How Michael Showalter Brought Optimism to 'Search Party'
We spoke with Michael Showalter about <i>Search Party</i>, writing spooky shit, and relating to millennials.
Photo courtesy of TBS/Search Party
Some spoilers for the first season of Search Party ahead.
You'd be forgiven for being surprised when seeing Michael Showalter's name in Search Party's credits. The TBS mystery-comedy, which debuted over Thanksgiving weekend, has its feet firmly planted in the Brooklyn millennial milieu; in any given scene, one can imagine the girls of Girls and the broads of Broad City watching cat videos the next building over. Like those shows, it deals with the sense of aimless superficiality one often gets swept up in while searching for adulthood. It's also a real mystery—and at times, a legitimately creepy one—following directionless Williamsburg-dweller Dory (Alia Shawkat) and her obsession with finding a former college classmate who's gone missing.
Showalter's been a steadfast presence in comedy for decades now, but he came of age when you still had to put an "alt" in front of it. Now, like Judd Apatow on Girls and Amy Poehler on Broad City, Showalter is using his experience to spotlight a new generation of comic writers. He first met Search Party co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers while teaching in NYU's Graduate Film program, bonding over their shared comedic sensibilities. He later brought them on to the writing staff of Netflix's Wet Hot American Summer: First Day of Camp and began talking to them about developing their own series. "I really do think they have a very specific comic voice, which is rare," he says. "So I wanted to help them find an outlet for that and to collaborate with them."
Bliss and Rogers's 2015 film Fort Tilden was a merciless Brooklyn farce that established the duo's sensibility, and that's still loud and clear in Search Party, accounting for some of the biggest laughs in its ten-episode season. But if it feels more emotionally grounded, that's largely owed to Showalter's guidance—which might be surprising to anyone who grew up on the anarchic, sometimes purposefully alienating style of The State, Stella, Wet Hot.
But as Showalter tells it, writing about a younger generation provided an opportunity to reflect on growing up. "We recognized there were some great shows out there about millennials living Brooklyn having fucked up meaningless lives, and we didn't want to just be another one of those shows," he said. I spoke to him by phone last week about writing spooky, "unrelatable" characters, and Search Party's secret breakout star.
VICE: Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers both came to this project with a particular vision for the New York 20-something comedy. It's also something you've dabbled in in the past. How did your styles and approaches meet?
Michael Showalter: [Sarah-Violet and Charles's] sensibility is a lot more... jaded, I guess is the word for it. Their characters tend to be kind of awful in a way that's slightly unredeemable. My characters are also awful, but they tend to have some redeeming quality about them. When we were working together, I felt strongly that the audience needed to feel there was some potential for [these characters]—that they weren't just lost causes.
The question that I have about these characters—and people in general—is: Can people change? Can they have realizations and catharsis and all these different things, or are we just who we are and that's that? In Fort Tilden, [Sarah-Violet and Charles] were kind of saying, "This is who these characters are, and I dare you to like them," because they don't have redeeming qualities. With Search Party—particularly with Dory—we needed the audience to feel like she is someone we can relate to. We're in good hands with her, and she's a good person—she's just in an uncertain phase.
The unlikeable lead has become a hallmark of contemporary millennial-centered TV shows and movies. Were you purposefully trying to distance Search Party from that?
That was the other point of view I preached [in the writer's room]: I'm definitely not a millennial, I'm Gen X. But it's the same, in a way. We had Bret Easton Ellis, and before Bret Easton Ellis, there was J.D. Salinger, and The Graduate. Ever since the 50s, there's been a disaffected-youth point of view out there, and I think Charles and Sarah-Violet fit into that continuum in the best possible way. It's a really vital statement of meaninglessness.
What's interesting is that you kind of grow out of it, and as you grow older, some of those walls you put up when you're younger come down. Partially out of necessity, but partly because you start to realize you're different now. A lot of it is about presenting to the world who you think you are, or who you want to be. So yes, [Search Party] is about millennials, but part of it is also about the condition of being young and trying to figure out what you want to do with your life. I relate to Dory, even if I'm not a part of her generation.
The mystery plot is genuinely spooky and suspenseful, when it could have very easily been played as a goof. Is that another way of the show taking Dory's concerns seriously?
Yeah, and also, in terms of pure entertainment value, it's more fun when it's spooky. It's not as fun if you're not actually freaked out and scared. I like being freaked out and scared. Spooky shit is great.
Was this your first time trying to write spooky shit?
Yeah. The first season of Wet Hot American Summer on Netflix was very heavily plotted, in its own stupid way—there was a sort of nefarious element, and lots of twists and turns. Also, I've always been an enormous fan of thrillers—I grew up totally loving Hitchcock and every movie he made, so I knew a lot of the rules of the game. It was super exciting to do [something like this] because I'd never done it before.
At what point in production did you realize that John Reynolds, who played Drew, was basically a national treasure?
John auditioned for the show, and we had heard really good things about him—"You've gotta see this guy," blah, blah, blah. Drew's character changes a lot in the show: He starts off as this useless boyfriend, but over the course of the show, he reveals a lot about the character that we didn't see, and that's because John is so strong and interesting as an actor. He has so many scenes in the show that are subtly brilliant. His character is really complex and wonderful.
Did his character change over time from how he was originally written?
We shot the pilot and decided to figure out what happened next if someone picked up the show, so Drew was originally this wimpy boyfriend that's dragging [Dory] down. John was able to do some of that, but we had to lean into how interesting John is and the role that he was creating. Of all the characters in the show, for obvious reasons, I relate the most to Drew.
TBS hasn't renewed the show yet, but if there's a second season, just based on the final episode, it's going to involve much, much different stakes.
You can kind of imagine what some of the questions that have to be answered in the second season. For example, how do you dispose of a body?
That's a rite of passage for all Brooklyn millennials.
Search Party is currently available on TBS On Demand through your cable provider.
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