It’s nearly impossible to talk about millennials without sounding completely insufferable. And yet there are few things as frequently dissected, debated, fretted about, and, lately, turned into pop-culture entertainment than the millennial generation.
But for every provocative insight or nail-on-the-head satirization on Girls or Broad City that falls on a spectrum from purely enjoyable to incredibly profound, there’s a corresponding flood of think-piece examination of those very moments that is decidedly the worst.
“Everyone feels like they have to voice something about millennials,” Alia Shawkat, the 27-old actress best known for playing Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development, tells The Daily Beast. “And that’s a very millennial quality, to talk about what they think about everything.”
And so Shawkat’s new TBS comedy Search Party arrives precariously. Here is a show about millennials that skewers millennials while quite earnestly spotlighting the challenges and anxieties of being a part of that generation—poignantly specific observations all set against the backdrop of the kind of broad generalizations and stereotypes about entitled, wayward twentysomethings we love to laugh at.
Shawkat plays Dory, a Brooklyn hipster whose meandering existence is jolted to purpose following the disappearance of a loose acquaintance she used to go to school with, Chantal Witherbottom, which is possibly the best obnoxious millennial name ever, in that it’s a name that a millennial would invent for their one-act play they’re producing at a warehouse somewhere. (And there’s plenty of that very real nonsense in Search Party.)
Over mimosas at brunch—of course—Dory asks if any of her friends remember “that girl” Chantal, who according to a blog “was pursuing a MFA in poetry when she finally achieved her goal of self-publishing her own collection of poems.”
Sassy Gay Elliott (John Early), who at one point describes his profession as “I just like projects,” recoils: “She sucked. Because she had nothing to offer. She was always brushing her hair in public. Like brush it at home, please.” Portia (Meredith Hagner) complains that Chantal was always jealous of her, but then after learning that she is missing starts to cry. Elliott tweets about the “sweet girl” missing.
Finding Chantal becomes an obsession of Dory’s, but it also serves as a bit of a wakeup call. “There’s the obvious metaphor: She’s finding this girl and finding herself at the same time,” Shawkat says. “But it’s a different kind of character than I’ve read before, someone who is kind of a wallflower, who doubts themselves, who’s insecure, who has shitty friends, a bad relationship. You don’t look at her like, ‘I want to be like her.’ She starts to find herself.”
For all the mocking of millennials we’ve become accustomed to in pop culture, there are painful gut-punch moments sprinkled throughout Monday’s premiere that remind you that even narcissistic twentysomethings face challenges, too.
Dory has spent longer than she ever intended working as an assistant to a rich New York housewife, played by Christine Taylor, who marvels, “Dory, how is it you’re so good at all the stuff no one else wants to do?” When Dory motivates herself to pursue a more exciting career opportunity, a recruiter, played by Judy Gold, stonewalls her, explaining she has no applicable skills. Teary, Dory tells her, “It’s just like everybody can tell me what I can’t do. But nobody can tell me what I can do.”
It’s another shade to the millennial experience that is almost never given attention—that sometimes having no direction isn't a choice—and one that’s made all the more interesting by having Shawkat give it life.
She has typically, and never more so than as Maeby, played the young girl wise beyond her years, the smartest one in the room. It’s fascinating to see her lost, stalled, trying to work things out and being just as clueless as the rest of us. In fact, it’s our conditioning to see her as that wise, intelligent person that makes this new turn that much more interesting.
So as a millennial playing a millennial in a show making a point about millennials, we chatted with Shawkat about that art-imitating-life hall of mirrors that, when traveled down for too long, can be littered with those “insufferable” land mines.
Shawkat, it turns out, is surprisingly game to speak for her generation’s frustrations, colored with a fair amount of insight on how they got there in the first place. Along the way, she reveals how she nearly left acting when she turned 18, but fell back in love with it by, interestingly enough, embracing her most millennial tendencies.
More, she talks about how Search Party is helping her leave Maeby and Arrested Development behind—not that she’s ever been really eager to in the first place: “It’s nothing like, ‘When will I get out of this shadow?’ It’s Arrested Development. It’s a fucking awesome thing.”
I think when the show comes out, because everyone on it is a millennial, there is going to be a lot of conversation about what it has to say about millennials. Everyone feels like…
They have to voice something about millennials? Exactly. And that’s a very millennial quality, to talk about what they think about everything.
Everyone in the show is an interesting spectrum, they’re nuanced versions of broad generalizations everyone likes to make about our generation. What kind of perspective do you think the show has on the millennial generation that’s different from how they’re usually judged?
I think another quality about millennials or hipsters is that we don’t like our own generation. Everyone’s like “millennials are the worst.” But I’m like, well that’s what you are. We hate what we’re a part of. I think there’s something about the inactivity I think that comes with the millennial generation. We’re very smart and have more access to things than any generation has before, and because of that we have this sense of confidence that is like false, maybe, sometimes.
In what way?
The sense of “I can do anything.” I can make a book, a clothing line, a blah blah blah, and even if I’m not making enough money off of it, I can put up a toothpaste ad on my Instagram. There’s something about this generation that no one before has been asked to identify who they are as much. We all have profiles, 10 different profiles that show who we are and what are our tastes. I remember having MySpace and having to choose to a wallpaper and I chose the cover of this Peaches record and was like, “This is saying a lot. People know who I am now.” And the extremity to which that’s gone where people are literally filming 10 seconds of their day every 15 seconds.
There’s also trying to tell people who we want them to think we are, then actually discovering who we are.
We all project a certain image, and I think that’s what a lot about this generation is. The strongest thing to comment on it is that there’s a lot of misguidance by people being like “this is who I am,” in all of these thousands of photos and profiles and dating apps. “This is who I am. You like this? I like that, too.” You can only get to know someone if you take the time to get to know them and the patience to get to know them. Not by quickly assessing them off of what they decided to show you. That’s what I think Search Party does. It shows the human aspect of it and not just the “hipsters wear funny glasses!” thing, you know?
There’s so much in that conversation about millennials feeling entitled or that there’s boundless opportunity. That’s why I thought this line was such a punch to the gut: “Everyone can tell me what I can’t do but no one can tell me what I can do.” That’s another accurate, but hardly talked about, shade of how millennials are treated in society.
We’re in this time when there’s not a classic stream of what kind of job you’re supposed to get, where you’re supposed to make money, how you’re supposed to make money, how you’re going to be creatively satisfied. They’re all these things that everyone has always been going through every generation: What’s my purpose? But when you have so many options, it’s hard to decide. It’s hard not to just glide along and be someone who’s a commentator instead of being active. I think the generalization that “hipsters think they can do anything they want,” it’s like, no, I don’t think they’re told what they can do.
So they don’t do anything?
So because of that they don’t decide. I think when you’re not told what it is you’re supposed to be doing, you end up lost in this mirage, getting distracted. I think it’s a distracted generation, even though it’s making so many things. And so many things about its culture. I don’t think there’s another generation that’s commented so much about its culture than ours. Maybe it’s just the forum that it’s easier to make things, like videos. Everyone is commenting on hipsters and millennials and what it means more so than the hippie generation, even. I think that’s interesting, too. Very self-aware, for better or worse. We want to talk about everything.
Do you think that listlessness, taking time to figure it out, settling for the “for now” jobs is something that people in our generation need to do, but is also something you missed out on because you were so busy and successful so young?
I think I had that still, too, though. From an outside perspective, I have been working pretty consistently since I was young. But my definition of success has varied just as anyone else’s does. To somebody else, they’re like, “Oh you’ve got it all figured out. You’ve always been working professionally doing what you love.” It’s like, yeah, I’m very lucky compared to a lot of people. But still I had a year when I turned 18 when I was like, “Do I want to do this anymore?” It’s all I’ve ever known but I’ve started to feel bitter about this industry.
What made you bitter about it?
Going up for parts to fit the certain label, to be a certain kind of girl, but I’m not that kind of girl. Playing ethnic best friends. I’m like, “Is that my road?” I was only in it because it was all I knew. So I took a year off. I started painting. I went on tour with my boyfriend. I was like, I’m going to live life and see what makes me happy. Which I think is the beautiful part, as long as you don’t get lost in it. Again, I think every generation has had that. It’s just more extreme if you talk about it a lot.
And this role is different from Arrested Development and the type we’re used to seeing you play. When you’re so attached to playing Maeby for so long, what it is like to go into casting rooms and have people think that’s all you’re capable of? You seem to be freeing yourself from that now.
I feel really lucky just to be doing interesting projects lately. And the thing with that stuff: I’m proud to have been on Arrested Development. It's nothing like, “When will I get out of this shadow?” It’s Arrested Development. It’s a fucking awesome thing. I was young on it, so it feels detached because it was so long ago. But I’m so, so proud of it. And people are going to have ideas about you no matter what the specifics. Mine’s Arrested Development. That’s not a bad specific.
Ha! Not at all.
Everyone’s gonna have their ideas or doubts about you. That’s out of my control. You have no control of what people assume. It’s more about if you change their minds or not, by not caring.
That’s hard for millennials to do.
Yeah, stop worrying what people fucking think about you all the time. That's why we're so responsive to people we deem as these icons. How they got there is they're like, "My specific ideas, I followed through with." That's what people look up to. "They're just being themselves!" Yeah! That's the only responsibility we have.