Each season of HBO Max’s Search Party is full of unexpected turns — the season 1 finale is an all-time great twist, but season 3’s pivot to legal drama and season 4’s Misery-esque plotline were impossible to predict, given the show’s relatively simple premise. Somehow, the straightforward comedy-thriller about Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) and her friends’ search for their missing college friend Chantal (Clare McNulty) has become a vehicle for all kinds of TV.
In its fifth and final season, all 10 episodes of which hit the streaming service in January, Search Party goes out with a hell of a bang — one that’s hard to believe until you see it for yourself.
[Ed. note: Major spoilers for the final season of Search Party follow.]
Most of Search Party season 5 is about a cult. Dory Sief, having died for 37 seconds in the previous season finale, has come to believe that she’s discovered true enlightenment. As she shares her insights on social media, she gains a passionate following and recruits other influencers to her cause. Eventually, with the help of tech mogul Tunnel Quinn, Dory sets a goal for her cult: creating a pill that will give everyone who takes it the same enlightenment she has. Unfortunately, that pill is what kicks off the honest-to-God zombie apocalypse.
There’s no walking it back, either: The world as we know it in Search Party really does end, albeit comedically. And the show’s final moments are of its cast going about life in post-apocalyptic Brooklyn. So naturally, we wanted to talk to showrunners Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers about how Search Party ended the world.
So let’s get to it right away: When did you know you were doing a zombie apocalypse?
Sarah-Violet Bliss: In season 4, when we were thinking about potentially doing a season 5, we had thought about what it would be like for Dory to be on the other end of a near-death experience, and thinking about how then she goes on to more destruction.
It was before COVID was COVID — we originally had an idea that she ended up creating something that becomes a virus. And then COVID happened, and we’re like, “Well, that’s a little too on the nose.” But we still liked the idea that her trying to do something good becoming something bad. As is her M.O. That was when [the zombies] came. It wasn’t from day one that we knew we were going to end with a zombie apocalypse. But here we are!
Cults are another big focus this season. Do you think cults are in for a comeback?
Charles Rogers: Well, in pop culture, I think that we are maybe at the tail end of that comeback. There was a part of me that was a little nervous, that maybe we had overdone cults by the time Search Party came out. But the principles behind cults — I feel like if anything, cults have had a huge resurgence in a more metaphorical way, where the country is divided in all these extreme ideologies, and everyone is being indoctrinated into some point of view. So if anything, I think cults are reincarnating on a higher government level, globally.
SVB: I think there’s something just generally about whatever tribe you belong to, it has a cult element to it, whether or not it’s organized. It’s just consistently there. And you know, if you say something your tribe disagrees with, that could be troublesome for you. So in that sense, it doesn’t necessarily look the way we consider cults to look like, but I think it’s always kind of there.
What makes you think we’re at the tail end of our cult obsession?
CR: There’s a balance to tapping into the zeitgeist without feeling like you’re over-treading territory. It takes like a year for a show to come out by the time you write it, you know, so there’s always a sensitivity to not wanting to look out of touch, or like you’re at the tail end of something.
And even with season 1, and true crime, and the idea of Serial being talked about, I was a little nervous that it might not be in vogue by the time the show’s first season came out. But ultimately, I think as long as you’re giving a spin to it, you’re able to make it feel fresh. So in writing this season, it felt important that the twist was that the cult was influencers. You haven’t seen that, you know? That’s the way to modernize and keep it fresh. There are always ways to make sure that you’re not behind the beat, you know?
Was it always the goal to play with a different genre each season in Search Party?
SVR: It started when we wrote season 2. When we were trying to figure out what season 2 was going to be, what set us free was sort of realizing, “Oh, it’s a different genre this season. It’s still thrilling, but it’s not a mystery. It’s you know, getting away with murder.” And in doing that, we realized that was kind of what the show was. In season 3, we implemented it with crime drama and then courtroom drama, and then we’re moving on from there.
A lot of readings of the show revolve around the idea of it being about a generational search for meaning. Do you think the millennial search for meaning is uniquely difficult? Does Search Party speak to that?
CR: Yeah, I was thinking about that after reading different reviews, and just hearing so many different takes on it. I was thinking about whether there is something generational about the search for meaning, and I don’t think there is, per se. I think that’s an ancient, universal human question. But I think what every generation has that separates it from the others is a different kind of denial.
Like, we like to say that our parents, or Boomers, don’t have a vocabulary for expressing their feelings or talking about emotions or psychology, you know? But that doesn’t mean they necessarily had any less of a relationship with meaning. We’re all experiencing the same humanity. What millennials and Gen Z have is the ability to identify everything they’re asking for and missing and seeking. But no one has any more answers than any other generation. So there’s a little bit of a cyclical loop that I think has worked its way into the DNA of Search Party.
Search Party is now available to stream in its entirety on HBO Max.