her for as long as she could, knowing that she’d stage a final plea to the jury where she couldn’t get cross-examined. But it felt so jarring to see her character arc in the show, from a vocal fried millennial with an intense focus on fashion and her love of stuffed animals to a force to be reckoned with in the courtroom to…just gone.
I doubt we’ll see her again, unfortunately, but I would love to see her reenter the picture, if only briefly. Another character I’d love to see return is Marc (Jeffery Self), Elliott’s put-upon lover of so many years. He’s another character whose disappearance made narrative sense (I couldn’t believe he stayed with Elliott as long as he did), but who I’d love to see pop back in for some kind of resolution.
Pulling it back to our main quartet, I was intrigued by the threesome kiss-that-felt-like-sex in the opening episode. It was such a brief moment but it kind of summed up the sexual energy that has kind of sustained this group from the beginning. Whether the characters want to admit it or not, they are perfect for each other and, frankly, deserve each other. I think that kiss subtly suggests that while the three of them are off on their own, trying to avoid the unpleasant thought that they are all the same, they must eventually come back together. And with Drew’s shirt knowledge–I’m frankly appalled that none of them have noticed the terr-i-ble photoshop job–and Elliott’s twink knowledge, I think the series just might return to its literal roots.
There’s one more search party to be formed. And maybe we’ll see it happen as we pop over to Gayly Dreadful for the middle three episodes next week.
Search Party airs episodes four through six next Thursday on HBO Max.