Since its debut on TBS in 2016, the dark comedy series Search Party has thrived on the fringes of the comedy world, airing to middling ratings but drawing raves from critics and superfans who have obsessed over protagonist Dory Sief’s ploys to wriggle out of crises. Recently, however, the show has been put in front of a new, considerably large audience: its new streamer, HBO Max, has surged following Warner Bros. decision to release its upcoming films on the service and in theaters simultaneously.
And this month, in conjunction with the rollout of its fourth season, the show has become the subject of plenty of activity on social media and entertainment websites, leading to the most search interest it has had since its 2016 premiere. “When the show moved to HBO Max, it’s revealed who of my close friends or old friends hadn’t actually watched it until now,” co-creator Charles Rogers joked in an interview with TIME.
It hasn’t hurt that the show’s fourth season has only heightened the wit and suspense of previous seasons, with Dory (Alia Shawkat) attempting to fight her way out of captivity at the hands of an obsessive fan (Cole Escola), while comedic powerhouses like Susan Sarandon and Busy Philipps have joined the cast. On Thursday, the last four episodes of Season 4 were released, providing a shocking and cathartic ending to a relentlessly tense and hilarious season. (Spoiler alert: it’s revealed that Dory actually aided Chip in her own capture; she then almost dies in a fire and attends her own funeral before coming back to life on a gurney.) TIME caught up with Rogers and his co-creator Sarah-Violet Bliss to talk about brainwashing, millennials and where the show goes from here.
TIME: This season was written and shot before the pandemic, but depicts Dory in forced confinement. Have you thought about how it might resonate differently given the circumstances?
Charles Rogers: Yeah, we really got lucky that everyone had to go into isolation [laughs]. We like to say that there’s some weird psychic thing that goes on with Search Party: there’s been so many moments where we’ll write something, and then the second before the season comes out, that thing is happening in some thematic way in the world.
I think there’s two big emotional parallels that this season has. One is the idea of all the chaos of living in your 20s, and trying to make sense of your identity up until around when you turn 30. The second is that the world has felt like it’s going crazy. So I feel like it’s hitting people on a couple levels right now.
You’ve said that this season was partially inspired by hostage films like Silence of the Lambs, Misery and Room. What did you hope to extract from that genre?
Rogers: I would say that horror and comedy share a lot of the same DNA. A lot of comedy comes from pain. Both genres can get away with surrealism in a way that others genres can’t. In terms of writing it, they both require setting up rules about the logic of the world, and then bending those rules for effect. Whether that’s to make people laugh or be scared, it’s about subverting expectation for surprise.
And for whatever reason, a lot of my and Sarah-Violet’s collaborations have been centered around abuses of power. Maybe that’s because of our own life experiences, or because that’s such a huge part of why the country is the way it is right now. But there’s something that resonates in both of us: perverse abuses of power, and trying to find the funny and the weird in that.
Did you consult with any psychologists or Stockholm syndrome experts while writing the season?
Rogers: We set out with the intention of writing a Misery structure that was mostly going to be about Dory trying to escape captivity. [The 1990 film Misery, based on a Stephen King novel, follows an obsessive fan who holds an author captive.] But then we felt that audiences might get fatigued of that pretty soon. So when we were thinking of interesting things that Chip could do to Dory, we started to look at people like Elizabeth Smart or Patty Hearst—and how brainwashing is a very real thing that’s been employed for thousands of years. So that’s when we talked to Rick Ross, who is a leader in exposing cults and deprogramming people from cults. And he basically told us that almost anything is possible as long as you essentially break someone down and build back up according to how you want them to be.
One of the most powerful moments for me in the series was when it’s revealed that Dory actually allowed herself to be held hostage: that when given the opportunity to run away, she got back into Chip’s trunk instead. How did you come to that narrative decision?
Rogers: Since the first season, there’s been a recurring conversation in the writers room about whether Dory has more agency over her own fate than she’s willing to admit. She makes so many questionable choices throughout the series, and it felt fitting that she would have at some point done something that would only hurt her. So the idea of the trunk felt like the clearest way of representing that.
There also was something that really compelled us about her withholding a memory from herself that was too chaotic for her admit to herself—and that finally flooding back to her in her final moments. It also felt like a way to show that she’s always been an unreliable narrator, to some extent.
The characters, Dory included, are constantly interrogating who they really are. Do you believe that people have true core selves?
Bliss: There’s the famous quote from RuPaul: “You’re born naked, and the rest is drag.” This show is always about putting on a front: trying to be perceived in a way and posturing, but at the same time, trying to figure out who you really are and unfolding that. When you strip away the identities that people perceive you to be as a persona—whether at your job or how you present yourself—what are you left with? I think probably there is an essence that some would call the soul that never really changes. But then there are aspects that you put on to try to be accepted in your culture. The more you mature, hopefully you can strip those away, if possible.
Rogers: I love that Search Party addresses this existential quandary. So much of my therapy is about depathologizing everything I’ve ever pathologized about myself. But also, it’s just so complicated, because all of your beliefs you have about yourself both empower and disempower you. I don’t think there’s a human way to ever get to the bottom of it all.
Elliott, in one episode, calls himself and his friends a “lost generation.” Do you think the identity crisis we’ve been discussing is somehow particular to millennials?
Bliss: I think every generation goes through these coming-of-age feelings. I think millennials get assigned that, and we were poking fun at that concept.
Rogers: I think that both millennials and Gen-Z have been given more vocabulary and tools to employ regarding self-awareness. So maybe the plight of self-realization is more tangible than in previous generations, but that doesn’t mean that other generations aren’t experiencing existential anxiety.
The final episode of the season feels like a finale in many ways: it’s set at a funeral, and features so many returning characters from past seasons. Did you intend for it to serve as a potential series ender?
Rogers: We had really thought about every possible ending that you could ever imagine, including a version where this season would be the last season. And then that’s when we thought of the idea of Dory dying. But as we got closer to it, we realized that we actually didn’t want to see that happen—and that if there ever was more story to tell, we would want to see what would happen on the other side of a near-death experience. It became more and more clear to us that this season was really a turning point more than anything.
We went into the season with thoughts of “white light” moments and epiphany. Then, when we were brave enough, quote unquote, to kill Dory, it kind of gave us permission to lean into that white light idea and embrace the potential of death being a turning point.
So do you have the next four seasons written out in your mind?
Bliss: Don’t you dare.
Rogers: We can’t tell you.
The speech that Elliott gives at Dory’s funeral would seem to set him up well for a run for political office. Would you want to see that in any potential upcoming seasons?
[Both laugh] Rogers: It would be fun.
Bliss: Yeah. It would be fun.