You could have blinked and missed the premiere of TBS’s dark comedy “Search Party” last month.
The network aired all 10 episodes of the show — about a group of 20-somethings that set out to find a former college classmate who disappears under mysterious circumstances — in the span of a week. That’s an unconventional way to premiere a show a network is excited about, but it’s been something of a trend this year at TBS, which debuted the first season of Rashida Jones’s slapstick-y cop procedural “Angie Tribeca,” in January as a 25-hour marathon.
At first glance, “Search Party,” whose creators include “Wet Hot American Summer” writer Michael Showalter, looks like it could be just another show about millennials. Those don’t always go over so well — Fox canceled “Cooper Barrett’s Guide to Surviving Life,” which took a reductive, bro-comedy approach to young adulthood, after just one season. Joel McHale’s CBS comedy “The Great Indoors” has been criticized for depicting millennials as entitled, sensitive and self-absorbed — cliches that caused a testy exchange at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. Lena Dunham’s “Girls” has also been called out for highlighting the same tropes through its four protagonists, though the HBO show took a major step toward true adulting last season.
A smart satire, “Search Party” doesn’t avoid these pitfalls, but rather purposefully walks right into them. Alia Shawkat (“Arrested Development”) plays Dory, who is underemployed and living with her pleasant but dull boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds) in Brooklyn (where else?). Their friend group is rounded out by Elliott (John Early), who runs a dubious water charity, and Portia (Meredith Hagner), an actress who lands her first big break playing a Latina — in a recurring, epically whitewashed role — on a crime procedural show.
In the pilot, Dory sees a missing poster for Chantal Witherbottom, a woman who lived in her college dorm. She casually brings Chantal up over brunch with Drew, Elliott and Portia, but can only manage this vague description: “She was, like, this girl. We went to college with her . . .” Elliott and Portia struggle to remember their former classmate until Dory shows them a picture. Elliott recalls that Chantal “sucked” and “had nothing to offer.” “She was always, like, brushing her hair in public,” he explains. “It’s like, brush it at home. Please.” “Right, she was always, like, around,” Portia helpfully adds. “And she was always really jealous of me.”
When Dory informs them that Chantal is missing, Drew continues to try to flag down their waiter for more ketchup. Elliott whips out his phone and tweets “In shock. Sad news about a sweet girl. Keep an eye out.”
They sound like the worst and that’s the point, but “Search Party” manages to give depth to characters that seem shallow on the surface. Hagner especially stands out as Portia, balancing her ditziness with shrewd moments. “Portia has exaggerated insecurities that I feel in my own life,” Hagner recently told Marie Claire. “I like pulling things from my life that I think are funny, or kind of sad.”
After a possible Chantal sighting, Dory becomes obsessed with finding out what happened to her. The show builds a legitimately suspenseful mystery subplot involving a shady private investigator (Ron Livingston), a possibly unhinged conspiracy theorist (Rosie Perez) and a suspected cult. But the story is really about Dory finding herself, even as her friends question why she cares so much about someone she barely knows. She has put herself at the center of someone else’s tragedy. Dory’s amateur sleuthing gives her an outlet for her time and energy, but her curiosity also comes from a place of genuine compassion — and fear about what would happen if she were the one missing.
TBS has already ordered a second season of “Search Party,” which boasts a solid 81 percent rating on Metacritic. Among its rave reviews is one from Vulture TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz, who dubbed it one of the best shows of the year — no small feat in a year of great television. “In many ways, this is the series that I always wanted ‘Girls’ to be: sharp, cooler, more exact in its choice of targets, and less inclined to beg sympathy for fundamentally unsympathetic characters,” he wrote.
The New Yorker’s Emily Nussbaum aptly summarized the show’s theme as “the danger of thinking too big when your own life feels small.” “Blending screwball fizz and sticky melancholy, [‘Search Party’] basically invents a new genre: the noir sitcom,” she declared.
“Search Party” reaches an unexpected climax in the finale, which manages to be both terrifying and hilarious, while offering the show’s most scathing satire. TBS has urged viewers to binge-watch the series on demand, which sounds like a thinly veiled appeal to millennials. It’s also a recommendation worth taking.