In my early twenties, I frequently espoused the belief that most people didn’t really settle into themselves until they turned 20. While I suspect this was largely motivated by my own growth as an individual, I still think there’s some truth to this. Until someone leaves school, moves out of home, starts to face challenges without the safety net of their parents, you don’t really know who you are. If you accept this tentative theory that one’s late teens are about establishing identity, then it follows that your twenties are about establish purpose.
To whit: unless you’re fortunate enough to be able to neatly slot into, say, a prominent role in the family business shortly after finishing secondary schooling, you’re probably going to be struggling through more than a few years of unfulfilling study and shit-kicking entry-level jobs. There’s a sense of progression here, of course – and often a lot of fun to be had – but rarely a true, purposeful sense of accomplishment. The work you’re doing – whether in lecture theatres or workplaces – feels transitional, an opportunity to establish that valuable thing you’re going to do while, all the time, you’re acutely aware that you’re not of much value yet. Not to mention the increasing importance of romantic relationships. For me, at least, my twenties were defined by a sense of fragility; that idea that one misstep too many might jeopardise future possibilities.
I don’t think I’ve really seen that captured on screen until Search Party. There are plenty of films and television series about twenty-somethings, but these characters always seem confident and comfortable in a way that doesn’t gel with the lived experience of myself or my friends. Search Party – produced a couple years ago, when ‘twenty-somethings’ was synonymous with ‘millennials’ – is supposedly about a group of four friends caught up in the search for a college acquaintance who mysteriously disappeared. But it’s really about the search for purpose in your twenties – a search that is often ludicrous, misguided and self-absorbed.
Search Party’s portrayal of millennials isn’t entirely sympathetic. Protagonist Dory (Alia Shawkat) should be likeable; she struggles to get by on internships and underpaid assistant roles and locks onto the story of Chantal (Clare McNulty) when she disappears. But Dory so swiftly becomes obsessed by Chantal, making the story more about her own quest for meaning than what might have happened to a half-remembered almost-friend, that she becomes hard to sympathise with. So too her spineless boyfriend Drew (John Reynolds), her ditzy actress friend Portia (Meredith Hagner) and the compulsively dishonest Elliott (John Early).
The series flirts with parody in its portrayal of these fundamentally selfish people – particularly when we’re watching Elliott hawk his water bottle ‘charity’; or the very, very white Portia play a Hispanic character on a mediocre cable crime show – but it’s grounded by the serious stakes of Chantal’s disappearance. While Search Party never manages to truly invest you in Chantal’s fate, frequently signalling that Dory’s obsession is misguided and potentially harmful, the overarching seriousness of the premise ensures that the show avoids feeling like a mean-spirited satire of millennial culture. The trick of Search Party is that its criticism of twenty-something self-absorption is balanced by a broader, borderline misanthropic portrayal of society at a whole.
It also helps that Search Party – thanks to Chantal’s disappearance – has a narrative spine. I’ve seen more than enough slackly constructed indie films and shows about millennials doing very little; very few people have the precision of Joe Swanberg to pull it off (and even Swanberg missed the mark with the second season of Easy). The search for Chantal might be a metaphorical stand-in for Dory’s search for deeper meaning in her life, but it allows the screenwriters to take us into a cultish, pregnancy-themed dinner or on an interstate excursion to learn more about Chantal’s fate.
Search Party is a difficult series to recommend; if you’re in your twenties, you might not feel far enough removed from its characters to find its black comedy funny, but if you’re significantly outside that age bracket it might be hard to relate. But it feels like a true portrayal of being in your mid-twenties which, after all, is a difficult time.