Alia Shawkat's great comic skill is for the continually fresh expression of a determined disgust. That eager face of hers, beneath its constellations of freckles and her great Harpo-frizzed curls, is forever souring up with disappointment, even as her characters strive not to let this on. To feel let down by the idiots around her — on Arrested Development, in some of her indie comedies and now on the richly pleasurable TBS mystery-comedy Search Party — is to admit that for a moment she was foolish enough to believe in them. Her eyes bounce, balloon, then quickly tighten, while she fights to keep her mouth from scowling. In the set of her jaw, though, there's almost always resolve. It's the look of a woman who now remembers she knows better than to hope for more from people than ignorance and selfishness — and is resolving to take care of everything that matters herself.
In short, it's the look of American women circa late 2016. And it's a face that might help get you through these tough weeks. Savor Shawkat's hilarious variations on that core dismay and her character's piercing joy when she finds a project, a missing-person investigation, that's actually worth her passion and intelligence. It's almost a bonus that the show built around her (by creators Sarah-Violet Bliss, Michael Showalter and Charles Rogers) is so bright, brisk, funny and surprising.
The story: A young woman has gone missing, as this sort of narrative demands, and only listless Dory (Shawkat) seems to care. She and her Kings County squad went to college with Chantal, the vanished woman, though nobody remembers much about her. Still, Dory is shaken by the news. In a later episode she'll say that she had always overlooked Chantal, just as many people have overlooked Dory, who has yet to distinguish herself in any particular way from her peers. That tribe includes an almost-successful TV actress (Meredith Hagner), a pathological liar who claims to be raising money to bring his own brand of fancy bottled water to Africa (John Early) and Dory's calf-faced beanpole of a boyfriend (John Reynolds), a naïf who nods and rattles “Good stuff! Good stuff!” as he backs away from people who are berating him.
This millennial screwball noir might sound like a mash-job in conception, like Broad City times Manhattan Murder Mystery times Lawrence Michael Levine's sprightly Wild Canaries, with touches of Gaslight and many recent paperback thrillers with “girl” in the title. Moments in the first episode suggest Girls — humiliating sex with a doof who must jack himself off to finish — and observational Brooklyn rooftop-party sketch comedy. But at the end of the first 22 minutes the mystery seizes hold, and I found Search Party to blossom from charming and smart to fully compelling, even unsettling. Suddenly the familiar wanderlust of the familiar narcissists is made new. Rather than cycle episode after episode through the usual epic embarrassments and minor insights, Shawkat's Dory is on a case, trying to help someone out, always moving toward an appreciable goal. That's less like life than Girls is, of course, but for viewers eager for story it’ll also be a considerable relief.
It's even a breakthrough, in a way. The brash, funny, aimless, urbane millennial disaster has mostly starred in series about being brash, funny, aimless and the rest. Now, she's the hero in a quite good, sometimes tense detective story, stalking the city in a smashing vintage boucle trench coat. For once her show isn't a study of her just being, or of her figuring out how to be: It's about her daring to attempt to put something wrong in the world to right. The animating philosophy comes from a line of Tolstoy's that figures into the plot: “The pleasure lies not in discovering the truth but in searching for it.” Through detective work Dory searches out new aspects of self, of course — and it's a source of significant tension whether each attempt to gather evidence or question a suspect will build to one of those soiling cock-ups characters routinely visit upon characters like Dory on other shows whenever they attempt something grand.
The series is tart and well plotted, with cliffhanger momentum and a shrewdly controlled unsteadiness. Will the scene of Dory hosting a dinner party so she can pump Chantal's psychopath ex for info build to hilarity or horror? Dory and her friends work through all the usual Rear Window nail-biter stuff: They search the bedrooms of Chantal and her sister during a vigil at Chantal's parents' house, knowing full well anyone could catch them at any time. Drew, Dory's boyfriend, shadows a family member of Chantal's into a midtown office tower, trying to find something useful as security chases him. A sequence involving the transferal of emails from a suspect’s cellphone to Drew's is a small jewel of suspense and comedy, each topping each other.
The thriller elements raise the stakes of the millennial comedy stuff, so you can't tell, in each moment, whether the eventual payoff will be awkward laughs or life-threatening danger. Best of all, the series grows more somber and dramatic as it races along, with Dory discovering not just exciting clues but hard truths about herself and her relationships. I won't say which of Search Party's mixed genres dominates the finale, 10 episodes after the debut. I'll just say that it stings — and that I hope the creators can contrive to give us more.
Search Party is available for streaming on TBS.com and will rerun on TBS in December.