Entertainment

How 'Search Party' Changed with the Times

The millennial murder comedy heads into a new era on HBO Max.

search party, alia shawkat
Alia Shawkat as Dory | HBO Max
Alia Shawkat as Dory | HBO Max

Warning: This article contains spoilers for all three seasons of the HBO Max series Search Party. Proceed with caution. You can also read a recap of where Season 2 left off or, if you've finished Season 3, our recap of the finale and what it means for Season 4.

The age of the millennial is over. The men and women who, until recently, were mostly just scolded by boomers for their perceived entitlement are now being roasted by ascendant Gen Z all over the internet. This is all to say that the murder comedy Search Party is returning to a much different world than when the show first arrived in 2016.

"I think about the innocence of those characters at brunch in the first episode of the whole series having no clue ethat their world is about to totally spiral and fall apart," says John Early, who plays Elliott, in a recent phone conversation. "And I think about us as actors having no clue about, you know, Trump getting elected or COVID. It was really not that long ago that we were, like, aware of climate change being potentially catastrophic and we were certainly becoming more and more aware online about social justice, but I don't think any of us knew it would explode in this way all at the same time."

The passage of time has turned the show — created by Charles Rodgers, Sarah-Violet Bliss, and Michael Showalter for TBS before moving over to parent company Warner Media's streaming platform HBO Max for Season 3 — into something much darker than initially planned. And it was plenty dark already in its first season and 2017 follow-up: Dory (Alia Shawkat), an aimless hipster who takes it upon herself to look for a missing college acquaintance, only to find herself, her boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) and their friends Elliott (Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) caught up in murder investigation of their own creation. Season 3 finds Dory and Drew standing trial for the murder of Keith Powell (Ron Livingston) while Elliott and Portia try not to get implicated themselves. It's spectacularly funny but also much harder to laugh at. These assholes' obliviousness, particularly Dory's, is now painted as aggressively evil.

search party john early
John Early as Elliott | HBO Max

"I think the murder of Keith — and I don't think this was [the showrunners'] intention from the beginning, because how could it be, but maybe it was, who knows? — and them trying to keep the darkness of that at bay over the course of the series, has as the world has changed become a metaphor for deliberate white self-deception," Early says. "You can only keep this stuff at bay for so long. This is like the first time we're actually really feeling that. If we keep fighting, centering it in our conversations, this is the first time we're feeling it's not gonna go away. Like we can't just check in with the horrors of the world, the horrors of capitalism, once every two years and then get back to our UCB level four class, you know?"

Exasperated, Early has been finding it difficult to promote the new season without talking about the ongoing Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality and systemic racism. ("You're only allowed to watch the show if you are in fact resting up from the fight for Black liberation," he says.) But he believes there's a certain resonance in watching people who don't know the extent of their privilege getting put through hell right now. "We don't have a lot of options beyond, like, viral Karen vids right now to kind of feel that sense of like collective catharsis, you know? And those are all like 30 seconds to a minute, so I think it's like a real gift to the culture actually, like, to get to spend multiple seasons like watching these people actually get tested."

The second season ends with Dory being arrested in the middle of a campaign rally for her employer, and Season 3 picks up right after the cliffhanger. She's in the back of a cop car headed to the precinct, where she'll take a saucy mugshot that turns her into a true-crime celebrity, but decides to double down on her innocence instead of telling the truth, even though she's very clearly guilty of, at minimum, covering up Keith's death. "It's definitely not sweet, old Dory anymore [going] 'Poor me,'" says Shawkat. "She's definitely changing and just caring about herself and snapping into this survival mode of not knowing how to see clearly anymore. But I think what's fascinating about her as a character is, she's always been this way." Dory's always been an attention-seeker. Now she has paparazzi at her door and a stalker sending her a creepy doll.

search party trial
Shawkat and John Reynolds, with Shalita Grant | HBO Max

But even as Dory becomes increasingly duplicitous and diabolical, the show manages to remain genuinely hilarious. A courtroom sequence in which the words "pancake" and "murder" are mixed up is uproarious. Shawkat is happy the joke still works, given that they filmed the season in 2018 when the internet was still debating "laurel vs. yanny." There are also brilliant performances from Louie Anderson, Michaela Watkins, and Shalita Grant as lawyers in the case. "The courtroom scenes are really tedious to shoot," Shawkat says. "And we were in this courtroom with no air. It's not the most 'we'll just shoot this scene in the park.' But it was just so fun to watch Michaela and Shalita and Louie. It kind of felt like more of a performance. We'd still be laughing after every take."

Elsewhere, Elliott, a pathological liar, gets an extravagant wedding and goes toe-to-toe with a Tomi Lahren-like conservative talk show host played by Saturday Night Live's Chloe Fineman. "I tweeted before we shot season three that I wanted to play Milo Yiannopoulos in an HBO film," says Early. "That was a goal of mine. I was like, 'if anyone wants to write that.' And then Charles and SV immediately contacted me and said, 'We're not kidding, we've written a storyline in season three where [you] become like Milo.'"

Search Party is the rare comedy that feels rooted in the real world — specifically a subsection of gentrified Brooklyn — while also seeming sort of timeless. "Season 1 there are no stakes, it's sort of this millennial ennui and we're in and out of our lives and it's uncomfortable," Reynolds explains. "And then post-murder, everything is stressful, and in three we're seeing the court and we're seeing a drab realistic setting of how people's lives really are. It's not just like loosey goosey, "we like iced coffees.'" 

"Though we still did like iced coffees," adds Shawkat. "I'd love one right now."

Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Esther Zuckerman is a senior entertainment writer at Thrillist. Follow her on Twitter @ezwrites.