Searching for Meaning on the Eve of the Apocalypse
By Robin Bunce
What is Search Party? Trust me: this is a multi-million-dollar question. Right now, scientists and TV execs are closeted in labs across America dissecting each episode, sequencing it’s genome, hoping to crack the formula. Search Party is an everyday story of a group of young people searching for a ‘lost’ ‘friend’, who get into trouble, get out of trouble, and precipitate a zombie apocalypse emanating from Brooklyn. Search Party is genre bending. It’s Scooby-Doo meets The Name of the Rose. It’s Fort Tilden to the tune of Groove Is in the Heart. It’s Trump’s America through the looking glass. Put simply it’s the show Bright, Kauffman and Crane would have made, if they had made Search Party.
Created by Sarah-Violet Bliss, Charles Rogers and Michael Showalter, Search Party is many things. Together with dark comedy, sharp dialogue, and brilliant performances Search Party is shot through with philosophy. For while the first Seasonostensibly revolves around Dory’s (Alia Shawkat) search for Chantal (Clare McNulty), on another level Dory is searching for meaning, and searching for herself. In that sense, Search Party is about the relationship between the self and the world, and, more mysteriously, the relationship between the self and the self.
Searching for meaning
Speaking to Paste Magazine in 2017, Rogers acknowledged Search Party’s engagement with philosophy,
. . .the journey of the first Season is this big existential thing about how you can . . . end up projecting whatever meaning you want onto life, and that, at the end of the day, the fact that there is no meaning is both disappointing and beautiful.
Dory’s search for Chantal is born of a life devoid of meaning. During Season 1, Dory works as PA to Gail (Christine Taylor). Dory spends her life running trivial erands, and helping her employer make inconsequential decisions. Dory’s hipster friends Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are drawn in, on the basis that in the midst of busy lives the search for Chantal is the most exciting option. Drew (John Reynolds), Dory’s boyfriend, intermittently sees the search for what it is, but goes along for the ride.
The irony of Dory’s search is that rather than leading to greater self-discovery, it leads to self-deception and ultimate self-loss. Appropriate to the America of Pizzagate and QAnon, Dory and her friends interpret the ‘clues’ they find in a way which supports the narrative they want to believe. Dory doesn’t just invent clues, she creates characters to populate her confected mystery. Dory is not searching for the real Chantal – how could she, she barely knew her. Rather, Dory is looking for an imaginary Chantal, a projection of her own sense of being lost and overlooked. Dory’s search for Chantal allows her to deny the true nature of her life; then to deny the truth about her actions; and finally, to deny her true self.
Self-love and self-loss
Self-loss, the fate to which Dory succumbs, has long troubled philosophers. The seventeenth-century writer François de La Rochefoucauld was one of the first thinkers to study the way in which the dynamics of the modern world affect the self. La Rochefoucauld’s Maxims explored the nature of the court of the French King. Paradoxically, La Rochefoucauld argued that self-loss began with self-love, or more precisely ‘amour propre,’ which La Rochefoucauld defined as a kind of self-interest which boarders on egotism and narcissism. First, the culture of the court was a culture of mutual flattery. La Rochefoucauld claimed that the King’s courtiers ‘usually bestow praise only to receive it.’ What is more, La Rochefoucauld believed that people were inclined to believe the praise that they received, because it resonated with their own arrogant self-perception. ‘Amour propre’, he claimed, is ‘the greatest flatterer of all.’ Praise merely reinforced existing self-delusion.
Second, desire for the King’s good opinion led courtiers to feign virtues that they did not possess. Consequently, courtiers wore virtuous masks. Over time, La Rochefoucauld argued that courtiers became ‘so accustomed to disguise ourselves from other people, that in the end we disguise ourselves from ourselves.’
There may be parallels between the culture of the early modern French court and the world of social media. Rogers, speaking at NEWFEST, claims, ‘our generation is so burdened by this cyclical loop of performing yourself . . . we wrestle with the fact that we are presenting ourselves the whole time. If we are seeking meaning, its through the lens of people watching us seek meaning.’ Performing our ‘best selves’ on social media; measuring our success through the number of ‘likes’ or comments; liking a post hoping to get some attention in return, all this is central to the experience of social media. If La Rochefoucauld is right, we believe the positive feedback and cultivate a virtuous image in order to gain praise on-line, and so our selves are increasingly a reflection of our curated Instagram profiles.
This dynamic is at work in Search Party. Uncovering the truth about Chantal leads not to an acceptance of reality, but greater self-deception. Having killed private investigator Keith (Ron Livingston), and hidden the evidence, Dory and her friends construct a narrative in which they are the victims. Dory’s take on killing Keith is that ‘we are good people, who were subjected to a really unfortunate situation’ (“Conspiracy”). Over the next two Seasons Dory has to construct ever more elaborate narratives to support her presentation of herself as a good person. At the end of Season 3 Dory presents her narrative in court. But before she does this she has to lie to her former boyfriend, and her best friends. For Bliss, speaking on The Search Party Podcast, this is the scene where ‘she has to kill a piece of herself’, in order to sustain her narrative. This is the moment when Dory has finally disguised herself from herself. A fact that Drew acknowledges with the words ‘I don’t know who you are’ (“Irrefutable Evidence”).
Elliott and Portia lose themselves for different reasons. Both desire fame. The philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau analysed this path to self-loss in his celebrated Discourse on the Origin and Foundations of Inequality among Men. First, Rousseau argued that human nature was characterised by the ‘universal desire for reputation,’ and the ‘ardor to be talked about.’ In a world where traditional systems of value were in decline, Rousseau claimed that people depended increasingly on the esteem of others to establish their self-worth. On this basis, Rousseau argues that self-love leads to self-loss, because we increasingly seek approval in the eyes of others. In so doing, we conform ourselves to the prevailing system of values, in pursuit of social esteem. Rousseau argues that ‘the social man always outside of himself, knows how to live only in the opinion of others; and it is, so to speak, from their judgment alone that he draws the sentiment of his own existence.’ This desire for esteem leads to a pretence of virtue. The more people craved esteem, the more they sought to deceive. Consequently, Rousseau saw the desire for esteem as something that was true of modern society at large, not simply the French Court.
Elliott’s desire for fame and ‘validation’, to use a contemporary term, is clear from his invented story of childhood cancer, which he uses to get sympathy and attention. It is also clear from his ‘its not for sure yet, but I’m gonna be famous’ reaction to his book deal (“The Return of the Forgotten Phantom”). Portia’s response to Dory and Drew’s trial betrays a similar set of motivations. With her best friends fighting for their lives Portia seeks reassurance that her part in the trial has made her the most famous person in the world.
Doppelgängers and fractured selves
At the beginning of Season 4 Dory and her friends are more lost than ever. Dory has been kidnapped by Chip (Cole Escola), and brainwashed into forgetting her past. Her friends are lost in different ways. Drew has adopted an alias and is living out his childhood fantasies below the radar in ‘Merry Merry Land’. Elliot, now presenter of ‘Right is Right’, has adopted a homophobic right-wing persona. Finally, actor Portia has lost herself so comprehensively that when she auditions to play herself in a TV show, she is offered another part.
To underline the sense of self-loss, Season 4 introduces a series of devices that undermine the notion of coherent identities. Chip, aka ‘The Twink’, has stolen the identity of another ‘twink’, and has also assumed the identity of his Aunt Lylah. Chip’s identity is further problematized by the claim that Mickey Skunkman (John LaGioia), rather than Chip, was the face of Lil Sticky’s – a sticky bun which proves crucial to the plot. Meanwhile, Aunt Lylah’s identity is undermined as it turns out that she is both Chip’s aunt and his mother.
Season 4 further undermines the concept of a stable self by introducing a doppelgänger motif. The motif is presaged at the end of Season 3 when Dory comes face-to-face with herself in a mirror. But Dory is not the only fractured self in Season 4. For much of the season Portia dresses as Dory; Chip also dresses and poses as Aunt Lylah, and conceives of himself as ‘a better version’ of Dory’s friends. Portia, Drew and Elliot are doubled by the actors starring in Savage: The Dory Sief Story, a fictional retelling of the events of Season 1; and all of the major characters are doubled by dolls made by Chip.
The theme of doppelgängers in Search Party points to another danger to the self. Doppelgängers undermine the notion that there is an authentic self that can be lost, found or deceived. A doppelgänger is both a second self and an uncanny other. Chip alludes to this problem early in the Season, explaining that he had to shave Dory’s head, as he needed her hair to make his Dory doll as authentic as possible. The doppelgänger embodies this paradox: the paradox of the authentic fake.
The term ‘doppelgänger’ entered literature and philosophy as part of a critique of Johann Gottlieb Fichte’s philosophy of knowledge. Fichte, originally a follower of Immanuel Kant, attempted to refine Kant’s theory of knowledge, by rooting epistemology in an absolute distinction between the I and the not-I. A self, which is wholly distinct from others and the world, is essential to Fichte’s epistemology. Jean Paul, the writer who coined the word doppelgänger, used the figure of the uncanny double as part of his satirical critique of Fichte. Whereas, Fichte presents a world where the boundaries between I and not-I are clear, Jean Paul presents self-identical characters, and stories in which the boundaries between the self and the world are blurred by mirrors, reflections, dreams, portraits, shadows, and magnetism. Rather than Fichte’s clear distinction between the absolute I and the other, Jean Paul creates the doppelgänger, a creature that Dimitris Vardoulakis describes ‘as an ambivalent amalgam of self and other.’
Chip’s world is the uncanny world of the doppelgänger. Vardoulakis argues that Jean Paul’s novels were an early example of how doubling could make every day experiences and situations strange. His novel Hoppelpoppel, the title itself an example of double-talk, subverts the safety and sense of belonging of the home, by replacing one of the family members with his doppelgänger. Immediately, homeliness is subverted, as an outsider, clothed in the appearance of a family member, invades the home. Doubles in Jean Paul’s novels also serve to make narratives artificial. Rather than the characters behaving in an authentic or naturalistic way, Jean Paul’s characters wear masks. Otherwise naturalistic situations are made theatrical. In Hoppelpoppel, for example, the family home becomes a stage set following the arrival of the doppelgänger.
This is precisely what happens between Dory and Chip. Their ‘friendship’ begins with Chip standing behind a camera, directing Dory to read a line. Chip recreates Dory’s flat in minute detail, forcing her to live in an environment akin to a stage set. As their relationship progresses Chip produces miniature sets and re-enacts important events in Dory’s life with dolls. Initially, Dory resists. Eventually, she embraces this new life and the persona of Stephanie.
Dory’s eventual acceptance of her life with Chip points to another of the show’s existential themes. By living as Stephanie, she becomes a character that Chip has created. In so doing she embraces what Jean-Paul Sartre calls ‘bad faith.’ Dory wants to renounce her agency and become a creature with a predefined purpose. Having been rescued by her friends, and having regained consciousness of who she is and what she has done, Dory returns to Chip and begs him ‘to do it again . . . make me be Stephanie.’ A theatrical simulacrum of ‘real life’ as Stephanie is ultimately easier than living as herself. For much of Seasons 2 and 3, Dory was in two minds, trying desperately to help herself out of a situation of her own creation. Living as Stephanie means being tortured, brainwashed and isolated. But life as Stephanie is easier as it allows Dory to ‘escape being me.’ By the end of the season, Portia has reached a similar conclusion. She too needs someone to define her. Beside herself with frustration she screams: ‘I’m so exhausted trying to find my fucking power. Please just tell me who I am!!!’ (“The Inferno”).
Self-Actualisation and the End of the World
Season 5 takes an apocalyptic turn. Dory’s near-death experience leads to rebirth and enlightenment. Yet while the final season is a fresh start, the show returns to one of its central themes. Speaking at NEWFEST, Rogers explains:
. . . this has always been Dory’s story, and it’s about one person’s journey of self-actualisation for better or worse. And that on some level, you cannot self-actualize without . . . hurting someone, or hurting others.
Although Dory remains the show’s central figure, Elliott is the first to articulate this theme. Speaking to his on-off boyfriend Marc, he explains that the reason their relationship failed in the past was ‘that we were toxic, but we weren’t honouring that.’ Their relationship can only work if they become ‘better at communicating [their] own toxic needs’ (“Genesis”). For Elliott and Marc, then, self-actualisation means living lives which are authentically toxic.
Rogers has been in this territory before. In 2020, he and Bridey Elliott (who starred as Penelope in Search Party Season 1) made ‘HUMANIA’, a darkly comic Instagram video aimed at everyone who wishes that the ‘end of the world would come, just a little bit faster.’ HUMANIA and The Institute of Humaniacal Design, Rogers and Elliott explain, are committed to the proposition that ‘no matter how you are taken out in the upcoming global termination, you deserve to become a better you first.’ (‘HUMANIA’)
‘HUMANIA’ suggests a paradoxical link between self-actualisation and global catastrophe. It seems intuitively correct that if we act responsibly, make sustainable choices as consumers; if we all invest in ‘personal development’; if individuals ‘bring their whole self’ to every interaction; are ‘mindful’, ‘centred’, ‘authentic’ and ‘present’ when dealing with each other – in short, if we become better versions of ourselves, we can make the world a better place. ‘HUMANIA’turns this logic on its head – becoming ‘a better you’ is part of the scheme to hasten the apocalypse. This could be a critique of contemporary ‘self-help’ literature, or narratives of ‘personal responsibility’ that suggest we can avert global environmental catastrophe by buying a different brand of Q-tips. The problem with these ‘solutions’ is they are comically tiny compared to the global scale of the problem. Equally, the drive to become ‘a better you’ is a distraction from the genuine problems that afflict the world. Crucially, the problems which pose an existential threat to the world require systemic change rather than individual action. This is the mistake that George Orwell saw in the work of Charles Dickens: Dickens has no remedy for the ills of Victorian capitalism except for ‘the good rich man, handing out guineas.’
Tunnel Quinn (Jeff Goldblum), a tech billionaire, is the rich man who helps Dory spread enlightenment. His big idea is that enlightenment can be packaged, marketed and sold. Quinn could be a satire on Jeff Bezos, Elon Musk or any number of tech titans. But Search Party goes beyond satire. The show unravels the long-term consequences of broad social trends. In that sense, it has more in common with utopian and dystopian fiction than satire. Quinn’s high-tech corporation, which is reminiscent of the USS Enterprise in Star Trek TOS, appears to be a utopian space. Dory, fortified by reading Understanding the Humanism of Existentialism, and Consciousness, Bliss and Transcendence: The Modern Monk’s Guide embarks on her mission to free people from their pain by bringing enlightenment. Dory’s disciples (Michelle Badillo, Joe Castle Baker, Grace Kuhlenschmidt, Larry Owens, Greta Titelman and Angela Trimbur) begin to live communally; and Elliott, Portia and Drew’s relationships with Dory deepen: as Gregory Claeys argues ‘enhanced sociability’ is the essential feature of utopian projects.
But even in this utopian moment, there are signs of bad faith. Portia looks to Dory to define her, and the disciples pin their hopes on an enlightenment pill to fix their fractured psyches. Quinn is clearly more interested in the marketing campaign and potential profits than Dory’s philosophy of love. Drew and Elliott begin to believe that Dory’s new-found wisdom is a symptom of psychosis. The dystopian tone is heightened by messages which arrive from the future warning of an impending apocalypse. And the doppelgänger motif re-emerges: David Ebert, who could be Rogers’ twin, appears as the father of the child who will precipitate Armageddon. The enlightenment pill, indistinguishable from a jelly bean, which Dory and her disciples create, and which Dory announces will reveal humanity’s true nature turns people into flesh eating zombies.
The party is over but the search continues
Rogers has a cameo in Search Party’s final episode. Fleeing the zombie apocalypse Dory and her friends turn to him for a way out. In spite of his best efforts, he’s no help at all. Something similar happens in Fort Tilden, Bliss and Roger’s first movie. The movie’s protagonists (Bridey Elliott and Clare McNulty) are lost on their way to the ‘post-apocalyptic’ Fort Tilden. They bump into Bliss and Rogers, and ask for help. The pair have nothing to offer by way of direction.
Search Party doesn’t have a single philosophical message, and like Bliss and Rogers in Fort Tilden, it doesn’t provide any answers. But Search Party does highlight some important contemporary problems: the will to trivia in a time of ecological catastrophe; the erosion of the self by the modern world; and the insatiable desire for narrative over truth. What Dory finds at the end of five seasons is hard to pin down. But for Rogers, speaking at NEWFEST, Search Party is ‘about how confusing and meaningful life is.’ It’s a testament to the pitch perfect writing and performances that the show is able to convey so many layers of meaning, and explore so many dark aspects of the contemporary world in a way that is so sharp, so unpredictable, so endlessly funny. Search Party’s a riot, the best television of its era. There is no better entertainment at the end of days.
Dr Robin Bunce has escaped the zombie apocalypse in Brooklyn and now teaches the history of political ideas at Homerton College, University of Cambridge. Together with Trip McCrossin he edited Blade Runner 2049 and Philosophy (2019). Together with Paul Field he was historical consultant on John Ridley’s Guerrilla (2017), Steve McQueen’s Mangrove (2020) and Sky’s Michael X: Hustler, Revolutionary, Outlaw (2021).
Claeys, Gregory, “News from Somewhere: Enhanced Sociability and the Composite Definition
of Utopia and Dystopia,” History, 98 (2013)
François de La Rochefoucauld, E.H. Blackmore, et al., Collected Maxims and Other Reflections (Oxford, 2008)
George Orwell, ‘Charles Dickens’, in Essays, (Penguin, 2020)
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, The Discourses and Other Early Political Writings, (Cambridge, 2018)
Jean-Paul Sartre, Existentialism and Humanism, (Methuen, 2007)
Dimitris Vardoulakis, The Doppelganger: Literature’s Philosophy (Fordham University Press, 2010)
iHeartPodcasts, Bowen Yang, (2020) Search Party: The Podcast [Podcasts] 14 & 16 December 2020. Available at: https://podcasts.apple.com/gb/podcast/search-party-the-podcast/id1523714843
NewFestNYC, (2022) HBO Max’s SEARCH PARTY S5: Conversation with Creators & Writers, 13 Jan 2022, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=0RVZS6qsGrU (Accessed: 13 Jan 2022).
Paste Magazine (2017) Charles Rogers & Sarah-Violet Bliss – Interview, 2 October 2017, Available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ibzA81GQZLc (Accessed: 25 Jan 2022). Charles Rogers, (2020) ‘HUMANIA’ [Instagram] 14 September 2020, Available at: https://www.instagram.com/p/CFH_LPWJRvP/ (Accessed 20 January