REVIEW: In Series Four, ‘Search Party’ Returns to Its Roots

In its fourth series, Search Party circles back to its central premise – with a twist. In doing so, it provides some of the show’s greatest intrigues and ambiguities since its explosive first series, though its determination to wring another adventure out of the satire somewhat confuses an otherwise affecting finale.

To recap: the outrageous comedy-drama originally centred itself around Dory (Alia Shawkat), the somewhat self-aware and self-loathing one among her narcissistic, insecure, upper-middle-class friend group, and her self-styling as an amateur sleuth to find missing former classmate Chantal (Clare McNulty). By the end of the first series, she and her friends are in deep over their heads as every attempt backfires: every sensational lead has crumbled to dust, Chantal is merely taking some jolly “me time,” and they have a dead body to hide. Series Two deals with the aftermath of Dory and on-and-off boyfriend Drew’s (John Paul Reynolds) self-defence crime and the entire group’s culpability in a hasty backyard burial, but the reluctant couple find themselves on trial for murder in the third series. Through some courtroom cringe and miracle of circumstance, they are exonerated – but the media circus has developed a stalker, who kidnaps Dory in the final seconds of Series Three.

Now, Dory is the one missing. She is being pushed to breaking point by her captor, and her three scattered friends must put together the pieces. It is a twist entirely in line with the show’s dark comedy and actions that innocuously, perhaps accidentally bring out the nastiest sides of a world one degree removed from ours. Seeing the characters so inverted brings the show back to its roots, but this time viewers know both sides of the story from the start, that the stakes are real, and that the smallest misinterpretations set each party at comic, baffling, and sometimes horrifying cross-purposes.

Two women sit opposite one another in an apartment. They are both holding on to a male barbie doll with one hand.
Image courtesy of HBO Max

The third series did not reach the heights of the first two due to the limitations of stretching a courtroom drama across ten episodes, where the finale had to be the verdict. Perhaps as a result, the fourth series’ pacing feels stilted in the first half, taking two episodes too many to tip off Dory’s friends that something is amiss. But once the game is afoot, the show finds its old stride – and remembers that there is no such thing as over the top. A splendidly unhinged appearance by Susan Sarandon late in the game is the series highlight.

In its New York setting, social class, and characterisations, Search Party seems the deranged younger cousin of Girls – its characters share much DNA with Dunham’s self-absorbed, independently wealthy frienemies, though Search Party is more aware of the private wealth funding these exploits. Where the earlier show pushed towards some reluctant maturity, however, Search Party prioritises satire of this particular millennial set, pushing Dory and company into increasingly deranged scenarios of their own making. The humanity it offers them keeps viewers interested but holds shy of full sympathy – part of the fun has always been in their despicability in an equally rotten world. In the fourth series, Dory’s friends Elliot (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner – the MVP of previous seasons, underused in this one) exemplify this delightful moral vacuity. But the central character’s terrifying evolution keeps the show from being a rehash – with mixed results.

If any character has come close to earning full audience sympathy despite infidelities, homicides, and a web of lies, it is Dory. Star and producer Shawkat has carried the show’s main emotional weight since the beginning – her nuanced performance captures the essential frustrations and emptiness Dory has sought refuge from in the least healthy and most alienating ways possible. In the latest series, she captures Dory’s increasingly fractured psyche as the ghosts of her past and present incarceration catch up to her in one of her finest acting showcases to date, marking her as a powerhouse in any project she puts her weight behind.

A woman wearing a fur coat and sunglasses indoors is standing in what appears to be a basement.
Image courtesy of HBO Max

As Dory’s experience and perspective radically change, the show stays unflinchingly on her. While imagination and reality have blended since the second series, these intrusions mix to a greater degree in her kidnapping ordeal, setting the stage for some genuinely unexpected allegiances. Every perplexing decision, however, is rooted in Dory’s experience through Shawkat’s portrayal, making them feel earned rather than merely shock value. This delicate portrayal feels almost too raw to continue – and yet continuation seems what the show is bending towards.

Dory begins Search Party trying to figure out Chantal’s disappearance, and by extension Chantal as a person, partly because she fears knowing herself. She runs from unfulfilling jobs and relationships, and seeing her world brought down by the consequences of her actions feels earned, but also sits just close enough to a far more relatable, mundane escape fantasy and fears of perception to connect. By series four she has nowhere to hide, and the ensuing self-deconstruction leaves nothing but an image her friends project themselves onto. In a striking scene in the series’ final moments, not a single person can say something about Dory that does not actually reflect more on themselves. This tragedy of fundamental unknowability undercuts Search Party’s satire, almost ending the show with the gut-wrenching hollowness of an unredeemed universe.

This would be a fantastic, unsettling, even brave end to a show whose darkness comes from the mind, not reality. But then there is a twist – there is always a twist ensuring another season. Search Party’s fourth series ends on a note that will be divisive – in some ways it sinks its courage with a mawkish five minutes, but it is impossible actually to tell what is real and what remains in our antihero’s imagination. Only time – or a fifth series – will tell.