From Brunch to Murder: How ‘Search Party’ Became the Best Millennial TV Show
After two-and-a-half years, a network change, and a murder-trial twist, “Search Party” finally returns. We go inside the making of TV’s cleverest, darkest take on millennials yet.
Cramped in dusty chambers tucked in the labyrinth of the Bronx County Courthouse—one of those grand, Art Deco monoliths of marble seemingly made for filming movies and TV—Search Party creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers are taking a break from shooting and talking about a red dress. As in, the red dress.
In the season two finale of Search Party, the show’s lead, Alia Shawkat’s Dory, is arrested on a murder charge. It was a shocking twist for a series that had thus far not only depicted the criminal misdeeds of a group of Brooklyn millennials, but how they kept getting away with it.
If the moment was already dramatically breathtaking, then there was that dress.
The vintage ’80s floral number was procured by costume designer Matthew Simonelli on the Etsy shop Harlow’s Vintage. Its swirls of crimson and black resemble blood dripped across a Rorschach inkblot test, a sartorial choice that itself might reveal certain personality traits in the kind of woman who would select it.
As Search Party cemented its transition from millennial satire to Hitchockian noir, that became the point. “We needed her to look like a femme fatale,” says Bliss.
More than a year and a half later, Bliss and Rogers are talking about the red dress again.
While there is never not a great time to talk about that dress, the reason is because now, finally, the season they were filming at that Bronx courthouse in October 2018 is coming out. When the camera trains on Dory and her sanguine fashion statement again, it will have been a full two and a half years since Search Party last aired.
Season three premieres Thursday on HBO Max, moving from TBS where its first two seasons aired, and marking one of the more fascinating production journeys in the kinetic, if sometimes volatile, modern TV era.
Search Party debuted in fall 2017 on TBS as the network rebranded itself with a slate of high-concept original comedies. A lynchpin in that wave of programming, the series was praised as the next evolution in TV’s post-Girls millennial discourse.
At a moment in culture when, as Shawkat told me at the time, “everyone feels like they have to voice something about millennials,” the show proved keenly observational about the Avocado Toast Generation. Cleverly, it then parlayed that commentary into a brisk action thriller: a purposeless group of Brooklyn hipsters harnessing their whims and anxieties into a search for a former classmate, Chantal, who had gone missing.
In addition to Shawkat’s directionless Dory, there was the literal brunch table of millennial “types,” at least as they’re often derided and/or dismissed by critics.
John Early was cast as Elliott, a self-diagnosed narcissist and flamboyant gay man who describes his profession as, “I just like projects.” Meredith Hagner played Portia, the vapid blonde who scoffs that Chantal was always jealous of her, but then starts to cry when she learns she’s gone missing. And Dory’s boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), embodied that certain kind of disheveled-yet-dashing hipster whose perpetual crisis of masculinity is meant to be endearing.
They’re characters you wouldn’t expect to want to spend five minutes with, but who are compassionately humanized by the quartet of performers. In the years since Search Party premiered, each has become among the most in-demand comedy actors in Hollywood.
The delicate hand used to upend expectations proved invaluable as the show evolved as well. If season one was part dark comedy, part millennial satire, season two added murder mystery to its DNA. A shrewd examination of the perils of millennials’ wanderlust search for purpose pivoted to an exploration of something even more terrifying: millennial guilt.
Coupled with an elevated cinematic aesthetic, the series scored rave critical notices and stoked a passionate fanbase. Yet Search Party never scored blockbuster ratings or the awards attention its ardent supporters felt it earned. Fans became frustrated as more and more time passed with no season-three premiere date announced.
Then came the surprise announcement that the series would move from TBS to HBO Max, the new streaming service from the network’s parent company, WarnerMedia, that launched last month. More, a fourth season was also part of the announcement, with the idea that the series, which struggled for ratings on cable, might discover a new life on streaming.
Convoluted and confusing as all the decision-making might have been, it was, arguably, perfect. What is more endemic of the millennial experience than a circuitous journey forward underscored by constant uncertainty about the future?
“The show is a little bit of a cult hit, and it would be nice for it to be a little more of a hit-hit,” says Rogers of the move to HBO Max. “We’re hoping that just by virtue of people knowing how to find it better and it being more available, it will get a wider audience.”
Season three was written and produced entirely for TBS, and runs as it would have on the network. But season four will take advantage of some of the content flexibility afforded by a streaming service, like longer episodes, more cursing, and even some nudity—at least to a point.
“We had the choice of putting in more provocative content, but it just felt like it wouldn't be true to the tone to do it,” Rogers laughs. “It would just be strange if suddenly there were, like, penetration shots in Search Party.”
The ‘Millennial Scooby Gang’ Breaks Bad
There’s something exciting, yet vaguely traumatizing, about showing up to work every day at an operating courthouse.
“This place feels kind of epic, like we’re in a Batman movie or something,” says Jeffrey Self, the actor who plays the ever-patient fiancé of Early’s Elliott. “Plus, it’s not every day you get to hang out in the courthouse and not be accused of something.”
“It's hard not to feel the heaviness of it,” says Hagner. “There was a woman being wheeled in and had an oxygen tank. She was like, maybe dying.” As she tells the story she starts simultaneously cringing, getting misty-eyed, and laughing at her own earnestness. “She had a wedding dress on and a tiara. And I was, like, tearing up. ‘This is so beautiful.’”
Season three is Search Party’s big trial season. Both Dory and Drew are charged with the murder of Keith Powell (Ron Livingston), who they kind-of, sort-of accidentally killed and then, in a panic, enlisted Elliott and Portia to help bury the body.
Genre-wise, that means leaning into familiar elements of legal thrillers and, of course, legal comedies. “We watched My Cousin Vinny in the writer’s room,” Bliss says, laughing but totally serious. “According to one of the writer’s dads who’s a lawyer, it is the most accurate movie in terms of how trials really go.”
But there are larger cultural themes at play, too, says Rogers, like how the loudest voice in the room seems to be the one that wins. “And then also that kind of media frenzy, like ‘the whole world is watching’ genre. It’s like To Die For or The Bling Ring, where you have notorious figures. Amanda Knox is a huge reference for us, in that Dory becomes an anti-heroine figure that people have strong opinions about.”
As such, the characters become media-circus celebrities as the case garners national attention.
Dory, for example, is chased by paparazzi and becomes the “Foxy Noxy” cultural lighting rod that Rogers described.
Drew garners a fanbase of teenage girls. “Like he’s a Tiger Beat star, in a weird way,” Reynolds says. Early quickly interrupts: “Which is fully based on reality.” Hagner jumps in, too. “On the record, when the show premiered, the amount of girls that texted me that were like, ‘Oh my God, like John Reynolds…’”
Everyone involved in Search Party is cognizant of the ways in which the series seems to be careening to darker and darker and places.
That’s especially true of Hagner’s arc this season, which finds Portia finally wise to the ways she’s been manipulated, exploited, and ultimately abandoned by everyone in her life, fostering an extreme loneliness. “There were moments where I was like, am I doing The Handmaid’s Tale this season? I thought this was a comedy.”
Credit an over-the-top wedding between Elliott and Mark, then, for providing a massive set piece that brings in much levity. The $1.2 million affair, the theme of which is “Attention,” is funded entirely by brand sponsors eager to be associated with a splashy LGBT wedding primed for media coverage thanks to the attendance of Dory and Drew, the country’s resident Bonnie and Clyde.
“It's literally a wedding between the awful gay people you see on Instagram that you follow and hate and who make you feel terrible about your body on a daily basis,” Self says. “But for some reason you don’t unfollow them because they can always give you a discount code on underwear.”
Guest stars including Chelsea Peretti, Joel Kim Booster, Chloe Fineman, Cole Escola, and Wallace Shawn show up, as curated a comedy line-up as there comes. The most significant season-three cast additions are the three actors playing the trial’s lawyers.
Tony-nominee Shalita Grant is a revelation as Cassidy, Dory’s vocal-fried, opportunistic lawyer who takes the case pro-bono in the hope that the media attention will springboard her career. “I’m the best-dressed, worst lawyer,” Grant laughs.
Comedy legend Louie Anderson (Baskets, Life With Louie) joins the cast as Drew’s sweet, if occasionally hapless old-school defense attorney, Bob. Ask Anderson what he connected to about the show, and prepare to sit down for 30 minutes of genuine, adorable praise about each cast member—all of them, one by one—and his admiration for the risks the series takes.
“It's just really hard to nail this kind of humor and for it to not become cartoony,” he says, explaining the challenges of not playing his character too broadly as a “bumbling idiot.” “I was terrified to do it. Because you know, it’s a millennial show. It’s millennials who are having an adventure, and so it’s kind of fun for me at my age to come in and do that.”
On the other side of the courtroom is Michaela Watkins (Casual, Saturday Night Live) as the tightly coiled federal prosecutor, Polly, whose exasperation at these two white, attractive twenty-somethings possibly getting away with murder despite the mountains of evidence against them ties the season back to the overarching ethos of the series.
“If we allow these two morally repugnant abusers of privilege off, you know what you’re doing?” Polly asks the jury at one point. “You’re letting an entire generation off.”
No matter how much Search Party evolves, what genres it dabbles in, or what network or streaming service it airs on, the conversation it triggers—and purposefully so—is exactly that. It’s not just who today’s millennials are and what they think of the world, but also how the ways in which the world thinks of them impact their behavior.
As season two aired, critics frequently compared the core group of four friends to a millennial Scooby gang. “I liked the millennial Scooby-Doo thing, but I was also like, ‘It’s a little deeper than that,’” Bliss says. “The show changes each season, so this is kind of more heavy. It gets heavier and heavier.”
To that end, Early sometimes wonders if, in all the press surrounding his breakout work on the show and all the recognition he got for balancing various gay stereotypes as Elliott with a certain relatability, he got too carried away talking about how he and the show humanize millennial clichés.
In the first two seasons there was a focus on redeeming the characters with some likability and vulnerability. The trial season, however, brought to light, he says, almost laughing, that, “Oh, no, no...he’s a bad person.”
“I almost want to say more to the press that like, ‘No, they did a really fucked up thing!’ I think I was, like, almost very careless in the first two seasons when we did press about the show being like, ‘But they’re fun!’” he says.
In the years since Girls premiered, the conversations about millennials and privilege have gotten increasingly tense and heated. “So there is something nice about watching these people who are just really bratty and entitled in an archetypal way. Watching them sweat and suffer and like, pay for their sins is great.”
Just how dramatic is their comeuppance? In the entirety of season three, we counted just one scene that took place at brunch.