The Search For Narcissism In Search Party

By  · Published on January 6th, 2017

Trying to find yourself is more complex than it seems in TBS’s new comedy.

TBS introduced a lot of new shows in 2016, including Full Frontal with Samantha Bee and People of Earth. Both have been renewed for their second seasons this year, and joining them will be the hybrid-genre, serialized dark comedy/thriller Search Party. The 10-episode first season revolves around the lives of a group of post-university 20-somethings, with the focus being on the insecure Dory (played by Alia Shawkat). A distant friend of theirs goes missing, and Dory, a character who is unsure of where she should go and what she should do with her life, remedies her insecurities by taking on the case for herself, despite the fact no one has asked her to. Search Party is a show in which the search for a missing person is what motivates its characters, but at the centre of their motivation lies an ingrained, everyday narcissism. For some it’s obvious (see: John Early’s Elliott), while for others (mainly Dory) it’s a quiet kind that results in a darkly comic, but mostly sad, dénouement when discovering that no, not everything does have meaning.

With the comic scenes interrupted by cutaway shots to the missing Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) running in dark alleys and looking sullen as she travels on a night coach, the mystery of where she is and why she’s missing remains a captivating part of Search Party throughout the season. These noir-esque touches allow Witherbottom’s narrative to become a stylized and suspenseful experience when watching the show. Yet it’s the second narrative, the dark comedic satire of the characters’ narcissistic, self-absorption that makes the show original, making it clear that finding Chantal is motivated by their desire for adventure rather than a concern for their distant friend.

When Dory tells her friends of Chantal’s disappearance in the first episode, their reactions set up the self-awareness of each character that is created by the show’s writers. Dory’s two wealthy-because-of-their-parents friends, the attention-hungry and uncommitted Elliot (Early) and the constantly upbeat aspiring actress Portia (Meredith Hagner), react by wondering if they had slept with the waiter, and posting a ‘sad’ tweet after saying Chantal sucked. Meanwhile, Dory’s boyfriend of three years, the fake-deep ‘Nice Guy’ named Drew (John Reynolds), is more concerned with trying to get an extra serving of ketchup for his fries than exploring, as episode one is titled, “The Mysterious Disappearance of Chantal Witherbottom.” With these two-dimensional friends acting as the backdrop to Dory’s three-dimensional personality, it’s easy to confuse Dory’s desire to find Chantal as a genuine act of concern for a long-lost friend rather than a self-preserving attempt to try to find herself.

Yet as the season goes on audiences enter what Matt Zoller Seitz calls “a long journey into the heroine’s emotional interior,” with the ‘missing person’ posters plastered around New York in episode one comically coming to reflect the part of Dory that is missing. The questions raised out of this are queries a character like Drew would ask: who’s really missing, y’know? Can we ever truly be found? For the writers these kinds of questions are intentional, created to emphasise how each character is more concerned with finding themselves than finding Chantal.

Add to these questions the mirroring of the opening and closing shots, and not only does it become clear that Search Party is like other New York-based shows such as Broad City and Girls in that there’s an intended meaningless takeaway at the centre of it for its characters, but also the true extent to which the show’s creators and executive producers – Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, Michael Showalter – adhere to the ‘dark’ part of its ‘dark comedy’ genre. The mirrored shots emphasise the show’s self-reflective nature, with the opening setting up the potential meaning and self-purpose Dory can find, while the season’s closing shot notes the show’s dark humor, with Dory having found no meaning.

As many critics have already noted, what differs Search Party from a show like Girls is that the characters have a sense of purpose. However, this purpose is false. The side characters don’t want to be involved in the ‘search’ for Chantal, instead seeing the whole thing as a distanced event that can be turned into a metaphor, or ignoring the former part of the show’s title and focusing on the ‘party’ in Search Party. Dory never gives a clear answer as to why she’s even looking for Chantal, for why she cares so much, and it becomes clear the reason for this is because Dory herself doesn’t know. The only things Dory knows are the external, hard facts (she has a lacklustre job; her boyfriend communicates feelings through ukelele; a person is missing and she needs to find her) while the internal questions of what she’s supposed to do remain unanswered. As a job interviewer tells Dory: “you seem immobile” and “stuck.” And as Dory replies: “Everybody can tell me what I can’t do, but nobody can tell me what I can do.” The narcissism in Dory is a kind that is opposite to her friends in that it’s quiet and unsuspecting, yet exactly the same in that she’s searching for approval from other people and things rather than from herself.

The comedy in Search Party is a self-aware kind in which the mocking of the narcissism found in 21st century culture is at its centre. People film others having arguments, with the video most likely ending up on social media; Elliot uses his charity in order to make people think he’s kind rather than to actually help people; and Dory, Elliot and Portia end up in a cult that exists without social media, but ends up just as obnoxious as those with it. Yet the characters come to be likeable rather than unwatchable, largely due to the fact this show does not laugh at the characters but with them: we’re laughing at ourselves. The publicity posters also present this self-awareness, with the most frequent one showing Dory holding up an iPhone as a torch. Promotional posters for single episodes, such as ‘The Sinister Gathering and the Captive Dinner Guest’ and ‘The Search for the Riddle Within the Trash’, emulate the mid-to-late Nancy Drew novel covers, drawing attention to the platform (streaming services) and style (binge-watch) the show will be viewed through compared to its teen mystery predecessors.

Dory’s character begins the series not knowing who she is, detached from the world around her due to the bubble created within the realms of her social circle and social network. As Alia Shawkat has said, the only thing that draws Dory into the present moment is the search for Chantal, since this is the only immediate thing going on in her life. Instead of acting like a lecture, the show instead uses its representation of different kinds of narcissism and detachment to relate to its audience in an innovative style. The closing shot of the show, that uses the same Purity Ring song as episode one’s opening, leaves us with a circular narrative, framing Dory’s experiences in a confined bubble just like her social network leaves her restricted in finding out who she is. Except this time, rather than looking at a poster of another missing girl, she is looking at herself. Search Party leaves Dory with no meaning other than that which exists in her own presence, and the question of if this is just another exercise in vanity or a deep, existential look into who she really is remains.

Related Topics:

Freelance writer based in the UK.