by John Russell
Search Party has changed a lot over the past four years. The dark comedy premiered on TBS in 2016 as a sharp satire of millennial aimlessness and entitlement. It followed the story of floundering 20-something Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) and her hilariously narcissistic friends as they pursued the mystery of a missing acquaintance in an attempt to give their own lives some semblance of purpose.
The show has since evolved into something much darker. The long-delayed third season premiered on HBO Max this past summer and revealed Dory to be an unrepentant sociopath. When we last saw our anti-heroine, she was at the mercy of deranged stalker Chip, played by Cole Escola.
Ahead of the show’s fourth season premiere this week, NewNowNext chatted with co-creator Charles Rogers about the surprising twists and turns Search Party has taken to arrive in Chip’s basement.
The series began in such a different place. Did you have a sense back then of where this story was headed?
Going into it, we had an idea of what we wanted the bigger arch to be, which was essentially the friends end up killing someone at the end of Season 1, and that there was something about Chantal (Clare McNulty) that Dory believed in that didn’t end up being true. And from there, we knew that they were gonna cover it up and that eventually there would be a trial. But past that, we didn’t really have any idea, and we were just happy to get the show picked up and figure it out as we went along. So, we’ve always had an idea of the next steps in front of us, but we’re also making things up as we go along. We did build Season 3 knowing that Season 4 would be this homage to what we decided to call “the captive genre” — movies like Room or Misery or Silence of the Lambs, where someone’s trapped in someone’s basement, basically. [Laughs]
Season 3 really revealed Dory to be a sociopath. How are we supposed to feel about her now? Are we supposed to be on her side?
As a writer of Dory, I’ve always been on her side. Because even when she’s acting psychotic [laughs] or murderous, there’s something about her that is always a joy to write. What would it be like if you kept going down a certain trajectory of your psyche and you just let it get worse and worse, and you got crazier and crazier? Would that mean that that was always in you from the beginning and it was just a matter of unlocking that and allowing yourself to go as far as you could? Or is she becoming someone else? So, we’ve always tried to approach Dory with this kind of flexible character identity, where we can keep pushing her as far as we can. In watching Season 3, she went crazy. It felt like a good idea in Season 4 to make her plight literally life-or-death. It strips her down to her most base-level humanity. So, you’re like, I guess I have to root for her because I don’t want her to die!
It sounds like you wanted Season 4 to involve Dory getting some sort of comeuppance. She’s someone who has definitely murdered at least one person in cold blood, but I still kept wondering if she deserves what is happening to her in Season 4. Did you want viewers to question the idea of people getting what’s coming to them?
That’s an interesting question. I don’t 100% relate to the idea of punishment and karma and getting what you deserve. The thing that always feels like the realer, deeper question or truth is about what the actual truth of people is. So, that was the approach to designing this season. On the one hand, this is Dory’s reckoning. She needed to be pushed to self-examine in a way that she was never going to. Chip is this character that steps in and pushes her to a full breakdown. Dory goes through a lot of turns around how she understands herself, and that was kind of necessary because she became so full of lies.
Cole Escola is a major part of this new season. Where did the idea for their character, Chip, come from?
When we started writing Season 3, we knew that we wanted there to be a stalker. And then we just wanted to think of fun things the stalker could do, like send Dory a doll of herself and write letters that said “I’m your best friend,” and be willing to hurt people for her. And that was all we knew. So, when we started Season 4 it was like, What does that actually mean for this character? [Laughs] This is actually such a hard character to write!
Cole has been a friend for years and has felt like such a part of the Search Party family, even though they weren’t ever in it before. So, it wasn’t a stretch to start imagining what kinds of fun things Cole could do. We really love their portrayal of women. We just knew we had to find a way to make that work. And thinking in the tradition of Silence of the Lambs or these classic villains that are either explicitly or implicitly queer — there are so many gender themes in the portrayal of villains, obviously because people are so afraid of themselves. So, that was something we wanted to lean into in a re-appropriating way.
I want to talk about the queer characters on the show, like Elliott (John Early) and Marc (Jeffery Self). What are you aiming to say about millennial gay men with those characters?
In general, I think white gay men have proved themselves to be the most toxic element in the queer periodic table [laughs], and certainly are the patriarchy of the queer community. I think that that’s kind of come to a fever pitch in the last year. Especially with stuff like GaysOverCovid, and seeing how far people go and how duplicitous people can be. It’s not something that’s exclusive to white gay men. There are toxic people in every type of person in the world. But I feel like the majority of my screenshots on Instagram are of white gay men these days.
Speaking of Instagram, I’ve really enjoyed your content, particularly during the pandemic. A lot of your posts play with images of your body in kind of a grotesque way. Can you describe for me what you’re doing with those?
To be totally honest, I think I’ve really muted my sexuality for different parts of my life. And I feel like I’m in this plane of existence in my life [now] where I’m enjoying my body. I think I’ve found that I love myself and I understand myself sexually in a way that I never did before. But then there is always going to be part of me that feels like I gross people out, I scare people, I don’t believe that I’m attractive. So, I think there is part of me that feels compelled to explore being seen, showing off my body and being forward with portraying myself sexually — like most people are on the internet — and also being like, But I’m also disgusting, right? [Laughs] I think that’s what it is. I’ve never said it before.
So, now that the new season of Search Party is premiering, what has the experience of the last couple of years taught you? Has the experience of switching networks and having mergers and re-brandings impact the release of your work changed your outlook at all?
The one thing it’s taught me is that there’s never been a moment where things have plateaued. Things are just always changing. I was 27 when we shot the pilot. My life has gone through so much change. The show has gone through so much change. Even though it’s all involved me saying new corporate names and stuff, at the end of the day my big takeaway is just: Life is constant change and you never arrive at a place that’s an arrival point. The plates are always shifting beneath you.
Search Party Season 4 premieres this Thursday, January 14 on HBO Max.
John Russell is a New York-based entertainment and lifestyle journalist. He has been called “the Courtney Love throwing Chanel compacts at Madonna and Kurt Loder” of his generation.