The first season of mystery-comedy Search Party was a pleasant, if tart, surprise. With its well-calibrated combination of genuine suspense and sharp-edged satire, the TBS show became a late-breaking addition to many year-end best-of lists and a well-deserved vehicle for Alia Shawkat, 13 years after her breakout role as Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development. Shawkat played Dory Sief, a 20-something Brooklynite who finds an outlet for her post-college ennui in a missing-persons case involving a former classmate. Over a 10-episode first season (which TBS helpfully made available in full to binge over Thanksgiving 2016), Dory recruited her reluctant boyfriend and indifferent best friends to a makeshift, amateur detective squad, heading up a hunt that took them all the way to Montreal.
Here is where you ought to stop reading if you haven’t finished Search Party’s first season, because it’s only in Montreal that the blackness of the show’s comedy fully revealed itself. We learned early in the first season that Dory and her crew—#influencer and pathological liar Elliott (John Early), actress Portia (Meredith Hagner), mopey sellout Drew (John Reynolds)—were self-obsessed millennial stereotypes living out an extended adolescence. But then it’s revealed that the MIA Chantal (Clare McNulty) was too. Instead of being involved in some larger scheme, Chantal had simply dipped out to a friend’s aunt’s vacation house to unplug and re-center herself, letting her parents spiral into a panic in the process. It was the perfect punch line to what retroactively looked like a sick joke on Dory and her sleuthing-as-projection. An accidental killing in the finale’s last minutes became the rotten cherry on top—locking in a cliffhanger, elevating the stakes, and curdling the tone of Chantal’s recovery from bittersweet to just plain bitter.
TBS won’t be replicating last year’s all-at-once release model this time, possibly because Season 2’s literal life-or-death quandaries make the plot much more spoiler-prone. But as of this week, four episodes are already available to inhale and make for an ideal mini-marathon for those who miss last year’s addictive, serialized rush. Over those first installments, Search Party has already presented a more evolved, more vicious, and even more suspenseful version of itself, one where Dory’s missteps have real consequences as well as whip-smart joke potential.
Search Party is cocreated by comedian and director Michael Showalter (Wet Hot American Summer, The Big Sick) in conjunction with Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, the duo behind the 2014 indie comedy Fort Tilden. (Following two bratty gentrifiers on a day trip to the namesake Instagram magnet, Tilden shares Search Party’s fine-tuned ear for the oblivious entitlement that abounds in 21st-century Brooklyn.) From the beginning, Search Party had a more nuanced and native understanding of young urbanites’ social tics than the usual reflexive, boomer-authored jokes about participation trophies and avocado toast. With hashtagged prayer vigils and a character who turns his public shaming into a book deal in the time it takes to snap a selfie, it was clear the FaceTime was coming from inside the house.
But in the aftermath of Chantal’s resurfacing, Search Party’s second season also allows for a heightened contrast between what many of its characters consider problems and the ever-worsening predicament that Dory and Co. find themselves in. The dead body they’ve zipped into a zebra-patterned suitcase belongs to Keith (Ron Livingston), the shady private eye with whom Dory had once hunted for Chantal—and cheated on Drew. His murder, which followed a violent confrontation, eliminates any shred of moral high ground Dory once might have been able to claim; it also ramps up Search Party’s plot from a thinly veiled quest for meaning to a frantic scramble to avoid life in prison. As Dory puts it in an early Season 2 episode (in a statement so fitting TBS repurposed it as the show’s new tagline), “I miss when my problems were about nothing.”
Bliss and Rogers immediately seize on that juxtaposition—self-pity on the one hand, a dead body on the other—as a dependable comic engine. “It’s a shame I never want to go back to Montreal again,” Portia blithely remarks once everyone’s not-so-safely back in New York, “It was pretty cute.” John Early’s performance as Elliott, already a standout, proves the perfect vehicle for a newly twisted strain of humor. During a meeting with his publisher, played by Early’s real-life friend and comedy partner Kate Berlant, Elliott’s murder-related stress starts to manifest in alarming and physical ways. “THAT MOMENT WHEN YOUR HAIR FALLS OUT???” he screams, frantically overcompensating by attempting once more to turn his own humiliation into #content. As the cover-up escalates, Early gets the chance to flex his physical comedy chops in more and more extreme ways; as Maya Rudolph could tell you, there are few showcases better than a good pants-shitting pantomime. Elliott is, objectively, Search Party’s worst person, a man who once claimed he had late-stage cancer and shamelessly manipulated strangers’ pity for pageviews. We already knew that; what Season 2 adds is a premise that brings out the sheer depth of his depravity.
But Search Party’s parody only works because contempt isn’t the only stance it holds toward its characters and their peers. Throughout the season’s first episodes, Dory repeatedly tries to assure herself that despite what she’s done, she’s still a good person. “We’re not murderers,” she whispers in the immediate aftermath of the event that would seem to prove otherwise. Later, she observes that “there is something deeply, deeply disturbing” about Chantal abandoning her friends and family: “It’s kind of the worst thing you could do.” Dory’s done some messed-up stuff in the name of self-actualizing, but she hasn’t done that.
Shawkat’s performance keeps Dory sympathetic in spite of her many failings, not to mention some truly incompetent efforts at covering her tracks. She may not be capable of articulating it, but Dory has at least grown dissatisfied enough with the inanity of her life to try to look outside it by committing herself to a cause. (That commitment may have had more to do with herself than Chantal, but she still makes an effort, which is more than her friends can say.) Dory is also genuinely haunted by what she’s done; Shawkat plays this state of mind with stammering, shell-shocked awkwardness whenever her character is brought face-to-face with the family Keith left behind, or with the extent to which she’s implicated and alienated her own loved ones. Search Party may be unparalleled at depicting obnoxious Williamsburg dwellers in general; it’s also a finely wrought character study of one in particular, and it’s Dory who keeps the viewer from changing the channel out of sheer disgust.
Search Party has successfully widened its full emotional spectrum, becoming simultaneously more funny and more somber in ways that feel complementary rather than at cross-purposes. Throughout the first season, I remember having the distinct impression that while I couldn’t tell where its mystery was headed, I knew it was heading somewhere. I just didn’t know that somewhere would be six feet under, a twist that initially came as a shock to viewers who thought they’d bought into a savage yet low-stakes snapshot of the times. Now that Search Party is here, though, it feels right at home.