Alia Shawkat, still identified with "Arrested Development" despite appearing in six films in 2015 alone, takes the lead in "Search Party," an engaging new serial mystery comedy from TBS. Premiering Monday, with its 10 episodes playing two at a time over five consecutive nights, it is the latest addition to the network's burgeoning comedy portfolio, which already contains "People of Earth," "Wrecked," "Angie Tribeca" and Jason Jones' "The Detour," a road trip comedy with conspiracy thriller overtones that in its narrative drive feels like an older cousin to "Search Party."
Shawkat plays Dory, an unmoored millennial looking for meaning, or just the semblance of an identity she can't forge for herself. "It's just like everybody can tell me what I can't do, but nobody can tell me what I can do," she tells the woman who has just turned her down for a job at a leadership nonprofit. The rich, sad, bored, lonely woman she does work for — dropping off clothes at Goodwill, picking up dry cleaning — asks her, "Dory, how is it you are so good at the stuff no one else wants to do?"
When Dory recognizes a woman on a missing-person poster as a college classmate, she finds herself moved — as if the missing girl were a metaphor for her own life — and then motivated to find her. Suddenly, she is Nancy Drew, and she is Robert Donat or Cary Grant or any Hitchcock hero telling a story others regard as crazy. Still, by the force of will and neediness, she manages to transform her friends into a sort of Scooby Gang, if one highly distracted and only occasionally convinced that Dory is on the right track, or even quite sure of what track she's on.
Created by Michael Showalter (“Wet Hot American Summer”) and young indie filmmakers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers (“Fort Tilden”), “Search Party” plays not only with what we have internalized from mystery stories, their plots and coincidences, but also with the conventions of romantic comedies — Dory has a current boyfriend (John Reynolds), who's less than mature, and seemingly ripe for dumping, and an old boyfriend (Brandon Micheal Hall), who’s almost arrogantly adult. At one moment, the series seems set to satisfy expectations, the next to undercut them, and the next to undercut the undercutting. Its endgame twists may frustrate some viewers, but they are meaningful and not arbitrary.
Though the tone wavers a little, from fairly realistic to slightly absurd, the series is tightly made and effective on multiple levels. The suspense is suspenseful, the puzzles puzzling, but the comedy also works, bolstered and buoyed with oddball throwaway lines and small details: the way that the office number on the business card a private detective (Ron Livingston) gives Dory has been scratched out with a ballpoint pen; Dory’s friend Portia's (Meredith Hagner) confession that she told a teacher she was dyslexic to get out of work "and then the next year I was diagnosed as dyslexic”; Elliott's (John Early) offhand mention of "a threesome sort of by accident in the Transportation Museum."
As it goes along, characters that begin as monstrous caricatures resolve into struggling, generally sympathetic humans, as they move through hipster-y Brooklyn and beyond, into scenes of family and relationships and work incidental to the mystery. Portia has just begun a recurring part in a TV show as "a frisky rookie cop… with super sensitive hearing"; Elliott, who describes himself as "a stylist, a designer, I could act if I need to, I could curate -- I really just like projects," is social climbing by philanthropy. Some are volubly insecure, some secretly so.
The performers are all excellent, with Hagner especially touching in a part that might be meanly played. But it's Shawkat, with her non-standard corkscrew hair and glorious profusion of freckles, who drives the show, bringing an intensity into Dory's most unfocused, unsure moments. A decision seems to have been made to watch her closely, letting her face fill the screen as often as practicable, and it pays off in spades.
When: 11 and 11:30 p.m. Monday through Friday
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
Follow Robert Lloyd on Twitter @LATimesTVLloyd