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

The second season of Search Party begins with a burial, as the protagonists of TBS’ mordant genre exercise attempt to cover the tracks (and the corpse) they left behind in the show’s first season. It’s not hard to transpose the Search Party creative team of Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter into this scene, as they mull the next steps for one of 2016’s biggest TV surprises, an unassuming slice of millennial life that swiftly spiraled into a tale of deception, infidelity, and murder across five nights last November. By ending the first season with a stomach-wrenching cliffhanger, have they dug themselves into a hole they can’t possibly get out of? Fortunately for Bliss, Rogers, and Showalter’s viewers—and unfortunate for their characters’ personal lives and senses of security—the best solution to that conundrum is also the simplest: For its encore, Search Party just keeps digging.

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Bliss and Rogers set the lure of their comic thriller’s first season with Dory (Alia Shawkat), a twentysomething who’s so bored and dissatisfied with her own life that she decides to save somebody else’s. The follow-up begins with the wicked fulfillment of that be-careful-what-you-wish-for scenario: Dory’s life is now infinitely more interesting than it once was, because she’s an accessory to the murder of the PI she was sleeping with, who was killed by her ex-boyfriend—in the kitchen, with the architecture award—at the stately Montreal home where they found their missing college acquaintance. That acquaintance, Chantal (Clare McNulty) showed up completely unharmed (give or take a severe dye job), but the same can’t be said for Dory and her gang of reluctant sleuths. That blow to the private dick’s noggin was a chip in the glass of their curated existences, and watching the cracks spider-web outward makes for a different type of Search Party, one that’s no less entertaining or engrossing.

Friends who once seemed destined to drift apart once there were no more brunches to attend or mutual chums to bitch about, Dory, Drew (John Reynolds), Elliott (John Early), and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are now bonded by a terrible secret that’s also sure to expose the fractures and dysfunctions in their relationships. Only three of them know at the start of season two, but that’s quickly disposed of with one spectacular scream, freeing the Search Party writers to use the core quartet’s collective guilt as the fuel firing the show’s new direction. This turn toward the Hitchcockian benefits the scripts as well as the performances: The feeling of the noose tightening around the characters’ necks colors everything from Elliott’s ill-gotten book deal to Portia’s participation in a play about the Manson Family, the manifestations of their remorse and shame—tricky hallucinations, petty revenge schemes, physical symptoms doubling as gut-busting gross-out gags—presenting new and thrilling challenges to the cast members.

John Early (Photo: TBS)

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Thankfully, they’re more than up to the task. Chantal’s whereabouts put a satisfying capper on the first season, but Search Party’s most important discovery was the might of its ensemble, collectively and within their individual archetypes: Shawkat as ringleader, Reynolds as shortsighted pushover, Early as ambitious fabulist, and Hagner as a Pollyanna with hidden depths. It’s Dory’s distraction turned obsession that got them into this mess, and Shawkat remains a reliable anchor for the series, but her co-stars are justly rewarded for their scene-stealing turns during Search Party’s first go-round—especially Early, whose every spotlight moment is a million GIFs in the making. Elliott is the group’s most gifted and experienced liar, and that personality becomes the personality of season two as a whole. The new episodes retain their predecessors’ character-based realism—the deeply felt depictions of 21st-century urban-bohemian rudderlessness, the dramatic tensions in its friendships and romances—while the consequences of Keith’s murder raise the stakes ever higher. It’s a frenzy that suits Early and Hagner’s larger-than-life performances, but also one in which Reynolds can keep chipping away at Drew’s “nice guy” façade.

And it’s a broadening of scope that can accommodate a whole new raft of supporting ringers including Judy Reyes as Keith’s ex-wife, J. Smith-Cameron as a local politician, and Early’s frequent collaborator Kate Berlant as Elliott’s publishing contact. Brandon Micheal Hall is still sniffing out scoops and causing friction as freelance journalist Julian; Chantal’s disappearing act serves as the ideal subject for his latest exposé. In McNulty’s hands, Chantal’s quite the subject herself: A sainted question mark and a face on a flier for all but the closing minutes of season one, the actor gets to contradict every assumption about and every glowing endorsement of her character, a delightful heel turn that reveals the target of Dory’s rescue mission to be a real fucking drip. Chantal is the loose cannon on this ship of mendacious fools, the published poet who can’t help but embellish the gang’s cover story while she throws herself at Drew and otherwise makes Dory wish she’d never gone looking for her in the first place.

It’s a killer domino effect, one whose impact will be more deeply felt as Search Party rolls out across five weeks, rather than the five consecutive nights afforded to the first season. In line with its main characters’ newly upside-down lives, the programming strategy properly flips the script: With no mystery for armchair detectives to unravel before the show does (inasmuch as anyone could’ve predicted the outcome of season one’s shaggy-dog story), the space between new installments should only deepen the suspense. Like a super-sized Columbo case, the culprits have already been identified, and they’re shockingly, hilariously tracking bloody footprints across New York City. They, and Search Party, seem like they’re in over their heads at the start, but it only gets better the deeper they go.

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Reviews by Danette Chavez will run weekly.