“Search Party,” the 2016 TBS original series that’s finally found its third season a home on HBO Max, has seen its lurching offscreen evolution mirrored by seasonal onscreen switch-a-roos. What started as a quirky mystery built around a wayward group of shallow millennials shifted into an ever-darkening cover-up where mounting guilt led to bigger and more telling mistakes. When Season 2 ended, Dory (Alia Shawkat) was being arrested for the murder of Keith Powell (Ron Livingston), a private investigator that she and her on-again, off-again boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) killed out of self-defense.
But the deviant in-joke for the audience — which lingered for two-and-a-half years, while WarnerMedia shifted distribution priorities from cable to streaming and “Search Party” waited in TV purgatory — was that Dory may be charged for a murder that’s closer to manslaughter, but she just tried to kill someone else for real; Dory meant to shove April (Phoebe Tyers) off a ferry, and her final act in Season 2 completed the character’s tricky metamorphosis from closet narcissist to open psychopath.
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I’m not sure I saw Dory as TV’s next antihero when “Search Party” started, but she’s made the leap convincingly, if not always smoothly, transforming from a lost twenty-something, to an accomplice in manslaughter, to a (potential) cold-blooded killer, all in just two quick seasons. So, after another drastic ending, what does Season 3 even look like? The answer: a satiric, courtroom melodrama, and it’s time for Dory to face the music: Will she fess up and hope the justice system recognizes a scared girl who made a mistake? Hardly. “Search Party” has never let its lost leads off the hook, nor has it shied away from bolder, broader storytelling, and creators/showrunners Sarah Violet-Bliss and Charles Rogers push Dory to diabolical extremes by turning her into a polarizing public figure, all too eager to contort her courtroom drama into a trial of public opinion while evading the damning truth at all costs.
In keeping with its roots as a commentary on millennial culture, Season 3 still has plenty to say about the generational divide. For the defense, there’s Dory, Drew, and their attorneys: Dory is represented by Cassidy (Shalita Grant), a young, image-conscious lawyer who’s never worked a case before, seems a bit fuzzy on legal procedure, but knows what matters when it comes putting her client’s best face forward. She’s very clearly a millennial, but of the more ambitious variety — she may say “sad-face” with exaggerated vocal fry during cross-examination, but she’s still a lawyer, damn it. Drew, meanwhile, lands a lovable, aging family attorney played by Louie Anderson; Bob is too old to care about anything other than his health, and — much like the elderly judge who eats snacks during the trial like it’s a farce, instead of… OK, he knows what is is — all these olds want to do is stay comfortable until it’s all over.
Together, they make a patchwork team for a case with plenty of holes — and “Search Party” found the perfect person to do the poking. For the prosecution, audiences can revel in another excellent performance from Michaela Watkins, toeing the line between a comedic caricature of a hard-nosed, by-the-book boomer and a capable, grounded prosecutor. When she first takes the case, Watkins’ Polly Danziger looks at the evidence and sees a slam-dunk, adding “People hate millennials, right?” “I don’t think people care about millennials,” her assistant attorney says. “That kind of talk has died down, actually.”
That may be so — especially in 2020, two years after the season was written — but “Search Party” still positions Danziger as a person who believes the truth will win the day. More Gen X than Boomer, she still represents the same outdated obliviousness toward a world that’s changed from the one she once knew. Polly sees the media fawning over Dory’s designer gym-wear and engineered interviews, but she doesn’t care about talk show commentary or social media buzz. Her court case is what matters, the evidence is on her side, and the rest is just a sideshow.
Season 3 would’ve carried more of a punch had it arrived in 2018, as intended. After a few extra years of watching Trump’s perjured pals and murderers caught on video escape conviction, viewers know it’s not always the truth that sets you free (even if Portia and Elliott do not, as they try to scream those words into reality during Episode 3). Post-truth narratives have dominated scripted TV as well, be it dramas (“Homeland,” “The Good Fight”), comedies (“Veep,” “American Horror Story: Cult”), or documentaries (“The Fourth Estate,” “After Truth”). But “Search Party’s” exemplification of America’s refusal to acknowledge facts is still, unfortunately, relevant. White, pretty, and well-off defendants earning the benefit of the doubt rings truer than ever, and as a culture war wages across America — over whether life-saving masks are worth their mild discomfort — it’s easy to believe just about anything can happen in this open-and-shut case.
“Search Party’s” biggest issues are lost momentum and mismanaged resources. Cast standout John Early is a bit too limited. With the friend group fractured and Elliott’s significance to the case diminished, Violet-Bliss and Rogers still manage to build two grand moments for a man whose perpetual lying is second only to his everlasting hysterics. (Elliott’s riotous testimony hones in on a season’s worth of generational satire in one scene.) But he and Portia (Meredith Hagner) provide a bulk of the comedy, and their absence forces the series to seek entertainment value elsewhere, which it can’t always find. The eerie unpredictability driving Season 1’s mystery — where’s Chantal? What’s happening to Dory? Are these clues, delusions, or both? — vanished in a second season dwelling on guilt and regret (or a lack thereof). Season 3 pushes its characters into new territory again, but putting an antihero on trial means no one can win, thus undercutting any suspense in a verdict that soon becomes inevitable.
“Search Party” remains a captivating case study in genre experimentation and cultural commentary. There are minuscule moments that serve up great jokes, sharp appraisal, or both, and it’s impressive to see how long the creators have kept us hooked on these antiheroes — especially now, when tolerance for contemptible leads is at an all-time low. With Season 4 already in the can, perhaps an ending is already set. Whether it’s then or later, the one thing Dory & Co. definitely deserve is a proper goodbye.
“Search Party” premieres the first three episodes of Season 3 Thursday, June 25 on HBO Max.
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