Interview: ‘Search Party’ creators Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss on defying genre expectations and working with Susan Sarandon
Search Party is back and she’s darker and more perverse than ever.
At the end of last season, Dory (Alia Shawkat) has been kidnapped by a cater waiter twink (Cole Escola), leaving her best friends Elliott (John Early), Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Drew (John Reynolds) to pick up the pieces and reckon with the mess of their own lives.
Season 4 is another genre shift for the series, as things become undeniably more menacing and claustrophobic than ever before. The creators of Search Party wouldn’t have it any other way.
Charles Rogers and Sarah-Violet Bliss talked to Daniel Trainor and Sam Stone about how the show manages to revel in the unexpected, the plotlines that were too absurd (even for them), collaborating with guest star Susan Sarandon and what might be next for the show.
The first three episodes of Season 4 are available to stream now on HBO Max, with the next three on January 21st and the final four on January 28th.
*This interview contains major spoilers for all of Season 4.*
Daniel Trainor: Hey guys! Thanks for taking some time to talk about season 4. We both really enjoyed it.
Charles Rogers: Thanks very much!
DT: Search Party is so effortlessly genre-bending and each individual season has really taken on its own identity. I’m curious, when you sit down to plot out a season, how much conversation is there about genre and tone?
CR: The way that we approach every season has changed with every season (laughs). We didn’t set out with the intention of having the series have a different genre bend every season, but when we started writing season 2, we realized that helped us get away from repeating anything or feeling like we were out of tricks or something like that. There was something nice about leaning in a new direction and hoping that it would keep the show feeling fresh. Sometimes that really works in our favor. Like with the third season, it was very convenient to have a courtroom structure where you just move through the motions of the tentpoles of that classic structure. In writing the fourth season, we were really holding onto movies like Misery and Room and Silence of the Lambs, which we were calling the “captive genre” for lack of a better term. But there isn’t such a formal template for that, so this was a particularly tricky homage season because we didn’t necessarily have some tried and true formula for it going in.
Sam Stone: This season is definitely the darkest that we’ve seen. It feels like every season has been amped up. Has that been on purpose, the idea that you’ve been taking things to new highs every season and is there another zenith to reach?
Sarah-Violet Bliss: We sort of end up painting ourselves into a corner and that’s sort of the nature of it. It’s not something that we went in being like “bigger, faster, stronger,” you know? We’ve found that it’s been really fun leaning into tropes and genre, which also grounds into the core of what the show’s comedy and characters’ spin on those genres and tropes are.
DT: One of the things that I love most about the show is that you’ll take an idea like “Drew leaves town and goes to work as a costume performer at a second-rate theme park and falls in love with a princess,” which other shows would be too afraid to to tackle, but you guys just go for it. Are there examples of concepts that, even for your show, were deemed bridges too far?
CR: There’s something very fun about taking a big swing and doing everything you can to make it as believable as possible, or at least justify that the characters would do such a thing. There’s always a part of us that just wants to make the most entertaining show possible, and then there’s another part of us that’s like “you need to believe it.” Season 4 is definitely our most out-there season in terms of what happens to Dory and the overall flavor of the season. One example that comes to mind of something that was too far for us, which doesn’t even feel that crazy now after having made season 4, came during the second season. When we were writing the storyline about April the neighbor blackmailing them, we were trying to figure out how to ramp that up and there was a version where the friends all decided to come together and kill her. We thought of so many different versions of it, but we were like “they just wouldn’t kill her” (laughs). We re-wrote that episode like five times with all these crazy set pieces, like being at a Russian disco and there being a big Plaza Hotel caper. At the end of the day, it was just like “no, they wouldn’t kill her.”
SVB: I thought you were going to talk about June and the ashes (laughs).
CR: Oh my god, yeah. That whole episode had an incarnation where June, the twin, wanted to get back at April because she was hoarding her father’s ashes. It was this very unnecessary storyline that the friends got dragged into. After awhile, it was like “what are we talking about?”
SVB: What’s coming to my mind right now isn’t something that we didn’t do because it was shark jumpy, but in the Chantal [Clare McNulty] bottle episode this season we really wanted her to have this backstory where she was a child ice skater. We had this whole arc where we went back into her past and saw how she became very close to being an Olympic hopeful. But we realized there was no time or budget for that.
SS: At the outset of writing this season specifically, were there jokes or references that you knew you wanted to hit on? There are very clear tropes that work very well, so I’m wondering what pieces of the season you knew were going in before the episodes were written?
CR: We knew that we wanted Chip [Cole Escola] to be really scary and that he would have a volatile streak in him that Dory knew she would have to watch out for. We looked to Misery as an example of that and we watched some behind-the-scenes stuff about the movie, like if you psycho-analyzed Kathy Bates’s character, it’s an amalgamation of different disorders and shades of being unstable. There was something about that which felt fun to employ when writing Chip, that Chip could be a little bit of a piecemeal of all of these volatile traits. That’s the way we wanted to build our psycho.
DT: I need to ask about working with Susan Sarandon. In recent years, it feels like her politics and her tweets have overshadowed her work, so it was such a pleasure to see her really sink her teeth into this role. What was it like working with her?
CR: Susan is the grooviest person I’ve ever met. She’s everybody’s friend on set. She makes friends very easily and is really warm and constantly engaging in some deep-cut conversation with somebody, so you’re like “ugh, I wish we didn’t have to work” because I want to hear what she has to say. Pretty soon into it, I realized that I could really ask her anything about anything. After a while, I was like “tell me about Rocky Horror,” I would just say a word say “go!” She’s the coolest person you’ve ever met and she’s got so much to say that you really want to listen to.
SS: I actually feel like her grooviness came through on screen, so that’s such a good word.
SVB: She was also so comfortable, and this is so obvious, but so comfortable on camera. That character is written so large, and she just grounds it. I would never be able to read those lines and be able to make her feel like a real person, and she does. She’s great.
SS: She immediately keyed into the delicate nature of the show. Was the part written for her?
CR: We wrote it in a vacuum of thinking about a fun, vampy, rich character, but then pretty early into the writing process when we started thinking of names, Susan’s name came up and from there on out, we were thinking of her. Even then, seeing her perform it on her first day on set was this moment of being like “ohhh, it’s like that, of course it’s like that.” You still can’t 100% predict how they’re going to do it, even if you feel like you think you do.
DT: So much of this season, and show in general, is about identity and trying to find yourself. How much of that journey went into your conversations about the new season and, if in writing the show, you were able to find out anything about yourselves?
CR: That’s a great question.
SVB: In this season specifically, we talked a lot about identity more than any other. We play around with it. Each character has at least two identities. Portia is playing Dory in her movie and dresses up as her, Drew runs away from himself and dresses up as this prince pretending to be someone else, Elliott gets flipped from his liberal persona to a Republican, far-right persona, Dory literally becomes Stephanie and then merges her four identities from all four seasons. Even Chip goes around town acting like his Aunt Lylah slash mother. That was a big topic of discussion in the room, the search and having to face your shadowed self. The idea that to integrate that is what makes one self-actualized. In terms of integrating that to ourselves, I think when you write you are generally bringing a lot of yourself to the work and discovering who you are as you write. I don’t know exactly what I discovered. I’ve probably forgotten it, as you do. You learn little lessons and then you forget them. I certainly know that your subconscious seeps through your work, so it’s in there.
CR: There’s something that we ended up finding along the way, which has really been resonating with me, which is the idea that the friends finally admit that they just don’t know who they are. It was an interesting conversation in the room, too, because everyone has a different relationship to that sentiment and whether that resonates for them or not. The more I get to know myself as an adult and the more I learn about exactly what’s motivating things on the deepest level, the more familiar I am with myself and the more I trust that I don’t totally know what I’m really made of and that life is this constant process of learning new things about yourself. Even if you don’t realize what you’re doing, you’re always unveiling sides to yourself, which just goes to show that everybody is a little bit unknowable.
SS: So, what is the future of Search Party? Do we know what might be next for these characters?
CR: Well, season 5 is not confirmed, So, it’s hard to talk about. We really wanted to end season 4 with an ending that felt conclusive and climactic, but like always in the Search Party fashion, there’s definitely something to unpack on the other side of this big moment where Dory wakes up from having died. You know, if there is a fifth season, that would be an exciting road to go down.
DT: Well, fingers are crossed. Congratulations on a really fun season. Thanks for your time!
CR: Thank you, I appreciate it!
SVB: Thank you. Great questions!
The first three seasons of Search Party are available to stream on HBO Max. The first three episodes of Season 4 are available to stream now, with the next three on January 21st and the final four on January 28th.
Images courtesy of HBO Max