Television

As a dark comedy about self-absorbed millennial killers, Search Party focuses heavily on the lies that bind. In doing so, it also tells a lot of insightful truths. By Brodie Lancaster.

Search Party

Alia Shawkat as Dory Sief in Search Party.
Credit: Stan

This review contains spoilers for seasons one and two of Search Party.

Search Party’s third season picks up where the second left us three years ago: inside the cop car with Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), who has been arrested for the murder of private investigator Keith Powell (Ron Livingston). She looks, in this moment of detachment, haunting and beautiful, like the girl from the Sonic Youth album cover.

The real search Dory was on from the beginning was not for a girl on a missing poster – the plot of season one – but for a shred of self-importance. And now with a criminal case and paparazzi and obsessive fans buzzing around her, she seems to have found it. It doesn’t matter that it came with a body count or the threat that all her friends could end up in prison, because suddenly Dory matters and she knows it. She also knows how easily the system can be manipulated to help her get away with everything.

The series that began as a millennial hipster comedy with a true-crime undercurrent has morphed, in its third season, into a legal drama whose jokes take aim at the way influence and attention distort a person, and the parts of themselves they’re willing to sacrifice to emerge unscathed from the carnage.

As Charles Rogers, who co-created the series with Sarah-Violet Bliss and Michael Showalter, once said of the show’s central tension: “This is a story about a person that wants to be seen as good, how someone lives the life of a good person until they find out more and more about their shadow side.”

This attempt at goodness is the thread that holds the show. When Dory’s ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall) writes an article in season one exposing her friend Elliott (John Early) as a liar whose possible untruths range from whether he actually had childhood cancer to his real age, she tells Julian that good people do bad things sometimes. “No,” he has to remind her. “Bad people do bad things.”

The shadow self, in Jungian psychology, begins as the dormant unconscious. The more we ignore it, Jung wrote, “the blacker and denser it is”. As Dory’s subconscious plagues her with hallucinations of her kills – first Keith, then her volatile neighbour April (Phoebe Tyers) – she seems to linger longer and longer in the shadows.

In the first season, Dory had nothing. She convinced herself she cared about searching for her missing college classmate Chantal (Clare McNulty), a distant acquaintance, because she really wanted to know if anyone would come looking for her. We knew who the aimless Dory was – or recognised her archetype, at least – but had no clue where the search for Chantal would take her. By season three, we know the facts of the case, but Dory’s psyche couldn’t be a greater mystery.

As the consequences of Dory’s actions leave her increasingly isolated from her friends, Elliott and Portia (Meredith Hagner), and boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) – the only people who know what’s behind her lies – I couldn’t ignore the sound of “All My Friends” by LCD Soundsystem, the specific kind of band from a specific era of New York City that made Brooklyn the kind of place to which all the Dorys, Drews, Elliotts and Portias of the world would eventually gravitate. “It comes apart / The way it does in bad films / Except in parts / When the moral kicks in.”

The morality we assume will emerge from Dory’s shadow doesn’t appear, leaving us questioning if it was ever there to begin with. What did we ever really know about her? When we met Dory in the show’s pilot, she seemed well-meaning and loved, if a bit of a loser. She remembered Chantal as being sweet and kind, a friend – but the clues that Dory was not such a reliable narrator were there when Chantal herself said she barely remembered Dory from college. In the whirlwind, heat and flash, Dory forgot herself. The version she’s pieced together from the scraps is a true mystery, the kind of antihero TV shows usually reserve for middle-aged white guys.

She’s lying in a way that would make Elliott proud – and the chilling suspense of this season comes from wondering if she believes it all. Drew’s biggest lie, the one that seems to taste like bile coming out of his mouth, is when he tells Dory he loves her, too, during her farce of a closing argument in court, which she delivers herself, having fired her defence attorney.

During the media circus surrounding her murder trial, Dory weaponises the same kind of social power that pretty girls and rich boys have always used to evade consequences. She’s learnt to cry on cue, and understands that her and Drew’s whiteness can be worn as a protective shield, and will imply their innocence.

“I can’t tell if you know you’re guilty and you’re lying, or if somehow in your sick brain you’ve convinced yourself that you are actually innocent … you are not a victim, Dory!” Drew screams at her, finding himself fearful of the person he once loved and of the threat she now poses to his simple, tidy future. “You are not innocent. This is your fault.”

From the beginning, Drew’s passivity proved to be its own kind of violence. In the pilot, the two of them are brushing their teeth when they hear a physical argument in April’s apartment. Dory insists they should help, because “something terrible could be happening”. “Something terrible is happening,” Drew reasons evasively. “Everywhere. All the time.” For all Dory’s failings, she at least was compelled to do something.

But doing nothing – besides delivering the actual killing blow they’re on trial for – is working for Drew. His silence breeds affection. Signs on the courtroom steps say “Send Dory to jail but not Drew”. While she’s being tried by the tabloids and stalked by an increasingly violent, obsessed fan, Drew is receiving marriage proposals and deliveries of pasta.

It’s a reminder that Dory is being punished not just for what she did but for who she is. When prosecutor Polly Danzinger (Michaela Watkins) lays out her case, what she’s most excited to do is paint the pair as bloodthirsty, vain, millennial killers. The cumulative selfishness of their generation has all come down to this, and a punishment for them is a punishment for everyone who’s ever had it easy or used a hashtag. In a meta-turn, the show has Polly’s colleague point out that her attitude isn’t really a thing in the way it was a few years ago, say, when Search Party premiered: “That kind of talk has died down, actually.”

As if proving her point, a cult of celebrity brews around Dory. Her stalker sends an eerie action figure of her; hawkers sell curly wigs and souvenirs outside the courthouse. In the universe of the show, one where delusions of grandeur and a quest for public importance collide with the sketchy morals it requires to live with both, it’s almost unbelievable that one of these characters didn’t launch a murder comedy podcast to cash in on the hype. Stay sexy and don’t get found guilty.

The series creators say they were inspired, while writing this season, by The People v O. J. Simpson: American Crime Story and Amanda Knox, the American exchange student whose 2009 murder trial was clouded by the bias that the Italian police, court and public held against someone they viewed as a promiscuous young woman.

In her closing argument, Dory lists the things she’s been called over the course of the trial: a murderer, a slut, “a sphinx from hipsterville”, evil. It’s hard to say which one affects her the most. It’s even harder to say which ones will benefit her most when it’s all over.

Shawkat’s performance this season is a thrill, from the first flash of the camera as she smirks through the mugshot that makes her notoriety inevitable. She turns Dory into a true villain, one whose ability to evade consequence becomes something almost impressive. Turns out Dory is actually good at something, and it’s being patently horrifying.

Arriving home after sentencing in the season three finale, she smirks again, in a mirror this time. The ghosts of her past actions hover in her periphery and provide a true horror-movie jump-scare, but not the last one. In the final moments of the season, a desperate Dory’s last lines are of her saying she’s finally told the truth. I’m not sure I believe it. And for the first time this season, I hope she hasn’t.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 8, 2020 as "Finding Dory".

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Brodie Lancaster is a critic and the author of No Way! Okay, Fine.