A millennial is missing. That’s almost always the plot of Search Party, isn’t it? Be it the eccentric Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty), nosy neighbor April (Phoebe Tyers), or heroine Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) herself, every season of the TBS-turned-HBO-Max series pursues some semblance of a missing person pursuit. And yet, each of the four seasons so far still manage to feel like different genres of television, framing new hijinks and captors like a fresh game of Clue every time. Even though the basic idea (a millennial has gone missing, again) seems repetitive, Season 4 of Search Party is still discovering fun new riddles to solve.
This season—once again created by the witty team of Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter—flips the script on Dory. Now being held captive by her obsessive fan Chip (Cole Escola), her face has become the one plastered on missing posters lining New York City street corners. It’s an unexpected turn for the headstrong Dory, but her abduction gives some much-needed breathing room for the other key players of the series. Her unwavering, devilish control over Drew (John Reynolds), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and Elliott (John Early) had worn thin in the last season of Search Party. Season 4 isolates her, putting a kibosh on the act and finally releasing the trio from Dory’s reins.
Though they stumble at first, calling Dory to scream at her for dashing off to Europe (staged by Chip), all three get over her and are better for it. Drew gives himself a new name and nabs a job at a theme park, hopping into a lion costume and performing for children. (He’s pretty good at it, too!) It’s always odd to see Drew smiling instead of looking like a blank-faced mouth-breather—but maybe, for once, he’s actually happy. He’s even got a new girlfriend. Still, he’s uncomfortable. When is he not?
Naturally, the best subplots of the season fall on Portia and Elliott, always the star performers of Search Party. Elliott nails his new gig at a conservative talk show, opposing the Tomi Lahren-esque Charlie Feeny (Chloe Fineman). In fact, he’s so damn good that the network asks him to come out as a Republican, host his own show, and release a sequined line of handguns. As for Portia, Season 4 finds her auditioning to play herself in a movie about Dory’s shenanigans. In true Comeback fashion, she’s cast in the show—only, she’ll be playing Dory, with Donna DiMarco (Busy Phillips) snatching the role of Portia Davenport. Now sporting short curly hair and freckled cheeks, Portia drags herself through the whole Chantal caper all over again. (Honestly, there could be a whole season about the making of this goofy film—it’s brilliant.)
Though the parts of Search Party Season 4 that focus on Drew, Elliott, and Portia pass quickly and will leave you looking for more laughs, the whole Dory situation needs tending to, and takes up most of the new season’s time. Besides the first season spent looking for Chantal, Season 4 is Dory’s best arc yet. She’s still trying to find herself, and although it sounds counterintuitive, being trapped frees an untapped side of Dory. No longer a lost nobody, a feverish murderer, nor a spunky Roxie Hart on trial, Dory becomes an entirely new person. Shawkat delivers a bone-chilling performance, based less in long speeches or quippy dialogue and more in blazing full-body reactions.
The only downside to Dory’s story this season lies within her antagonist, Chip. Though Escola puts on a brilliant charade of creepy infatuation, his backstory is weak, unmotivated, and kind of problematic. He often dresses as a woman, donning his Aunt Lylah’s redheaded wigs and long fur coats. His character resembles a transphobic stereotype similar to that of Silence of The Lambs, one that labels trans folk as dangerous others, pinning their repression on their prisoner. But it’s left unclear whether Chip is actually transgender or just using Lylah’s clothes as a mask—sometimes he calls it a disguise, other times he seems to prefer her identity over his own. Hopefully, a subsequent season could spend more time developing Chip’s backstory and motives.
Guest roles in Search Party are one of the many highlights of the series, and Season 4 is no different. From Parker Posey as a glorious cult leader to Shalita Grant’s sassy, fashionable lawyeress (upsettingly, she does not return this season), the series has always had a knack for a cameo or quick guest role. This time around, Busy Phillips nails her appearance as both the actress Donna DiMarco and in the role she accepts as Portia. Chloe Fineman makes a welcome return to the series, channeling all of the goodness from her SNL impressions to embody a conservative TV host. And then, of course, there’s Susan Sarandon—whose triumphant entrance is better left as a surprise.
Following suit with the genre jumps made in the three seasons before this (where Search Party went from mystery to thriller to courtroom genre) Season 4 departs once more from the show as we know it. There’s no clear-cut way to label this season: sometimes it’s a coming-of-age, sometimes it’s horror, sometimes it’s a psychological thriller. And even though each season of Search Party is different than the last, this season feels entirely new. The irony and millennial jabs are still here and there, but the tone is more serious. It’s what the series needed, however, as jokes and gimmicks were starting to fall short.
Ultimately, Season 4 of Search Party is as much about the finding as it is about being lost. Sure, most of the season is either spent on Dory’s attempted escapes or her friends looking for her, but there’s a lot more discovery in between the lines of Dory’s disappearance. Each of the four main characters is lost inside their own minds: Dory is unsure of how to distance herself from her grisly past, Drew can’t figure out how to love anyone else, Elliott can’t distinguish his passion for fame from his morals, and Portia struggles to sacrifice her friendships for acting. For a handful of basic millennials, these are some pretty complex inner conflicts.
Though there’s no announcement regarding Season 5 at the moment, Search Party has poised their quartet for another fascinating season. The one subject left up in the air: who will go missing next?
The first three episodes of Search Party Season 4 premiere Thursday, January 14th on HBO Max, with three episodes also dropping the week after that, finishing up with four in its final week of release.
Fletcher Peters is a New York-based journalist whose writing has appeared in Decider, Jezebel, and Film School Rejects, among other spots. You can follow her on Twitter @fietcherpeters gossiping about rom-coms, TV, and the latest celebrity drama.
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