Midway through Search Party’s pilot episode, an interviewer needlessly eviscerates Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat): “Honestly, you’re not even equipped to teach tic-tac-toe.” The worst part is that to Dory, there’s a grain of truth there. Lanky Midwestern boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) flubs Comfort 101, telling her that it helps him to remember what he’s grateful for. “This is not the end of the world,” he promises.
Four seasons, a few murders, and hundreds of toxic jelly beans later, and this time it actually is. No longer her passive Season 1 self, Dory wields a lot more influence as a persuasive cult leader, and in Search Party’s final few episodes, she inadvertently kickstarts a zombie apocalypse. Like, a proper zombie apocalypse with ripped out throats and flamethrowers and havoc raging across Manhattan. It’s an utterly wild finish to a show that has always swung for the fences. Even more astoundingly, it’s a satisfying one.
When it first aired in 2016 on TBS, Search Party branded itself as the “millennial Nancy Drew.” Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, the dark comedy (which has since moved to HBO Max) poked fun at the generalized perceptions of an entitled generation using white hipsters as avatars. Plagued by 20-something ennui, Dory starts the series stuck in an assistant job and tired relationship. When a college acquaintance Chantal (Clare McNulty) goes missing, she hyper-fixates on her disappearance and begins investigating, desperate to find something to latch onto. Drew and her best friends/fellow NYU grads, egomaniac Elliott (John Early, bless him in this role) and scatterbrained actress Portia (Meredith Hagner), don’t really get it, but they soon get sucked into her whims.
In her search for identity, Dory casts herself as a hero, a savior, the only one who can figure out the truth. Only believing that doesn’t make it true, and Dory’s quest ends with accidentally murdering a private investigator. The dark punchline? Chantal was never in danger, and she’s also even more self-obsessed than our main crew.
Season 1 plays out like a relatively straightforward true crime, but Search Party has become known for how it careens wildly between genre and tone from season to season, growing increasingly surreal and meta. Season 2 had Hitchcockian noir flourishes as Dory grappled with a guilty psyche and dug herself further into a hole. Season 3 completed her descent from unsure protagonist to antihero to full-fledged villain via a courtroom legal drama. Season 4 flirts with psychological thriller and horror elements after she’s kidnapped by a twink superfan. Now, the show’s fifth and final season conjures a cult for the end times. After dying for 37 seconds in Season 4’s finale, Dory has risen anew and wants to share what she’s learned, embarking on a messianic-like journey to create a pill for enlightenment.
This genre experimentation feels like an exercise in what a TV show format could be but, even more than that, Search Party’s structure creates its theme. The show’s own identity crisis parallels that of its characters, developing a satire more sophisticated than “haha, avocado toast.” Search Party considered what it means to craft a narrative around yourself, to become the main character. Behind the scenes, a three-year hiatus between Seasons 2 and 3 and a network move further cemented the show’s need to evolve past mere millennial satire, which felt overdone by 2020. A self-referential acknowledgement comes early in Season 3 when one character remarks, “I don’t think people really care about millennials anymore. I feel like that kind of talk has died down, actually.”
For all this to work, Dory needs to have a certain malleability, and Alia Shawkat truly deserves more credit for how she melds Dory’s different selves together like Russian dolls. But in recent seasons, it’s started to feel like the unique central concept limited Search Party’s growth. By the end of Season 3, Dory is despicable, but there’s something unsettling about how Season 4 forced you to re-empathize with her by brutalizing her to the point of depersonalization. Neither a redemption arc or a satisfying comeuppance, making Dory a victim felt like an easy way out for a show that had previously criticized Dory’s tendency to always cast herself in that role. Even with comedic highs that came from Drew, Elliott, and Portia getting out from Dory’s thumb and Cole Escola’s kidnapper impersonating Susan Sarandon, the season felt like a dour misstep.
Season 5, though, presents a welcome adjustment by remembering the surreal comedy that Search Party pulls off so well. True to its usual form, there’s more going on than the show always knows what to do with—a child straight out of The Omen, a disconnected Chantal story exploring conspiracy theories, a critique of corporations commodifying spirituality, social media influencers turning into sinister disciples—but the scattershot nature manages to be part of the fun.
Perhaps the best bit of all is how gleefully Search Party goes completely off the rails in its final episodes. By this point, the jig is up. Delusional cult leader Dory previously imagined herself a phoenix: Her old self burned away, and out of the ashes came an enlightened soul. But engineering the apocalypse finally forces her to reckon with the consequences of her actions—there’s a delicious irony that Dory caused the end times that have haunted her visions all season. Messy cannibalizing zombies pose a much more fitting metaphor than purifying fire, as her carefully crafted self-perception breaks down, consuming itself, until all that’s left is uncertainty. The bloody conclusion gestures at the show’s own genre-bending by demonstrating the futility of a defined static identity when everything else feels in flux. As the brief post-apocalypse coda reveals, it’s Dory’s enduring relationships with Drew, Portia, and Elliott that continue to provide stability.
Of course, that all sounds a tad sentimental for a show that also features Early impersonating a bookish scientist who teaches interns to euthanize lab rats by bludgeoning them with binders. But the finale’s full-circle moments don’t go overboard with pathos. Attractive attention seekers making terrible decisions and being terrible people treads on familiar satire territory, but absurdist humor makes Search Party feel more akin to a sketch comedy than a prestige drama. Part of the appeal is that the show’s less interested in agonizing over why these characters are so self-absorbed than seeing just how far their shenanigans can be pushed.
And a viral pop scientist accidentally making jelly beans that turn people into zombies probably goes about as far as you can push it. It’s a colorful, ludicrous finale that speaks to our current moment with tongue-in-cheek humor not many could pull off. I won’t be surprised if Search Party’s ending is polarizing. Who will defend it? Chantal said it best: Honestly? Myself.
Search Party is now available to stream in full on HBO Max.
Annie Lyons is a culture writer from Austin, Texas who loves all things coming-of-age and romantic comedy. You can find her on Twitter @anniexlyons probably debating another Moonstruck rewatch.
For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV.