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In the first minutes of Search Party Season 3, Dory (Alia Shawkat) takes a doozy of a mugshot. There are no timeline gimmicks or flash forwards to hint at where the Season ends, but that image is a hint unto itself. As it goes viral, the media and public speculate that Dory Sief’s innocent face hides the machinations of a criminal mastermind, and she slowly but perceptibly becomes the woman in that photograph.

Search Party Season 3 picks up moments after Dory’s Season 2 arrest for the murder of Keith Powell (Ron Livingston). Dory and Drew (John Reynolds) end up on trial because their DNA was found on the body, although Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) are taken in for questioning before the proceedings as well.

All the friends want is to be done with this heinous chapter in their lives, a chapter that everyone besides Dory struggles to keep a grip on, because they followed her in a haze of adrenaline, fear, and misplaced loyalty. At one point, Elliott groans that “everyone’s going to think I helped my friends bury a body!” and Portia has to remind him that he did.

Drew (John Reynolds), Dory (Alia Shawkat), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and Elliott (John Early) have a serious conversation in the ocean, where they can't be overheard.

Drew (John Reynolds), Dory (Alia Shawkat), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and Elliott (John Early) have a serious conversation in the ocean, where they can’t be overheard.

Image: Jon Pack /  hbo max

Search Party has always brilliantly toed the line between humor and horror, and Season 3 is this balance at its peak. Shawkat gives it her all, playing not just the Dory Sief we’ve come to know, but the unrecognizable sociopath within who slowly claws to the surface. Dory may be lying publicly about her innocence, but she’s lying to herself above all, and it is mesmerizing to watch Shawkat portray that transformation with an Emmy-worthy and nuanced performance.

Hagner is also in peak form, pushing Portia’s hysteria to new heights of both comedy and compassion. Like Shawkat, she deploys every facial muscle to drive each scene’s gravity and humor in equal measure (sometimes going shot-for-shot with Early to wondrous effect), and it’s a home run every time. There’s also Shalita Grant, who should be able to look back on her scene-stealing turn as Dory’s lawyer as a fabulous breakthrough. Every word and gesture of her screen time is a gift, from the introduction down to the last singeing line.

Shalita Grant, Alia Shawkat, and John Reynolds in "Search Party" Season 3.

Shalita Grant, Alia Shawkat, and John Reynolds in “Search Party” Season 3.

Image: Jon Pack / hbo max

When it debuted in 2016, Search Party was a morbidly fascinating study into the millennial craving for importance. In the show timeline, only a few months have passed since Dory became obsessed with the missing Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty, who still nails Chantal’s uniquely cringey aura but feels out of place most of the season), but our own world looks different, not least because millennial fatigue is out and Gen Z is on the rise.  These characters, once desperate to be seen, are now experiencing the Monkey’s Paw manifestation of that desire, and instinctively react not to reality but to the version being told publicly, reframing the narrative so it fits their brands, personalities, and continuously adjusting beliefs of what actually happened. Above all, they are worried about what people will think. Dory, once intrepid, later guilty, is now well past those emotions, seeking absolution after convincing herself she deserves it.

It’s particularly discomfiting to watch the courtroom scenes as depicted by a show that is hyperaware of America’s flawed justice system. “They don’t put innocent people in jail,” one character says early on, with a sanguine sincerity that drips irony. But Search Party manages to keep us hooked on the courtroom drama without making light of it. The jokes are abundant and effective, and the timing could not be more skillful.

And Dory and her friends aren’t innocent. Search Party takes us to that realm of feeling where we can no longer root for the main character because her exoneration hurts so many people — those directly affected by Keith’s death, as well as the thousands more whom justice has failed. That’s a tough transformation on most TV dramas, but on this comedy it looks easy — and completely fucking terrifying.

Search Party Season 3 is now streaming on HBO Max.