Fresh off the critical acclaim for their eccentric TBS comedy, Search Party, selected by Paste staff and TV writers as one of the 16 Best New TV Shows of 2016, series co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers are serene, even strangely so. It might be the particular Zen of a last-minute interview in the midst of the holiday hubbub, but more likely, as Rogers points out, it’s part of the perspective he and Bliss gleaned from their first feature, Fort Tilden, which debuted at SXSW in 2014.
“We didn’t know to anticipate that half the audience would hate it with all their hearts and that half the audience would love it,” Rogers remembers, calling the more effusive praise for Search Party “surprising and awesome.”
In truth, it might be the series’ willingness to risk polarizing viewers that’s won the affection of critics (myself included), so rarely caught off guard amid the glut of “peak TV.” Search Party is an often unsettling portrait of two women at loose ends, wrapped in a satire of “millennial” manners, wrapped in an absurdist mystery, a TV series that manages to recall Girls, Gone Girl, and David O. Russell’s underappreciated I Heart Huckabees all at once. It’s exactly this heady brew, requiring an exacting precision of tone at every turn, that appeals to Bliss and Rogers’ comic sensibilities.
On the subject of “millennials,” Rogers hastens to add that the series’ uncanny rendering of the generational patois—modeled on friends and acquaintances—is “incidental” to the series, which he and Bliss see as a much broader story about trying to lead a meaningful life. Unlike certain of its more aimlessly plotted forerunners, after all, Search Party brings a ruthless sense of humor to the proceedings without treating its plot as mere window dressing.
“When we wrote the show, we were definitely writing the plot first,” Bliss says of Search Party’s central narrative, in which Dory (Arrested Development alumna Alia Shawkat) enlists her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds) and their insensitive friends, Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner), to find a college classmate who’s gone missing. Mapping out the mystery’s main elements on a whiteboard, she and Rogers initially worried that the comedy wouldn’t come through, but after layering the series’ razor-sharp humor atop each twist, the result was a riotous TV series with a bracingly dark heart.
“When you just talk about it in these plot points, it’s like, ‘Is this going to be funny?’” Bliss says. “But each piece will have something hilarious that comes out of the tragedy of it. There’s always something funny to me about someone getting really upset. The vulnerability of people is funny.”
(“I wouldn’t mind that, actually,” Rogers quips, when I suggest that “The vulnerability of people is funny” might be Search Party’s unofficial tagline.)
Indeed, from the outset, Bliss and Rogers agreed that the series’ first season should conclude on a dramatic note, even if it took the full writers’ room to nail down the—brilliant, totally unexpected—details.
“We had to go into the pitches with a bible, a trajectory,” Rogers says. “So we knew we wanted it to end in a climactic reveal. Our idea of it felt the same, even though the specifics became very different in the writers’ room. When we discovered that ending on the first day together, [it] kind of dictated the whole writing process. Once we found it, we really knew what the show was, actually.”
In answer to that question—What is Search Party really about?—Bliss and Rogers echo the notion that meaning is not so much found as created, and that Dory’s obsessive search for the missing woman, Chantal Winterbottom (Clare McNulty), is a particularly forceful expression of the need to do so.
“I think about this all the time: Everything in your life is just completely made up,” Bliss says. “What’s it for? [The show] is basically asking that question. And you sometimes turn out to be exactly what you fear. Dory and Chantal are exactly the same.”
“I think the ironic perspective of the show is that the meaningless pursuit of meaning is both empty and beautiful,” Rogers adds later. “I think that’s the show’s ultimate mission statement: It’s all we have.”
The series’ distinctiveness—including this faintly existential quality—is the consequence of a serendipitous confluence of factors, according to Bliss and Rogers. After partnering with co-creator and executive producer Michael Showwalter’s Jax Media to shoot the pilot independently, the pair were looking for a network to pick up Search Party straight to series—right as TBS, now home to Full Frontal with Samantha Bee, Angie Tribeca, and Wyatt Cenac’s People of Earth, began to emerge as the home to some of TV’s most inventive comedies.
“We had heard that TBS was going through this transition phase,” Bliss says. “When they wanted to meet with us, we were kind of like, ‘Really?’ But the network has been extremely supportive. It was incredible timing to be pitching to this network that was in the middle of this transition.”
Early, whose self-obsessed Elliott Goss landed on Paste’s list of the 20 Best TV Characters of 2016, was the first actor Bliss and Rogers wanted for the series, having worked with him on Fort Tilden. (They texted him every other week in the early stages to make sure he’d be free.) And the independent pilot’s four-day shoot made it possible for Shawkat — “She was the coolest person we had ever met,” Rogers says — to give the role a spin without making a huge commitment up front.
Now, Search Party seems likely to become one of the series responsible for the redefinition of TBS, and planning for its second season—premiere date still TBD—is slated to begin in the New Year. After the fireworks of the Season One finale, both Bliss and Rogers say they’ll focus on the characters’ respective responses in Season Two, promising to hold on to Search Party’s air of adventure and suspense.
“There’s so much to unpack with the consequences of [the characters’] actions in the first season,” Rogers says. “We all feel pretty confident that there’s a lot to mine from what happens after the finale.”
The first season of Search Party re-airs in its entirety tonight at 7:30 p.m. on TBS.
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.