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In Praise of the Millennial TV Show

How ‘Search Party’ and ‘American Vandal’ nailed the way a generation consumes and regurgitates pop culture

Stills from ‘Search Party’ and ‘American Vandal’ Netflix/TBS/Ringer illustration

In the second episode of the first season of the TBS show Search Party, someone a little bit older than our protagonist, Dory, asks her a terrifying question: “What do you do?” Knowing how much weight the answer to that question is supposed to carry — how succinctly it is supposed to sum up her entire identity — she looks down at the lid of her deli coffee cup and grasps for a few words that do not sound totally pathetic. “I, uh, work as an assistant … to a lady who’s … married,” Dory (Alia Shawkat) stammers, then lets it go with a sigh. “It’s pretty meaningless. I’m just tired of things that don’t matter.”

Search Party — which returns to TBS this Sunday for a triumphantly ante-upped second season — was one of the best new shows of last year, and, perhaps more than any television show since Girls, you could hardly read a headline about it without encountering the word “millennial.” “A Millennial Private Eye on ‘Search Party,’” went the headline of Emily Nussbaum’s rave review in The New Yorker; The A.V. Club called it “a captivating Nancy Drew mystery for millennials.” Wrote Kathryn Shattuck in The New York Times: “With its Brooklyn vibe and whiff of self-absorption, ‘Search Party’ was devised with millennials in mind.” If you hear a particular word enough, it has been scientifically proved that the word really does lose its meaning — I know this because I am a millennial who just Googled it — and as such I am perpetually on the verge of creating a browser extension that replaces all uses of the word “millennial” with, say, “Beetlejuice.”

And yet, this elusive word also feels (for once) like an apt descriptor of this show, particularly of the emotional pull of a scene like the one described above. As Dory sits in the deli, there’s a strange brew of inward- and outward-directed frustration: She is self-deprecating, but she’s also irritated at a world that has not made much room for her to figure out who she is or do anything meaningful with her life without ridiculing her for being “entitled” when she dares to say she wants to do something that she finds fulfilling. Search Party is one of those shows that is attuned to the nuances of modern life without being annoying about it. When it stumbles upon larger existential truths, and it occasionally does, it has the appealing and perhaps quintessential millennial air of having arrived at them by accident.

The first season of Search Party chronicled the disappearance of Chantal Witherbottom, a girl with whom Dory and her social circle were vaguely acquainted in college. (In the pilot, the news that Chantal is missing briefly harshes the vibe of their brunch; by the time the check arrives, everyone but Dory has forgotten about it.) Everyone in her crew is experiencing the particular form of vertigo that happens, generally in a person’s 20s, when they look down into the gap between the life they have and the life they want. Dory’s boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), went to business school but is still broke and stuck in a low-level internship; Portia (Meredith Hagner) is an aspiring actress who’s tired of being compared with her overachieving sister with a “real job”; Elliott (John Early, hilarious) is so bored by his own life story that he feels the need to embellish it. (In one bitingly funny scene, he lays claim to some traumas “that I maybe felt were a part of my journey but I didn’t necessarily experience.”)

Walking a fine line between comedy and suspense, Search Party is also a sharp meditation on the fun-house-mirror effect of social media: how performative grief and even friendship have become in the digital age; how much closer everybody seems on Facebook and Instagram than they are in real life; and, especially for Dory, how easy it is to become obsessed from afar with the life of someone you haven’t talked to in years. She becomes entangled in the mystery of Chantal — but how could she not? We are all amateur detectives now, Googling strangers before job interviews and first dates, scouring their digital footprints as if they will unlock all the secrets of their messy, flesh-and-blood lives.

“I think you’ve decided this matters to you because you have … nothing else,” Dory’s ex-boyfriend tells her — a jab that wounds her deeply enough to leave the room, because it is true. And yet, as the show progresses, Dory becomes thrilled by this development. “Looking for Chantal” turns from Dory’s side hustle to (emotionally speaking, anyway) her full-time job. It has — for better and worse — given her a much more compelling answer to, “What do you do?”

“It’s this silly trope in which she’s searching for someone while searching for herself,” Shawkat said last year in an interview. “But not only does she find her own voice and follow her own instinct, she gets carried away and becomes a narcissist.”

For at least the first half of the first season, the main characters of Search Party seemed to walk around in the liminal fog. Few of their actions carried consequences; Brooklyn was a place where nothing ever happened. In Season 2, though, reality finally catches up with them. Anyone who saw the thrilling finale saw this coming; without giving too much away, the violence that had up until that point in the show been projected or just suggested became suddenly real. Search Party’s second season is still funny as hell, but it’s also darker and more plot-heavy than the first season. It’s like a twisted take on the sort of line you can picture Portia or Elliott exclaiming in happier times: “It’s all happening!”

One of the many odd things about being alive right now — the time of Peak TV, YouTube celebrities, and the Podcast Boom — is that it so often feels like there are far more platforms for telling an interesting story than there are interesting stories left untold. The world becomes distorted when everything that happens can become a 15-episode investigation, a tweetstorm, or an annotated ebook.

The characters of Search Party exist in this world: They have the feel of people who grew up with marathons of CSI constantly running in the background, of people who listen to podcasts at increased speeds to maximize their cultural consumption. In its own oblique way, Search Party turns out to be about this feeling of cultural bloat, while blessedly minimizing its contribution to it: At 10 21-ish-minute episodes per season, it is decidedly economical. (Blessed be the few things we can say that about anymore.) The brilliance of this show lies in the way it gestures down the rabbit hole while its feet are still planted safely on the ground. In the first season, a woman who might have information on Chantal’s disappearance turns out to just be an eccentric. A talisman that may have signified membership to a cult turns out to just be a piece of jewelry someone thought was pretty. Such are the pitfalls of a time when everyone has the tools to become an amateur detective, says Search Party: Too often we see mystery where there is none. Not everything needs to be a podcast or a multipart investigation. Sometimes a necklace is just a necklace. Sometimes Richard Simmons just didn’t feel like talking to anybody for a little while.

While watching some of the new episodes, I thought often of another excellent new show that premiered between Search Party’s first and second seasons: Netflix’s American Vandal. It, too, is a strangely empathic satire of the modern, technologically fueled impulse to Read Way Too Much Into Everything. Filmed to look like a true-crime documentary shot by the members of a California high school’s A/V club, American Vandal is structured like a murder mystery but instead investigates, over a hilariously painstaking eight episodes, who spray-painted some dicks on the cars in the faculty parking lot. The structure is at once comedic and emotionally precise: When you’re a teenager, even the most trivial stories feel like melodramatic epics that deserve to be analyzed from every angle and stretched over several consecutive diaries.

American Vandal and Search Party are, to date, the two smartest shows about both the creative thrills and the emotional fatigue of the digital age. And although the kids of Hanover High are almost a decade younger than Dory and her cohort, they share the same kind of obsessive impulse to tell stories, to creatively read into evidence, to believe in the mirage. It’s at once unsettling and entirely familiar. Maybe that is the quintessential character of millennial imagination — to become so tired of the banal world that you’re forced to search for meaning in the unlikeliest of places.