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If Girls was remade as a film noir, you’d get cult show Search Party

The Brooklyn-set sitcom is all brunch, punchlines, and crushing ennui

This article contains spoilers for season one of Search Party.

A group of four friends sit at brunch outside a Brooklyn restaurant, in bright sunshine, surrounded by plants. Over mimosas, they discuss their lives, and one woman says: “I just keep trying to leave it behind. I can’t stop thinking that it’s not going to end well.” She’s not talking about her rocky relationship with her college boyfriend, however, or her dead-end job as an assistant to a wealthy older woman. She’s talked about the man that she and her friends killed, before burying the body in the woods in Montreal.

Search Party, whose second season is now on All4, is set up like any other sitcom that focuses on a group of young friends in a big city. Dory (Alia Shawkat)’s boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds) plays the ukulele in their apartment hung with flea market art; Elliott (John Early) is a compulsive fabulist who “could curate”, but doesn’t do much of anything, and Portia (Meredith Hagner) is a ditzy, platinum-haired actress. They go to rooftop bars, host dinner parties, and take road trips. So far, so Girls. But the central mystery of Search Party moves it into deeper, weirder territory. Its main characters live among, as Elliott puts it, “the many complicated liars of this world”. It’s been described as ‘Brooklyn’s Nancy Drew’, but despite its sitcom trappings, Search Party is a completely different beast: each episode is a half-hour film noir, with jokes.

In the first season, Dory obsesses over the disappearance of a girl she vaguely knew at college, Chantal Witherbottom. She becomes an amateur detective, and the show twists with her, embracing the darkness of the secrets she uncovers. It veers from bright, well-lit setups, to chases down dark alleyways, and rooting through trash, soundtracked by electronic drips and beeps that conjure a 21st-century take on the mournful saxophone of “Marlowe’s Theme”. In the final episode, the mystery of Chantal’s disappearance is solved, but the show takes a leap forward through a firmly noir event – the killing of the private detective that Dory took up with in her quest to find Chantal.

As the second season unfolds, the characters attempt to return to their old lives, but the show’s noir tendencies become more and more insistent, invading every attempt at normalcy. In the third episode, Dory, on the verge of a panic attack, falls as the ground tilts up to meet her, and the camera tilts with it, echoing the askew perspective, also known as the Dutch angle, that characterised noir classics like The Third Man. In the same episode, a hook-up between two characters ends with someone finding the stashed murder weapon while foraging for post-coital snacks. No one can escape the propulsive narrative thrum of the murder. Portia, a Hitchcock blonde with a great line in hair bows, walks into an audition for a play about the Manson murders in episode four - titled Suspicion - and is asked to confront “the truth! The truth!” Meanwhile, Elliott has a breakdown, and concocts a story that swaps out the dead man for a dead seal, while throughout the second half of the season Drew is preoccupied with an obviously doomed plan to move to Shanghai. They each search for some relief, but when it comes, it doesn’t look like relief at all.

"Even as characters meet in ice cream parlours and traipse through neon-lit malls, the plot creates such anxiety that we might as well be watching them skulk through dark, rainy, cobbled streets"

One of the most arresting sequences comes in Hysteria, episode eight, when Dory is featured against a screen of graphic angles, with her red lipstick a bloody slash across her face as she falls endlessly. It strongly evokes the nightmare sequence in Vertigo, while a rooftop scene in episode four reminds the viewer of that film’s tower sequence, and has the same effect of making you feel positively dizzy, even with both feet firmly on the ground. The characters are often filmed in extreme close-up, the camera almost choking out the rest of the frame as it focuses on their faces. Shawkat’s face is remarkable on screen, both hiding and revealing emotion as she weighs her options and tries, uselessly, to chase away the insistent memories of what she and her friends did. As in noir, the close-ups are used to contrast with longer establishing shots, following the characters as they run, pace, or fall, and in the process disorienting the viewer.

The moments when Search Party moves back into its traditional sitcom mode are necessary to balance the show’s impulses towards the dark side. But even as characters meet in ice cream parlours and traipse through neon-lit malls, the plot creates such anxiety that we might as well be watching them skulk through dark, rainy, cobbled streets and have illicit conversations under streetlamps. Without giving anything away, the last shot of the season leaves the viewer more convinced than ever of Search Party’s dominant influence. A cracked mirror, a doubled reflection, and a femme fatale – what could be more noir than that?