Search Party has always been about being a good person. Or, maybe I should say, a Good Person™.
Depending on your tolerance for white Brooklyn-based millennials and NYU grads, you may have always hated Dory Sief, her corporate boyfriend Drew, her amoral gay bestie Elliott, and their ditzy actress friend Portia. Something show creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss always excelled at was creating characters we’re invested in even if we never like them. But they’re all people who want to be liked. They’re all people who want to be considered good even as they lie and cheat and kill. The only thing they want more is to be important. And the only thing they want more than that is to be comfortable.
Dory, played by the easy to love Alia Shawkat, seems like the most good of the four. At the very least she thinks of herself that way. The series begins with her mission to find her missing acquaintance Chantal. She not only wants Chantal saved — she wants to be the one to save her. Having a purpose — the appearance of a purpose — is what matters most to this recent college graduate.
And so, in its fifth and final season, Search Party ends the only way it could. Dory’s desire to be comfortable, to be important, to be good becomes global, her delusions of grandeur getting bigger with every twist in our twisty story.
Now it’s admittedly bonkers to say that this end was destined when every season of Search Party has been drastically different and wildly more chaotic than the last. Thematically, it’s a natural conclusion — narratively, it’s deliciously nuts.
Season five begins where season four ended — with Dory Sief on the brink of death. She did die — for 37 seconds — but now she’s back and convinced she’s found enlightenment. So, of course, Drew, Portia, and Elliott commit her to a mental institution and try to move on with their lives. Drew creates an app that helps kick vulnerable people out of their homes — something he cackles about with potential investors as he hides what he’s doing from everyone else. Portia gives up acting to become an acting teacher — a great job if you want to tell yourself you’re helping young artists while being an egomaniacal monster. (Sorry, personal experience.) And Elliott gets back with Marc and they decide to adopt a child — as long as the child is a gay eugenicist’s dream.
After many months, Dory escapes the institution — not for herself but because she feels destined to save the world. She has achieved enlightenment and she’s convinced only she can help everyone else achieve it too. It doesn’t take long for her to seduce her old friends back into her orbit — they too want to be involved in saving the world. Her new social media platform attracts the attention of Tunnel Quinn (a perfectly cast Jeff Goldblum) an eccentric billionaire who sees financial potential in Dory’s following. He suggests they invent a pill for enlightenment and that they employ a series of social media influencers to be their first test subjects.
And so Dory Sief starts her very own cult with a pharmaceutical wing upstairs. Dory’s “disciples” are played by Grace Kuhlenschmidt, Larry Owens, Joe Castle Baker, Angela Trimbur, Greta Titelman, and Michelle Badillo and provide much of the season’s funniest moments. Annoying caricatures in most people’s hands, Search Party is smart enough to fill these roles with some of the most talented up-and-coming comedians. And that’s because Search Party has always been gay.
This season of Search Party is gay in the traditional ways. Of course, we have Elliott and Marc. And as Dory becomes a cult leader, Portia’s worship goes quickly from friend to lesbian lover. But even if the show has gotten more explicitly queer season by season, it’s always been one of the gayest shows on television. There is two-girls-kiss gay but there’s also have-the-best-guest-stars gay and for me that’s just as important.
One of said guest stars this season is John Waters as the head of Elliott and Marc’s adoption agency. He’s a natural fit for a show that feels like our most mainstream continuation of his own project. But if John Waters portrayed amoral queers to rebel against respectability politics, Rogers and Bliss portray amoral queers to show the ways that queers are actually amoral. Being queer does not mean you are good, but it does mean the way you are not good might be different. The queers on Search Party manipulate with social justice language while never seeming to admit that they’re not actually doing social justice. It’s a new kind of evil — one that masks its influence in supposed good intentions. Rogers and Bliss show it in all its absurdity and hilarity — as they do with all their targets of parody.
Tunnel Quinn seems to be inspired by Elon Musk and I kept thinking about Musk as I watched this season. Musk is currently worth about $266 billion, enough money to completely change our world for the better. Instead, he tweets. When that soccer team got trapped in a cave, Musk took it upon himself to save the day with elaborate submarine plans that were flashy but useless. Instead of celebrating their eventual rescue, he took to Twitter to call one of the divers who rescued them a pedophile. It was never about saving the divers for Musk — it was about being the one to do it.
Now Musk isn’t a millennial but I think it’s too simplistic to say that Search Party has been a parody of millennials. Just like the show understands that being queer does not preclude one from privilege or terrible behavior, it also doesn’t assign worth to any generation. It has always been a campy queer parody of the way our modern culture functions for the privileged. Sure, that affects twenty-somethings, but we aren’t the only ones impacted by the shifts in morality brought about by social media and so much more.
There are so many powerful people quietly ruining our world in the shadows. That is the way of the past. The present is all about telling on yourself. It’s about hopping on Instagram live to convince the world you’re a good person only to broadcast all the ways you are not. It’s about begging the world to like you and becoming unlikable in the process. It’s about how notoriety is valued above obscurity.
For five seasons, Search Party took Dory on a journey through genres only to land her exactly where she began: purposeless, guilty, and thriving in a world full of suffering.