Searching for the Meaning of Life with ‘Search Party’ Creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss

Search Party
By  · Published on December 5th, 2017

“There hasn’t been a time when humans haven’t been entirely psychotic.”

There are very few shows on TV that are able to comment on millennial culture in a realistic way. Obviously, the millennial identity is not just one thing, but there is a general image that comes to mind when the word is used. The image usually involves iPhone addiction, brunch, and financial dependence on one’s parents. Girls is the TV show that probably comes to mind when talking about this relatively new social creature.

Search Party, now in its second season, has been described as Gone Girls, a show with the stakes of Gone Girl in the world of Girls. The show expertly rides the line between millennial satire and truly surprising suspense—with a dash of broad yet grounded performances that are reminiscent of Mel Brooks’s High Anxiety and Woody Allen’s Manhattan Murder Mystery. The show’s pitch-perfect tone is created by the stunning cast anchored by Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds, Meredith Hagner, and John Early who all deliver sharp performances with virtuosic precision and the brilliant production team behind them. Conducting the group are the show’s young creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss.

Charles and Sarah-Violet on set with Alia Shawkat and John Reynolds

We spoke with the creators just as Search Party was about to hit the middle of its ten-episode season. In our discussion, the writing partners talked about the thematic through-lines that connect their feature film Fort Tilden and Search Party, how Trump’s election affected the narrative of season two, and why gymnastics represents the absurdness of life.

FSR: Charles, you’ve touched on your interest in sincerity and irony in other interviews. You try to fuse both of them into almost the same moment. It sounds a little like meta-modernism to me. How do you try to fuse those two opposites as a writing team?

Charles: Oh, that’s interesting, I wonder what that interview was. [Laughs] I think that it comes down to both of our sensibilities both separately and together. I guess I’ve said this often, but I guess how we both are kind of hypercritical but empathetic people—I would say that’s a common thing we have. So I think that influences the way in which we write and portray people. So I feel like that sort of ends up being that thing you’re talking about where on the one hand we’re making fun of all of our characters but on the other hand, we treat their problems as very real. We both understand that everyone’s problems are a really big deal to them, and that has to be treated with respect even though they’re ridiculous problems and people.

Sarah-Violet: It’s that thing of you really love the characters and the people you’re portraying and you see them in real life. Like, Charles and I will share screenshots of Instagram posts that friends that we love dearly have posted, but they reveal something about them that is more transparent than that person realizes—and how people present themselves and think, “Oh, this is the way to connect,” when really it’s actually misguided and obvious that there’s something more selfish behind it.

Sarah-Violet, I was listening to your episode of Make Me Like It where you talk about Gymnastics, and I thought it was interesting how you explained gymnastics where the moral of the story was hard work doesn’t necessarily get you what you want. That sentiment is really reflected in Search Party. Why is it important to you to include this message in your work?

SV: I really respond to the tragic figure that wants this kind of greatness. When I think about gymnastics, I love gymnastics obviously, and how it’s so cool to see what the human body is capable of, which also is connected to their passion for this thing. Particularly gymnastics—that’s just so weird to just dedicate so much of your life; in order to be an Olympic gymnast that’s all you do. At the end of the day, you can be a better gymnast than the person who got gold but just because you performed not as well on that day [you don’t win]. It kind of all relates back to what everyone is trying to do with their lives—it’s just get recognition for doing something great, but you’re not necessarily capable of doing that, and what is your impact on the world going to be? At the end of the day, what is a gold medal anyway? It kind of illustrates the absurdness of life and what is actually meaningful and what isn’t. Basically, the experience of being human and to want things is something I like to unpack and think about and see how everyone just wants the same thing which is like shelter, food, and sex, and they all go about it different ways.

And even when they achieve those things it still almost isn’t satisfying. Like in Search Party when they find Chantal it’s not satisfying; in Fort Tilden when they make it to the beach it’s not satisfying.

Charles: We had this teacher at NYU who does astrological readings, and she was telling me that based on my chart I’m chronically dissatisfied, and it makes me sad to think that is absolutely true. I just did a meditation retreat, and I just always feel like something isn’t right or not enough, which is a terrible, miserly disposition to have. I was meditating, and I was like, “What does this come down to?” I essentially am just wanting it to be another time period or I want to be a different person, and I will not receive either of those, so what in my core makes me so unsatisfied with life? Which is a super privileged problem to have. But I feel sad often that that is truly at the core of me. There’s something always upsetting about the state of the world that is impossible to ignore, and I think maybe that has more to do with feeling self-loathing and projecting that I’m interested in characters whose internal problems end up being projections onto the world because that’s how we usually deal with dissatisfaction.

Another big theme of Search Party itself is the war between apathy and extreme action. Like Drew with his Milkshakes in season one. This is something culturally that we struggle with. Why do you think we have this hesitancy to act in a broader cultural sense?

Charles: I think we know more than previous generations knew before about the scope of the world. I fly to a new city, and I am just shocked over and over again that there are people living their lives in cities all around the world. There are just too many people in the world. I feel like my parent’s generation in the 60s, I’m sure it was exhilarating to see the number of bodies showing up at events, and that must have been so powerful. But I feel like now it’s really impossible to ignore the fact that corporations are in charge of everything, and you have a relative amount of agency at all times, but you have to take pride in Facebook posts because that’s your sphere of influence now. There are plenty of people making a difference by actually doing charitable work all day long, and I am not one of those people. I guess I just feel like we know too much now.

SV: I agree. It’s that thing where particularly in this past year there’s something new and horrible on the news every day. Like a new shooting—I think I read somewhere it’s like everyone is trying to figure out the right way to describe their shooting as something like, “the biggest shooting in this part of Kansas to date.” Like it just keeps getting more and more specific because otherwise an hour later there will be some other news story. You can’t be heartbroken every time you hear these stories. You have to kind of be like, “Ugh, well what about just my problems, I guess.” Which is like the apathy of the world and how does it affect me?

Going off of what you said about this last year—this angle is tired at this point, but I think it’s important and necessary when talking about your show is the Era of Trump question. Your show has a unique ability to address the changes that have happened over the past year in an accessible way. What were the conversations like between the first and second season in regard to change in administration and social change?

SV: Yeah, I mean, god. When you’re writing a show that is so plot-heavy and also takes place in a metropolis—I have no idea what the future holds. We felt very much like, “We have no idea what it’s going to be like,” right after Trump won. It’s just like, “I have no idea.” And then as you start to live it you kind of start to understand it better, and then that just gets infused in the work as you’re doing it. It kind of comes naturally. I remember in another writers room there was so much talk in the lead up to the election about like, “Oh good, look at how low the pole is for Trump. Everything’s going to be fine.” And then on Election Day that just totally exploding and shattering, and a week after the election [the first season of] our show came out. And it was just like, “This show doesn’t even matter anymore. Who cares?” But now there’s something on the bright side that is I don’t think this whole Weinstein stuff would have happened if Trump hadn’t been elected, so that’s good. We’re just beginning to discover what it is and putting it into the work.

Charles: We felt like it would suck if we did not try to represent something about the political change. It would make the show purely entertainment if we did not somehow build that into the world of it. But that is really tricky because even just saying the name Trump in the show would suddenly feel satirical or thin or weird so we talked a lot about that. It was definitely in some ways one of the most perplexing aspects of writing this show. In the end we settled for a few things: one of which is just the very nature of the way the first season ends and the second season picks up is this is a much darker season, and this is a more do or die, high-stakes season which is kind of reflective of the pressure everyone felt especially right after he was elected and there were so many marches. Even now with North Korea, the stakes are so insanely high. Also we wanted to have a political theme in this season, so we settled on this fictional politician that Dory works for who is named Mary Ferguson who is kind of a hybrid Hillary Clinton and Elizabeth Warren and then fade away from anything too overt and made it more about [how Ferguson treats her campaign staff]. And now it’s so crazy that [workplace conduct] is such a huge part of the moment. We weren’t expecting that, and I’m interested in seeing how people receive it all things considered because in some weird way I feel like we just threw things together that we felt would stay away from being distasteful but still feel poignant, and I feel like we somehow caught up with the way things are moving. I’m interested to see what people feel about that.

Yeah, I was so surprised watching the second half of the season how prescient it is.

SV: I know.

Charles: It’s crazy.

Wrapping up, probably the show’s biggest through line is the question of how people make meaning—how people perceive things and define themselves and identify themselves. That theme even goes back to Fort Tilden where Harper says something like, “People see what they want to see.” Why is this idea of meaning-making important to both of you to portray in your work?

SV: I think it’s what drives people to live their lives and make life bearable—to find some sort of meaning in their life, but ultimately I generally believe that you only make meaning out of what you want to. Like someone gets awarded the Oscar just because we believe that the people who voted for them have the right to vote for them, so now we all believe that they are the best actor in the world for this year. Everything is just based on beliefs, and nothing is actually solidified in that way, so how do you decide what is meaningful to you and thus the world and do you care if the world cares and all that stuff? I don’t know, it fascinates me the way we put some things on a pedestal and want to achieve those things and desire them, whether or not we at the core think that it matters. In certain contexts, it does really matter, and in certain contexts, it doesn’t like when you look at the big picture you’re like, “That means nothing.” I just find that worth unpacking.

Charles: I really like talking about this. It brings me back to college in such a good way. It is weird that Fort Tilden and Search Party both share that because that was nothing that we set out to do. I really do feel like it is the most meaningful, existential conversation to have, and how ultimately everything is ideology and perception and there are no facts in terms of how we perceive the world because it’s entirely subjective. I went to the Met a few months ago and there was this huge panel from this Spanish painter. It was this enormous tableau of heaven and hell and every saint and it was from like the 17oos, and it’s like, “Oh, god, there hasn’t been a time when humans haven’t been entirely psychotic.” And that’s so upsetting. I’m no more right because my life is just a series of phones and whatever current thing exists and a very loose sense of spirituality or whatever. There’s never been a time when we haven’t been insane as a reaction to not being able to like fully conceive our existence. And I think that extends into the most subtle ways. I think it’s really exciting to touch on that because that’s kind of the only real thing we know to talk about on the deepest level of conversation.

Red Dots

Catch Search Party on TBS—Sundays at 10:00 and 10:30 pm. 

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Currently on the lam from three California public library systems.