Search Party Season 5 (HBOMax)
Written by Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers, Starlee Kine, Andrew Pierce Fleming & Matt Kriete, and Craig Rowin
Directed by John Lee, Heather Jack, Sarah-Violet Bliss & Charles Rogers
I have been watching Search Party since its debut on TBS in 2016, and it has consistently been a show that felt like every season could be it’s last. And with each renewal, the series found a way to reinvent itself. First, it started out as a murder mystery, then a dark Dostoyesfy-ian drama, a courtroom trial show, a show about a psychotic stalker, and now finally, the fifth season. This final entry is a wild mix of different genres and tones, fully relinquishing any sense of grounding previous seasons might have had. This turn into cartoonish-ness might not sit well with everyone, but it does remain consistent in one way: examining and mocking the vapidity of privileged people.
Dory Seif (Alia Shawkat) has had a near-death experience, leading to her expressing a sense of enlightenment. It is reasonable that her trio of close friends Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner) don’t immediately believe her because she’s been shown to be a cold-blooded manipulator in the past. There’s a sense of the apocalypse throughout these episodes. Elliott and his partner have adopted a child straight out of The Omen while tech-zillionaire Tunnel Quinn (Jeff Goldblum) attempts to manufacture a pill that will bring people pure happiness. Dory, working alongside Quinn, becomes a cult leader after six social media influencers are chosen through a contest to be part of her enlightenment program.
Series creators Bliss & Rogers are reveling in the messiness of this arc, not letting themselves be held back by audience expectations. The first and second seasons were darker, slightly realistic but still heightened. Those valleys were necessary so that things could become truly unhinged later down the road. At one point in this season, Drew follows up on some clues and has a short-lived encounter with a group of people in their 40s or 50s engaged in an It-style child pact against an evil entity. It’s implied that the being they thought they had expelled from this plane is now influencing Dory, providing her with a false sense of peace to lead her down a destructive path. The show never confirms this, but Dory’s fancy pill does end up bringing out about the zombie apocalypse in the season’s final episodes.
There isn’t any urgency to psycho-analyze these deeply self-involved people. It’s not a show that’s interested in being prestige television, rather something funny and very satirical. Bliss & Rogers are much more intrigued to see how far these narcissists can go before they are forced to self-reflect. The answer is that there really isn’t a point where they will ever truly stop and survey the damage. Even as the cult members turn into flesh-eating zombies and New York City is turned into a prison with checkpoints, they still ruminate on where to go for brunch. In the final shot of the series, we see that Dory is starting the cycle again on an even potentially grander scale. It would be no fun for these people to learn much and permanently change. They are far more entertaining to watch sink into the quicksand of hipster arrogance.
There isn’t really a way to wrap up a show like this in a way that satisfies everyone. I fully expect that season five was not received positively by other people who had been on board since the beginning. There are sub-plots here that simply go nowhere and should have been cut. Elliott’s horror story with his adopted child starts out promising but as the core plot of Dory and her cult takes up more time, this amusing subplot dissolves into the background. It’s referenced again in the finale in a way that seems that the writers know it needs clarification before the final credits roll.
Handled slightly better is Chantal’s (Clare McNulty) storyline this season. She was the character that kicked off the whole series by going missing, a forgotten acquaintance from Dory’s college days that she turned into her crusade. Since being discovered at the end of season one, Chantal has wandered around in her own stories, which has led to her becoming involved with a conspiracy theorist (Kathy Griffin). I thought this whole storyline was unnecessary, but it ends up becoming a beautiful way to tie a bow on the entire run. Dory and Chantal end up being dependent on each other in one of the most long-running favors to ever be paid off. It feels like a fun punchline to a five-season joke and works even better when paired with Dory’s reaction to a wall full of missing posters in the now zombie-fied New York City.
Search Party captured a particular viewpoint of the Trump era, a collapse of the comfortable 2010s into a nightmarish new decade. Bliss & Rogers managed to find humor in some incredibly dark topics and didn’t hesitate to make their lead a very reprehensible person. It was all underscored with a lack of learning; none of the key quartet ever learns anything. They just find ways to blame everything outside of themselves, and they never attempt to help each other out. Instead, Elliott becomes a spokes piece for a far right-wing analog to Fox and Portia goes from young aspiring actress to bitter “veteran” leading acting classes. There’s no integrity, just positioning oneself to best benefit. It’s not the happiest sentiment but true nonetheless.