A former fan wonders why the HBO Max seasons suck
Back in early 2018, I told anyone who would listen about Search Party, then a TBS dark comedy and murder mystery show centered around Brooklyn millennial stereotypes. I suggested it to all my friends and even trapped many in my apartment to force them to watch the pilot. I changed my Facebook cover photo—back when that was still a thing—to a screenshot from the second season, a box of cupcakes, written in icing, “I had sex with your wife.”
The second season had just aired, and after seeing Alia Shawkat’s face on the show’s ads, I reluctantly downloaded the incredibly clunky TBS app for Roku and tucked in. And that first season… oh, man. The first season of Search Party is some of the best television I’ve ever watched in my life. Shawkat’s Dory ropes her boyfriend Drew and friends Portia and Elliot into finding their missing friend from college, Chantal, and then eventually, into a murder plot of her own devices. The storytelling is tight, and each character is rendered in exquisite—often painful —detail.
Our four heroes are the kinds of hipster stereotypes I hate, but also worry that I see so much of myself in. The guest stars—Ron Livingston, Christine Taylor, Rosie Perez, Parker Posey, Michael Showalter, Judy Reyes, and Succession queen J. Smith-Cameron in the later seasons—are spot on, and everything feels just the right amount of absurd, like they’re living in the same world as me but it’s ten percent sillier. For example, Portia, a blonde white woman, only plays “ethnic roles,” including a no-nonsense Spanish-speaking detective in her network prime-time TV breakthrough.
The second season is an admirable addition to the series, navigating the aftermath of finding Chantal, committing a horrific murder, and dealing with the fallout. The show pushes our characters in really interesting ways, and its 90-10 real life-absurd balance remains intact. A liberal politician (Smith-Cameron) sends nudes of her ass to members of her campaign staff. In the midst of a murder, our four leads all pronounce new friend Mathieu’s name with their best French Canadian accent. The storytelling was a little less satisfyingly tight, but I could live with it.
Since then, I’ve watched the incredibly digestible series—ten episodes per season all clocking in under 25 minutes—dozens of times. Honestly It was only natural, then, that when the third season dropped on HBO Max on June 25, 2020, after a two-year hiatus, I watched it all in one day. But something had changed. The characters I knew and left felt like strangers to me and didn’t deliver that same satisfaction that I’d come to know from the show. And now, months later, I feel safe saying: I hate it.
With all the ad money and fancier production of HBO, Search Party is now a very different TV show. Season 3 is a police procedural, where the system tries Dory and Drew for Keith (Livingston)’s murder. Dory’s committed another murder, is courting quite a media frenzy and has gotten a stalker, all the while making decisions that don’t jive with the woman we’ve known for two seasons. She’s in denial, she’s cold—all this time covering up Keith’s murder has clearly gotten to her. But the audience doesn’t really get that.
Part of what makes season two so stand-out is its moments of interiority; we see all four characters grapple with what’s happened and what that means about them as people. The end of episode two of that season is a perfect example. The four drive home in a daze after delivering Chantal to her parents.
“We’re gonna be the only people we know who’ve gone through something like this,” says Dory.
“No, Dory, um, no. I mean, for all we know most of our friends could have done this,” says Portia, before reassuring, “You guys, I just have to say I have a really good feeling everything’s going to be okay. Thinking back on it, we did such a sophisticated job covering this up…Everything’s going to be okay. You know why? Because we’re good people, we’re good people.”
“And you know that’s the way we should look at it. That we are good people who were subjected to a really unfortunate situation, and that’s all,” says Dory. The next 30 seconds follow the faces of the four in the car, slowing letting that idea sink in. Portia starts to cry, Drew runs a hand over his face, Dory and Elliot stare at the middle distance. It’s a heavy, heavy scene.
New Dory feels no such remorse. I assume she’s feeling numb and afraid, and is shutting down a little. But I don’t really see any of that. Instead, I see a character making all kinds of wild decisions without much rhyme or reason, and I don’t feel particularly bad for her.
Search Party’s fourth season gets back to its ritual roots in a missing-girl-mystery, only now Dory is the one on the missing posters. It reminds me of the second season of Prison Break: after Wentworth Miller completes the show’s mission of breaking his brother out of prison, he inexplicably has to go back to prison and do it again. The do-over plot makes the differences between seasons one and four all the more stark.
It’s as if, with HBO Max at the helm, the show’s scale quadrupled: Yes, this is an exact replica of Dory’s apartment in her kidnapper’s basement. Yes, we’re featuring expensive guest stars. (Susan Sarandon is in season four!) Now it seems like every character, now matter how minor, has to have a big personality or say something outlandish. It doesn’t feel as spot-on or special when everyone’s acting silly. Where’s my 90-10 balance?
But in getting so big, the show’s skipped over the things that made the first two seasons unforgettable. Someone literally kidnaps Dory, locks her in a basement cell, and leaves her to think over the last few years of her life, including getting acquitted for Keith’s murder and ruining all of her relationships. The legal system may have let her go, but the universe did not. And do we see any emotional come-to-Jesus? Shawkat acts her ass off, but her Dory is a monster, no longer a human being. She literally (spoiler alert) has to die to get any perspective on her life.
HBO Max’s Search Party is overdone and emotionless, which sucks the life out of how creative and talented its production is. I mean, Busy Phillips, Ann Down and freakin’ Goosebumps writer R.L. Stine are in season four! But as a diehard fan, no fancy sets or actors can replace how great the original show was.