Review: Search Party : Pop Culture Happy Hour In the dark comedy Search Party, four narcissistic millennials become amateur sleuths following the disappearance of a former classmate. Alia Shawkat plays Dory, the ringleader whose growing obsession with solving the mystery eventually entwines them all in a murder investigation. The fourth season has found new ways to dial up the absurdity while bringing in new guest stars like Busy Phillips and Susan Sarandon.

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AISHA HARRIS, HOST:

In the dark comedy series "Search Party," four narcissistic millennials become amateur sleuths following the disappearance of a former classmate. Alia Shawkat plays Dory, the ringleader whose growing obsession with solving the mystery eventually entwines them all in a murder investigation.

GLEN WELDON, HOST:

The fourth season recently premiered on HBO Max, and it finds them all dealing with the aftermath of the murder trial in Season 3. New guest stars like Busy Philipps and Susan Sarandon come out to play, and the writers find new ways to dial up the absurdity. I'm Glen Weldon.

HARRIS: And I'm Aisha Harris. And today we're talking about the very smart "Search Party" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR, so don't go away.

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HARRIS: Welcome back. You just met Glen Weldon. Also with us from his home studio is Gene Demby from NPR's Code Switch podcast. Hello, Gene.

GENE DEMBY, BYLINE: What's good, y'all? It's good to be back.

HARRIS: Awesome. It's great to have you back.

And also here is Brittany Luse, who most recently hosted "The Nod With Brittany & Eric" on Quibi. Welcome back to you, too, Brittany.

BRITTANY LUSE: Thank you. It's good to be back.

HARRIS: So we actually have not ever talked about this show in full on an episode of POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR. So...

DEMBY: How is that possible?

LUSE: (Laughter).

HARRIS: I don't know. We've given shout-outs. And Glen and I, I can say that we both love the show. So we're excited to talk about it. Now, for listeners who haven't seen the first three seasons of "Search Party," we highly encourage you to go catch up, then come back and join us because there will be spoilers. You have been warned.

So for everyone else, a brief recap of the series up to this point - Dory, Portia, Elliott and Drew are four incredibly self-obsessed friends from college. They're living in New York. Each season takes on a different theme. So Season 1 is a modern-day Nancy Drew mystery where Dory, who is stuck in a very unfulfilling gig as a rich housewife's assistant, becomes consumed with the disappearance of one of their former classmates, Chantal. Season 2 feels a little bit more like a psychological thriller as the friends turn into frenemies while dealing with the fallout of their involvement in the death of Keith, the man who claimed to be a private investigator working Chantal's case. Spoiler - he wasn't. In Season 3, the show becomes a zany courtroom drama as Dory and Drew are put on trial for Keith's death. And finally, the latest season mashes up a bunch of different genres, most notably psychological horror, with a new character introduced who gives off serious Norman Bates vibes.

Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers created the series with Michael Showalter. He co-wrote "Wet Hot American Summer" and more recently directed "The Big Sick." So Glen...

WELDON: Yep.

HARRIS: ...As I said, you really like the show. How are you feeling about Season 4 and the direction it's been going in so far?

WELDON: Well, we'll see. I mean, like, let's start at base principles here. You have to go along with the fact that these are, as you mentioned, horrible, self-obsessed jerks.

(LAUGHTER)

WELDON: And there are plenty of people out there who will not make it through the first five minutes of the pilot because they feel like they don't want to care about characters who aren't, quote-unquote, "likable." But I think it's more important for characters to be compelling, even if they're as repellent as these folks are. And these four characters are repellent in slightly different ways.

DEMBY: (Laughter).

WELDON: And that's why I think the show works. I mean, I've written about this show a lot. I talk to a lot of people about this show. And the one thing I keep harping on, especially due to those who are pushing back against the fact that these characters are monsters, is, yes, they're monsters. But the show is very careful to place them in a very strict and unforgiving moral universe. OK? They don't get that they're monsters. But everyone - literally everyone around them - does. They are surrounded by audience proxies who are constantly calling them out for their behavior. Yes, they're oblivious to it, but we aren't. And it's one of the things that makes the show work because that's kind of reassuring. Like, we're not crazy; these people are awful.

I am not certain the fourth season quite nails the dismount. That depends entirely on whether this is the final season or just the fourth season. But this series is giving me, in Season 4, more of what it gave me in the first three seasons, and I'm still on board.

HARRIS: Yeah. I do think that it is trying to do even more, and sometimes it doesn't quite hit it. But I appreciate the fact that they still keep going for it and that they keep trying for new challenges. And so that's very exciting to see.

Gene, how do you feel about the show? I hear that you are a big fan.

DEMBY: I am a big fan. In fact, my wife and I, we mainlined the first season years ago, and we just forgot about it. We just forgot about the show. And then over the Christmas break, we realized that there were two more seasons, and we just, like, watched the whole thing. And then y'all hit me up like, hey, you want to talk about this? I was like, as a matter of fact...

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: ...I just got finished watching this, like, a couple hours ago.

I love this show. To Glen's point, like, one of the things that's so sticky to me about it is that all these characters are uniquely trash. Right? They're all little snowflakes of mendacity. They're all liars. But the way they lie is, like, a little different, and their relationship to, like, the fact that they are liars is a little bit different.

Drew seems to be - at least cursorily - bothered by the fact that he is a liar. Right? He seems to be angsty about it, but then he lies anyway. Elliott has constructed, like, an entire existence that is all falsehoods - right? - from his cancer diagnosis to his family, as we learned last season. And Portia's deceit is kind of more like a gentle sort of self-deception. But Dory's is much more sinister, right? Like, Dory, the way she lies, the way she can sort of improvise and spin these tales is much more sinister. And as the show goes on, you get - she seems like a much more menacing person.

And I think that's where we sort of - you know, by the end of the third season, my wife was basically like, oh, I can't rock with this woman anymore. I just don't like her.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: I just think she's a terrible person. She's done all these terrible things. And then at the end of the third season and beginning of the fourth season, Dory is locked in a basement being held hostage by this mad person, right? And so all of your sympathy is with her. And like, yo, I'm trying to - I want her to get out of there, even though - no matter how you felt about her going into that.

So I think the show does this really, really interesting thing with sympathy that's much more sort of clever than, you know, the "Breaking Bad" thing where it's like, oh, we're going to see how far it goes. I think they get you to a point where you've basically written Dory off, and then they put her in a position where you can't help but root for her.

HARRIS: I'm glad you said "Breaking Bad" because that was kind of my reference point throughout watching, especially the third season was - oh, she is really turning into this Walter White kind of character in a way. Like, she had an initial reason for wanting to do something, and then she goes above and beyond. And there are all these other paths - like, more virtuous paths she could take, and she doesn't take them. And so seeing that and seeing the way Season 4 sort of flips it out in its head is really interesting.

Brittany, how do you feel about Season 4 so far? And, you know, what have been your impressions of the show as it's evolved over the last three seasons?

LUSE: I'll do you one better, Gene. I started watching this show, like, five weeks ago.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: Over Christmas break, I got HBO Max. It felt just as exciting as getting a new car because the catalog is so deep. And we were trying to find stuff to watch, me and my fiance. We saw "Search Party," and we literally sat - and talk about mainlined, we watched all three seasons back to back to back in, like, a day and a half maybe.

DEMBY: Wow.

LUSE: I agree with a lot of the things that y'all have said, except, you know, to your point, Gene, about Dory specifically being a kind of sinister character - like, capital B, capital P Bad Person - she, to me, is the character that I still feel like I have the least understanding of her motivation for why she is the way that she is. There's, like, this really intense survival instinct that will supersede any of the rest of her reasoning or functioning. And I think that, like, those moments when you see it kick in throughout Seasons 1 through 3, I think, are some of the most telling moments for her character.

I agree the way that Season 4 starts off, where you see Dory really having to fight for her life because she's finally met somebody who literally gets her on her back in a way that no other character has been able to do. And you sort of see those survival instincts that she's used to manipulate and lie - you see her putting those to the test to be able to fight for her literal survival.

So yeah, I mean, I really have enjoyed this show. I think it's a lot of fun. I think some of the best comedic performances on TV are happening on this show. Some of the best costume design on TV...

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: ...Is happening on this show. But yeah, I just still feel like Dory's motivations are very unknowable to me in a way that I think has worked in Seasons 1 through 3. But I still want to get a little bit - I still find myself wanting more of that even in Season 4.

HARRIS: Yeah. I mean, I think it's really, really trying to dig even deeper to answer that question. Like, why is she like this? Like, what is she doing? And, you know, I'm not sure if it's entirely successful. So, you know, as we've already mentioned, she is being held hostage by this man named Chip, who's played by Cole Escola. And he's the Norman Bates vibe that I was mentioning at the top. It's a running gag throughout the season where they all refer to him as The Twink. And I - it was like, oh, this is interesting. But also, you know, how many times are we going to see a super coded queer person be a villain in a way? I think, obviously, it kind of balances itself out because there are lots of queer characters on this show. And so...

LUSE: Yeah.

HARRIS: ...It doesn't stick out as much. But I did feel like it was kind of hitting similar notes that I've seen in other movies and shows like "Psycho," even "Silence Of The Lambs." Like, yeah - so like, I was just like, are really doing this again?

DEMBY: Yeah.

HARRIS: I think where my favorite parts of the season and really almost every season is John Early as Elliott. And his narrative arc this season is picking up from last season, where he is a host on a Fox News network type of show. He was the yin to the yang of a Tomi Lahren-type conservative. And he was kind of the liberal voice, and she was the conservative, and they battled it out. And then in this season, his arc, for the most part, is about him actually taking a tonal shift. And he's told by the bosses that, like, you either need to be conservative or you're not going to move up in this world. And so he decides to completely shift. And I love that sort of pointed commentary that feels so relevant to right now.

(LAUGHTER)

HARRIS: And I also just think, like, this season, by the last several episodes, it kind of abandons all the different paths that Portia and Elliott and Drew have gone on to sort of focus on what's happening with Dory. And I kind of wanted more of that. And another storyline - and I'd love to hear your thoughts on this - was Portia, like, being cast in a movie about Dory as Dory. And this is where Busy Philipps comes in. And I just think it's just really, really sharp. What did you all think of it? Glen, what were your thoughts on that very, very meta part of the season?

WELDON: I thought it was smart because it's another way of getting at the same subject that this show has always been about, which is making jokes about millennials, which are easy to make. But they're not easy to make over the course of 40 episodes, so they do have to switch it up. And, you know, they keep digging up fresh earth like that because it is so clear to me that the calls are coming from inside the house. Like, this writer's room is not a bunch of 60-year-old white dudes smoking cigars. This show has a sensibility that is young, and it is queer. And that's why I think the Cole Escola character didn't bug me too much 'cause I kind of felt something different about it.

The way this show keeps shifting genres from season to season, it's so big and overt that it can hide the fact - it can disguise the fact that in tiny ways, in infinitesimal ways, these characters are growing. In past seasons, we've seen them be shamed by others. But this season sees each of them, Dory mostly, working through guilt for really the first time. And especially toward the latter end of the season, they are learning. They're growing incrementally, infinitesimally. John Early's Elliott, for example, is so good at showing you that he's beating himself up, but he's performing it at the same time. That's the way that performance really works for me. You get a lot of the jokes about the television industry or the movie industry that you got in previous seasons about the publishing industry. I think it's a smart way to keep this material fresh.

DEMBY: Portia has quietly - that storyline was so much fun because she's quietly become, like, my favorite character on the show, in part - because some of the line readings are just ridiculous. Like, some of the things she says - like, this is only funny because you said this. But also, this sort of weird tightrope she's walking where she's really sweet - she had these moments of profound self-regard. Right? But she says it so offhandedly that you're like, oh, she doesn't realize how this sounds. But then there are moments that she seems to be very aware of, like, everything that's happening around her. I just - I find - I think it's a really fascinating role to play. And also, because the character is an actress, you do get the sense she's like, oh, I'm just a theater kid. I'm just - you know, she's always sort of like, yay, like, game and happy and cheerful. And it's just this very weird - there's something about that performance that is just really more layered than it appears at first.

HARRIS: Yeah. I also think that there's a similarity between "Schitt's Creek" and this in that like "Schitt's Creek," they obviously evolve and become very, very sweet. And these characters on "Search Party" are never going to get to that level.

DEMBY: Right, right.

LUSE: No.

HARRIS: But even as the "Schitt's Creek" characters evolved, they still maintained, like, a sort of dimness or, like, a lack of self-awareness. They became a little bit more self-aware but, like, still totally believable that these are still the same characters fundamentally as they were at the beginning as they are at the end. And I feel like, especially the last few episodes of this season, it does a good job of balancing that act of, yes, we've changed, but also we're still - we're always going to be fundamentally kind of self-absorbed. But we're going to be a little bit more aware of our self-absorbedness (ph).

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: That's a - that makes me think about - in the previous seasons, there's always, I think, some moment in the season where at least one character goes off and kind of has their own, like, dark night of the soul by themselves. And they wonder, like, oh, am I going to become this person? Like, is this who I am now? Am I going to become a husband? - in the case of Elliott. Well, that was kind of decided for him. That was going to happen.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: Or - oh my God, when Portia started going to church - I think it was Season 3.

HARRIS: Yes, yeah.

WELDON: Yeah.

LUSE: So good - so, so, so good - like, perfect environment to put that character in just to highlight how harmless and inert she could be. But I think that it was really smart to kind of, like, separate a lot of the characters for at least part of the season while also exploring their dynamic in this meta way. By separating them, they each got to meet a character who is like a hyper version of them. Obviously, Dory's with Chip. And Chip is like - you know, Dory is off the chain as far as wanting to kill people and lie and steal and do all of these wild things. But, like, Chip is on another specific level. It's almost like I've spent all this time thinking that Dory's is evil, but it's like, well, she only kills if she has to.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: But Chip is going to go out of his way. Or even, like, with Busy Philipps' says Donna DiMarco - like, you kind of see Portia looking at Donna DiMarco kind of like, this is kind of who I want to be - but also like, is this all there is out for me in the world? Like, each of them kind of get to meet, I think, another person to be put in an environment that really reflects the truth of who they are back on them. So seeing them do that sort of separate but still seeing, like, avatars of those characters interact in, like, this really amazing version of (laughter) a TV show or a TV film, like, is really smart.

And also, too, it's like having the TV - like, the made-for-TV movie happening in the fourth season is really such a sharp commentary and the logical conclusion of everything that happened in the third season. They made this really intense commentary in Season 3 about the cult of personality and the cult of, like, the murderous celebrity and just, like, didn't leave it in Season 3, but took it to Season 4 to, like, the eventual conclusion, which is you get your Lifetime movie and, like, maybe if you're acquitted, you get some speaking engagements and get to - you know, there's like a weird economy for, you know, an acquitted accused murderer after that. And I just like, really liked how they, like, put the button on that completely.

HARRIS: Or if you're Drew, you go to work at an amusement park and fall in love with a very unhinged person.

LUSE: Yes.

(LAUGHTER)

LUSE: Which is like - I love that because that's like Drew putting the stake in the ground of who he wants to think he is.

HARRIS: Yeah.

LUSE: And then she's like, I accept you for who you are. But by the way - you know, he meets this person who is like a perfect reflection of the truth of who he is. And I just thought that was so smart.

WELDON: And a real quick shout-out to Clare McNulty, who plays Chantal.

DEMBY: Oh, my gosh. She's amazing.

WELDON: Every season she gets an episode. And I was looking forward to it because that actor has such a fascinating face. She's got this...

HARRIS: She does.

LUSE: She does.

WELDON: Her resting expression is this dull-eyed, mouth-open sneer that no matter what else is going on on screen, it just steals focus. You cannot stop watching her. She's just so funny.

HARRIS: Yeah.

DEMBY: Glen just talked about, you know, the actress who plays Chantal and her face. But I think Alia Shawkat is - like, her face might as well be a special effects. Like, it reminded me a little bit of "I Hate Suzie" or "I May Destroy You" like - and - in which, like, the main character's face is just, like, on the screen a lot - you know what I mean? - like, just like a lot of close shots of the main character's face because their faces are so distinct and they have these very interesting features. Like, obviously Alia Shawkat has all these freckles. And I didn't watch "Arrested Development," so I don't, like, know her work.

HARRIS: It's a very different role.

(LAUGHTER)

DEMBY: Yeah, I'm sure. I'm sure.

I'm always kind of shocked, when I'm watching the show, about, like, how so much of the stuff she's doing with Dory is just like a little bit of smirking here or a little bit of, like, eyebrow raise here. There's something simply chameleonic about her. I just think it's a really, really fascinating performance.

HARRIS: Honestly, all of the roles on this show are so perfectly cast. And it's just - if the writing alone wasn't enough to hook you, the delivery and the performances are just the best. And I think you can all tell that we really, really love "Search Party." And you should - if you somehow were listening to this having not seen it still, go and watch it 'cause, you know, we can only do so much justice to it. You got to experience it yourself.

We want to know what you think about "Search Party," and you can find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter @PCHH. And that brings us to the end of our show. Thank you all for being here.

WELDON: Thank you.

DEMBY: Thank you.

LUSE: Thank you. This was so fun.

HARRIS: And of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, please subscribe to our newsletter at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We'll see you all tomorrow.

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