There’s something off about the final season of Search Party. Not in the a-college-friend-has-gone-missing-and-you-don’t-know-where-to-start-looking way, or the you’re-definitely-guilty-of-the-murder-you’re-on-trial-for-and-you’ve-spent-months-agonizing-about-how-to-cover-it-up way, or even the you’re-trapped-in-a-kidnapper’s-cell-and-you’re-kind-of-into-it way. Rather, Search Party’s final bow feels different than the previous four seasons because it wants to believe.
According to co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, searching for something to believe has been the guiding force of the show, ever since season 1, when the series’ main character Dory (Alia Shawkat) investigated a missing college friend, dragging along her frivolously pals Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliot (John Early), as well as her vanilla boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds). But along the way, those hopes were dashed.
“More often than not what feels right to us, and what the show has done over and over and over, is people believing in something and then finding out that actually it was fraudulent, or it was just projection,” Rogers tells Polygon. “And the joke of that always, for some reason, feels right.”
Bliss and Rogers’ final season makes the theme of belief more dogmatic than it has ever been. Picking up where viewers left off, season 5 opens as Dory comes to after being dead for 37 seconds. Her near-death experience leaves her lighter and happier, and she sets out to find a way to help everyone feel this way. She is nakedly hopeful and idealistic, convinced that through her lessons other people can grow the way she has. So, of course it looks kind of like a cult.
Each season of Search Party has focused itself around a different genre, with Rogers and Bliss pulling from different cultural touchstones. In prepping season 5, they devoured cult documentaries, and “borrowed” from people like Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk, Elizabeth Holmes, Marianne Williamson, and Eckhart Tolay (along with a few other influences that would spoil the end of the show). But none of those examples get on the show without getting their own tinge of eccentricity.
“I think that’s where the main thread of humor comes from,” John Early says. “Just putting these archetypes that we’re all familiar with through these totally, increasingly bonkers scenarios and watching us try to take them in.”
Search Party’s idiosyncratic style helps weighty plot lines go down easy, while leaving each actor with something to play with: Early cops to being a bit of a “ham” to contain Elliot’s big personality; Reynolds tries to “play it as straight” so he can to make Drew’s inevitable breakdown all the sweeter. Shawkat, who last season was tasked with increasingly high-stakes drama amid the ridiculous deadpan comedy, approaches each season’s tone by creating a motion to explain how the arc settles in her body. While last season was a sort of protective crouch to reflect Dory’s time in a cage, this season’s is much more open — though she acknowledges the duality that’s constantly at play with Search Party.
“I think that’s all that Search Party … hopes to do, push you to the limit of feeling really kind of uncomfortable,” Shawkat tells Polygon. “I remember my mom said something about Dory, like, ‘Well careful Alia, she still has to be likable.’ […] But we do crave to watch more complicated [characters] — we don’t want to watch someone who’s perfect.”
Even still, there’s something a little extra unhinged about Search Party season 5; something that makes it feel more eerily fateful than it did when Dory was held hostage during a year of lockdowns. While the show was originally hailed as a smart sendup of disaffected white millennials and their aimlessly self-indulgent ways, it’s a description that Rogers and Bliss have always bristled at a bit, and certainly a description the show has outgrown in certain ways.
“Every generation has had its share of criticism and narcissism and coming of ageness to it that we weren’t trying to specifically say ‘millennials are bad or good,’” Bliss says. “Especially as the show evolves and ages the way the actors and characters are aging, it becomes less about that commentary and more about life going into absurd directions.”
And the final chapter of Search Party delivers on this: Rogers and Bliss say they imbued season 5 with “a larger sense of satire than previous seasons” as the caricature has expanded from personal dynamics and character behavior. “The insanity of the last few years, and the feeling of that — we’re trying to channel the feeling of that into season 5,” Rogers says. “This show ends with a level of cultural satire that is bigger and more one-to-one with what’s happening in the world.”
So maybe it’s no surprise that the bulk of season 5 felt like a horror movie; a foreboding laced into every laugh or antic. Easy to see the season building to something but hard to know what. Each wacky turn carries a bit of extra heft to it as endings seem more and more final and the real world brings yet another spike of pandemic. Every ill-advised choice from the gang feels more permanently scarring, even when they are delightfully free from the standard conventions for endings — after all, who’s expecting Dory, Portia, Drew, or Elliot to ever really settle into where they’re at?
As is often the case in Search Party, it’s a wild surprise — and the only logical outcome of the character’s actions.
“It kind of all comes back to the same story,” Shawkat says of the final season’s arc. “Somebody looking for somebody, and looking for themself, and not knowing if they’re doing it right, [or] what they’re willing to sacrifice in order to discover who they are.”
In the final season of Search Party, Dory finally finds the version of herself she always believed she could be. It might be the scariest part of all.
All 10 episodes of Search Party season 5 will be streaming on HBO Max on Jan. 7.