Despite picking up just after the events of its previous season, the world that Search Party Season 3 enters on HBO Max, three years after it originally premiered on TBS, is very different. The satirical send-up of hipster culture feels like a relic, which the show addresses in a short exchange early on when one attorney says to another, “people love to hate millennials!” “Actually, I think that kind of talk has died down ….” But what makes Search Party’s third season—which deals with the legal fallout of the four friends being arrested for murder—feel particularly uncomfortable is watching these four white, privileged young people gently glide through the criminal justice system using money and connections while being treated with kid gloves. For all of the series’ social commentary, that is one thing that isn’t addressed as being anything other than ordinary.
Search Party made a choice at the end of its first season that changed it from a clever show that melded together ennui and influencer culture to something much darker and more emotionally tangled. When a supposed comedy introduces murder, the trajectory drastically changes (see also Dead to Me and Run). What that means in almost all cases is that whatever the show was doing before no longer matters: It’s now all about the murder. It’s why I didn’t feel as positively towards Search Party Season 2—which was all about the cover-up—and was uncertain going in to Season 3. At this point, we know that the four are horribly guilty, but the show only exists if they get away with it. It leads to wild swings in tone that leaves both its comedy and drama feeling half-baked.
Season 3 starts with Dory (Alia Shawkat) being arrested, alongside (eventually) her cohorts. Beyond Dory’s more dramatic storyline, the first few episodes (out of 10, all available for review) have that zany, sardonic, and occasionally wonderfully insightful comedy that made Season 1 so good. And that is largely all carried by its great cast. Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliot (John Early) remain the best, and John Reynolds brings much-needed heart to the proceedings as Drew. But the new attorney additions to the cast are exceptional, despite the familiar trial setup: Michaela Watkins’ exasperated prosecutor, Louis Anderson’s lumbering lawyer, and most especially Shalita Grant as Cassidy, a vocal-fry extraordinaire who also serves as Dory’s defense attorney (with Dory as her first client).
You can feel Search Party wanting to get away from the consequences of the murder, though (actually, murders plural as we’re reminded of that Season 2 finale). It takes us on a few splintered, unresolved subplots with Chantal (Clare McNulty), the original missing girl who wants to become a mogul (“whatever makes you special, you have to brand it”), as well as Elliot’s corporate-backed wedding (“attention is the theme of this wedding … it just makes more of an impact if all of the killers are there”), and Portia’s seemingly brief conversion to Christianity. Each of these storylines are worth exploring more than the short season is able to (including the insightful commentary of how Drew becomes beloved by the public while Dory is immediately painted as a cold-blooded killer), and which will maybe all have more satisfying conclusions in the already greenlit fourth season. (We also get a brief check-in with Brandon Micheal Hall’s Julian, a character the show has never known what to do with.) But for now, it only highlights the series’ wobbly tone and uncertain path—some is great, some is … not so much.
The bottom line is that like its airhead leads, Search Party Season 3 is full of great ideas but isn’t able to tie them together in a way that works. Yes it’s hilarious hearing Portia screech “the TWINK!” in a moment of distress, and having Elliot confront the surprising truth about his childhood, or seeing Cassidy practice her closing arguments in front of a jury of stuffed animals and yell at her mom when there’s a knock on the door. But even though the show doesn’t really make Keith, the murder victim, much of a spectre over the season, there is a constant reminder that these carefree souls committed murder, and buried a man in a suitcase. It also essentially makes Dory a monster, which perhaps we already knew was true. Yet it doesn’t lean into satire here; instead, it wants to be a psychological thriller. There’s what feels like a heap of Amanda Knox-ness to Dory’s final plea to the jury, where the show’s general lampooning of its entitled leads almost accidentally becomes a damming indictment of the entire judicial system. A final twist suggests that things are only starting for Dory, and that the show believes redemption may be possible for her. I’m just not sure it continues to deserve our attention. As Search Party’s spiritual cousin The Other Two would say, “in this climate?”
Search Party Season 3 premieres in its entirety Thursday, June 25th on HBO Max.
Allison Keene is the TV Editor of Paste Magazine. For more television talk, pop culture chat and general japery, you can follow her @keeneTV
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