Translating the anxieties of classic film noir has proved surprisingly difficult. True Detective couldn’t get over the hurdles of tragic, troubled masculinity to explore identity beyond those parameters, and Sin City and its sequel were more obsessed with reductive, hyperreal versions of its conventions and tropes. But Search Party, the new TBS sitcom created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, is in the vein of Cold Weather (as well as last year’s Wild Canaries, directed and written by Lawrence Michael Levine and also starring Search Party’s Alia Shawkat), a crossbreed of the sleuth story and an indie, quasi-mumblecore-ish and humorous style that channels the mixed messages about who you should be and how you should be that have fed themselves into young people’s consciousness.
While her group of friends—Elliott (John Early), more a self-mythologist than an actual entrepreneur; Portia (Meredith Hagner), an actress whose only great role is pretending she’s okay; and Drew (John Reynolds), the boyfriend whose workplace-ready dress shirt and tie disguise his daily helplessness—look like they have it together, Dory (Shawkat) is the only person sure she doesn’t. It’s repeated passive-aggressively by friends, with Elliott introducing her at a hip Brooklyn rooftop party as “my friend from college.” It’s not just Elliott’s narcissism talking; Dory doesn’t know who she is.
And so she fixates on trying to find a long-lost college acquaintance who has gone missing. What else has she to do, an adrift capital-M Millennial, other than look for someone she barely knew, and to reel her friends into a cornucopia of plots and theories and nonsense?
The search for Chantal initially begins as a distraction from Dory’s existential crisis, but it soon becomes central to it. There’s a touch of David Fincher’s Zodiac to the show, but Dory’s obsession with the case, even when it puts her and her friends in “danger”, is also a quest to learn about herself. She knows she’s not sure who she is, but she’s willing to question herself and try to understand what everyone else means when they ask her, “Who are you?” What she finds in the people she interrogates during her quest are versions of people who could have been her, or maybe are her: Rosie Perez as a realtor who’s losing her mind; Parker Posey as a hipster decor shop owner aimlessly telling people they look like “artists”; people with no clear future who, beneath the veneer of Brooklyn privilege, are just barely emotionally scraping by.
It feels all too easy to reduce younger people to self-absorbed, social media-addled caricatures. Which isn’t to say that these aren’t tendencies of Search Party’s millennials, but the creators have specificity on their minds. Their self-obsessiveness is, Search Party suggests, symptomatic of several intersections: the resources with which these characters have been blessed collides with the expectations that they are supposed to meet. There’s a sense that Elliott, especially, hasn’t necessarily been “coddled,” but hasn’t been pushed in any specific direction, either. Elliott’s self-description is multi-hyphenate: actor-designer-planner-etc. He is all and none of these things, squandering opportunities in spite of his opportunistic personality. The only thing he’s good at, that everyone in this group is good at except for Dory, is self-mythology. What can you be today, anyway? A storyteller, basically.
Everyone is creating some sort of self-mythology, whether it’s Elliott and his pathological lying or Portia and her ostensible contentedness at playing a character she’s clearly not right for. They live to spin, because without it, they have very little. It’s a bleak perspective to have, but it acts as a kind of ironic reply to Baby Boomers demanding they make something of themselves. In the mouths of the silver-spooned, there’s a taste of exactly what their critics asked for: a performance.
Like, it’s sad that Elliott is satisfied with manipulating the people in his life. It’s hilarious, too, because John Early is one of the sharpest comedians working today, but his obliviousness is emblematic of other characters equally stuck in their roles. He’s always on, and though there’s a performative aspect to most of what Elliott does, there’s also a deep sincerity, a desire to connect. Search Party’s writing is nuanced enough to eviscerate its characters for being superficial, and also to show how reductive such judgements are.
Bliss and Rogers gained notoriety in certain circles with their SXSW Grand Jury Prize winning film Fort Tilden, which shares Search Party’s acidic sense of humor. The caustic bite embedded in their work ads a crucial element to the way that this quasi-neo-noir works. It’s not merely a detective story, but a series that aches with palpable melancholy. The pulsating sense of being lost (literally and figuratively) informs every decision in the show, from the tight, often claustrophobia-inducing framing to the frequently wounded line readings from the cast, in particular the standout Shawkat.
The show is very frequently funny, but it is as interested in allowing its specific form of anxiety seep under the skin and break your heart. Looking for something and finding nothing—about someone else, or, more tellingly, about yourself—feels soul crushing. And all of this is the result of being told to look for something that might not be there in the first place.