Michael Showalter is figuring out the perfect way to zoom in on a greeting card that cheerfully reads, "You murdered someone!" It's July on a dim Greenpoint soundstage, and the Wet Hot American Summer star is directing an episode of Search Party, the dark TBS comedy he co-created with Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss. At this point it's unclear just who sent that missive, which apparently came with flowers, or what it means for the Brooklyn-dwellers at the show's center. It is clear, however, that a brutal murder took place at the end of the first season—and that the second season, premiering November 19, will deal with its aftermath.
The first season followed Dory (Alia Shawkat) as she found herself obsessed with the apparent disappearance of her college acquaintance Chantal (Clare McNulty). In the finale, Dory discovers Chantal safe and sound in Montreal, but not until after she and her boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), kill a P.I. named Keith (Ron Livingston), who had also been hunting for the missing woman. (That Dory had also had sex with Keith is a separate matter.) It's a gruesome end to what had otherwise been a satire, where the threat of violence was implied but never confirmed.
"This season, the comedy and the pain comes from: After you've killed someone, how do you go to brunch with your friends?" Rogers tells a small group of reporters during our visit to the set. As they were developing the ten installments, he and Bliss drew inspiration from the films of Alfred Hitchcock and Sam Raimi's A Simple Plan—despite being a movie Bliss admits they don't even really like.
"This season is really a psychological thriller, like The Tell-Tale Heart—the weight of what you've done being in every moment of every day," he continues. "You're just trying to walk down the street and have a normal life, and shame and guilt play into it—but in the most exhilarating way that we could create."
The jabs at millennial culture have fallen away in favor of this emotional turmoil—a decision also made partially for political reasons. "The first season was made in an Obama world, where it felt like we had the luxury of criticizing liberal leanings and paying attention to the hypocritical side," Rogers says. "By chance of there being a darker current this season, it feels like it's a post-Trump world."
Around 7:30 PM that day, some of the actors are gathered around a table eating "lunch," facing a long night ahead as the shoot moves to Williamsburg. We're discussing in vague terms what they're excited for audiences to see, and the conversation turns to an unexpected place: their moms. Specifically, how they've reacted to the show's grimness.
"She was like, 'So what's going to happen?'" Shawkat says of hers. "I gave her a little brief. She was like, 'But sweetie, you still have to be likeable.' I was like, 'Yeah, Mom, that's my job.'" Showalter pipes in: "My mom said after the first season: 'I hope he's not dead.'" Shawkat notes that her dad said the same thing. Reynolds's is most unsettled by the fact that her son delivered the fatal blow to Keith's head. "When people are talking about it, she doesn't really say much, and then she's like, 'Well, ya murdered someone.' I think it bothers my mom a lot that she saw me murder someone."
An exclusive clip from season two of Search Party
It's clearly getting under the characters' skins too. Earlier in the day, the group is working on an tense scene featuring Shawkat and Reynolds—as well as John Early and Meredith Hagner, who play Dory and Drew's self-involved friends Elliott and Portia. Everyone's in formalwear, Hagner teeters on towering heels, and Early's outfitted in an elaborate getup involving a long black coat, a yellow scarf, motorcycle gloves, and an architectural, latticed baseball cap over a bandana covering his head.
During the scene, Elliott begins scratching himself slowly and then more vigorously, ultimately stripping to reveal his body coated in nasty-looking blotches. ("That rash is truly nuts," Showalter says at one point during shooting.) Meanwhile, the members of the foursome are panicking, afraid that their crime is coming to light. Elliott lashes out at Dory. "Are you psychotic?" he asks. "In this scene, for example, I was trying to have John be more accusatory," Showalter says, perched in a director's chair in a brief moment of downtime. "You're always trying to find any opportunity to inject a little bit of suspense."
In the past, Showalter has said that he acts as a check on Rogers and Bliss's bleak vision, but contends that his role has shifted. "This season, I'm advocating for the big swing and the fun idea regardless of how it fits in," he says. "I'm sort of the mindset of 'We'll make it work.'" To that end, he's trying to lean into the "soap opera" of it all—"We're making pulp fiction," he says—but at least some of the actors have felt the material's psychological toll, even while attempting to keep it funny and entertaining.
"It's so upsetting," Early says. "When we had, like, literal gloves on with like blood on it and we're moving his body into suitcase and burying it—that was disturbing." A mom's worst nightmare.
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