At the end of the first season of Search Party, a comic mystery for the millennial age, Drew (John Reynolds) turns to his wide-eyed girlfriend Dory (Alia Shawkat) in disgust. “I don’t know, honestly, if you’re becoming a terrible person, or if you were always a terrible person and I just couldn’t see it,” he says. When I first heard that line last Thanksgiving, it was just one searing moment of many in TBS’s surprising, unflinching, and insightful hit show. One year—and innumerable sexual harassment and assault allegations later—it feels more like an omen, a brief glimpse of the harrowing off-screen conversations to come.
When Search Party debuted, it felt like an unusually sharp sitcom, with its crosshairs set squarely on millennial culture (insofar as such a thing can really exist). Dory, the show’s protagonist, was, like so many of her peers, adrift. Somewhere between un- and underemployed, she gave up on improving her own life and instead became obsessed with the disappearance of her “friend” Chantal, a girl she interacted with a few times in college. Dory’s boyfriend, Drew, the ultimate “good guy,” was a pushover who had acquired some feminist tendencies through osmosis; he was pulled into the madness by Dory quite easily. Along with their frenetic friends, the charmingly sociopathic Elliott (John Early) and the living embodiment of the heart eyes emoji Portia (Meredith Hagner), the group transformed from an unremarkable brunch posse into an increasingly imperiled search party.
Search Party’s first season was funny, accurate, and, as TBS gambled by releasing all its episodes at once, totally bingeable. For the first seven or eight episodes, though, it was just another raucous half-hour show loaded with one-liners that disguised, only slightly, its molten, nihilistic core. But by the first season’s end—and if you haven’t seen it, turn back now—real stakes were suddenly shoehorned into our characters’ previously trifling adventures. They commit a murder. A real, actual, even brutal murder.
As a result, the second season of Search Party is consumed with the emotional fallout of this absurd crime. Wracked with guilt over the bludgeoning and hasty burial of creepy Keith (Ron “Post-It Note” Livingston), a maudlin private investigator and Dory’s spurned lover, our antiheroes start to lose their hair and fall down in parks. The plot lines and punchlines are, naturally, less about millennials and more about, well, felonies.
After they’ve buried the body, the shaken squad spends much of their time offering jittery moral affirmations and, in turn, begging to be morally affirmed. They may have committed a murder, but insist they are not murderers. In this sense, Search Party isn’t confined to reflecting on the most-hated generation. Baby Boomers and Gen-Xers, whether they like it or not, are also blinded by high self-regard. Older Americans, too, are being asked to grapple with the Trump era’s shifting moral ground. While the way our characters grapple with these disturbing events might feel uniquely childish, it’s hard not to imagine a man like Harvey Weinstein telling himself the same thing. It’s even worse to wonder if a man like that needs no rationalization at all.
Unfortunately, this darkness only metastasizes. Perpetrators don’t exist in a vacuum; they leave behind them a trail of victims, bystanders, enablers, and other associates, all stuck in some moral in-between. A year later, Drew is no longer the only person wondering aloud what it means to love a monster. Last month, Sarah Silverman asked the same question about her long-time friend and admitted public masturbator Louis C.K. Savannah Guthrie posed it on live television, hours after NBC announced her Today Show co-host Matt Lauer had been fired over allegations of sexual assault. Neither Silverman nor Guthrie could provide answers. No one really can.
Search Party takes this conversation one unnerving step further. It not only pushes one to ponder the bad actions of good people, but whether under the right circumstances we might be bad people, too. While every character is constantly defining for themselves what’s acceptable (faking a kidnapping) and what’s not (stealing), the lines they draw feel increasingly paper thin. This nagging question of one’s own moral character is introduced most poignantly—and in the most millennial of terms—when Elliot confronts Dory about the murder. He asks her whether she killed Keith as an act of self-defense, and she struggles to answer. “He was attacking me,” she says. After a weighty pause, she adds, “Or he was trying to talk to me. It’s all still very muddled.” As Amanda Hess wrote in a New York Times Magazine essay about the word “violence,” on this point, many of Dory’s agemates would likely agree. “In addition to accusing one another of actual violence, we are now, more and more easily, counting the tenor of speech as violence enough in itself,” Hess writes. While some of this rhetorical shift may come with good intentions, she notes,
This is one predictable result of expanding the category of violence to include words and beliefs: It begins to feel reasonable, or even like a form of self-defense, to respond to words and beliefs with physical action.
On the way home from the crime scene, Portia tells the group that “Everything’s gonna be okay. You know why? Because we’re good people. We’re good people.” While she tries to stay firm, her voice falters and her uncertainty is exposed by her need to repeat herself. We’re good people. Deep down, she knows that on Search Party, as in life, no one can be truly certain about what happens next.