Most everyone in Search Party (or, “Curiosity Killed the Shawkat”) is content to assume that Chantal Winterbottom is dead. Partly, they’re playing the odds. More so, it’s a morbid, off-hand running gag that spirals out: a barely suppressed stab at punctuation to give the venture and her tale a discernable conclusion, to assign finality so that any unpleasantness and boredom can be filed away in some purgatorial region of the cerebellum where synapses are less snappy, and where acquaintances from the near-past are relegated before they’re permanently snuffed out of the memory banks. Were this to be true—her demise, that is—it would relieve the hassle of a prolonged investment, alleviating dwindling, precious cognitive energy, and blanketing any existential psychic discord motorized by an open-ended narrative. Therein lies the paradox of the times: a desperation for easy explanations coupled with a pervasive malaise and boredom and longing for excitement and lite-profundity. The result: unbridled enthusiasm and unquenchable dissatisfaction.
One could chalk up this unconscious anxiety to a reflex: to neatly package infinity. The mind rebels against uncertainty while being molded in its image through the immensity of information exchange and the process of formulating a manicured, linear, narrativized profile. The mind doesn’t have room for open-ended arcs; we need to make sure there’s enough bandwidth for more pressing flashes-in-the pan. As Michelangelo Antonioni turned spatial and cognitive dissonance into high modernist art pre-hypermodernity in L’avventura—“emphasis on form was an invitation to audiences to meditate on the breach that had opened up between perception and expression”—Search Party spins this for postmodern profane Nancy Drew pulp.
Whereas, Antonioni conjured a thick atmosphere heavy with existential panic in slow motion, the “Michael” iteration of our times, bizarro semiotician Michael Showalter, uses a familiar, potentially grim template, in a Spoorloos sense, for something more vaporous and flighty and immersive, inhabiting the capriciousness of the less-than-magnanimous translations of the art-house classic—The Adventure or The Fling. As Sandro muses to Anna before she dematerializes, “Why should we be here talking, arguing?…Words are becoming less and less necessary; they create misunderstandings.” In Search Party this short-hand philosophy pushes toward a warped logical conclusion: Introspective realism becomes soft-focus introspective sit-comedy. Discrete pieces of communication are strained through a smooth narrative filter that moves from clue to clue, piece to piece, episode to episode, joke to joke at an unhurried but unchallenging pace.
Antonioni’s film questioned the addiction to storytelling through enigmatic, radical modernist gestures. Search Party embraces the addiction to storytelling using the classic proxy of the detective narrative—a handy avatar for cinematic engagement that hinges on voyeurism, accumulation of clues and evidence, drawing conclusions based on disparate sensorial information and intuition, and a nigh-fetishistic linearity with clear cause-effect, beginning-end matrices. Chantal is but a social media ghost in the machine—an acquaintance from a hazy past kept alive by app updates and lazy scrolls through a wasteland of carefully-curated life events. She’s the Harry Lime of this piece for the duration—an idea that becomes myth who then becomes casually monstrous when corporeal. Chantal’s a cypher of a digital personality built on fragments of thoughts sheared and ushered into the void. When she finally manifests into a flesh-and-blood being, she is not only unremarkable and disappointing, her physical presence is off-putting, an affront to the myth of her— created in tandem from the scraps of information left behind in digital collage, and in the mind of Dory as a doomed searcher, one trying to reverse engineer an abstracted identity.
“The people around us, the places we visit, the events we witness—it is the spatial and temporal locations these have with each other that have a meaning for us today, and the tension that is formed between them.” So said Antonioni of his approach to L’avventura. Digitized time and space complicates this further—such that the experience of others’ time and place, as represented in fragments of media, creates parallel timelines, a mirror life lived in brief, flattened, and carefully edited real-time. For Deleuze, “the only subjectivity is time, non-chronological time grasped in its foundation.” Split realities emerge all over the place in Search Party, and are digested easily. These ruptures are second-nature intuitive for the modern viewer; intertwining cognitive planes and crystalline spatial collapse elicits a chuckle.
Michelangelo, making “work about nothing, but with precision” a quarter century before this concept was a Davidian stronghold, didn’t have the benefit of on-screen text messaging, social media quandaries, and the like, to suffuse adjacent internal states. Overlapping but disjointed conversations share space in Search Party under a thin veil of faked composure, fashioning a nifty balance of mystery, eccentric energy, and reflection. At times, our motivation and interest outpaces our protagonist; sometimes it falls behind. The languid push-pull vacillates between postmodern millennial malaise and narrative thrust. As if reveling in slowly disintegrating decorum and social skills weren’t enough, the show played-up the binge-ability, dropping the series all in one week and making all the episodes available online, as is TBS’ wont these days, during a particularly gluttonous time of year.
The binge format approximates a scroll through a feed stoking that tough-to-articulate sense of an incomplete picture and a contrived, mediated narrative. Before it undoes itself in the end, Thunderbolt and Lightfoot-style, in the swanky/quaint Montreal suburbs, it’s a proverbial mixtape about nothing. The titular term could be: the honest-to-goodness group effort to find this person, a morbid, disjointed, juxtaposition of tragedy and celebration, or, given enough cognitive juice to conjure a colon, a search engine entry for an eager-but-not-well-connected socialite. The show itself embodies this amalgam nicely in a well-balanced cocktail. The thing about post-college existential ennui is that pre-defeatist optimism still holds, but the cracks are starting to show in each last-ditch effort at wanderlust. People are mashed to fit familiar descriptions, and people willfully descend into caricature to maintain a coherent sense of self. It’s a lot of flailing and meandering and spiraling and identity crises with an indistinct center of gravity.
Another interesting wrinkle on the ensemble comedy is that, given the context, these are largely friendships of convenience at the core, sustained by proximity. This sets up a uniquely fragile framework as the various narratives unfold and intersect loosely, with principal players lacking a clear vested interest in any given scenario. It’s a show built on timelines. Dory operates solo until she gathers enough intel to prick the interests of the collective; the information is relayed and the subsequent thread gains steam based on enthusiasm and timing. “This this pre-individual world of flux and becoming” as John Marks put it. All in the gaggle are minstrels, spinning stories to balloon mundane truths, to explain away insecurities, to carve an identity with a clear shape: Portia tells people she’s an accomplished actress and Latina; Elliot’s faked cancer diagnosis from his teenage years unravels as he molds himself as a theatrical philanthropist; Drew tries to maintain the façade that his relationship with Dory fits the uber-caucasian mold his family expects, while he clings to a below-bottom-rung internship as a corporate lackey. And, among other things, Dory tells herself and others that searching and floundering are one and the same as she tries to put the pieces of Chantal back together into a full picture.
Another eccentricity of the caper: even in full, it really only relates to her in her mind; and the people around her constantly question her investment. While their confusion is often misplaced (in laziness, disinterest, boredom), it’s not wrong. She hasn’t seen Chantal in years, but with Facebook time is immaterial. As she makes meaning from a safe distance, her desire is not for anything that is lacking, but rather an activity of becoming—an individual current within the oceanic mass. In the amusing melee to glue the fragments of a broken identity into a whole, delusion seeps into the marrow. “All of this was built to last centuries. Today, ten, twenty years at the most.”
This article was written by Oliver O’Sullivan, a writer for dusk magazine.