English 1102: Television and Feminism

Dr. Casey Alane Wilson • Georgia Institute of Technology

Tag: search party

Into the Darkness

I’ve talked about both writing and cinematography in Search Party before, but I want to take a moment to explore how those two concepts portray character development in the show, particularly Dory’s character. Our first interaction with Dory is silly and bright. She’s standing on a street corner in New York, contemplating the missing person poster tacked to the nearby telephone pole: Chantal Witherbottom. Obviously there’s something about her that Dory is interested in, since she gets distracted enough to step in dog poop as she is contemplating the poster. That scene is funny, too; an upset pedestrian calls Dory out for it, complaining that she’ll make the “whole MTA smell like shit” if she wears them on the train. This moment is jarring yet humorous, and it anchors the viewer back into reality.

The poor girl has no idea what she’s in for.

Here’s the thing about that scene, though: it’s sinister. We don’t know who Chantal is, except for the short clip of people yelling out her name in the woods at the very beginning of the series. We don’t understand that Chantal, beautiful-crazy-stupid-Chantal, is going to ruin Dory’s life. We don’t know yet that Dory is going to meet Keith, kill Keith, and ultimately have to pay the price for his death. We’re safe, unassuming, just like the way the opening scene plays out. The disheveled way Dory is dressed, the safety in broad daylight, the humorous remark of the pedestrian all lead us to believe that everything is going to be okay.

Spoiler alert: everything is Not Okay And Very Bad. The final scene of the show is in complete juxtaposition to the opener. Dory’s all dolled up: red cocktail dress, sleek and professional hair, powerful red lip. She’s grown up, matured, seen some real messed up stuff. The thing is, though, she’s still unassuming. She doesn’t expect what is about to hit her. There’s irony in the scene. It’s supposed to be triumphant, she’s supposed to be up on stage with a winning political candidate, part of a new team that actually got it right for once. What goes around comes around though, and upon her arrest, Dory is instantly transformed. She’s vulnerable, defeated, restrained. The lighting of the scene is ominous.  Even the music is scary.  It sets up Dory for the next season: what will happen? She’s lost all her friends, so how is she going to get out of it this time? I guess we’ll just have to wait and see.

Look at how dark the last time we see Dory is compared to the first

Obadear, Let’s Shoot This Show

The first 30 seconds of season 2 of Search Party are an absolute masterpiece. Visually, we have a blank (ish) canvas; our protagonist’s face is looking directly at the camera (it’s soon revealed she’s actually looking into a mirror) with nothing else in the shot, save for a splotch of blood on her forehead. She’s facing what’s just happened (haha, get it?). The room feels so sterile.Without audio, this scene is particularly puzzling, especially for a first-time viewer. When you layer in the audio however, you can make the connection that our protagonist Dory has just gone through a very traumatic event. Snippets of recent happenings flash on the screen for a couple of seconds but disappear too quickly to get a sure sense of what is going on.

This inaugural scene sets the tone for the whole season: anxiety and mystery and trauma (oh my!). The camera work is shaky, implying a sense of urgency. The colors are muted (ironically, the only non neutral in the scene is the blood red sweater Elliot is wearing). The camera moves even with the actors, following Dory and Elliot upwards as he pulls her off the ground by her shoulders. There’s a strange intimacy hidden here, revealed deeply through all of these choices. That feeling, however, is immediately lost when Elliot comments about Chantal’s invitation to dinner. Our characters are still in the real world, even though this opening sequence is so dream-like. When I say dream-like, though, I really mean nightmarish. The scene is almost shot like a reality TV show. The camera focuses on the character’s face for much too long, almost uncomfortably close. A viewer could count all of Alia Shawkat’s freckles.

There’s another really beautiful scene in the episode where Drew is playing a melancholy keyboard tune. The room he’s in is blood orange, carpet included. The scene is lit very scarcely, but at the same time there is enough light for our characters to be bathed in a red hue. This scene is quite brilliantly shot, really, since it’s where Elliot, Drew, and Dory decide they are not going to report Keith’s murder to the police. It’s almost as if the redness is making their secret more evil.

One stylistic choice that stood out to me in this episode was the scene where they buried Keith. Remember that Search Party is, overall, a pretty dark show (pun intended). The lack of proper lighting actually bothered me as I’d have to constantly increase my laptop brightness to accommodate while watching. Thus, it’s interesting that in the darkest plot moment of the show, they choose to convey the characters outside. So picture this: four millennials, one freshly down from a coke high, burying a dead man (in a hot pink zebra stripe suitcase) in broad daylight.

Just pretend the suitcase is there too

Search Party is a very serious show, I promise.

It Can’t Always be Black or White – or Can It?

Search Party has a pretty limited gender spread. Of the entire credited series cast so far, there are 69 men and 77 women. There is only a single actor on the show that does not identify as cis-gendered male or female. That actor is Jason Greene, who identifies as genderfluid. The character they play on the show is ambiguous in gender, but is only present in a single episode. Other than Greene’s character, however, the rest of the gender spread on the show is fairly black and white, varying only between cis-gendered male or female.

The show divides the agency of males and females relatively equally. All the characters on the show are relatively bad people. They’re self-interested and misled. Our lead, Dory Sief, is so absorbed in her fixation with Chantal that she recklessly bulldozes through her friends’ lives and drags them down the rabbit-hole with her. In fact, out of the four main cast members, the only one who seems to have unselfish intentions is Portia, but her decisions are still influenced by  a deep rooted desire to feel important. The main cast is evenly split between male and female (as long as we consider Julian, Keith, and Chantal as satellite characters), so agency in the show is also split fairly evenly. Additionally, many of the supporting characters also make decisions that influence the progression of the show. Some notable endeavors are the controversial articles that Julian publishes or Lorraine’s suicide.

Race, unlike gender in the show, is represented relatively well. The show does take place in New York City, after all. Of the five main cast members, two of them are explicitly not Caucasian: Dory is Iraqi-American and Julian is African American. Other characters in the show are also non-white, including Agnes Cho, Lorraine De Coss, and Keith’s ex-wife Deb. An interesting observation to make is that most of the notable minority characters also tend to be female.

The majority of the women on the show are presented as heterosexual. The one exception is the woman Dory meets with to discuss a job offer, who is so completely upset with her wife leaving her that it scares Dory away. There are far more gay men present in the show, however, particularly because Elliot himself is gay. Through love interests for Elliot, the show introduces several gay characters, particularly Elliot’s on-and-off boyfriend Marc.

Only Elliot can manage to look this fresh in rehab.

Mental illness is explored more deeply than disability in Search Party, as there aren’t really any characters that are explicitly physically disabled. On the other hand, several of the characters on the show experience varying mental illnesses. Lorraine is the greatest example of this, as it can be inferred she may be schizophrenic. Additionally, Elliot is a “self diagnosed narcissist” and compulsive liar. He has a psychotic break following his involvement in Keith’s murder, and admits himself to a rehabilitation clinic.

How to Write Suspense if You’re Actually a Director

I want to take a moment to explore suspense as a genre. Alfred Hitchcock, arguably one of the greatest directors of the twentieth century, was a pioneer in the genre and laid much of the groundwork for how suspense is portrayed in a modern context. Hitchcock established a framework for creating suspense. Within that framework he juxtaposes two important points: an informed surprise (dramatic irony) and a twist (an actual surprise). Let us apply these two techniques to explore the writing on S1E6 of my resident review topic, Search Party.

Season 1, episode 6 (The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony) of Search Party was actually written by the show’s creator and show runner, Sarah Violet Bliss, and is one of the few episode of the show she doesn’t direct. Bliss has also written several other episodes of the show, as well as an episode of the Wet Hot American Summer revival, the movie Fort Tilden, and a handful of short films. This episode is an interesting exploration of how she writes suspense, and how it compares to her directing.

Dialogue in the episode is written mostly as conversations between two characters. Through this, Bliss employs Hitchcock’s first tactic beautifully. No one character is given full context about what is going on. Dory and her friends have no idea what this cult-esque dinner party riddled with too many pregnant women is about. No one at Bellow & Hare bothers to tell them exactly what “the Moment” is, so we assume the obvious: murder (particularly Chantal’s). We’ve got the perfect bomb under the table situation until – boom! – Dory accidentally walks in on a live birth.

The Secret of the Sinister Ceremony strays from the forged path of the show and does an excellent job tying up several loose ends. Take, for example, the opening scene of the episode where Dory is making a “crazy wall” in her apartment. At the end of the episode, the wall becomes the major plot point, as we discover the sinister note left for Dory and company in the middle of it: STOP LOOKING FOR CHANTAL. Here Bliss leaves us with the classic cliffhanger ending, encouraging the viewer to dive headfirst into the next episode. Nevertheless, she manages to tie in groundwork established int he first minute of the show. It’s not like Dory makes that crazy wall and it’s never brought up ever again.

Pretend this is Alia Shawkat and not Charlie Day

I think the most compelling thing about this episode is that it’s written how the show is directed, for the most part. Violet Bliss is directing a thriller, and Search Party is her vessel. The direction of this film, while it adds to the general suspenseful mood as one watches, is second to the way that key details are hidden throughout dialogue and character interaction. Every twist and turn has us at the edge of our seats, but we could probably see them coming if we paid more attention to the writing.

Works Cited:

Truffaut, François, and Alfred Hitchcock. Hitchcock. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1967. Print.

Good People Do Bad Things Sometimes

Search Party is a pretty complex show. It follows multiple interwoven storylines between four different lead characters, while still trying to highlight the main plot. Within the show’s intricate plot design, several themes are heavily outlined. Season 1, episode 8 of the show (The Return of the Forgotten Phantom) explores the themes of dishonesty and self-interest through Elliot, one of the series’s four main stars.

Elliot, a narcissist and compulsive liar, is finally outed as a big fat phony. Once a successful water bottle mogul and philanthropist, his entire life’s work crumbles after a magazine article uncovers his biggest lie to date: he didn’t actually have cancer in high school. In fact, Elliot was actually in play that year (or was he?), which would have been too physically taxing for someone undergoing radiation therapy.

So here’s the big question: was Elliot justified in his lie? He exploited his fraudulent cancer for sympathy, fame, and influence. On the other hand, it fueled charitable endeavors distributing clean water to impoverished African villages. The pragmatic cynic in me wants to bash the show’s writers for making this issue so gray, but even I can still decode the message the show is trying to convey. The Return of the Forgotten Phantom is a warning to the viewer; an explicit message that lying, no matter what the intention, will always have some detrimental consequence.

You tell ’em Sammy

Elliot’s lies have the greatest impact on Portia than any of his other friends. Portia gets her just desserts, though. She outwits Elliot at his own game, spinning a mendacious tale about her father to spark his sympathies. Elliot sputters out an apology, really-truly-sincerely, until Portia reveals she “was only telling you that story so that you would think I was really cool and empathize with my struggle.” Ouch.

The beauty of this show lies in how dishonesty and deception become so important to the four leads that they end up tearing their lives apart due to it. Elliot, Dory, Drew, and even Portia become so caught up in the web of lies they’ve spun that bad things keep happening, even after they save Chantal (sorry, spoiler). Season 2 of the show further explores this notion, but this post isn’t about season 2.

The episode also explores how the consequence of ongoing dishonesty “might be the biggest punishment for a millennial like Elliott, who’s used to using social media for affirmation” (Chavez). That line from an AV Club review of the episode really highlights the bigger picture here: in the age of social media, people IRL aren’t ever who they say they are online. Hundreds of apps exist to retouch Instagram photos; you could literally make a fake profile pretending to be someone else. So where do we draw the line? Is it okay to bash someone like fictional Elliot, while the real life Kardashians and their fake diet teas are still terrorizing our news feeds? How can we champion truth when we eat dishonesty for breakfast, lunch, and dinner?


Works Cited:

Chavez, Danette. “The Collateral Damage Is Accumulating on Search Party.” Review of The Return Of The Forgotten Phantom. AV/TV Club, tv.avclub.com/the-collateral-damage-is-accumulating-on-search-party-1798189971.


English 110Who? Meet Yasamin!

Hi! My name is Yasamin. I’m a first year Public Policy major, and I will be tentatively graduating in 2022.

Here’s a recent picture of me. (Sorry about the random girl in the background.)

English 1102 with Dr. Wilson is my first English course at Tech. It’s also the first time I’ve ever really looked at the subject from a multimodal point of view. In high school I took the standard AP Lang and AP Lit, but both of them focused heavily on analysis and discussion of written literature. I’m very excited to take an English course this semester that isn’t structured around passing an AP Exam. Despite being in a television oriented class, I personally love written and oral communication. There’s a strange beauty in the ability to evoke compelling visuals through written word; the best books take advantage of their written medium so beautifully that they paint a literal picture in the reader’s imagination. Additionally, I’m in awe of orators who through the power of rhetoric are able to captivate hundreds of people with spoken word alone. I’m personally no master at oral communication (English is hard!!), so I sincerely hope that I can improve upon that medium using the skills I learn from this class!

I don’t think there was ever a point in time where I remember not following a TV show. From being a kid and watching soap operas with my mom (she’s never missed an episode of The Bold and The Beautiful in 30 years), to binging shows like Pushing Daisies, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt, and Channel 4’s Utopia, I’ve always found a way to occupy my time with some form of televised program. A few more of my personal favorites include Gilmore Girls, Parks and Recreation, The Good Place, and Arrested Development. As for the other theme of this class, feminism, I’m not the most well versed in it but I am trying my hardest to become educated and aware!

I have decided to review the show Search Party. It’s currently available to stream on the TBS website, but fair warning, the show is a little explicit. Search Party follows a group of four friends in search of a missing acquaintance from college. (If you think Scooby Doo would have been really cool if it was rated R, this show is for you.) I was instantly attracted to the show because it was so different from anything I have recently watched. I also have to admit that I binged the first season in less than 24 hours. Search Party has such a compelling premise and such great representation across its characters, so I’m excited to delve into analyzing it!

See? Major Scooby Doo vibes.

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