When Search Party premiered in 2016, it began as a playful mystery that also functioned as biting satire, reimagining its white, millennial, Brooklynite main characters as amateur detectives. In searching the city for an old classmate gone missing, Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) found a sense of purpose in her aimless, post-grad ennui, with her vapid friends sucked into the drama. But ever since its first season ended in a gruesome murder at the hands of its spoiled leads, Search Party has contorted itself into a show so dark and reaching for twists, it’s almost unrecognizable.
The show’s second season found Dory and her goofy boyfriend Drew Gardner (John Reynolds) attempting to lead normal lives after committing murder. But the usual chitchat and selfies over brunch mimosas with their bestie accomplices Elliott Goss (John Early) and Portia Davenport (Meredith Hagner) quickly became guilty conversations about breaking out into hives, suffering hair loss, and experiencing suicidal tendencies. All the while, it was unclear if Dory and her self-absorbed friends really understood the gravity of their crime. “We are good people,” Dory said after the four of them buried a dead man in the Canadian woods. “Good people subjected to a really unfortunate situation.”
It’s that idea, that Dory and her friends were just in the wrong place at the wrong time, that ends up transforming Dory into a full-blown psychopath in Search Party’s third season on HBO Max. In the new season, Dory and Drew are officially arrested for the murder, their DNA found at the scene of the crime. The show turns into a courtroom drama with Dory hiring the newbie lawyer Cassidy Diamond (Shalita Grant), a charming Elle Woods wannabe whose vocal fry and designer dresses belie her (only a little misguided) talents as a lawyer. “Mental illness is a real thing that everyone has or wishes they had,” Cassidy says to Dory dryly, explaining why she should plead mentally insane, as she feeds her five-star sushi in the back of an Uber.
But it won’t be easy to prove Dory and Drew are innocent not just because of the mountain of evidence against them, but also because all four friends have become household names for their crime. Drew gets a legion of fangirls who bake him casseroles, Elliott grabs the attention of a Tomi Lahren-type who invites him to spar on her conservative TV show, and Portia finds a new Christian friend group who wants to transform her through the power of Jesus. But Dory is the most famous of them all, her smiling mugshot and beauty so iconic that curly wigs and pins with her face on them are sold outside the courthouse. She even earns a stalker, who tattoos her name on his hand and gifts her a handmade Dory action figure.
As the trial pits the four of them against each other, each grappling with their role in the murder, Dory seems convinced of her innocence entirely. Shawkat goes full villain, finally playing Dory as a smirking, self-aware killer that was bubbling under the surface in Season 2. In one episode, she enlists her relatively estranged parents for a sit-down TV interview demanding they do it without even asking. By the time the family sits down, any fighting that happened off-screen is replaced by a stunning, teary-eyed performance of fake familial love. At times, Dory is straight-up delusional, imagining her murder victims as ghosts coming to haunt her.
It’s not that Search Party has lost its sense of humor entirely. Early does a lot of heavy comedic lifting this season, like planning his wedding to be entirely sponsored by brands looking to publicize their LGTBQ solidarity, or how he casually spins an interrogation with a sour police officer and his lawyer (Chelsea Peretti) into a makeover scene. And so does Grant, who practices her closing arguments in front of a pile of stuffed animals and somehow manages to spin Dory’s victimization as a symptom of “the patriarchy,” her fist cartoonishly raised in the courtroom.
But the show’s trial and the constantly emphasized white, rich privilege of Dory and Drew tend to sink Search Party like a stone. It makes for a thrilling performance from Shawkat, who doesn’t usually get to play someone this scary. But it also means that Search Party doesn’t have a lot of places to go, except somewhere even darker. The show could have wrapped at the end of this new season—which fans weren’t even sure they were going to get after the show’s future was up in the air—with the knowledge that after searching for her true self for so long, Dory has discovered she’s just a garden variety psychopath. But Season 3 ends with a twist so disturbing and ridiculous it catapults Search Party into full-on horror. Just as Dory and her friends aren’t sure what the future holds for them, it’s unclear if Search Party knows either.
Season 3 of Search Party is currently streaming on HBO Max.