Meredith Hagner (left), John Early, Alia Shawkat, John Reynolds (Photo: Turner Networks)

Everything I did was for nothing.”

I want it to not have happened.”

“Murder!”

At the conclusion of Search Party’s first season, I had some questions (okay, and doubts) about how the show could continue after Keith’s murder. I am, of course, happy to have been proven wrong by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, who are back in the writer-director chairs for a new batch of intricate stories about seemingly shallow characters. From what I’ve seen so far, season two smartly adds to old threads while developing several new arcs, for returning players and newcomers. There’s a subtle tonal shift early on, which the core quartet handles with aplomb.

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The season-two opener, “Murder!,” returns to the scene of the crime, with Dory, Drew, and Elliott coming to terms with what happened in “The House Of Uncanny Truths”—namely, Keith’s death, and the end of Dory’s sense of purpose. All that effort (not to mention the betrayal) was for nothing. Chantal was never hurt, and she doesn’t even seem that grateful, rushing them all out to a dinner few of them want to attend. Everyone else is devastated, and the supposed victim is just worrying about her blood sugar. These little moments of obliviousness cut the tension, as Search Party continues to strike a perfect balance between suspense and humor.

“Murder!” is a tight and biting half hour of TV, following four different yet complementary reactions while never selling any of the main characters short. Though they’re all in much deeper shit than they were when we first met them at a rooftop party and over brunch, Dory, Drew, Portia, and Elliott all respond very much in character, with actions that alternately underscore and upend the gravity of the situation. As she hammers out their next steps with Drew and Elliott, her initial response is to just kind of wish the whole thing away. It’s not at all practical, but very few of her actions since she got caught up in the “mystery of the missing acquaintance” have been.

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Dory isn’t the only one helplessly hoping the corpse they’ve jammed into a suitcase—a zebra-print rollerboard with pink piping, for the discerning gravedigger—isn’t really there, that this is all just some horrible dream. Portia is similarly in denial. She spent an extra 12 hours or so in their old, murder-free existence, and now that she’s getting caught up with the program, she alternates between tears and surprisingly good ideas. Meredith Hagner was a revelation in the first season, and her performance here confirms that was no fluke, whether she’s focusing on the wrong thing (feeling left out of the conspiracy she’s about to wish she’d never gotten involved in) or emitting a piercing scream worthy of a harried protagonist in any of the best psychological thrillers. We learned last season that there’s much more to Portia than her blond, brittle beauty, and Hagner continues to tease the multitudes.

(Photo: Turner Networks)

The new season has been touted by its creators (including Michael Showalter) and cast as borrowing heavily from Alfred Hitchcock’s oeuvre. That influence could be found in the first season, but what was once a noirish bent is becoming a full-on descent into paranoia, possibly leading to a shattered group. The searchers are poised to become the pursued, hunters are now hunted, etc. But that will all come in due time. “Murder!” is mostly about the immediate aftermath: the clean-up, the fuck-ups, and the cover-up.

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And here it’s Elliott’s time to shine. He orchestrates everything like it’s just some kind of nefariously-themed outing, coolly messing with Dory’s head about her own culpability (which is very much up in the air) before ordering her and Drew to pick up the burial supplies, all while he distracts Chantal, Portia, and Matthieu (who is not only kind of dumb, but humorless). John Early’s outfits reportedly reveal as much about his character’s sense of style as his mental state, which makes his mauve outfit here especially fitting (or rather, it continues to be, since they’re the exact same clothes he was wearing in the finale). The red room with the neon “Slay” sign isn’t very subtle, but it provides some great visuals, like Dory beginning her descent into madness (or hell).

The burial scene that closes out a great premiere takes place in the woods, but still feels very claustrophobic. Drew makes digs at Dory, because he’s more on the hook than any of them, but it’s Elliott who loses his cool in spectacular fashion, as it dawns on him just how right he was about it being “a lot harder to dig a hole than you think.” He centers himself once more in the final moments just as another bombshell drops—Keith told his daughter about Dory, which means their terrible secret is anything but buried.

“Conspiracy”

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Search Party might have resolved Chantal’s disappearance last year, but there are still plenty of mysteries ahead in the new season. They’re not all of the missing-white-woman variety, but they’re pressing questions nonetheless. Going into “Conspiracy” after watching “Murder!,” I was struck by Dory not really seeming to have her story straight about what happened with Keith in “The House Of Uncanny Truths.” Is she intentionally misremembering? Because she definitely Tased Keith before he put his hands on her. The fact that she doesn’t just come clean about freaking out suggests this cover-up has a cover-up.

That lack of trust is spreading throughout the group. Drew finally, truly confronts Dory’s betrayal in “Conspiracy,” evicting her from their apartment and life. But since he potentially sacrificed a lot for her by bludgeoning Keith, he’s still tied to her. They’re all bound to each other now, though again, Portia hilariously forced her way into the conspiracy despite being given every chance to stay out of it. That curiosity mirrors Dory’s in its intensity, but probably not in its intent. Portia long ago proved she’s no dumb blond, but she’s also not nearly as introspective as Dory is—her objection in “Murder!” was to being left out. And now she’s upset because she (rightly) thinks everyone else doubts how well she can handle being an accessory after the fact, despite making another great suggestion (faking Keith’s getaway) and delivering what might be the best line in an episode full of great one-liners: “Should we just text back, ‘I’m dead?’”

But it’s the motives of outsiders that are most in question this episode, which is taut but still given to some silly detours. Dory and the gang help Chantal make her way back into the world (though not without hitting a few inspired snags). The group may be coming apart, but they mostly work in concert together to cover their tracks, which includes actual tracks and some failed sleight of hand. Chantal is the one who throws a wrench in the works, as she begins to grasp the enormity of what she’s done. She reveals just how much of a black sheep she is, worrying that her parents will think she’s an idiot and that her sister will believe she ran away because of her wedding. “I hate change,” she wails, a statement that resonates with Dory, who has bitten off much more than she can chew in her pursuit of purpose.

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(Photo: Turner Networks)

And yet, when Dory helps Chantal spin a new web of lies (with assists from Elliott and Portia, who are experts at make believe), it’s a self-serving move. By placing Chantal in a New Hampshire motel, they’re taking some of the heat off of themselves. If they had no reason to be in Montreal, then they can’t really be tied to Keith’s murder. And because she gets to write a new victim narrative for herself, Chantal is fully on board. Her hasty agreement is a bit suspect, though; is she really so self-centered that she assumes that people she’s barely communicated with since college would go to such lengths to lie for her? Or is there something else at play?

The big reveals in “Conspiracy” are Chantal’s hidden and disturbing depths. She plays the victim well, falling to her knees to be wrapped in a blanket upon returning to her home. Drew’s deadpan “You did it” to Dory is a reminder of just how misguided she was in worrying about someone like Chantal. I’m glad to see Clare McNulty getting more screentime, as she brings a subtly unhinged quality to Chantal. She uses her black eye and hangdog expression to really sell her performance—and it is a performance. Just look at her wardrobe. In that robe and turban, she looks like Norma Desmond, which is appropriate, since she’s already changing the angle of her story. Chantal’s realized that being a brave survivor is a much meatier role, a part she seems awfully comfortable playing. And let’s not forget that she pulled off an effective escape last season, nabbing a fake passport (ridiculous alias aside) and absconding to Canada without anyone really catching on. And she would have gotten away with it, too, if it weren’t for those meddling millennials.

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There’s a definite dark side to Chantal, which Search Party is going to explore along with Dory’s decline. As the gang leaves the Witherbottom home, they seem at least somewhat aware of what kind of person she is. Elliott might put it best when he says, “I would never lie about abuse, and I’ve lied about cancer.” They’re not going to get to the bottom of that particular mystery anytime soon, though, as they’re still feeling like victims themselves. Someone in the car complains about how “unfair” it is that they’re dealing with murder and conspiracy, while Portia seems oddly convinced that they have other friends dealing with their own I Know What You Did Last Summer events. “None of this would be an issue if he were still alive,” she sighs at one point. That shortsightedness is key to the show’s humor and its pacing, which, after two episodes, are stronger than ever.

Stray observations

  • Thanks to Search Party and Riverdale, I have two new silly TV drug terms to add to the lexicon: Jingle Jangle and a Sleeping Beauty (the latter is cocaine and sleeping pills, and is an Elliott Goss spur-of-the-moment invention).
  • “I feel very left out.” Oh Portia, this was one trend you shouldn’t have jumped on.
  • Elliott referring to everything as “so sketch” was much less surprising than his knowledge about obstruction of justice.
  • Where last year’s titles were Nancy Drew homages, this year’s episodes have Hitchcock-inspired monikers that also seem to track the larger story—first, there was “Murder!,” followed by “Conspiracy.”
  • Keith’s flame decals are, uh, sporty.
  • “Margaret Wartime” is now one of the greatest aliases ever.
  • Elliott’s Eagle Scout outfit in “Conspiracy” is also a bit of a giveaway—he’s clearly trying to appear innocent, wholesome.
  • Lingering questions: Chip ranks his own pain much too high in that hierarchy—could he be “Farley”? Chantal spoke of her married lover having a “wife and kids,” and Chantal’s sister is pregnant. Less important (possibly): Is that creepy face on the tree something Chantal made to keep herself company?
  • Welcome back to Search Party reviews! I’ll have a double review every week for the next five weeks. This schedule is a vast improvement over last year’s 10 episodes in five days, and I do thank you for riding that out with me.

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