Towards the end of the first season of HBO Max‘s dark comedy, “Search Party,” Elliot Goss (played by John Early) tries to reassure his friend, Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat), that—despite some recent ethical blunders—they are still redeemable. “We cannot hate ourselves because we tried to make our lives a little bit more meaningful,” he says. “We are two very, very nice people who made huge mistakes.”
*****Spoilers for “Search Party” below*****
This sort of bromide feels like it could belong in any number of 90s sitcoms, where the gaffes or the first fifteen minutes are resolved, Hallmark-style, in the second half. And by virtue of their blandness, they seem like they’re generally true. Aren’t all of us fairly good people who err only in wanting too much of something good?
But “Search Party” is anything but your average sitcom, and the comic situations its characters are in is not exactly run-of-the-mill: Elliott has just been outed for using a fake cancer diagnosis to pimp his equally-dubious non-profit, which provides sleek, utterly impractical water bottles—yes water bottles, not water—to children in what he vaguely refers to, time and again, as ‘Africa’.
Dory, for her part, has just cheated on her boyfriend—a reasonably prosaic sin taken when without context. But the context is everything: Dory has slept with a private investigator she met while trying to solve a case of a missing girl she barely knew in college in an attempt to make the daily grind of her wandering, millennial adulthood more bearable.
It’s fair to say, then, that the characters in “Search Party” are not the very, very nice people they try to convince themselves they are. (Later, after Dory and her boyfriend have…sort of accidentally murdered the private investigator, and the whole friend gang has buried him in the woods in a zebra print suitcase, Dory echoes Elliott’s original thoughts. “That’s how we should look at this,” she says. “We are good people who were subjected to a really unfortunate situation.”)
But it’s exactly the not-niceness of the show’s characters that make “Search Party” so delicious to watch. And there’s nowhere where the show flexes these muscles better than in its playful queering of a classic TV and sitcom trope of the gay sidekick.
From tired tropes to gay villains
Until fairly recently, being a gay actor in Hollywood—or even a straight actor playing a gay character—left a person with few options. You could be closeted; you could dance; you could play the shallow, lonely best friend and shopping buddy; or you could be a villain, funneling narcissism into petty malevolence. But as the LGBTQ movement has won court battles and fought to write their own narratives, there’s been a relieving counter-movement. Instead of the usual options, there’s been a spate of queer tv shows that have not just complicated characters but actually ‘queered’ the whole concept of a gay villain, reveling in what straight actors and characters have gotten to do for decades: to be intolerable, disappointing and generally bad.
Part of the success of this in “Search Party” comes down to its cast. Co-creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers, and Michael Showalter have deftly attracted a who’s who cast of both up-and-coming and established queer, bisexual, and/or nonbinary actors with a penchant for playing with millennial themes of self-absorption, self-awareness, and dissatisfaction. (Rogers is gay, himself.) But a huge part of the success of the series comes down to John Early, an offbeat queer comedian known for his reads on gay entitlement culture who brings all that and more to his character, Elliot Goss—a “self-diagnosed narcissist” who will sink to any depths to keep himself relevant.
At the beginning of the series, we see Dory telling Elliott and other friends that their college classmate, Chantal, has gone missing. Elliott admits he has no idea who Chantal is and immediately changes the subject—all while tweeting about how difficult Chantal’s loss is to his social media followers. Later, Elliott attends Chantal’s funeral, not to pay his respects but to collect a twenty-dollar debt from another classmate he barely knows.
Elliott’s devolution continues. From lying about cancer as a teen to accepting a book deal to write about his life as a liar and using corporations with anti-LGBTQ+ histories to fund his 1.2 million dollar wedding to becoming a far-right talk show pundit for cheap likes, Elliot takes unlikability to the limit (Later, Early is joined by the equally hilarious queer comedian Cole Escola, who positively bats around the gay villain trope in his role as a crazed superfan named Chip Wreck, who kidnaps Dory and keeps her in his mom’s basement.)
Permission to be unlikable
Through Early and Escola’s performances—and the campy, tongue-in-cheek writing and direction— “Search Party” takes tired TV tropes—in Early and Escola’s case, the gay sidekick and villain—and reimagines them through a queer lens. Instead of damning these gay characters to caricature or irrelevance, it gives them a strange sort of resonance. For Rogers, one of the show’s co-creators, this is a good sign—a sign that LGBTQ+ folks are accepted enough in society to play complicated or unlikable characters on-screen. It’s like that old joke that surfaced in the ramp-up to the legalization of gay marriage, when queer comedians would quip that they, too, had the right not to get married but to get divorced.
This is what “Search Party” ultimately does for queer representation: It gives its gay characters the right to be as failed and flawed and unhappy as its other, ‘straight’ characters. And that—more than anything else the show has brought its audience—might be one of its more lasting legacies, opening up more complicated roles for queer actors and characters in future shows.