The first scene of “Search Party” finds Dory (Alia Shawkat), a 20-something Brooklynite with a charmingly ugly mop of curls, transfixed in the middle of the sidewalk by a “MISSING” poster unceremoniously taped to a telephone pole. It’s for the oddly named Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), a woman with long blonde hair and a blurry smile. The audience observes Dory head-on, as she’s isolated in an ecstatic bubble of horror and recognition, scored by Purity Ring’s “Obedear.” This moment will repeat in “Search Party” — in fact, it shows up again at the very end of the episode, with the same song — where the framing and the music serve to bring us intimately into Dory’s rising sense of thrilled concern.
Is she motivated by self-importance or selflessness — concern or confabulation? We don’t know, and most of the time, it seems that neither does Dory. But something has happened here; amidst the dry detachment of ever-youthful Williamsburg — where young people are the only inexhaustible resource and tattoos, a universal language of love — Dory has experienced a frisson of fear for what it might mean to disappear without a trace, or worse, what it might mean to die.
She brings this news to her friends: Elliott (John Early), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), who all also went to school with Chantal. Self-absorbed and superficial, they can’t remember a nice thing about her, but Elliott quickly pulls out his phone to write a “sad” tweet, and Portia, in between trying to remember if she slept with one of their waiters, says dramatically that she might cry. In their callous inability to feel for Chantal, they are part of the tragedy. But they are also so ridiculously self-obsessed that it is funny, and this oppositional cocktail is what fuels “Search Party” — these people trying to solve a serious mystery is the darkest of comedies.
Dory and her friends are various shades of intolerable: In between drinks at artfully lit bars, brunch on picturesque outdoor patios, and dinner parties in their IKEA-furnished living rooms, they are all nursing their own hangups and crushes and fears of inadequacy. And then Chantal disappears, and suddenly the social awkwardness that surrounds them becomes fodder for suspicion and paranoia. As it turns out, a comedy of manners about hip millennials in Williamsburg shares a lot of the same beats as a suspenseful thriller.
And though the supporting cast, especially Early, prove to be consistently talented, Shawkat commands the show with her magnetic, unstable screen presence. She’s able to intimately connect to the audience while also keeping the viewer in a tense relationship with reality, as her quest for the truth about Chantal ends up becoming the means to understanding some previously unknown truths about herself. “Search Party’s” genre-busting means that a lot falls to Shawkat, as the primary vector of tone, to carry the emotional timbre of successive scenes and even successive shots. She’s fantastic, making Dory a freckled oddball who is either on the edge of falling apart or the verge of grand discovery. (Maybe both.) There’s a deep meaninglessness to Dory’s life before she starts investigating Chantal’s story, and much of the drama of the first segment of the season is in wondering if she is caught in some serious “Notes on a Scandal” damage, inserting herself into drama that isn’t her own.
In that, the city plays a supporting role as partner to both the suspense and the humor — an endless sea of anonymous faces, some of whom might be relevant, many of whom are just out of their minds. With a bit of comic premonition, Dory is startled by a stranger on the subway, who sees she is carefully reading a copy of “Anna Karenina” that used to belong to Chantal. He leans over to her and says with a leer: “I’ll save you 400 pages. She dies at the end.” Dory seems haunted upon hearing the words — and maybe she is being haunted. At her age, acquaintances from college usually don’t disappear as much as they lurk at the edges of Facebook feeds and awkward parties, reminding you of a discarded former existence that can’t quite be trashed. The long-buried acquaintance reasserting herself through vanishing? That’s a News Feed post I personally haven’t seen yet.
The streak of brilliance that runs through “Search Party” is in tweaking the stakes of what has become its own genre — the cutting-edge comedy that serves as a field guide to young people, such as “Girls” or “Broad City” or “High Maintenance” — by making the day-to-day of the boring work of becoming a person into something with tense, sickening possibilities around the corner. “Search Party” opens up this insular world of dysfunctional 20-somethings to the story beats of any average procedural — pulling its neurotic New Yorkers and competitive high achievers into the “real world” stakes of life, death, and disposable identities. It’s sometimes horrifying and sometimes silly, and at times, “Search Party” can get a tiny bit precious with its own cleverness. But when it works, it’s an astounding and engaging journey through genre conventions that should be at odds with each other.