“Search Party” begins like a lot of mysteries do. A young attractive woman in the prime of life goes missing, and it’s up to those left behind to track her down. But what makes the upcoming TBS series different is that it’s a comedy, and the person who’s maybe closest to figuring out where the mysterious Chantal might be isn’t a loved one or professional crime solver. Instead, it’s Dory (Alia Shawkat), a 20-something Brooklyn resident whose growing fascination with the disappearance of her one-time college acquaintance is just one facet of her confronting the unsatisfactory elements of her life.
After watching the first episode and speaking with its creators and producers via phone, it’s clear that “Search Party” has the opportunity to be something truly unique in the TV landscape, and that’s due in large part to its genesis in the indie film world. Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (“Fort Tilden”) and executive produced by Michael Showalter and Lilly Burns, the series features a somewhat unconventional origin story; but an origin story that had previously paid off for shows like “Broad City.”
That’s because “Search Party’s” origins are actually much more indie than the standard TV series, thanks to producer Lilly Burns of Jax Media. The company, which is also behind “Inside Amy Schumer,” “Difficult People” and “Broad City,” produced the pilot entirely independently — “like an indie movie,” Burns said — after which they then began to pitch it to networks.
TBS was not only sold on the initial presentation but according to the filmmakers, “very little” had to be reshot for the broadcast version of the pilot.
“We were so lucky that TBS so understood the tone of it and really wants to maintain this very indie sensibility. They are just betting on this show and giving us so much freedom to maintain this really new tone,” Burns added.
And part of that tone comes from the mix of genres, which combines a “Girls”-like embrace of metropolitan Millennial woes with the real mystery as to what happened to Chantal.
“We’re really excited about the angle of it being a mystery because we’re able to use the genre to communicate more about being young and the things that these characters are pursuing through the pursuit to find this missing girl,” Rogers said. “I think we have a lot to say about our generation and a lot of it has already been said. [“Search Party”] being a mystery is a really refreshing way for us to communicate the things about youth that we want it to. Searching for yourself is a really big part of the show and the way that these characters are searching for a missing girl while they are lost is sort of… is really the premise of the show.”
“I think, also, that making your mark in the world is very important to people in their twenties; figuring out how they’re going to be special and how they can take ownership of something that makes them proud,” Burns added.
“We’re very interested in the essence of considering yourself a good person and what it means to be a good person. If you want to help people, why are you helping them? Are you helping them because you hope that you would be helped?” Rogers said. “Are you helping them because you want to believe that the world is a just place? Or, do you just want to be seen helping someone? That’s a big part of these complicated gray areas of these characters.”
“Your twenties are so specifically based on figuring out your identity and being so focused on that,” Bliss said. “It’s a time in your life when you’re sort of able to be selfish in a way that we may not later. Identity to me feels like the specific question of your twenties.”
Bringing in Shawkat was also an important part of the process because, as Burns put it, “It really helped us understand the tone of the show. She’s just sort of inherently so likable and so it really helps us understand our protagonist in a world where there are a lot of unlikeable characters. Alia has so much interior life and so much depth, and I think that really helps us figure out how complicated and deep the show could be.”
In general, the cast features a number of standout players with limited credits, including Meredith Hagner, John Early and John Reynolds, which TBS and Jax Media fully supported. “We were really able to approach the casting of the pilot [like an independent film],” Rogers said. “We really cast who we wanted to cast and we are in love with our leads because we wrote these characters to be specific but at the same time, like, all of these actors have brought so much of their magic and specialness to their roles.”
“Search Party” made its debut at this year’s SXSW, which isn’t surprising given the festival’s track record for celebrating previous alumni. In 2014, Bliss and Rogers’ “Fort Tilden” not only premiered there, but won the Grand Jury Award. “We haven’t had an audience to watch [“Search Party”] with, and that’s so exciting for us, to see how it plays. That’s a special experience because I think in TV you don’t always have that luxury,” Rogers said.
“Premiering at South By really fuels life for the indie sensibility of the show. It is kind of like a little indie movie and so there’s something that just feels so perfect,” Burns said.
After that initial success in the film world, why television? “We were excited by the opportunity for short change over a long period of time, which is really what the show is about, how these characters change while pursuing this mystery, and just the nature of television really allows us to show that,” Rogers. “Because it’s about just people, it’s inherently about change, and so that’s something that we were really excited to do.”
“I love television; getting to know characters over a period of time,” Bliss said. “I love sitting on my couch and I just love watching TV. I like that; the comfort of it.”
“Search Party” is set to premiere on TBS in 2016.