This roundtable contains massive spoilers for Season 4 of Search Party.
We’re just going to say it: Search Party is the funniest show that you’re probably not watching. (But seriously, if you’re not watching it, you should be.) Despite a shaky run on TBS—all episodes of the first season aired during Thanksgiving week and the second season received abysmal Nielsen ratings—and a move to HBO Max for its third season, it is amazing that Search Party made it this far. Thankfully, the dark comedy series is back for a new season, and we couldn’t be more thrilled about it. Far from the place she began in Season 1, Dory Sief’s (Alia Shawkat) circumstances do a complete 180-degree turn: Instead of being the party searching for a potential kidnapping victim, Dory becomes the victim when her stalker-turned-kidnapper Chip Wreck (Cole Escola) locks her in a windowless, underground room with little hope of escaping.
In a coercive attempt to live out his fantasy of having a best friend, Chip attempts to brainwash Dory into believing that her other friends hate her and that he’s the only one she can trust. While Dory is MIA, the rest of the friend group tries (and fails) to continue on with their lives after the murder trial. Wavering between scenes of Dory’s confinement and attempts at escape and lighter moments featuring her friends, who eventually begin searching for her, the latest season performs the tricky balancing act between darkness and levity. We discussed Search Party’s depictions of gaslighting, conservative grifters, and the lies the characters tell themselves.
The dark comedy has never shied away from violence, but this season felt especially brutal to watch. What are your thoughts on the torture scenes between Dory and Chip?
Andi Zeisler, cofounder: Psychological torture can be just as difficult to watch as physical torture, and I think the first episode in particular did a terrifyingly effective job of conveying Dory’s disorientation and helplessness. The way that Chip uses his creative talents to make Dory’s surroundings reassuringly familiar before pulling the rug from beneath her establishes who he is and, though it sounds counterintuitive given his cruelty, makes his character legible. Like Dory, he has squandered his own potential on an obsession that’s never going to play out the way he wants it to, and we know it well before he does.
It’s pretty difficult to take in any pop culture created in the last few years without seeing parallels to recent history. I don’t think it’s exaggerating to say that everyone in this country has, to varying degrees, been impacted by Donald Trump’s presidency and the madness and violence and lies and gaslighting that has characterized every day of it. We’re very likely not going to fully grasp the massive cumulative effect of that for a long time. So watching Dory go from playing along with Chip to appease his delusions to, eventually, seeing herself only through those delusions—while at the same time experiencing the déja vu of politicians telling us we need to “get past divisiveness” as a second impeachment unfolds—was (like everything else, all the time) a little bit on the nose.
Marina Watanabe, senior social media editor: This season was a rough watch. I think, perhaps, even more so than previous seasons because we’re forced to sit with Dory’s psychological (and, at times, physical) torture for long periods of time. The scenes with Dory and Chip linger, and in some episodes, take up the majority of the screen time. Even though the sequences are punctuated by comparatively lighthearted, comedic scenes featuring other characters, the heaviness of this season seems to have more moments where I felt like I was holding my breath. On top of this, we’re in the middle of a pandemic. Even though these episodes were shot before the COVID-19 outbreak, there is an added layer of eeriness when watching a character trapped inside her (fake) home while many of us have been quarantining for 10 months now. It’s difficult to not feel similarly powerless knowing that our government’s lack of action forced us into this situation, and we don’t know when we’ll be free from it.
When the Fox News–esque television network that airs Elliott Goss’s (John Early) show informs him that he needs to pretend to be a conservative to appease his audience, he is willing to give up his beliefs for a chance at success. What does Elliott’s heel turn say about the current state of conservative grifting?
AZ: I mean, Elliott is at least a lot more entertaining than Milo Yiannopoulous, the person I would guess inspired this plot point. It’s not clear that either he or Charlie (Chloe Fineman) are supposed to lead viewers to any conclusion about conservative punditry as a form of entertainment whose actors think they can have it both ways—e.g., play a character who is “real” to viewers but refuse to admit that their “realness” has actual real-world impact. But also, Elliott was established as both a fabulist and a grifter since the first season, which revealed that he’d pretended to have cancer; he then parlayed the story of faking cancer into a book deal. I think Search Party is such a good, dark, incisive show because it begins with the premise that the attention economy is easy to get sucked into regardless of your politics, your ideals, and your sense of self. It mocks the phenomenon and somehow does so with a lot of sympathy despite the fact that exactly zero of its characters are actually sympathetic.
MW: Yeah, Elliott has always been a grifter who thrives on attention but can’t handle any real responsibility—whether that responsibility is to his book publisher or to the queer community (who he claims he hates and shouldn’t exist). So, this felt like a natural path that Elliott’s character would follow because he has always been awful. And from wellness to QAnon, grifting definitely happens across the political spectrum (I mean, look at Shaun King). But I do think his switch from liberal to conservative speaks to the specific phenomenon of commentators exaggerating how right-leaning their beliefs are to appeal to a certain demographic. This feels especially relevant when we’re hearing stories of GOP members who have publicly defended Trump for years but not-so-secretly hate his guts. At the end of the day, it doesn’t really matter what you believe deep down because you’re publicly causing a lot of harm for your own personal gain.
Search Party has been repeatedly called a very “millennial” show. In the latest season, Paula Jo (Ann Dowd), a nosy older woman who hates talking about feelings, is introduced as the antithesis of millennial sensibility. What does this say about the state of intergenerational conflict?
AZ: First of all, Ann Dowd should be in everything, always. That said, if she was meant to be that antithesis, I’m not sure it totally worked. I enjoyed how she expressed her frustration with Dory’s allegedly insufficient motivation to escape from Chip’s basement, but her own downfall came about because she had the same general sense of entitlement that’s always ascribed to millennials. So the comparison between Paula Jo and Dory came across to me as ironic in much the same way as the rest of the series is: Each character explicitly displays the same tendencies and self-indulgences that they disdain in others. Elliott eventually says as much—but, characteristically, does it in a way that’s as insufferable as possible, so that the truth of it ends up buried in performativity. The layers!
I actually thought the funniest dunk on both millennials and the generational-industrial complex as a whole came from the Oprah-esque character Wilma (Lillias White), who serendipitously discovers Chantal’s terrible attempt at an autobiography and undertakes her own search for the author—because she assumes it’s the writing of an emotionally precocious 10-year-old. The millennial-seeming staff of Wilma’s own TV show seem to be the collateral damage of her obsession with finding this child and making her famous.
MW: Ann Dowd is never not good! It has to be said.
I really enjoyed the scenes between Paula Jo and Dory. Since the show is one of the best indictments of privileged millennials I’ve seen, it was a pleasure (maybe that’s the wrong word) to see this Boomer-aged woman kidnapped and forced into captivity with Dory, someone she shows immediate disdain for. For three seasons, viewers have watched Dory become progressively more unlikeable and less sympathetic. She embodies some of the worst qualities that align with stereotypes about millennials, and up until this point her reactions and behaviors aren’t relatable or even appropriate. But when Dory is suddenly in a situation where she’s being tortured and brainwashed, her initial reaction to that is reasonable and understandable. Then Paula Jo shows up and immediately chides Dory for complaining about an objectively horrific situation. Dory hasn’t spoken to anyone for months, and Paula Jo snaps at her for talking about her feelings. We shouldn’t put much stock into reductive generalizations about the different generations, but it’s hilarious to watch a Baby Boomer chastise a millennial that she perceives to be overly sensitive when they’re literally in the most terrible situation possible.
In the final episode, we learn that Dory initially had a chance to escape but chose not to. How do you think her decision reflects the theme of the season and parallels the choices her friends make throughout?
MW: Throughout the season, the guilt and horror of Dory’s actions are impossible for her to process. She has manipulated her friends, committed perjury, and most significantly, murdered April (Phoebe Tyers) because she knew the truth. The weight of Dory’s past sins are so difficult to bear that she decides she would rather believe the version of reality that Chip constructed for her, and she chooses cognitive dissonance. Despite being kidnapped, locked away, tortured, and brainwashed, Dory still finds the lie of victimhood and a lack of agency more comforting than confronting the reality of her choices.
To a much lesser degree, we see her friends following similar paths. Drew Gardner (John Reynolds) moves to a different state so he can start a new life of anonymity. He takes a job at a Medieval Times-ish theme park called Merry Merry Land and goes through the motions with a girl he doesn’t love and continually lies to because it’s easier than dealing with the fact that he’s not over Dory. Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner) takes a part in a biopic that casts her friends in an extremely unflattering light and whitewashes a role meant for an Iraqi-American actor. She knows that the movie’s director is unconcerned with the specifics of what really happened (the director literally gives Portia a note to change her “entire nature”), but she chooses to overlook the movie’s untruthfulness for the sake of her career. Elliott throws away his liberal values by cosplaying as a right-wing commentator in order to maintain his dwindling relevancy. He performs self-hatred and conservative religiosity to an audience that actively hates his existence. In Season 4, each character chooses the lie over the more difficult reality that they are, in fact, responsible for their choices. To me, the theme that stood out the most this season was the idea that lies can be more appealing and comforting than truth.
AZ: I was not prepared for that late-in-the-game reveal about Dory’s near-escape, and was pretty skeptical about whether it was real, especially since the entire last episode was filled with questions about what’s real and what’s misdirection. But the revelation that Dory could have escaped and didn’t is totally in keeping with not just the events of this latest season, but the show’s arc overall. Search Party is ultimately a show about self-centered people distracting themselves from their own insecurity and aimlessness by inserting themselves into other people’s lives. And, since the first beginning, the (extremely dark!) joke has always been that solving the mystery isn’t worth it because the people themselves aren’t mysterious at all.
That’s why I appreciate that each season includes a minor plot about Chantal, whose disappearance began the series’ whole chain of disastrous events. She’s so awful—so boring, so spoiled, so shallow—that her continued presence at the fringes of Dory and her friends’ lives is an albatross that only gets heavier. From almost anyone else’s perspective, Dory’s decision to climb back into the trunk of Chip’s car after fighting for hours to get out of it is inexplicable. I don’t think it’s just that she wanted to escape the consequences of her own actions, but that she wanted to be the person who, this time, was worth the effort of finding.