Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, co-creators, co-writers and co-directors of TBS’ Search Party, one of Paste’s 16 Best New TV Shows of 2016, sat down with Paste TV editor Matt Brennan at the New Orleans Film Festival on Sunday to discuss the pressure created by Season One’s success, the series’ darker elements, and their favorite mysteries, among other subjects. A lightly edited transcript of the audio follows.
Season Two of Search Party premieres Sunday, Nov. 19 at 10 p.m., with two episodes airing each week. Season One is now available on TBS.com and the TBS mobile app.
Paste: How did you come up with such a crazy idea for a television show? Because it combines comedy and mystery in a way that I don’t think I’d seen before.
Charles Rogers: I hope everyone understood what they just saw. [Laughs] I didn’t think to preface it, necessarily. The show is about a group of friends looking for their missing friend from college, and it’s a comedy/mystery. We’re about to start our second season—that premieres in November. And the first season culminates with this ironic twist about the way the main character was seeing this disappearance and what she was chasing after. [Sarah-Violet] and I made a feature film called Fort Tilden that played at the New Orleans Film Festival three years ago, and we had this satirical, millennial thing, and people were like, “How do we just make money off of you?” So, we had been thinking about lots of different hooks for a TV show, and we started working with Michael Showalter, who is also a co-creator and was our teacher at NYU. And he paired us up with our production company, Jax. They had the idea of slapping a mystery element onto our show. They called us up and we were like, “Uh, yeah. That actually sounds like a lot of fun.” It was weirdly almost like a homework assignment. How do we make that idea ours?
Sarah-Violet Bliss: We also were very excited by that. We loved movies like Manhattan Murder Mystery, and we just were really inspired to combine genre and the voice that we had already built with Fort Tilden—Fort Tilden is kind of like putting the characters in situations that they’re not equipped for, and it’s the same thing here, but with heightened genre elements to it.
Paste: One of the things that struck me about the first season, in particular, is that it’s genuinely unsettling in stretches. Sometimes a comedy mystery or an action comedy, the mystery/action part is a little bit downplayed. But there are parts in this that are tense and difficult. Can you talk about the process in the writers’ room of coming up with that part of the story?
Rogers: When we first started thinking of the idea, it actually flowed very naturally, just to us, when we were working in a vacuum… We made the pilot just us, and then when we got picked up, we had a writers’ room, and we had to expand all of our ideas and make a series. [Turns to SV] I can ruin the end of the season, right?
Bliss: Yeah. [Laughs]
Rogers: You’ve had so much time to watch it. You don’t even know what you watched right now. I might as well just ruin it anyway.
Bliss: I feel like the trailer for Season Two ruins it enough.
Rogers: Essentially, Season One is a mystery, but at the end of it, there really is no mystery, and this character has projected so much onto what she thought happened to this girl, and in the process they end up killing someone—an innocent person. Writing a mystery where there is actually no mystery was extremely hard. So, at the end of the episode, you have to feel like it’s this. But it’s always nothing. That was not easy.
Bliss: I feel like even just watching that, I was like, “Oh, God, yeah, we were making that seem like a moment”—when Portia is talking to the guy with the piece of wood and he starts to act weird when she says “My friend Chantal.” But all that it is, is that he is weird.
Rogers: He’s a weirdo.
Bliss: So we could justify that, but it feels like its more important, and people will go with that. Because you have to really lean into the tropes of genre and mystery stuff, where it’s like, “What does that mean?” We would always end up being like, “And that leads to this, but, gah, It doesn’t mean anything, so it doesn’t make sense!” It was really freaking hard.
Bliss: We went down pathways that never saw the light of day, but it’s so weird to think about in hindsight. It was really hard to write, honestly, and those writing problems feel like a lifetime ago.
Paste: The show had some amount of critical acclaim in the first season, and I think viewers caught on to it. Was there added pressure to follow-up for Season two, or was the pressure more a function of, now that you’ve revealed the mystery not to really be a mystery, where do you go next?
Rogers: The latter, especially. The latter—the latter. [Laughs] I think we had pressure because there was no mystery. Season Two is all about covering up a murder and what it is to just be like a contemporary person who’s quietly killed someone and having to go back to Brooklyn. What does that even look like? And so, it was really hard, because the show restarts, in a way, and that was confusing. But that was a problem we knew we were working with. Personally, I feel like the pressure of making sure the second season is as good to people as the first season ended up feeling good to people was something that we weren’t ever talking about, but it was always there. I think it’s impossible not to be confused by pressure. Pressure’s not good. But it also gave us reasons to set a bar. I hope Season Two hits that mark. We’ll see.
Bliss: I think it does.
Rogers: I think it does, too. But I did not even know to anticipate how respected the first season would be, so I can’t ever predict, really.
Paste: I’ve seen the first two episodes, and it does go in a different direction, where it sort of takes the mystery and sort of starts to internalize it. The first season explodes the world of these characters, and then the second season is them reabsorbing that explosion. Did the process of planning that out change at all?
Rogers: It changed a lot. We really considered tons of options this season. But what was always most important to us in writing this season is the reality of what it would be like to have blood on your hands and then be like, “How do I get a job?” Or be like, “We gotta go to brunch.” The truth of the fact that life goes on—maybe not the life of the person you killed, but yours does. None of us had ever killed anyone, or admitted that we had, so we had to really mine paranoia and adjacent paranoia that we’ve experienced in our own lives to try to make that as real as possible. And also still be as comedic and satirical as we know how to be.
Paste: We were talking before the panel about the “piggyback off of this” line, which I will never stop finding funny, because I remember it from college seminars. I’m wondering, do you guys go around in your daily lives with a notepad and write down the ridiculous shit people in our age group say?
Bliss: I definitely very much internalize it. I think we both really listen a lot to what people are saying. And sometimes I do take out my iPhone and the notes to be like, “Oh my God.” People are having normal conversations, but there’s just a level to them that, when they’re in it, they’re not recognizing how it sounds.
Rogers: [To Bliss] Like, I’ve told you everything about my friend who’s marrying this guy, and his mom—they’re very Jewish—and his mom is forcing Sarah to convert, and it’s just an interesting mother-in-law situation. And I just keep updating you about it. “Continue to tell me the story that’s crazy that’s happening to that person.” Because it just keeps ideas going. Like, “What if it’s like that thing that happened to… blah, blah, blah, blah.”
Paste: One of the things that I think really sells the comedy is the casting. All four members of the main cast are tremendous. I’m wondering if you can you talk about how they all got involved and what struck you about them when they read for you first or auditioned or when they worked with you before that made you think, “This will work.”
Rogers: I wish the story was very exciting. John Early, who plays Elliott, was in our film Fort Tilden, so we knew him and we wrote it for him. And we continue to just text him and be like, “Is your summer still open? Keep it open!” [Laughs] And Meredith, who plays Portia, I’d seen in the movie Hits, and SV was writing something else and I was like, “Think of Meredith, she was really funny,” and kept her in mind. She auditioned. John Reynolds, who plays Drew, was an audition. And then Alia [Shawkat] was just a nobody. [Laughs] Alia was a privilege to meet. We had this brunch with her where it was like, “Oh, she’s so famous and cool.” And she wanted to do it, and it was the right project for her. When she entered it, the tone was set, basically.
Paste: Dory rides this line between sincerity and comedy that is a difficult balance to strike. If it goes too much in one direction or the other, you lose the whole balance of the comedy and the mystery, of the things about it that are unsettling and the things that are funny. What was it about Alia that immediately made you think she would be right for this? [Ed. note: Here, our correspondent mispronounces Shawkat’s name.]
Rogers: Well, Aaliyah died in a plane crash. But Alia... [Laughs]
Paste: That’s a good one. That’s going to live on Paste Magazine’s website forever. Drag me!
Rogers: When we were writing Dory, before we had cast Alia, I think we were writing her kind of as a doormat, who is kind of like a voice that we like to access together, which is like an “Oooh, I’m sorry, sorry, sorry” person. And then she has a particular mania and potential for unraveling that’s inside of her that’s like an undercurrent in her. That really brought the potential for how the season turns dark. She has that unreliable narrator thing, because she’s so cool and there’s something so relatable and you identify with her, and at the same that she has that weird darkness that could possibly be like an insane person’s darkness.
Paste: Since we’re on the subject of darkness, the arc of Season One engages a lot of different forms of toxic masculinity, and given what’s happening with the Harvey Weinstein and Roy price allegations, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask about your response to those, about what can be done being forward as artists and as audiences to tackle what is apparently an endemic problem in Hollywood and our culture at large.
Rogers: [To Bliss] Well, you should speak. [Laughs]
Bliss: Samantha Bee says… [Laughs] I was watching Samantha Bee today, her response to it where she was saying, “Everyone is so surprised except for every woman.” The way that we express it in this episode in particular is the powerful, manipulative presence of this guy that people are afraid to talk back to, and he confuses them because he uses their vulnerability against them and part of what he’s saying is true. And so it’s this overlap of confusion that is honestly just interesting. And how people navigate those personality types is intriguing just as a storyteller. In terms of the real world, other than what is happening, and calling it out and recognizing it when it happens and trying to stand up for yourself and making art out of it, I don’t know what else to do… I don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t have a sum-up of it.
Rogers: I feel like people aren’t saying that this is what we wish we could have done to Trump, but I feel like the Harvey Weinstein thing has caught on so hard because now we have a president who’s proud of being a rapist and we just swallow it. Now, that’s just our life. I feel like we’re just taking advantage of this moment as a reaction to that, and he absolutely deserves his comeuppance, obviously, but it frustrates me that it’s not our president, and that sucks. He is a “president” in Hollywood, but it’s ultimately not the greatest symbol that we should have taken down and destroyed, so it does feel a little bit like, “We’ll do Harvey instead.” I’m not saying that we shouldn’t, obviously, but I wish it was Trump. But it’s not. Insofar as we take advantage of that stuff, there isn’t really a male gaze in Search Party at all. I think women and gay men, they are the lens of our show. Even Drew, who is the straight male lens, just gets shit on all the time. In Season Two, there are lots of jokes where straight men are like, “Oh, I’m so sorry, I have trouble accepting women in positions of authority”—just speaking what straight men don’t say, but feel. That’s at least something.
Paste: It’s interesting that you say that about Trump, because BuzzFeed ran a story over the weekend—a lot of the woman who’d made accusations against him, they went back and interviewed them, and they said, “Well, it’s great any time someone gets called out and held accountable, but we feel like we got ignored. To bring it back to the show, Dory, on a number of occasions in the first season, says, I think I’ve really been overlooked, or ignored, or feel invisible, or silent, and what she’s really searching for is not just Chantal. What do you think she’s looking for? Not just in season One, but now as you go into Season Two and it has turned out to be not what she though she was going to find?
Bliss: She’s looking for meaning and goodness inside of her, and how she’s going to be able to express that in the world. And what does that even mean? And is that important? And in whose eyes does that matter? She has a need to have a voice, but she doesn’t even know what her voice is, and she’s trying to figure that out as she goes. And then things turns into a more heavy and real problem that she has that makes her confront other aspects of herself that perhaps are more…
Bliss: Yes, primal.
Rogers: I feel like Dory, archetypally, is the hypocrite. The challenge in writing her is that we are really wanting the audience to identify with her point of view and then challenging them right after they’ve identified with that point of view, and being like, “Do you see yourself in this hypocrite’s shoes still?” And people either accept or don’t accept that. In the first season, she is searching for meaning, and a meaningful life and existence, but at the same time, she’s also searching for an excuse. And she’s a victim. That is why she’s projected an entire fantasy upon this mystery. And so, in the second season, without giving too much away, she is both grappling with the true trauma of having led her friends down a really dark and ultimately mortal situation and at the same time making excuses for herself, because that is, I imagine, what you’d do. When you do something bad, you experience shame, but at the same time you experience denial. She is a figment of denial, and that is where I think people get caught in an uncomfortable place in identifying with her.
Paste: Because it’s an unorthodox show, tonally, and an unorthodox approach to its narrative construction as a comedy, I guess I wondered how your experience has differed making television versus making, say, an independent film. I think there’s sort of an idea in the ether that TV is where the creative freedom is at—if you’re working in cable or premium or a streaming service. I’m wondering, since you guys have worked in both, what your assessment is of where those two things are and how the industry is changing.
Bliss: My answer’s like, whatever. [Laughs] When I think about how we have to direct differently for TV, it’s like, “Well, you have to get coverage, so that we can edit it down.” With a film, there’s a little bit more time to dream up a shot—and you can do that in TV also, but you also have to make sure that you have coverage. Aside from that, I feel like we have a great team that we’re allowed to express what we want, but at the same time, we also want the same things that they do, which is for everything to be clear and not have too much, “What did that mean?” There is sort of more audience friendliness to it, if that makes sense? But I like that. I’m cool with that. But I also think that, probably, in film, I might return a little bit to, “What did that mean?” Like the ending of Sofia Coppola’s movie.
Lost in Translation, yeah. Right now, there’s just so much money in TV that so many more shows are able to take risks and be smaller. It’s not like every show is a flag that the empire of TV sets in the ground. It doesn’t feel too different from making Fort Tilden, because New York is just a hellscape—and so it’s very hard to shoot anyway. And you’re just, like, in a garbage truck, and that’s just what it is. With Search party< we have chairs. That's different... It's great that there is so much TV out there, and we know that the show was well received, but I actually don't even know how many people really saw it in America. It's like a weird thing where I want it to mean as much as it can mean to as many people as possible, but ultimately, the more niche something is, the more you have to accept that it won't be for everyone. It's like, the more people that have a voice that is able to be seen, the fewer people will see it. And so that's a weird conundrum. I want to believe that we live in this era of liberal, progressive art where everyone is making something meaningful. But the more that's out there, the thinner it's spread. I don't know, I kind of miss when there was like a movie every year that defined America. I don't even know what that is anymore. Avatar will be great though.
Paste: You think so?
Rogers: No! [Laughs]
Paste: This show’s never going to be The Big Bang Theory, but then again, you wouldn’t want it to be. I assume.
Rogers: Not at all.
Paste: And it strikes me that TBS is a good place for it.
Rogers: It’s a channel that does show Big Bang Theory, just so you know. [Laughs]
Paste: I catch the tail end of it every week before Full Frontal is on, and I’m like, “Uggghhh.” How has it been working with a network that maybe didn’t have a super strong—for lack of a better term—”brand identity” or “house style,” and be part of developing that. Because Search Party, along with People of Earth and Full Frontal and some other shows, has really turned TBS into a place for comedy, whereas a few years ago it was juts Conan and syndicated shows.
Bliss: TBS has been really supportive and great to us. When we first heard that they were interested we were like, “What?” But it was actually perfect timing because they were specifically trying to rebrand, and this was like, “Oh, this will really help shift people’s idea of what TBS is.” And so, it was a symbiotic relationship. You put our show on TV, we’ll make you cooler, I guess. If it does that—I don’t know. They have just been so excited by what we’re doing, that it really has been wonderful working with them. I really like that they like us so much, that they feel so proud of the show. And I’m proud to be at TBS. [Laughs]
Rogers: “I’m Sarah-Violet Bliss and I’m proud to be at TBS!” [Laughs]
Paste: Season Three renewal coming up after that.
Rogers: Season Thirty renewal.
Bliss: They’ve brainwashed me.
Rogers: I definitely think they think of us as the art kids that they work with. But I feel like it was a risk the first season. I didn’t realize how much of a risk it probably was, the first season, because I was like, “Of course this show needs to exist!” But now that it go critical acclaim or whatever—or whatever—I feel like they are proud to have made the decision to bring us in and now it feels exciting to keep going, because there’s more security in that.
Paste: I wanted to close by asking what each of your favorite mysteries is.
Rogers: I had a teacher, Mrs. Keen. In 8th grade. She was diabetic, and she would just drink Dr. Peppers all day long from her mini-fridge, and she would smoke out the window. And she gave extra reading points to Agatha Christie novels, and so my entire class just read the shit out of Agatha Christie novels. I’m not kidding, I read probably 20 Agatha Christie novels in a year because it was the easiest way to get all your reading points in. I don’t remember—they’re all sort of vague, mystery landscape—but I just know that she’s been a part of my life in a big way. [Laughs] And I really like anything where everyone’s like, “Do you know why we’ve been brought here?” I like that kind of thing. It’s like, “I think they’re going to tell us at dinner.” I like that.
Paste: That’s kind of like the episode we just watched—subconsciously influenced by Agatha Christie.
Rogers: That’s true. Mrs. Keen is all in this. She’s probably dead, honestly.
Bliss: I had said before Manhattan Murder Mystery is one of my favorites—God, speaking of [sighs]. Never mind. I’m not going to go to that. For the comedy. And then, Caché, I love that for the tone and how the events tear people apart—you have to see the movie to understand what I mean. But, basically, mysterious things are happening, and it’s making the characters think about why they’re happening and digging into their past and projecting onto what is happening. It’s really cool, you should see it. I had one last one, and I forget it now.
Rogers: The mystery of that last one!
Bliss: The mystery of that last one. Ask me later. It will come to me in my sleep. But yeah, those two, I guess.
Paste: Thank you so much, guys, I’ve really had fun with this conversation—
Bliss: It was Capturing the Friedmans. [Laughs]
Matt Brennan is the TV editor of Paste Magazine. He tweets about what he’s watching @thefilmgoer.