No one expected Search Party to end with a zombie apocalypse, least of all its creators. The satire has repeatedly reinvented itself through five seasons on two different platforms. When the series first premiered on TBS in 2016, it was a lighthearted mystery: Dory (Alia Shawkat), an aimless millennial living in Brooklyn, learns NYU classmate Chantal (Clare McNulty) has gone missing and fixates on finding her, which gives Dory a new direction for her directionless life. Once Dory finds out Chantal was never missing at all, just on a digital detox she forgot to tell her loved ones about, Search Party continued to evolve. In Season 3, the show was a courtroom drama with Dory and her ex-boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) on trial for killing a PI. In Season 4, it was a take on Misery, depicting Dory’s captivity in the home of an obsessed stalker, Chip (Cole Escola). Every chapter was part spoof, part tragedy—but always different, tracing Dory’s moral decay one genre at a time.
For its fifth and final season, though, Search Party takes its biggest leap yet, into the outright supernatural. The show, an extended, unflattering portrait of yuppie malaise, has always lived in a heightened version of our current dystopia; one subplot finds Dory’s friend Elliott (John Early), a pathological liar fond of statement suits, selling his soul to a Fox News–type network and launching a line of branded guns. But this season, which launched in full on HBO Max last Friday, picks up after a spectacular Season 4 finale that could’ve ended the series altogether—but instead served as an intriguing cliff-hanger.
In that episode’s final minutes, Dory asphyxiates during a house fire and has a vision of her own funeral. After seeing what her frantic quest for meaning has come to—i.e., not much—Dory wakes up in the back of an ambulance. “I saw everything,” she gasps. At first, this sounds like the beginnings of self-awareness and Dory finally accepting she’s responsible for her own unhappiness, not to mention the multiple deaths she’s caused throughout the series. But change is hard, and Dory emerges from her near-death experience more deluded than ever.
Dory’s final incarnation is a soft-spoken, white-robed spiritual guru, the kind who preaches to her followers via Instagram Live. She wants everyone to experience the epiphany she had at death’s door, so Dory partners with billionaire Tunnel Quinn (Jeff Goldblum) to develop enlightenment in a pill, recruiting a fleet of influencers as high-profile guinea pigs. To no one’s surprise, the pill doesn’t help the masses reach nirvana; to everyone’s surprise, it turns them into zombies instead—slow-walking, flesh-eating, dead-eyed zombies. The show that started as a hipster take on The Long Goodbye ends closer to 28 Days Later.
“Yeah, that was not what we were thinking at all when we started Search Party,” says Sarah-Violet Bliss, who cocreated the series with Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter. Prior to the show, Bliss and Rogers had established their Brooklyn bona fides with Fort Tilden, the 2014 indie film about a chaotic day trip to the beach. But while Search Party always stayed true to its L train roots, it also grew into something bigger and stranger than a place-based parody. “Every time we started a new season, it was different than we expected it to be,” Bliss explains. “I also just remember someone telling me, ‘You’ve got to go out with a bang,’” advice she clearly took to heart. But as off-the-wall as a zombie outbreak may be, Bliss says she and Rogers felt it was in line with a story about antiheroes who refuse to accept responsibility for their actions, however catastrophic: “It just felt really fun. Like, these characters would cause the apocalypse and still be in denial of that.”
On its way to that dramatic conclusion, Search Party takes aim at a slew of new targets, packing a series’ worth of big swings into its final episodes. Goldblum’s Quinn is a proxy for tech moguls like Elon Musk and promises utopia to boost his own stock price; Chantal falls under the spell of Liquorice Montague (Kathy Griffin), a raving conspiracy theorist whose ideas aren’t far from those of real-life movements like QAnon. But the primary themes of Season 5 dovetail perfectly with a show about lonely, alienated young adults desperate for meaning and purpose: wellness, spirituality, and the Goop-adjacent tension between high-minded ideals and the crass business of acquiring—and monetizing—a mass following.
Rogers and Bliss cite a wide range of inspirations for Dory’s new calling, from New Age standbys like Deepak Chopra to more obscure figures like trauma healer Teal Swan to bird enthusiast turned presidential candidate Marianne Williamson. More than any ideology, the pair were intrigued by the contradictions of spirituality in the social media age. “You cannot transcend humanity,” Rogers says. “And even if you say you are, it speaks to a persona you want to show off to the world, or a point you want to prove to either yourself or other people.
“It just feels very Search Party for you to never really know what the truth of Dory is and also what the ultimate truth of people is either,” he adds. There’s also something inherently ridiculous about preaching mindfulness on the same apps we scroll for hours at a time to avoid being mindful. “They all have Instagram accounts!” Bliss says. “There’s just something about it that feels not enlightened.” Sometimes, the irony isn’t even that subtle. Bliss points out that yogi and psychedelic evangelist Ram Dass died in 2019, but his “legacy account” still posts almost daily.
Dory’s Zen persona is just the latest example of Search Party’s specialty, and hopefully its legacy: generational satire whose punches actually land. Economically squeezed and culturally condescended to, millennials are stuck between boomers who accuse us of “killing” everything from golf to mayonnaise and zoomers who roast us on TikTok. But just because the jokes about avocado toast and Harry Potter get old doesn’t mean there isn’t some truth to broader stereotypes. Of course the first cohort to come of age on social media has a narcissistic streak; of course the decline of institutions like churches and homeownership leaves us scrambling for answers.
In highlighting these trends, Search Party can be scathing, but its skepticism always feels warranted—not to mention well-informed. “I think the way that we’ve made it work is that we rarely reference people, places, or things that are en vogue,” Rogers says of the show’s approach to social commentary. “It’s more about human behavior. And there’s something about that that ends up feeling more timeless.” To those in the know, there are oblique references to figures like right-wing reactionary Tomi Lahren, roller-skating TikToker Ana Coto, and the countless alt comedians who appear in memorable bit parts. (This season’s cameos include Julio Torres and Joe Pera, plus iconic director John Waters.) But for the most part, Search Party sticks to its central story, which is damning enough on its own. By the time Dory and Chantal argue over who deserves credit for ending civilization as we know it, the absurdity speaks for itself.
Search Party plays out like a dark twist on a coming-of-age story, one in which self-knowledge comes at a terrible price. In the final scene, Dory and Drew stage the world’s saddest wedding in an abandoned Broadway theater with Elliott and Portia doubling as witnesses and entertainment. The friends know they enable each other, but they’re also stuck together for eternity. “The series ends with them all in a place of resignation, to themselves and to the consequences of their actions,” Rogers says. “There’s a Wizard of Oz layer in it, too. They’re all getting a version of what they want at the end of the show, but it’s not what they had hoped it would be.”
Off-screen, though, Search Party has a happier arc. After starting on a smaller network like TBS, the show survived long enough to cross into an entirely new era of TV. Search Party was transferred to HBO Max in 2020 to boost its parent company’s new streaming service and therefore became accessible to a much wider audience—including the very cord-cutting millennials who can most appreciate its humor. “I’ve had high school friends be like, ‘I’m watching Search Party!’ And it’s like, ‘Well, it’s five years later, but OK,’” Rogers says, laughing. Like most streaming services, HBO Max doesn’t share specific numbers, even with its talent, but there are signs Search Party is considered a success. “We have heard it’s a ‘top performer,’” Bliss explains.
While Dory may not end Search Party in a much better place than where she started, it’s been a more clear-cut boon to Rogers and Bliss. The two are signed to an overall deal with HBO Max to develop new TV projects; they’re also set to write and direct a monster movie about an A-list actress who terrorizes her personal assistant. It’s a fitting follow-up to the final season of Search Party, itself a kind of monster movie in an unlikely setting. Having captured their stomping grounds so accurately, Rogers and Bliss then got the chance to transform it entirely. “It did feel very cool seeing a tank and hundreds of extras and all these military people setting up on Kent [Avenue] in Williamsburg,” Rogers recalls. “Having lived in Williamsburg … it felt meaningful in a bucket-list kind of way.”