“Can You Believe We Get To Do This?”: Alia Shawkat On The Ridiculous Ambition Of ‘Search Party’

No show swings as big as 'Search Party'.

Alia Shawkat Search Party

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No show swings as big as Search Party. Across its four seasons, it’s evolved into one of TV’s most ambitious shows by shifting genre and scope each season — it’s a comedy-noir-mystery-psychological-thriller-court-drama, led by insufferable millennials who aren’t just killing every industry, but people.

In the beginning, Search Party was essentially ‘Gone Girls’, an existential mystery where lost Brooklynite Dory (Arrested Development‘s Alia Shawkat) becomes obsessed with finding a missing college acquaintance, Chantal. Far from altruistic, Dory’s search is more about finding meaning than Chantal — and it leads her and her friends down a bloody path.

As the stakes rise each season, Dory’s world gets more and more ridiculous: in the recently dropped S4, she’s stuck in a Misery of her own making when a crazed wig-fiend (Cole Escola, in a show-stealing role) kidnaps her after her murder trial turns her into a celebrity.

Escaping a basement prison isn’t exactly standard comedy material, and a large part of the show’s appeal has been watching it balance out the big ideas and dramatic moments with its ridiculousness. Shawkat, 31, who speaks over Zoom from her apartment, wearing a royal purple blazer while smoking a cigarette, says that the show’s tone comes from a ‘generational shorthand’, where nothing is ever that serious.

“We just feel like a bunch of kids who were given money,” says Shawkat, who is also a producer on the show. “We’re like, ‘can you believe we get to do this? Like, really?’ I feel very lucky — Search Party is so precious to me.”

Co-created by Charles Rogers and Sarah Violet Bliss with help from Wet Hot American Summer‘s Michael Showalter, Search Party tackles a ‘generational ennui’, quotation marks and all — it mocks its own millennial-ness with earnest love, as Dory and her friends’ biggest worry is finding a sense of contentment post-college (before the murders, at least).

Having few problems and fewer concrete life goals, each character is quietly lost, forced to compromise their morals and endlessly hustle towards the life of success and connection they vaguely imagine for themselves.

Dory’s boyfriend, the handsome, tall, wealthy and white-bread Drew (John Reynolds) has so many layers of privilege that his life requires almost no agency; actress Portia (Meredith Hagner) is so eager to be liked she’ll be anything anyone wants; and Elliott (John Early) is a social-climbing scammer who lies about having cancer to get a memoir.

They’re more insufferable than Hannah Horvath and Marnie combined, but the key difference is that Search Party makes it clear that Dory and co’s lives are a joke. Worst of all, they know it too, which only pushes them further.

“They don’t have to be likeable all the time, but you understand the core of why they’re making the choice based on who this character is,” says Shawkat. “And then you just kind of go along for the ride. So the show does have this kind of cringe, like, ‘Oh my God, they’re just going for it. Like why?’ — And I think that’s great television, ’cause it makes you excited and you don’t know where it’s going to go.”

Finding Dory

Despite growing up playing Maeby Fünke on Arrested Development, Shawkat attributes Search Party as the show that’s taught her the most about television and acting.

“We always talk about it as like college, you know, cause we’ve been doing it for years now, and I think we’ve all grown so much professionally and personally making it, because we all support each other so much,” she says. “I’ve learned so much of like just how to express myself honestly on a set.”

Shawkat is currently working on writing her own TV show, based loosely off her own experiences, and says the way Search Party continually “amps it up” has been a major inspiration.

“I never felt like, ‘Oh,you know, Dory again, okay, I can do that’. [Instead], it’s like, ‘Oh God, where’s Dory now?’ It’s just very exciting every season,” she says, though admits some of Dory’s bloodier and bolder choices in recent seasons made it hard to find the good in her.

“I’m always trying to find the truth of her — I always have to be like, well, ‘why is she doing it?’,” she says. “She’s doing it to protect herself. She believes it’s right. The courtroom season, that was harder [to understand], but she believes this is the way up. She believes she didn’t do anything wrong and she doesn’t want to take any responsibility for it and she just goes for it, you know?.”

Responsibility comes up again and again in Search Party, as characters refuse to accept that they’ve done anything wrong — whether that be murder, kidnapping or something much smaller. Lawyers, cops, politicians, journalists, nosy neighbours, theme park workers — they’re all ready to compromise their own morals to get ‘ahead’ in some way, meaning that Search Party‘s world of Brooklynites and resentful boomers is as ruthless as it is ridiculous.

Each small role is a scene-stealer, and it’s no surprise S4 lands cameos from Susan Sarandon, Busy Phillipps and Ann Dowd (the last of who was in Shawkat’s favourite scene), who run with their roles. Each character is convinced they’re the protagonist of their own show, which makes them cold and clueless at the same time — but they’re not exactly wrong, either.

“Most of the time, everybody else is like in a whole other show [from Dory], you know,” Shawkat says. “‘Cause sometimes on set I’m like, ‘am I playing this like too heavy, like too real’? [But] it’s funny because it balances out. ”

“Even in the first season, John Early, who’s so brilliant, is like doing his thing, and I’m doing mine — and these are different shows, and yet there’s a truth. There’s a line that connects us. And I think that’s what makes [Search Party] stand out. So instead of comedy being a choice of escapism, it’s making fun of ourselves. There’s a dark truth to this humour.”

It’s impressive how S4 ties together Search Party‘s many, many threads while unpacking the psyche of Dory’s captor Chip (Escola), a terrifyingly sad, delusional twink version of Norman Bates. The storyline is so jarring that Search Party can begin to feel like Saw; Escola’s unhinged comedic delivery, honed in their work on At Home With Amy Sedaris, keeps the torture entertaining.

While the early half of the season lags a little in the setup, fans should know by now to trust the show’s writers. And the pay-off is strong, as it works itself up to a profound finale three episodes where characters are forced to consider what they could be without the grift.

“The first season was the whole time, until the ending, was [Dory] just like sweetly being like, ‘I’m just trying to help’,” says Shawkat. “And then you realize she wasn’t trying to help — she created the whole thing in her head, and that theme has been strong throughout the show. It’s like, ‘how much is she this doing all this just to validate herself?'”.

The same could be said of any of Search Party‘s characters, large and small. Dory just makes sure she gets the most attention.

Search Party is now streaming on Stan.

Jared Richards is Junkee’s Drag Race recapper and a freelancer who has written for The Guardian, The Big Issue and more. He’s on Twitter.