Film & TV

‘Search Party’ Returns to Missing-Person Roots, Stumbles Along the Way in New Season

Courtesy of HBO MaxSeason four of dark comedy "Search Party" premiered on HBO Max Jan. 14.

The investigator becomes the subject of an investigation in the newest season of dark comedy “Search Party.”

Released in three segments on HBO Max beginning Jan. 14, the much-anticipated satirical TV show returned to its 2016 premiere’s roots. But this time, it was Dory Seif (Alia Shawkat) with her face plastered on posters across New York City. 

When viewers last saw her, Dory was shackled with chains to a wooden chair, her head shaved after being knocked unconscious and kidnapped in the previous season’s cliffhanger — which premiered just six months ago. 

Her abductor is a man named Chip (Cole Escola), son of a wealthy East Coast family and face of the family’s pastry company. When Dory’s best friends Drew (John Reynolds), Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliott (John Early) realize something’s off about her “vacation,” the questioning ensues. 

Chip harbors an unhealthy obsession with Dory, prompting him to create doll look-alikes of her and her friends, get her name tattooed on his fingers, and create a life-size, plush mock-up of Dory’s living space. Though the two developed some semblance of a working relationship, Chip was ultimately a crazed, lonely soul looking for companionship. In many ways, so was Dory. 

From the start, “Search Party” tended to take a vertiginous approach to its storytelling, favoring red herrings and haphazard, back-and-forth storytelling. The characters are indecisive, and so are the show’s writers. Season four takes this to a whole new, oftentimes unbearable level. 

An upfront disclosure that there will be some spoilers from here on out. 

As Dory and her friends struggled dealing with a murder trial throughout season three, many viewers likely found themselves questioning Dory’s sanity, which seemed to plummet as that season progressed. She began believing the lies she told herself to feel better and only continued down that dark path in season four. 

Once Dory finds herself in that plush prison of Chip’s creation, her strong-willed nature kicks in, immediately looking for a way to escape. That’s the Dory viewers came to know and love, but she doesn’t stick around much. She’ll manage an exit, only to end up back in Chip’s grasp. After a few failed attempts, Dory allows herself to be brainwashed into submission, and it’s infuriatingly difficult to watch. 

Courtesy of WarnerMedia Chip (Cole Escola) created a plush, life-size version of Dory’s apartment in which he kept her locked.

The result is Dory and Chip playing a game of cat and mouse for the first half of the season. That’s five 30-minute episodes that do little to enhance the plot, and it doesn’t make for great TV.

By the time the gang manages to uncover Dory’s location, she doesn’t even want to go back home with them as she was convinced by Chip they were bad and unworthy friends. (Though it’s questionable how good of friends they were when it took them embarrassingly long to even realize she’s not actually in Europe.)

The four friends were already standing on plate tectonics ready to shift. Their relationship was understandably strained by the recent trial, resulting in each facing their own issues and demons. 

What better time for the season to air than amid an ongoing pandemic that has many people questioning themselves and their futures? 

Courtesy of HBO Max Dory’s best friends (from left) Portia, Drew and Elliott begin their search for her after realizing she wasn’t on vacation in Europe.

Drew attempts to take on a new fantasy life with a job at an amusement park, and he’s stuck worrying about and missing Dory, as much as he tries not to. Portia remains Portia, looking for acting gigs and attention wherever she can get it. 

Comparably, Elliott’s moral groundings continue to be about as anchored as a feather blowing in the wind. Most notable is his pivot from being a steadfast liberal to a far-right conservative because this way, he’d get his demanded pay raise. It’s comedic in the way the show best knows how to be. 

The show shined, especially in the first season, when the group was together. Their chemistry, humor and interactions — as flawed as they often were — was the glue that held everything together. Paired with the thrill and anticipation surrounding the central mystery, it was hard not to let autoplay serve its purpose. 

But with Dory gone and the others doing their own separate thing for more screen time than usual, it’s lackluster. Season four suffered here, and writers must have known it because a plot line was introduced where Portia was cast to play Dory in a satirical movie about the friend group’s life. 

A surrealist ending reveals people clad in black attending Dory’s funeral, only for her to be shown awake in an ambulance after being pulled from a house fire. Hoping Dory is, in fact, alive, a potential season five has some interesting material to work with.

The fate of “Search Party” is currently up in the air, as the aforementioned season has yet to be announced, but if that’s going to happen and be successful, this nosedive is going to need reckoning. 

“Search Party” is available to stream on HBO Max.

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