When it began in 2016, Search Party was a social satire with a true-crime twist, as an aimless, self-absorbed Millennial made a nearly forgotten college acquaintance’s disappearance all about her. Dory Sief is the worst of all Millennial stereotypes: underemployed in Brooklyn, a bright kid who has not lived up to her potential on the cusp of her 30th year, and sloping through life with a solipsistic, privileged nihilism where her personality should be. (The privilege of Dory and her friends is not explicit, but it is assumed, though hopeful actress Portia is revealed to have a wealthy, influential mother who supports her unsuccessful daughter.) Dory is basically a walking avocado toast brunch, designed to be unlikeable but, at least at first, mostly harmless. Circumstances change, however, and the further Dory chases the shadow of Chantal Witherbottom and the consequences that follow, the more we see that Dory contains truly unpleasant potential, and that she is, ultimately, a bad person. All of Dory’s friends are bad people, too, each in a uniquely bad way.
The root of all problems in Search Party is that no one tells the truth, about themselves or the things they’ve done. Badness, then, starts with deception. Dory and Drew’s murder of Keith the private investigator is an accident, it is the result of self-defense. But Dory can’t face the act, so she cannot face the truth of the act. She tries to hide it, to make it go away. When she is caught and put on trial alongside Drew in season three, she doubles down on her original lie until it becomes her truth. Not the truth, but her truth, a palatable falsehood that allows her to maintain her self-fiction that she is a good person caught up in something beyond her control, that she bears no fault and owns no part of the consequences. In season four, however, trapped by the Chip “the Twink”, and forced to not only purge the truth but to live in confinement so complete she can’t escape herself, Dory breaks. She doesn’t want to be Dory anymore. Living the lie of who she wants to be is too much, she wants to start over with someone else’s truth.
Each season of Search Party evolves into a new genre, and as it does so, it magnifies the characters’ flaws and constricts them until they, like Dory, cannot escape themselves. Season one is a relatively harmless social satire, and so the characters seem, if a bit unlikeable, also relatively harmless. In season two, though, they kill someone, and suddenly they are not harmless, they are actively harmful, and we begin to see worse of them. Drew is a coward; Portia’s flightiness is not only a risk to her friends but a way of abdicating personal responsibility for anything because oops, she messed up again; Elliott is a shameless grifter who only cares about his personal comfort; and Dory is incapable of owning up to what happened and her role in it, and her decisions drive her friends further down their dark path.
Season three shifts into a parody of legal dramas, and the court case exposes them all, from Dory’s selfishness to the dark edge of Drew’s cowardice to Elliott’s entire sham-life and Portia’s inconsistency leads to disloyalty. Portia is arguably the “best” person among the friends as she is the only one who tells the truth about Keith, but her confession is a product of weakness, not an earnest desire for truthful reckoning, and even after betraying her friends she longs for their acceptance. An attempt to move on to new, perhaps healthier, friends fails because Portia ultimately longs to be one of the cool kids (a childish need for approval undoubtedly stemming from her toxic and damaged maternal relationship). And season four, a psychological thriller, peels back the last layers to reveal the characters’ final forms, which involves all of them assuming new facades, unable to confront themselves. Search Party is at its bleakest when the friends are at their most false.
It is an interesting revelation late in the season that Dory actually escaped the trunk of Chip’s car, only to crawl back in. However terrible she is, Dory is a survivor, but in that moment, it seems she simply cannot face being herself for one more second. As Chip’s captive, she gets to be something else—a victim. Thus, she is not responsible for what happens to or around her. Eventually, she bonds with Chip enough to gain his trust and assume an alter-ego as the blonde Stephanie. In a similar way, Drew is living a lie at his theme park job, pretending to be from South Africa, and Portia is twisted into so many knots she tries to lose herself by playing Dory in a crime drama. Meanwhile Elliott, who had his real life exposed in season three, rejects the opportunity to live truthfully and embraces a conservative persona for celebrit; betraying his values though, in a rare moment of clarity, he admits that doesn’t actually bother him. Elliott is truly an empty shell.
It’s hard to imagine Search Party getting darker than season four, but this is also a show that, so far, has not been interested in redemption. Should there be a fifth season, perhaps it would wrangle with what redemption for these characters would look like, but it’s more likely we would just keep staring further into the abyss. Search Party doesn’t have a cure for bad people, only occasional moments of clarity wherein bad people recognize their own badness, but those moments only seem to drive them deeper into their self-delusions. Elliott recognizing that he has no feelings about selling out doesn’t lead to introspection and growth, he just shrugs it off and keeps up his new hard-right schtick. Drew recognizes his dependency on Dory’s toxicity but desires no escape from it. Portia continues to crave acceptance to an emotionally crippling degree. And if Dory did, indeed, survive the fire at Aunt Lylah’s house, then she is hardly contrite. It’s not hard to imagine Burnt Dory wreaking havoc on anyone she can find to blame for her ordeal—other than herself, because I doubt that she would ever acknowledge out loud that she got back into the trunk of Chip’s car.
Throughout season four, each character has a moment of reckoning with themselves. Sometimes it’s forced, such as Dory’s introspection during her captivity, but mostly these moments arrive as off-hand glimpses into bad people. Frighteningly, these glimpses bring about no change. In the world of Search Party, bad people are just bad, they will always be bad. None of the emotional revelations that come have yet to yield emotionally positive progress. Instead, the friends embrace their best-worst selves and seem committed to their paths of respective emotional decay. Everyone just keeps doubling down on their badness rather than doing the hard work of growing and changing for the better. Search Party is not a funhouse mirror reflecting the world, it is a crystal-clear reflection of self-absorption self-interest taken to their furthest degree—it’s Millennial solipsism as moral rot. There are many names for unpleasant people, but in Search Party, the worst thing you can be is a bad person, because bad people are so beyond redemption, they’re not even interested in it.