Searching for Meaning
'Search Party' diagnoses millennials with a kind of narrative illness
What is a millennial? A representative unit of a uniquely beleaguered and interconnected generation whose growth from child to adult coincided with the catastrophic deterioration of the environment, systems of government and finance, the nature of truth, etc.? One among a coddled cabal of whiners and manipulators whose laziness is outdone only by their ability to instrumentalize their self-delusion and supposed dispossession for personal gain? A largely unstable category, only meaningful when backed by data and broken down according to subcategories, such as race, class, gender, and so on? Simply a person born between, roughly, the years 1981 and 1996? Maybe an overloaded word one wishes never to hear again? Merely a state of mind? As with most questions, the answer depends on whom you ask — and who’s asking. It’s also one that HBO Max’s Search Party, whose final season will debut in full on January 7, has been posing and reposing throughout its run.
Combining the quirky-girl comedy of Broad City with a more overt version of the sociopathy underpinning Seinfeld and It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, the show, created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter, follows four friends, all NYU graduates near 30 and still living in New York (read: wayward narcissists). Famously, it jumps between genres each season, sometimes within individual episodes. Only its jumps aren’t clean cuts; they don’t land the show in purely new territory, but create a fresh mash, the residue of what’s come before bleeding into whatever’s next, or, resisting mixture, clotting into funny forms that float around grotesquely. And the changes are violent. The first season’s mystery becomes the second’s psychological thriller becomes the third’s legal drama only when a dramatic event bursts the basic premise of the show. Comedy — satirical, dark, absurdist, wacky, puerile — is a constant; it goes well with everything.
In Season One, Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), the series’ lead, hunts for a missing college classmate and current poetry MFA candidate Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty). They don't know each other, but Dory feels, as she says, “a little lost” and is “tired of things that don’t matter.” She doesn’t have much going on in her life, in other words — no projects, no career, and no immediate hope of attaining either. She has a tall beta boyfriend, Drew Gardner (John Reynolds), who resembles an updated, more oafish Jon Arbuckle; a charmingly airy actor best girlfriend, Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner); and a frenzied, fabulist GBF, Elliott Goss (John Early), for whom “lying is a tool,” as he puts it, of first and last resort. But she needs more. She needs purpose, and her need, as well as the lack that drives it, makes her, the show posits, exemplary of her generation.
This is because the American millennial, according to Search Party, is a person seeking a sense of narrative purpose above all else. The purpose derived from close friendships is a necessary foundation, and the purpose associated with having a career and a related identity are nice enough if one can get them. One is motivated to maintain or blow up or intensify relationships; one wants to make more money, achieve a new position, or make better art. Neither, however, can always suture the diversity of experience together into a convincing whole; even when they succeed, the result can appear monstrous. What is needed is form, the shape and purpose conferred by genre forms, by one’s participation in the prefab structure of a television genre narrative.
That’s Dory’s solution, anyway. Dory as an amateur sleuth searching for a missing “friend” in a Scooby-Doo mystery, Dory as a haunted and hunted woman evading juridical and personal guilt in a Lifetime thriller, Dory as a defendant in a courtroom drama, and Dory as a kidnapping victim waiting for her friends, or anyone, to rescue her in season four’s foray into gonzo horror: these are strong, well-defined, eminently legible roles that permit their occupant to behave according to the logics of their respective stories. From them Dory gains a robust interpretive schema. She can grasp her motivation in a given situation. She can act. And when she has exhausted the possibilities of one story, she can, she must, cycle to another.
In 2015, eleven months before Search Party’s debut, the actor and model Hari Nef, reflecting on her rising star, shared a friend’s axiom by way of explanation: “In New York City, if you shout something loud and long enough, it will become true.” On one level, this is a romantic corruption of “fake it ‘til you make it,” or the “bullshit walks” part of “money talks and bullshit walks.” On another, it’s practical advice for anyone pursuing work in a creative field where one of the barriers to entry is, basically, whether or not people find you credible as the thing you claim to be — actor, writer, model, musician, artist. It’s also a way to focus your energies into the project of becoming, which involves buying into a story you tell yourself about your artistic ambitions and abilities. Of course, this method is open to anyone, not just wannabe artists — certainly not just talented wannabe artists — and can be used to service delusions as much as ambitions, to the extent that they differ in the first place.
Say you’re on trial. You’re accused of horrific crimes and their coverup, and you’re guilty, but you don’t feel guilty, not all the time. The media loves you, it broadcasts you; you’re hot. You’ve leveraged your family on primetime TV, convinced your borderline-estranged Iraqi-immigrant parents — whose existence you otherwise ignore, preferring the uncomplicated whiteness of your core friend group — to perform the doting, “hardworking” mother and father to a wrongly accused only child in an emotional interview with a Diane Sawyer clone. The attention is nice, deserved actually, and the circumstances under which you’re receiving it, while not ideal, are the universe’s strange way of affirming that you are, if not the main character, then a main character, and a heretofore neglected star. As you claim your innocence, you come to believe in it. When others refuse to give themselves over so wholly to your self-deceptions, you first proselytize and then expurgate them from your life, your defense team. Your belief metastasizes until, for you, it loses its character as belief. It simply is, and you simply are the wrongly accused defendant whose innocence the jury will necessarily apprehend. Why? Because you’ve shouted it long and loud enough.
The American millennial, according to Search Party, is a person seeking a sense of narrative purpose above all else.
To be clear, I am describing Dory’s season three arc, not your life, hopefully. The ambient guilt that hovered over the first season has long since hypostatized into real guilt, and then inverted itself into real denial. To be clearer, Dory’s trial will end, and the identity she had crafted for herself based on its existence – its sudden shifts in momentum, its shock reveals of evidence and counterevidence, the faltering allegiance of its witnesses, and its prosecutor’s arrogance and bafflement and offended pride – that identity, “the defendant,” constituted as it is by and through the genre conventions of the legal drama, will shatter, same as the ones she sampled in previous seasons. For the defendant and her trial live and die as a dyad. One cannot go on without the other.
In Search Party, the damage piles up until it violently ruptures Dory’s stories, forcing her to spin a new yarn, and to give herself a new role, each less credible than the last. To reverse and pervert Susan Sontag's observation: If narrative, which is always a metaphor for experience, can become a kind of illness, then Dory is very sick. “And she’s not alone,” one might add.
Into every generation a burden is born: that of its own supposedly particular characteristics, which it is fated to watch writers and other opportunists invent, or more seldom observe, and then critique. The cycle continues of necessity — and because it’s fun when it’s fun. Consumers require content, explanations, narrative. We will read stories describing an age group’s predilections and grand problems, at least; we will recycle them, assimilate them, revel in the sense of understanding — of mastery — they gift us, or, indulging in anger’s sweetness, rebut their analyses, locating in disavowal an equally pleasing form of potency. Television is an engine for such bullshit. It spreads it harder, faster, further, for longer, as much by portraying the way that some “we” lives now (Girls, Euphoria, Insecure, Supermarket Sweep) as by providing objects for culture workers, and the businesses that rely on them, to evaluate. Some days I like the engine very much, for it makes loud rhythmic noises that keep me entertained. Most of all I like my chosen object, Search Party.
Is it the show’s meta component that elicits my love? The way it self-consciously tries on genres and then explodes them, using the blast to propel itself into new territory? Narratives about narrative breakdown are very Neo saying “whoa” in The Matrix, after all: Whoa. But they’re hardly unique to stories by and about millennials.
Rachel Cusk does them well. Her heroine in the novel Outline describes marriage as “a system of belief, a story, and though it manifests itself in things that are real enough, the impulse that drives it is ultimately mysterious.” The iteration she’s referencing has degenerated utterly and so ceased to exist, though she may rework its parts into a structure better suited to her situation. In her essay “What Driving Can Teach Us About Living,” driving itself has become “a story” in which we occupy various roles, a tale that twists over time until it (sometimes literally) crashes and burns, and we become unable to believe that it once ferried us from point A to point B. “Without that belief,” Cusk discovers herself “overwhelmed by the horror of reality”: Whoa.
As each season of Search Party ends, and the next debuts as a kind of estranged sibling to the last, Dory encounters Cusk’s “horror of reality” and immediately begins transfiguring it into something livable. Narrative is inescapable once it ensnares you. The story of the end of a marriage becomes the new story. If you’re Cusk, this is good: A new story offers new life, and art, and a movement past the melancholia the death of the old produces. If you’re Dory, this is bad: A new story offers new delusions, new paths to ill-begotten purpose, and an opportunity to refuse to reckon with the destruction wrought by your misuse of the old. The difference is somewhere between intention and disposition. How cheaply are you willing to build the stories of your life? How shabby, received, and trite, how much like an episode of Law & Order, will you allow — or can you not help but allow — them to look and feel? When reality sweeps them away, and you are left in the lonely abjection of their absence, what will you construct atop their foundations?
Perhaps I miss the point. Clair Wills, writing about Claire-Louise Bennett’s ambling new novel Checkout 19, wonders, “What kind of form fits the drift of a woman’s life, or her desire for drift? Must we deliver on our promise through the narrative plots set up for us? Must we decide? Must we ‘do something’?” Especially when it comes to “the stories women might be desperate to cast off,” e.g., “relationships, career, children, ‘creativity’”? Perhaps Search Party’s central quartet is desperate to cast off another of these stories.
Shabby, received, trite: These are characteristics immanent to Dory’s world, infected as it is by the juvenilizing generational narrative that describes her cohort as manque adults, lost and monolithic. A discourse still soggy with avocado debris, still limp and moldering, that draws sneers and smirks, and that tends to distract from cogent analysis while debasing its target, audience, and author alike — what adversary could better oppose it, better tease out its humor, better negate it, than Scooby and the gang?
Paul McAdory is a writer and editor living in Brooklyn.