We talk with the series co-creator, writer and director about finding the balance between darkness and comedy.
When it first debuted in 2016, Search Party was often compared to Girls and Broad City, mostly because all those three shows deal with the same topics of millennials and hipster culture. But to solely focus on that element will dismiss the excellent craft and surprises that co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter has shown throughout four seasons. After all, this is a show like no other on TV, always radically reinventing itself to keep things fresh.
Season 4 — whose first three episodes were just released on HBO Max last Thursday — is no exception, finding new angles in the story while still retaining what makes the show such a delight in the first place. The only difference is, where the three previous seasons lean more towards the comedic side of the story and keep the darkness secondary, season 4 decides to do the opposite: going full in on the psychological horror of the characters’ journey by taking references from captivity dramas like Room and Misery to an unsettling effect.
The season picks up right where the show last left off last year. Dory (Alia Shawkat), Search Party’s antiheroine, is kidnapped by her stalker Chip (Cole Escola), also known as the Twink in season 3. And now it’s up to her three unreliable, equally self-absorbed friends, Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner), to bring her home. In that regard, the show has come full circle to what started everything back in season one. And it’s a brilliant way to see the characters’ growth throughout four seasons. We recently spoke to co-creator, director, and writer Sarah-Violet Bliss to talk about the season, the inspiration behind the story, and how she maintains the balance between the comedic and darkness of the season.
Congratulations on the new season! It was so good. I binged it one sitting. And I love that it comes full circle to what kicked off everything in the first season. Was this always the direction that you wanted to go when you first wrote the show, that there would be some point where everything would circle back to the event of season one?
Sarah-Violet Bliss: Oh, thank you! We actually had not thought about coming full circle when we first wrote the show. What we had thought all the way through is that there would eventually be a trial season, like in season 3. I remember when we pitched the show originally, we had some loose idea of how many seasons there might be for the show, and that the characters would go through a trial at some point. But we didn’t really have anything after that, so we didn’t think about this season coming full circle up until the end of season three when we figured out how that season finale would end. We eventually just keep writing ourselves into corners and then be like “Alright, let’s see what gonna happens next!”
What’s so interesting about the show coming full circle is that we’re allowed to see where the characters are now and where they were when the show began. So, as a writer, director, and co-creator, how do you see their journey and evolution this season?
Bliss: I would say that this season especially deals with identity for all of the four characters. There’s a whole theme with each character where all of them have sort of an alter ego. Drew goes to this amusement park where he’s a playing character as if he goes full swing into denial; in the “happy place” where he’s literally playing a prince. Portia is playing Dory. Elliott is completely switching his identity to become a conservative pundit. And Dory literally thinks she’s someone else, becoming brainwashed. She went through a complete denial last season, and then in this season, she’s really forced to completely faced who she really is and fully integrate that aspect of herself and come to terms with the multifaceted of who she is and embrace them. So I think, this exploration of identity is what we’re trying to accomplish this season in terms of the characters’ growth.
I would say that this season especially deals with identity for all of the four characters. There’s a whole theme with each character where all of them have sort of an alter ego.
I think you accomplished that really well.
Bliss: Okay, good. [laughing]
Search Party has always been about millennials and hipster culture, but this season, somehow, feels more universally resonant. It’s about people and their worst nature in general. And now with the lockdown and everything, I feel like all of us right now is Dory, being trapped in a limited space with nothing to think about except ourselves and our flaws. So how do you make of that? And what do you hope the viewers will take away from the season?
Bliss: Well, actually, I don’t know… I hope that they can enjoy it at least even though it’s a little too close to home in some ways. But yeah, I hope that they can take away from a lot of the self-reflection happening in the season. I feel with quarantine and with what Dory is going through, there may be some parallel that we can draw from the self-reflection that Dory’s forced into. But mostly, I just hope that people can enjoy the season. I don’t really have anything profound to say. [laughing]
One thing that fascinates me the most about Search Party is the balance between comedy and the darker elements. As a writer and director, how do you accomplish that balance?
Bliss: We always think that, for some reason, the darker that the show is the funnier it will be. That’s what we sorta discover along the way. We just follow our guts. If we think it’s funny, then hopefully the audience will also think it’s funny. But we sometimes also find that what we find to be funny on the page can be the complete opposite of when we’re actually shooting it, like “Oh gosh, this is actually darker than we thought.” [laughing] In the end, we just sorta take it as it comes to us and just feeling it out. We let it be what it is as the collaboration comes together.
The show has always been full of pop culture references. The first season is Nancy Drew, the second season is Hitchcock, and the third is 90s courtroom dramas and The Bling Ring. For season four, what’s the biggest influence?
Bliss: We have The Silence of the Lambs as our big influence this season. We also have Misery as an influence. And Room was an influence as well. But the two bigger influences are Misery and The Silence of the Lambs. This season is a captive drama; it’s not exactly a genre, but that’s what we keep referring to.
I wanna talk more about the performances in Search Party this season, especially Alia Shawkat. Can you tell us how do you draw that wild, breathtaking performance from her this season?
Bliss: I mean, she’s so talented, to begin with. And we just cast her. [laughing] That’s what we did, we cast the right person. But what I love about her is that she’s also really involved throughout the writing process. She’ll come into the writers’ room a couple of times and we’ll tell her where the story is heading, so she already knows early on what she’s supposed to be working with and gets excited about it. She starts thinking about the character really early on. She always gives us her thoughts about Dory and the show in general as well. You know, she’s a complicated person, and I mean that in a great way. And she brings that quality to her character. At the end of the day, aside from me directing and crafting this character through a writing process, it’s just eventually about casting the right person. She brings her own talent to it.
Yeah, she’s so talented. And speaking about talent, you have a bunch of phenomenal guest stars this season; from Susan Sarandon and Cole Escola to Ann Dowd. Can you tell us more about their characters and what can we expect from them?
Bliss: Oh yeah, they’re all just so great. Everyone that we cast is always great to work with. I think they all have a lot of fun with their characters. When we cast a talented person, they just know what to do and bring something to the table. Susan Sarandon, particularly, did such a good job of making her character, Aunt Lylah, who’s on the page can be really wild and insane, somehow a real grounded person. And her dynamic with Chip this season is just so fun to see unfold. So yeah, they’re all gonna be fun to watch, I hope.
To close our conversation, I wanna talk a little bit about the ending of Search Party, which in some ways, has done a solid job of wrapping everything up. I feel everyone, especially the core four characters, has become more self-aware of who they are. So if the show gets renewed for season five — and I hope it will — what can we expect next?
Bliss: I also hope it gets renewed. But yeah, we ended the season in such a way that makes us so excited about where it can go from here. But right now, there’s not much I can say about where it’ll all go. What I can say right now is that we already have ideas about where it might go next. But that’s it. I can’t really get into details. [laughing]
Search Party is now available on HBO Max.