Search Party’s third season is a mystery nearly three years in the making: What’s become of Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), the New York hipster whose life began to unravel the moment she saw a missing persons flyer in the premiere? Along with her equally self-centered friends Drew (John Reynolds), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and Elliott (John Early), Dory set out to find “endangered adult” Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty) in season one, only to have their search end in bloodshed. Season two saw the gang juggle their guilt with personal aspirations and non-murder-related dark secrets, all while being exceedingly fashionable and credulous. But just when these characters faced a real reckoning for Keith’s (Ron Livingston) death, series co-creators Sarah Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers threw a curveball, with Dory silencing their blackmailer—perhaps permanently.
Still, it’s hard to know just what’s real in the lives of four people skilled in the arts of denial and using media to construct not-entirely-accurate representations of themselves. So The A.V. Club spoke with the core ensemble—Shawkat and Reynolds, and Early and Hagner—over the phone about season three (now out on HBO Max), the courtroom dramas that inspired the new episodes, and the much-maligned generation that remains at the heart of the story.
The A.V. Club: This season takes some inspiration from courtroom dramas and true crime shows—movies like The Pelican Brief and shows like The Jinx. Did you watch any of them in preparation, or were you already fans of those subgenres?
Alia Shawkat: I definitely watched those shows—not necessarily in preparation, but I do love those shows. For this show, I watched the documentary on Amanda Knox, which I thought was really well done. It’s kind of fascinating, watching her talk to the camera about something. You want to believe she’s innocent, and I do. But then you’re also like, well, why is she talking so strange? That was more of an inspiration for the entire season, but I love those kinds of shows.
John Reynolds: Yeah, I watched The Jinx when it came out, even though it was a weekly show and I don’t really do that anymore. That was a big thing for me. It was shocking and brutal, and I feel like we had all had conversations about that case before shooting the show.
John Early: Meredith, you have to have done some sort of truly sincere legal research. Were you ever a witness to anything?
Meredith Hagner: No, but as an actor, those were so satisfying to me, the on-the-stand scenes opposite Alia and John. It’s a bit of a theater kid’s dream; you just get these emotional monologues. It was so fun, but then like you’re doing the scene for mostly an empty crowd, and then while you’re talking to the jury, the background actors will naturally be wanting to fall asleep, ’cause they’ve been doing it for 10 hours. So you’re doing these scenes and a lot of the background players—bless them, they’re so sweet, but like dead asleep. So I would be like “If you guys wouldn’t mind waking up for this monologue, I would be so grateful.” [Laughs.] Anyway, those were very fun. But I didn’t do a lot of research. I watched the People Vs. O.J. Simpsons series. I loved all that, but I didn’t do crazy research on it. Did you, John?
JE: I didn’t do any research, but I love The Good Wife. Watching all of The Good Wife, it takes a chunk of your life. I dedicated some years to The Good Wife. [Laughs.] I think you do just snap into the stakes of it really quickly, just because everyone has consumed so much like legal TV.
AVC: There are whole networks built around true crime, like Oxygen and Investigation Discovery, and there’s even a Crimecon. It’s interesting because apparently, women are the main audience for most true crime stuff. Even though a lot of the victims are women, it’s women that obsess over it.
AS: Right. I feel like there’s a reason for that because the majority of the victims are women. It’s something my mom and her friends and I had a phase where I was obsessed with true crime stories—and the more gruesome, the better, which is just so fucked up. But I think there’s something about women like connecting… “titillating” maybe isn’t the right word, but just like, you feel the fear of it more than a man, who’s like “Ah, I’d get out of that.” And you’re like, okay, “Well, I wouldn’t” or maybe couldn’t. So I don’t know, maybe there’s some weird connection there, of seeing yourself in the victim that makes it extra interesting to watch.
AVC: The show is obviously a thriller, but it never loses sight of the friendship that’s at the core. We’ve been watching these four people grow apart, which feels really true to life in its own way. There’s even a throwaway line about how hard it is to maintain adult friendships. Search Party often feels like the most extreme case of that.
AS: Yeah, the show is definitely a platform for commentary on lots of simple things, but made a lot more extreme. It’s like seeing your college friends and the issues that people go through at that age—their late twenties, early thirties—where they’re like, “I don’t really connect with these people, but we just share so many things together,” including some trauma. Which, in most cases, is maybe just a breakup or that time I was broke or whatever. But this is like adding the titillation effect. I’m really using that word “titillate” a lot [Laughs.], but this is adding a more extreme narrative to it, where it’s like, what if these friends killed somebody? You’re adding these extreme circumstances to a relatable idea, while also making sure the humor is there, too.
JR: A titillating idea. [Laughs.] Yeah, I agree with Alia—I think that they kind of want to escape from each other and the situation that they’re in, but the trauma is what brings them together. For Drew and Dory, they’re the only people who they can talk to about the trauma. They’re the only people they can confide in, whether they want to or not.
AVC: This is a generational story—it’s both about millennials and satirizes them. That’s become such a weirdly loaded term these days, where people accuse millennials of ruining everything, even though most of those people don’t seem to know how old that generation actually is. Do you still see the show as being representative of millennials, or telling a story that’s maybe more relatable for them?
JE: That’s still a huge part of the show, and it’s not just satirizing millennials. This season, especially with Michaela Watkins’ character’s storyline, is satirizing people’s obsession and fetishization of millennials. People really do feed off of the kind of sick hatred of millennials. People want to see them suffer. I don’t think millennials necessarily feel represented by this show, but I think it’s cathartic to watch the kind of stereotype of a millennial get tested. So definitely, they’re kind of playing with that archetype, but it’s more playing into the kind of weird, national cultural preoccupation with millennials and their privilege.
MH: There is catharsis in the parody of that. This is a major parody of privilege, and of people living in these very small boxes of narcissism, which is supposed to be a millennial characteristic. But I think even other characters that aren’t millennials on the show, like Michaela’s character Polly, she has her own agenda and she’s probably a narcissist in her own way. I think they started out as more typical millennials, but then you watch them through these things, and the stakes just get higher and higher, and more kind of impactful in terms of story. Yet they’re still self-involved narcissists that only think about themselves.
JR: Yeah, just by the sheer nature of the age of the characters, it is a millennial show and it’s written by people of that generation. It definitely presents it as funny or satirical. This is a question that we’ve dealt with over the years—I feel like sometimes the term “millennial” is just a reductive way to sell things to people, or make it easier to understand who we are or something. I feel like we as a generation keep getting pinned as “no action babies” or something. I brought up this article before, because it was so crazy to me, but there was an article I saw a few years ago and it was complaining that millennials had ruined Buffalo Wild Wings. Right? And it was like, “Oh, well, the millennials ruin everything. Buffalo Wild Wings is no more.” [Laughs.] But then it’s like, what generation is saving Buffalo Wild Wings? Maybe Zoomers can bring it back.
AS: Zoomers? Are we Zoomers now?
JR: I don’t know. I think we’re millennials.
AS: I guess Gen Z will have to save it then. [Laughs.] But, like John said, since the beginning of the show, that’s been such a theme: millennials who get lost in blah, blah, blah. But there are a lot of shows, like Girls or really any shows about young people, that are, to a degree, about discovering themselves. Search Party is definitely commenting on this idea of hipster culture, of millennials embracing things that are old and making them new and kitschy, of promoting themselves—just these bad traits associated with that term, “millennial.” But I also look at the show as something beyond that. It’s become so much more about these specific characters and why they are like that. They’re unapologetic, in some ways, and so un-self-aware, I guess because of the generation that they’re a part of. But now it’s gone beyond that, where it’s now just these four people that are just trying to figure it the fuck out.
JR: I mean, I think it’s fun. Alia and I were talking about the pilot recently; it was so funny and fun to watch again, and already it feels sort of like a time capsule, in the way that Sex And The City was a time capsule. I’ve also been watching Sex And The City again. But that’ll hopefully be a fun thing about the show, is that it really was a time and a place.
AS: Yeah, and also an exaggerated version of the time, kind of like a cartoon.
JR: In the way Sex And The City is.
AS: Favorite show, bro.
JR: Yeah, It’s our favorite show.
AVC: There’s a really big development for Elliott this season: his wedding to Marc, which is actually a pivotal episode for everyone. The wedding is the biggest set-piece of this season, aside from the courtroom stuff, so how did you all prepare for it?
JE: Similarly to the courtroom stuff, it feels so real because you’re in a giant space. Normally you’re in these cramped spaces where you know that they’re doing some sort of visual tricks to make it look real to the viewer, but in person it just looks totally artificial. You have a million background actors, you’re in a giant banquet hall, with these blown-up pictures of me and stuff. We also had to shoot the ceremony, in the wide shots, kind of in real time. So we did actually get to go through the ceremony, the procession, and everything else that happens. I felt very nervous standing up on that stage, and as I think Elliot would too, in front of all those people. I also probably felt flustered and kind of excited to have all eyes on me. It didn’t require much preparation, but Meredith singing “I’ll Make Love To You” is one of the funniest things—
MH: Are you complimenting me? I don’t want to miss it.
JE: Oh yeah, no, don’t cut that off. Yes, I was complimenting you. You singing “I’ll Make Love To You,” the Boyz II Men song, is just one of the funniest things—for a character like Elliott, who’s clearly so controlling, it’s just such a hilarious, tasteless choice to have a white girl singing a Boyz II Men song, a hypersexual Boyz II Men song. It’s so funny to me and your performance of it was just huge. One of my highlights.
MH: Thank you. I love you, I think you are incredible. [Laughs.] It kind of sucks because I felt like I wasn’t in the wedding episode for a lot of it, ’cause I was up in that platform the entire time. I like being very social on set, so that was kind of a struggle for me. I was just up in this rafter for a whole week being like “What are you guys talking about down there?” But I love that episode.
AVC: Meredith, you have that big musical number, which is one of the highlights of the season. Now, I’m old enough that that song played at one of my junior high dances, which still feels inappropriate all these years later. What was your familiarity with that song and with Boyz II Men?
JE: I mean, that song’s like the birth of my consciousness.
MH: Yeah, me too! Well maybe not my consciousness, maybe my sexuality—’cause I remember an eighth grade slow dance to that song. So, I’ve definitely been there.
JE: I remember just like belting it in my car—in my car? In my mom’s van—but having no real understanding of the sexual connotation. Which is still true for me, I never connect with the lyrics of most music. So much pop music is highly sexual, but I never am thinking about the sexual context.
AVC: There is also something kind of sad about the wedding, because there have been all these reports about how millennials aren’t hitting the same milestones that previous generations reached. They’re not buying homes, they’re not getting married.
JE: I do think there is something so gauche and insane about a millennial getting married in such an extravagant way, because it’s like, people aren’t getting married for all sorts of reasons: The culture is shifting, and millennials don’t have the money for these things. It’s so funny to see him, in the face of his generation, have this absolute blowout, $1.3 million ceremony… Like, what?
AVC: Elliott and Meredith are a pair again this season, and so are Drew and Dory, in a sense. John and Alia, you worked the most with Louie Anderson and Shalita Grant, who are both so good in this. What was it like having them join your group?
AS: It was so much fun. Louie and Shalita both have very different energies, and yet we all kind of just got along. Really. I think there’s something so exciting about doing a TV show and you’re wondering, who’s going to play this part? Then we get these really great cast members.
JR: Yeah, they both brought vastly different energies. It was a good dynamic, especially because those court scenes, I mean, shooting them is long and tedious and it’s a lot of coverage and a lot of sittings. It was fun for me, personally, to have Louie as my lawyer just ’cause I’m a fan and he had a bunch of great stories about [David] Letterman and Johnny Carson, and old standup from the ’80s. And he obviously loved to tell them.
AS: With Shalita, we were just like, whoa—she was so fun, and her choices were just unbelievable. I think that getting to see it that many times, especially when we have the background in–everyone would applaud afterwards, because it was a real performance. She would always try new things. It was just so strong and captivating. Everyone just thought she was amazing. Michaela [Watkins] too—I mean Michaela’s so fucking funny.
JR: She was a dream to have. She’s so funny.