“Search Party” takes time to find its groove in season 4

Search Party Season 4 Search Party (HBO Max)

The dark comedy continues to be an excellent exploration of millennial ennui in its transition to HBO Max.

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Search Party began as a mystery of the disappearance of a young woman named Chantal Winterbottom (Clare McNulty). But as the show goes on, it evolves into something much smarter: a biting drama of millennials ennui and an exploration of self, with satirical jokes of hipster culture thrown into the mix. Questions of identity, what our goals are in life often get asked here and there, sometimes comically and some other times in a dark and affecting fashion. And season 4 (premiered this Thursday on HBO Max), though it kicks off weakly, continues that tradition of excellence by delving even deeper into the show’s darkest territory.

The last time we saw Dory (Alia Shawkat), Search Party’s self-absorbed and manipulative protagonist, she was just getting away from a murder she’s clearly guilty of. But before she can breathe for the first time in a while and taste the fame she’s got from the trial, another storm is coming her way. Her stalker, Chip Wreck (Cole Escola), also known as the Twink in season 3, kidnaps her. His motivation? He just wants to be her BFF. And in order to accomplish that, he holds Dory captive in his basement and tries to brainwash her into hating her friends — Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), Portia (Meredith Hagner) — and to make her think that she’s just a victim all this time. 

While Dory is being held captive with nothing to think about except her past mistakes, things have changed on the outside. All her friends, unaware of Dory’s kidnapping, have moved on. Her on-and-off boyfriend, the soft-boy Drew, has found a new job at a theme park and even has a new girlfriend. Elliott, meanwhile, is considering to change his political belief in order to maintain his fame. And Portia is ready to take on a new challenge: playing Dory in a movie about her trial. Though the performances from the ensemble are all still marvelous  — especially Hagner, who offers wit and pathos even in the most ridiculous scene — these individual storylines are not that engaging, mostly because it feels like a repetition of what happened in the previous seasons.

Search Party Season 4
Search Party (HBO Max)

One of the greatest pleasures of watching Search Party lies in the chemistry between the core four characters, but in the first few episodes of season 4, the show fails to recapture that magic. In fact, so much of what’s going on in the season happens separately; it feels like the show wants to see what will happen if these four entitled millennials are divorced from the toxicity that has tied them for quite some time. While this sounds like an interesting area to dive into, the show, unfortunately, struggles to find some deeper meaning from it. We still don’t know what Drew, Elliott, and Portia really think of Dory after the trial. We still have no idea why Drew is still so loyal to Dory even after being hurt by her way too many times. And all these narrative flaws, make the first half of the season pretty uneven.

The season, fortunately, starts to improve on the fifth episode, when Drew realizes that there might be something more sinister behind Dory’s absence and decides to band up, once again, with Elliott and Portia to find out the truth. In that regard, the season comes full circle to what started everything, only now the narrative is flipped. The searcher is the one missing, and it’s now up to her three equally narcissistic friends to find her. It’s a smart way to trace down the growth of the characters, to compare where they are now with where they were when the show began. And much like in season one, the mechanic of the search and the paranoia that comes with it are secondary to the relationship between the characters.

In fact, it’s through the journey of finding Dory where the show gets to finally deepen the characters, forcing them to start becoming more self-aware of themselves and the mistakes they did in the past. The ninth episode “The Inferno,” in particular, is a standout for this case. We see Drew, Elliott, and Portia, exhausted and broken, admitting their flaws and deep-rooted insecurities for the first time in four seasons. “I’m a person playing a person playing a person. And it’s all because of fear,” Elliott confesses tragically. 

As the show goes on, it evolves into something much smarter: a biting drama of millennials ennui and an exploration of self, with satirical jokes of hipster culture thrown into the mix.

What’s more, Dory’s storylines in the last two episodes of the season succeeds at not only making us recalibrate our opinions on Dory and the other characters, but also about ourselves and the facade we use to hide our flaws. These moments of emotional vulnerability, which the show’s creators and writers — Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter — hits brilliantly at every note, have been parts of the reason why Search Party is so different and even much better than their spiritual cousins, the other millennials show like Girls or High Maintenance. And the final two episodes of the season drills home that notion excellently.

Still, the best part of Search Party remains Shawkat’s performance. It’s almost unbelievable to observe her process of transforming Dory every season, but this season, in particular, marks another high in her career. She manages to display Dory’s fear while still providing her with tenacity and humor. Watching her navigating the new world she’s subjected into in the season is like witnessing a masterclass in acting. The guest stars, which includes Ann Dowd as Chip’s nosy neighbor and Susan Sarandon as Aunt Lylah, also give such a memorable turn despite only appearing in one or two episodes. Also like the previous three seasons, there’s still a lot of pop culture references to be found here and there. The Silence of the Lambs and Misery are the two most obvious, making the season downright unsettling to a point where it becomes frightening to watch.

While it starts off unevenly, Search Party season 4 continues to be one of the funniest, most entertaining shows on TV right now. Almost all the satirical jokes are still on-point. The performances from the cast are still uniformly phenomenal too. And it remains an enthralling case study of genre-bending storytelling and generational commentary. Let’s hope if the show gets renewed for season 5, it won’t need too much time to find its groove.

Search Party is now available on HBOMax.

Search Party Season 4 Trailer:

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