Search Party is a show that is constantly reinventing itself. In season one, it was a biting observational comedy about sh-tty Millennials, season two found the sh-tty Millennials starring in a crime drama, and season three lampooned legal dramas as the sh-tty Millennials were charged with one of the murders from season two. Season four is still about sh-tty Millennials, but this time Search Party has become the absolute pitch-blackest of comedies, as Dory (Alia Shawkat) has been kidnapped by a crazed fan, Chip (Cole Escola), and the others are selling out and/or trying to move on in their own ways. Portia (Meredith Hagner) is playing Dory in an exploitative made-for-TV movie about the murder trial, Elliott (John Early) is selling out his values and identity for conservative news network fame, and Drew (John Reynolds) is trying to live in a straight-up fantasy land at a theme park. Nothing is going well for anyone.
But the actual story isn’t the only thing new about Search Party season four. This season, Search Party is dropping its ten episodes over three weeks, in two three-episode installments and a final installment of four episodes. This hybrid “weekly binge” model isn’t something that has been widely explored in the streaming era, but Search Party comes out of the gate making a STRONG argument for more shows pursuing this model. It gives a show the advantage of weekly momentum, while still feeding the audience desire to binge. But it also provides the writers and filmmakers behind the shows the chance to build their stories into this hybrid format. Search Party doesn’t feel like it was just bundled for release this way, the episode format feels baked into the story itself, which makes for three episodes that perfectly split the difference between “I want to watch a lot of this right now” and “I still want more”.
The first three episodes show us Elliott, Portia, and Drew trying to move on after the murder trial, while Dory wakes up chained in a basement, her head shaved. She is at the mercy of Chip, the wedding waiter everyone thought died at Elliott’s wedding in the previous season. Nothing is resolved at the end of this set of three episodes—there are still seven episodes to go, after all—but these episodes provide an entire arc for Dory’s captivity. She spends her time trying to find a way out of Chip’s aunt’s house, and indeed she does, though her freedom is short-lived. But that arc frames out the three-episode block so that there is a satisfying rise and resolution in dramatic tension. It feels like a ninety-minute Search Party movie, but it ends on a cliffhanger, building anticipation for part two. Perhaps the next two blocks of episodes won’t be as effective, but at least in its first week, Search Party nails the hybrid format.
Binge watching provides a different rhythm for viewing, but it’s doesn’t suit every show. Some shows are too heavy to consume all at once. Bojack Horseman, is, like Search Party, an incredibly dark show. Netflix released it a season at a time, as they do most of their shows (some reality shows are exempt from the binge model), but especially in the final seasons, it was just too dark to watch all at once. Meanwhile, I May Destroy You, another heavy show, benefitted from weekly episode releases, giving viewers time to think about what they’ve seen and process the story as it advances. Search Party succeeds in splitting the difference, through three episodes telling a compelling story while still leaving space to process the dark elements of the show. I mean, Dory is basically being tortured and even knowing she is guilty, it is difficult to watch. But with the weekly breaks, we have time to process before continuing the story, which will, at least in the near future, include more of Dory’s torture. I don’t think I’d want to watch ten episodes of this at once, but doing it three episodes at a time? Totally manageable. And effective, successfully building momentum—the kind that sustains interest in a show for longer than a week—for this week’s installment of episodes and what happens to the sh-tty Millennials next.
Search Party is streaming now on HBO Max. New episodes drop on Fridays. (In Canada, we are still waiting for release information.)