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In Search Party, the journey from poster to influencer to monster is a slippery slope

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Or: The Poster’s Dilemma

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Image: Warner Media

Much has been made of Search Party as a uniquely millennial show, like it’s a brunch line you can watch other people stand in. It’s true that the HBO Max comedy — initially about finding a missing acquaintance — is absolutely drenched in the iconography of privileged millennials; their world is Instagram-friendly and the characters are all in a self-serving relationship with New York City. But it’s also a show with a uniquely online worldview: where everything, no matter how remote, is happening to you, personally, all the time.

The new season of Search Party, which premiered last week, starts in a wildly different place than the series began. Unbeknownst to her friends, protagonist Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) is being held hostage by an obsessed fan, imprisoned in his basement. Her friends, on the other hand, are frankly too busy to notice she’s gone missing. They’re dealing with a rush of newfound notoriety after literally getting away with murder, which happened in the show’s first season. (Later seasons have chronicled that fallout.) The very public trial in season 3 has granted Dory and her friends — her ex Drew (John Reynolds), and her best friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) — a degree of fame they’ve never had before, and this latest crop of episodes shows them getting used to it.

For Portia and Elliott, this notoriety is all they’ve ever wanted, and they happily use it to sell themselves: the former for a role in the film adaptation of their ordeal, the latter as a conservative pundit. Drew, wracked with self-pity, leaves the city in an attempt to live in obscurity. Dory, on the other hand, languishes alone. It’s a pretty good joke to pin a protagonist’s survival on her hopelessly narcissistic friends.

Despite this season leaning more into the show’s thriller aspects, Search Party is still resolutely a comedy that keeps its knives out for its subjects — the coddled, internet-ruined millennials who love to post. While most of the show’s plot is concerned with IRL actions like going places and talking to people, its allure is closely related to the thrill of posting and the intoxicating effect of being able to mythologize yourself in the eyes of a growing number of followers.

But the posting life is a dangerous one. Search Party, among other things, is a slow-motion horror story about how the millennial snake eats its own tail. Fundamentally, it’s a show about what happens when we believe the lies we tell about ourselves and then what happens when those same lies expand outward and make contact with an impressionable public.

In its scenes that take place in the basement of a deranged fan, Search Party becomes a series about what happens when other people take the lies you told about yourself as gospel truths — about the suffocating vacuum that’s left when you realize people stopped caring about what’s real a long time ago. At the heart of it all is Sief: poster-turned-influencer-turned-monster, acquitted by the public but damned by her own conscience. She’s also imprisoned by the sort of parasocial relationship she first formed with her missing classmate and then encouraged others to build with her.

It’s worth noting that Dory doesn’t actually post much throughout Search Party. Even so, the reductive optics of social media are still how she and her friends interact with the world: everything is a place to be seen or not be seen; there are names to tag along with the constant negotiation between their occupations and their ambitions.

None of this is terribly different from the way upwardly mobile young people have navigated New York City in popular culture — you could say similar things about Sex and the City — but Search Party focuses its satire on how quickly millennial life has proven that a lifestyle of consumption can quickly become consumed itself.