One of the strangest series to grace our screens in 2016 was Search Party, a dark comedy about a group of New York hipsters whose world is turned upside down when they discover that one of their acquaintances from college has gone missing. At the heart of the subsequent investigation is Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), a personal assistant to a wealthy housewife (played by Christine Taylor) who is unfulfilled by just about every part of her life. As the series unfolds, Dory finds herself increasingly drawn to the disappearance, which seems to brim with some undisclosed personal meaning even though she didn’t really know the vanished girl – Chantal Witherbottom – in any particularly meaningful way. That obsession spreads to her core of friends – her boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), her best friend Portia (Meredith Hagner) and her best gay friend Eliott (John Early) – who embark upon a quest to discover Chantal’s whereabouts that becomes more surreal as the series proceeds.
That sense of strangeness is only exacerbated by the peculiar screening schedule of Search Party, which aired over a single week – two episodes every night – in a kind of fusion of serial and anthology formats. While a second season has apparently been commissioned, this first season therefore has a strong sense of closure and a strong sense of self-containment, even if the density of its exhibition schedule makes all its vagaries and unanswered questions more pronounced at the same time. In particular, that schedule – which seems designed to mirror and match the pace at which users might torrent it – serves to reinforce both the sense of solidarity and alienation amongst this group of friends, who are understandably drawn further together by the sense of a common purpose but also positioned at precisely that moment in their twenties at which college bonds are starting to slacken and loosen under the weight of relationships, professional lives and the prospect of moving away from New York.
In that sense, Search Party often seems to be about the generational malaise of hitting your twenties after completing a liberal arts degree. Still deep in college debt and – for the most part – unable to secure any meaningful or stable employment, there’s a deep nostalgia here for the momentary solidarity of being an undergraduate, even or especially since Chantal Witherbottom wasn’t particularly close to any of the “friends” who are now looking for her. In that sense, the search party sometimes feels like the fantasy of an undergraduate solidarity that perhaps never existed, yet that also assumes that friendship is somehow more significant than acquaintanceship. At the series proceeds, however, the conventional hierarchies between relationships, friendships and acquaintanceships tends to dissolve into the promiscuous proximity and yearning for closeness – in whatever guise – that characterises college life, as if the prioritisation and classification of different kinds of connection were exactly what the characters were trying to escape or forestall.
Among other things, that means that the connection between the four friends never quite settles or stabilises into something recognisable, making it very difficult to know when and how much affective energy you should be investing in any of them individually. At moments, Dory and Drew’s relationship is foregrounded, at other moments the friendship of the group is front and centre, while at times they seem to be strangers, and in some scenes they almost seem to hate each other. Of course, that kind of variation is a part of dynamic characterisation more generally, but here the alterations are so rapid and yet somehow so incidental as well that the series as a whole develops a similar atonality, with any one scene or episode frequently bearing little tonal relation to what has come before. It’s not hard, then, to see why series creators Sarah Violet-Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter opted to have it all screen in a single week, since that artificial sense of closure and containment is almost required to offset the anarchic and experimental atonality of the series as a whole. Nor it it easy – for me at least – to come to any single conclusion about whether I “enjoyed” the series, since Search Party shifts gears so quickly and rapidly as to almost preclude any conception or definition of pleasure as a function of consistency, recognisability and gradual immersion.
Of course, there is a very different kind of enjoyment in having your expectations challenged in such an eloquent way, not least because it also brings us closer to the characters, whose grasp on enjoyment is as fleeting and anarchic as ours watching them. In that sense, Search Party reminded me quite a bit of Noah Baumbach’s Mistress America, since both texts seem interested in presenting a screen narrative that operates at the punctuated pace of social media. In both cases that involves a certain amount of condensation – Search Party was over after a single week, Mistress America seemed to reach its final act after twenty minutes – but there’s also a displacement of the normal “pacing” cues that makes each text feel curiously distended and unfinished as well. You might say that Mistress America set out to distend and displace a film to the ambit of a television series while Search Party set out to condense and contract a television series to the ambit of a film. Yet both texts also converge at a horizon at which film and television feel incommensurable – in contrast to the filmic rhetoric of “quality television” – and at which the language of digital social media is used in its place. Both texts, too, capture something of the affective anarchy of a generation for whom everything – even the definition of enjoyment – is inflected through social media, producing highs that are higher than ever before, but somehow more fleeting and conducive to melancholy as well.
Where I think Search Party actually outdoes Mistress America is in the way in which it connects this digital pacing to a wider sense of millennial meaning-making. For all his continuity with hipster culture, Baumbach’s films – like those of Jim Jarmusch – ultimately demonstrate a deep reservation about the aspirations of hipsterdom, as evinced in While We’re Young, the sort-of sequel to Mistress America. By contrast, Search Party is much more open to the ways in which millennials make meaning, and especially the ways in which they make meaning out of a physical world that seems to have been entirely supplanted by or subsumed into social media. For Search Party is nothing if not an attempt to provide a cognitive map of New York in the wake of social media, as the sheer disparate anarchy of the series testifies to a need to somehow capture the vagaries and variabilities of the city as a whole. While these are undoubtedly more visible in the wake of digital media – every voice in New York seems suddenly available – the existence of digital media also seems to neutralise the conspiracy narratives that might have driven such an effort at cognitive mapping in an earlier time. What results, then, is a kind of picaresque quest that may have dark overtones but nevertheless falls just shy of conspiratorial paranoia, even as if yearns for conspiracy theory as a hermeneutic that feels somehow untenable and irrelevant in this day and age.
In many ways, that dark picaresque approach has become the defining hipster approach to urban space over the last decade and a half. It’s there, formatively, in the treasure hunt of Jonathan Safran Foer’s Extremely Loud and Incredible Close (and even more emphatically in the film adaptation). It’s there, too, in Girls and Lena Dunham’s obsession with Greenpoint and the G train. It’s there, equally, in the proliferation of blogs and websites that have emerged around discovering and scouting lost, forgotten or otherwise “analog” urban locations, sites that have been overlooked by the SmartPhone era. Yet where all these examples are fairly optimistic in their mapping – and all yearn, ultimately, for a renewal of the urban village of New York in the wake of both 9/11 and digital media – the conclusion to Search Party provides a much more muted and ambivalent diagnosis, which is one of the reasons why the second season is such an interesting prospect to contemplate. No recent series I have seen feels less compromised by giving away the ending, and yet no recent series seems so dependent on its ending either, so suffice to say that the final episode here draws that millennial mapping and meaning-making into relief in an extraordinarily bold and bracing manner. As with so much of the series, this final gesture – a riposte, really, to every previous picaresque map of New York hipsterdom – wouldn’t be nearly as emphatic without the week-long format, which really comes into its own over these last few minutes. Let’s hope, then, that the series creators opt for the same thing with the second season, and that the second season manages to match the experimentalism of the first.