TV

How “Search Party” Found the Shameful, Entitled Hilarity of Millennial Life

If viewers thought the first season of the show was dark, wait until the characters have a dead body on their hands

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One bright morning in early September, at an airy postproduction office in midtown, Sarah-Violet Bliss struggled to recall the details of a story that had gone viral a few days earlier. A college student in the U.K. had invited a Tinder date back to his dorm room, where she took a shit, panicked when it didn’t flush, and tried to hide the evidence by throwing it out the window. But it ended up stuck between two windowpanes, and her date had to call the fire department to rescue her when she got stuck trying to fish it out. “I haven’t clicked on it,” Bliss said, “but the page of it is her upside-down in a window.” The kicker? The story came to light via a GoFundMe page the guy set up to replace his now-broken window. Charles Rogers gasped. “Oh my god. That’s really good.”

The 33-year-old Bliss, who created the TBS comedy Search Party with Rogers, 30, and their former NYU screenwriting teacher, Michael Showalter, explained why she brought up the story. “Clumsily handling a dark situation — how you go through that is both tragic and funny. Because she was trying to preserve herself. It stemmed from shame, and then it just got more and more shameful.” Which is precisely what made the story hilarious. “The darker it gets, the funnier it gets.”

The same is true for Search Party. A comedy of escalation, the series stands out in a crowded field for its bluntly sinister tone. The show stars Alia Shawkat as Dory, an aimless twentysomething who’s shaken out of her quarter-life stupor after she discovers a college acquaintance has gone missing and takes it upon herself to investigate. There wasn’t much fanfare leading up to Search Party‘s premiere in mid-November of last year, when it aired its ten half-hour episodes over the course of a single week, two at a time, while the cloud of the election hung low over our heads.

Set in an overcast New York City populated by grifters and wannabes, Search Party is steeped in paranoia and prepared, at every turn, to burst its own bubble. Its first season ended with a deliciously macabre twist. After roping her friends into her obsessive hunt for Chantal (Clare McNulty), Dory discovers there’s no there there — Chantal just decided to hide out at a friend’s summer house after a bad breakup. It’s all good, or at least it would have been had Dory and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), not ended the season by killing a man, Keith (Ron Livingston), a fellow searcher who simply saw Chantal’s picture on a flyer and hoped to collect the reward money.

If viewers thought the first season of Search Party was dark, wait until the characters have a dead body on their hands. The season two premiere, which airs November 19, picks up right where the first season left off, with Dory, Drew, and their friends Portia and Elliott (Meredith Hagner and John Early) frantically plotting to cover up Keith’s murder. But in their attempt to contain the spill, they only end up spreading it around. “We had to honor the idea of what it is to live life after committing this horrible act that’s extremely traumatic,” Rogers said. The season’s tagline, from a line spoken by Dory in the second episode, is very 2017: “I miss when my problems were about nothing.”

On a bulletin board behind a suite of monitors, someone had pinned a poster bearing Donald Trump’s face in the iconic Shepard Fairey style of Obama’s 2008 “hope” campaign. Below Trump, in block letters, the poster blared, “NOPE.” “There was an actress who said about watching the first season, that you could feel it being written and conceived in the Obama era,” Rogers said, “when everyone had the privilege of self-inspecting.”

Search Party shares a lot of DNA with Fort Tilden, Bliss and Rogers’s debut feature that won the Grand Jury Award at South by Southwest in 2014. The movie follows two clueless young women (Clare McNulty and Bridey Elliott) trying to make their way to Rockaway Beach, where they hope to hook up with a couple of guys they met at a party the night before. Like that of the Search Party ensemble, their long, strange trip is simultaneously a journey outward and inward, and nobody ends up quite where she expected. Both projects exist in the same world of cynical, self-hating Brooklyn millennials whom Bliss and Rogers seem to delight in punishing: In a foreshadowing of the season-end twist on Search Party, when the girls of Fort Tilden finally arrive at the beach, they learn their crushes are in high school.

McNulty, a college friend of Bliss’s, recalled acting in a short film called Pink that Bliss made in 2009 when she was applying to the graduate film program at NYU’s Tisch School of the Arts. “It’s about a couple whose insecurities are overwhelming their relationship and they have a dinner party,” she said. “My character was trying to diet, she’s insecure about her weight and her eating habits, and her boyfriend was insecure about his masculinity. So when he comes home and he discovers that my character has painted one of the walls in their room pink, it sort of drives him bananas.” It doesn’t help that the pair they’ve invited over for dinner are super-confident, with strong personalities. The short concludes with the couple in bed, revealing their insecurities to each other. “We’re both crying and I say, ‘I hate myself,’ and he says, ‘I hate myself, too,’ and that’s how it ends.”

In an office tower in midtown, Michael Showalter was getting punched in the face. It was early August, the last day of a 44-day shoot, and Showalter, who plays Drew’s boss on Search Party, was splayed on his back in a pinstripe suit as another actor wailed on him. In between takes, crew members in hoodies huddled at faux-wood cubicles. “It’s the last day of camp,” one of them mourned.

Search Party is shot on location in New York, a challenge Rogers and Bliss know well from their summer making Fort Tilden. “It’s really hard to deal with sound issues and crazy people yelling ‘cut’ and fights that could start at any moment,” Bliss said of filming in the city. In some ways, Rogers added, the transition from Fort Tilden to Search Party was a “huge leap”: “We have chairs and we have an assistant and there’s sometimes a trailer for us, and there’s always somebody’s WiFi,” he said. “But at the same time, New York — everyone’s at the mercy of the city. At the end of the day, it’s not glamorous.”

Bliss grew up in New York City, Rogers in a small town on the border of Texas and Mexico (his dad is a homeopathic doctor who got his license in Mexico in the 1960s; living there made it easier for him to practice south of the border). The two met in the graduate film program at NYU, where they bonded over their interest in a particular brand of neurotic, screwball comedy — Mel Brooks, Christopher Guest, Larry David. Lucky for them, Showalter — co-creator of the early-Nineties MTV sketch series The State, co-writer of the 2001 cult comedy Wet Hot American Summer, and director of last summer’s hit rom-com The Big Sick — was an adjunct teacher on the writing faculty at NYU. They eagerly signed up for his screenwriting class, and quickly realized no one else knew who he was. “Everyone else is, like, from Morocco and wants to make human-trafficking movies and there’s no space in their brains for Michael Showalter’s comedy,” Rogers said.

After they graduated, Bliss and Rogers showed a nearly finished cut of Fort Tilden to Showalter, who liked it so much he barely had any notes to give. Following the film’s premiere at South by Southwest, the pair went to Los Angeles, where Showalter lives, to take meetings. “We asked Michael if he just wanted to hang out,” Bliss said. “But he was like, ‘I would love to work with you guys.’ ”

“He was, like, sunburned at tennis clubs,” Rogers remembered. “ ‘I love L.A., move to L.A.!’ We were like, ‘I guess we should move to L.A.’ ” They moved to L.A.

Search Party’s development process was unique. Its production company, the New York–based Jax Media, grew out of the FX comedy Louie, produced by Jax’s founder, Tony Hernandez. Louie, which premiered in 2010, was notoriously cheap to make, and in exchange for low budgets, its creator and star, Louis C.K., enjoyed full creative control. Jax was launched in 2011 with the goal of making TV series built around a distinct comedic voice — the company has produced Inside Amy Schumer, Broad City, and Full Frontal With Samantha Bee, all shot in New York — that are similarly inexpensive and streamlined.

With Search Party, Jax took its mandate a step further. Normally, if you have an idea for a TV show, you write a pilot script and shop it around to networks. As Lilly Burns, Jax’s head of development and Search Party’s creative producer, explained: “One network orders it. Then you do a script deal with them, you spend six months on a script, then maybe by the love of god they pick up a pilot. Then you spend six months doing a pilot. Then maybe, against their ten other pilots, they choose you to go to series.” With Search Party, Jax financed the pilot themselves, cast it, shot it in four days, and, rather than pitching a concept, sent a fully airable episode out to networks. Burns called it “the utopian creative process.”

Search Party owes its distinctive tone to its blend of murder-mystery noir — Showalter’s contribution — and Bliss and Rogers’s expansive universe of neurotic strivers. A fan favorite is John Early’s Elliott, an up-and-coming bullshit artist whom Rogers and Bliss based on a real (but unnamed) Instagram “influencer.” Blond and haughty, with a wardrobe of loud, color-coordinated outfits, Elliott throws himself into “projects” like donating designer water bottles (but not water) to children in Africa.

“They have a very strong point of view, this feeling you get from their work that they feel like everybody is sort of out for themselves,” Showalter said of his collaborators. “There’s a very misanthropic, nihilist view that their work seems to have, but it’s not soulless. Everyone presents a persona that underneath it lurks something much darker.” McNulty told me that Bliss and Rogers’s sense of humor only darkens as the years go by. “That’s one of the things that is the most exciting about them, to me, is that their voice keeps getting distilled,” she said.

“My favorite assignment is like, think of a character! Create a character!” Rogers said. “We’re surrounded by insane people all day long, especially in New York. It’s almost too much. Everyone’s a potential threat.”

“People here — it’s almost like, they’re so off the wall that it doesn’t work,” Bliss said. “It’s not even funny.”

Bliss, in a polo shirt and jeans, her blond ponytail poking out of a white baseball cap, strolled into a small, glass-walled office that served as the set’s video village. Chewing on a red plum, she slid into a director’s chair as Rogers walked in. Both seemed preternaturally calm, considering they had just a couple of hours of daylight left to finish shooting the final scenes of the season. The set hairstylist came in with an envelope for the directors and promised to arrange a time to cut Rogers’s mop of curly brown hair. Rogers opened the envelope and let out an “aww” as he shuffled through its contents: a stack of behind-the-scenes Polaroid pictures from the shoot. He fanned them out on the desk and snapped a photo with his phone. 

Jax tends to use the same crew on its projects, which keeps the vibe on set both efficient and friendly, and Bliss and Rogers have populated the world of Search Party with people they’ve known and worked with for years. Rogers cast Phoebe Tyers, an old improv buddy he used to perform with at the Magnet Theater in New York, as Dory and Drew’s manic neighbor April. “I think a lot of people see my intensity but they don’t lean into it and use it,” Tyers told me. “He saw the crazy look in my eye or this sort of comical hatred towards the world.”

Meredith Hagner hadn’t known Bliss or Rogers before she was cast as the flighty aspiring actress Portia. “Writers are usually so precious,” Hagner said, but Bliss and Rogers had so little in the way of ego that the pilot shoot felt like making something with friends. She recalled shooting a rooftop party scene and thinking, “This is, like, heaven. This is the kind of room where I can just feel free and play with it — that feeling of just goofing around and making each other laugh, which I think is kind of where magic can happen.”

Ben Sinclair, the co-creator and star of HBO’s High Maintenance, went to Oberlin with Bliss, and he hired her to direct the pot comedy’s first-ever episode in 2012, when it was just another Vimeo web series. (A few years earlier, Sinclair had appeared in Bliss’s short Pink, alongside McNulty.) Bliss was at NYU at the time, and she brought a crew of willing volunteers from grad school with her. “She has a real trust in the people she allies herself with, and that’s probably the most important thing you need as a director,” Sinclair told me.  

Both Sinclair and Hagner said that when Bliss is happy with a take, you can hear it. “She’s a great audience to play for, because when she laughs it is a full laugh,” said Sinclair. “There’s nothing better than SV’s laughter for some reason,” Hagner echoed. “It’s just contagious. When they come in and something’s working, they’re like kids — I mean, I just picture that line in print and go, ‘Meredith, you’re such an idiot’ — but they’re like kids in a candy store.”

Although she’d known and worked with Bliss for years, McNulty was surprised to be offered a leading role in Fort Tilden. At the time, she remembered, “I think I was doing a puppet show in a basement. I loved the idea of being on television or in movies but I never thought that was in the cards for me. I never felt like I fit into any of the archetypes that I saw onscreen growing up. But the more pathetic, more truthful, and probably less interesting answer is that I’ve just had shitty skin all my life and I always figured that meant no one would want to put me onscreen, so I adjusted my expectations early on.” (“I hope that’s too sad to print,” she added.)

There’s a scene in the first season finale of Search Party that epitomizes the show’s wicked sense of humor. Dory and Drew have just bludgeoned a man to death, and he’s lying in the kitchen, blood pooling around his head, while Dory shakes violently, insisting — to herself as much as to Drew — that it was self-defense. Suddenly, we cut to Elliott entering the house from the back porch, fresh off a successful business call and completely oblivious to the felony that his friends have just committed inside. “I love my publishing team!” he squeals in a caricature of clueless millennial privilege.  

Although the word millennial appears in the headline of nearly every review of Search Party — as much a description as a nod to the demands of SEO — Bliss and Rogers are wary of getting stuck in that mold.

“Every time I say ‘millennial,’ ” Bliss said, “I’m like” — she shuddered as she lowered her voice to a barely audible whisper — “millennial. I kind of cave in on myself.”

“I feel like it’s a bit of a veneer to be able to say stuff about human behavior and neuroses,” Rogers said. “Entitlement, I think, transcends millennial.”

And yet Rogers and Bliss have managed better than any creator I can think of to capture the essence of a generation of emperors with no clothes, a horde of anxious little adults clutching our iPhones like life preservers and manically insisting that our lives have meaning, that we are good people, that we had nothing to do with the election of Donald Trump or the melting of the ice caps, that we care; a generation performing our pathetic existence in public, for all the world to see, even though everyone else is looking down at their phones, too.

“It’s just impossible to win at being a good person today,” Rogers declared. “Every effort you make has two sides to it — your own actual reason for doing it, and then the self-monitoring that comes from knowing it’s going to be seen by other people. Ultimately, there’s this Wizard of Oz–iness to both Fort Tilden and Search Party, which is, at the end of the day, there is no meaning, or at least, meaning is really abstract and multidimensional and not something you can just pinpoint and work towards.”

He caught himself and paused. “You know, in making a TV show, we are doing that. But there’s no happiness at the end of the line. Everyone’s trying to make meaning of their lives in a different way, and you will fail, and that’s beautiful, I guess.”

 

Two new episodes of Search Party will air per week Sundays at 10:00 and 10:30pm beginning Nov. 19.

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