CULTURE & ARTS
01/13/2017 05:44 pm ET

How To Survive In A Conspiracy Theorist's World

I almost missed out on “Search Party” in the post-election haze. That’s exactly when I needed it most.
Alia Shawkat's character spends many late-night hours in front of her laptop trying to piece together the conspiracy behind h
Turner
Alia Shawkat's character spends many late-night hours in front of her laptop trying to piece together the conspiracy behind her acquaintance's disappearance in "Search Party."

When the TBS show “Search Party,” a dark detective sitcom starring Alia Shawkat, dropped in November, I wasn’t paying much attention ― this, despite the fact that I’d been intrigued for months by the unsettling trailers. In the pre- and post-election madness, I’d become a cable news junkie and, alternately, switched off the TV entirely and retreated with stacks of books. 

Turns out, this was a mistake. During a month when I was trying to figure out what had happened to my country, how it had become so obsessed with imagined pedophile rings run out of D.C.-area pizza parlors and millions of undocumented immigrants voting in California (didn’t happen), “Search Party” would have been the perfect fictional chaser to all those hours with The Washington Post and New York Times. It’s a show for an age of conspiracy theorists and amateur gumshoes, a jagged-edged sitcom that tries to unravel the psychological roots and painful consequences of our yearning for morbid puzzles.

Of course, politics never overtly enters the picture. “Search Party” takes, as its subject, another zeitgeisty genre: amateur detection. Self-effacing Dory (Shawkat), who channels a hipster ‘50s vibe with her subdued curly bob and boxy blouses, lives with her uptight boyfriend, Drew (John Reynolds), in New York. They’re a few years out of college, but Dory is adrift, working as a personal assistant to a wealthy, dysfunctional housewife while occasionally making noises about pursuing a job mentoring underprivileged girls. One day, she spots a missing poster with a familiar face: Chantal Witherbottom, a girl she recognizes from her college dorm, has vanished.

When Dory brings up Chantal’s disappearance at brunch with Drew and friends, they’re dismissive. Chantal, they recall, kind of sucked. Anyway, they doubt she’s really in danger. Dory’s besties Elliott (John Early) and Portia (Meredith Hagner) barely notice her new preoccupation with Chantal’s case as they toggle through social media feeds, where they’re absorbed in the maintenance of their own manicured self-images ― the former, as a gay cancer survivor who’s launching a charity water bottle startup; the latter, as an adorable blond actress starring as a Latina detective on a new procedural. 

But Dory can’t let it go. As she pursues apparent leads, shows up uninvited at the Witherbottom family’s vigil for Chantal, gets caught up in a Brooklyn boutique-based cult, and partners up with a dissolutely handsome private detective, Keith (Ron Livingston), her relationships suffer. In her quest to save Chantal ― an unlikely outcome at best ― Dory inflicts irreparable damage on everyone around her, and even on herself.

In the horrifying finale (SPOILER!), she and her now-estranged boyfriend accidentally bludgeon to death Keith, with whom she had an affair but had come to believe was her stalker. Immediately thereafter, Portia arrives on the scene with the missing woman herself, who confesses glibly that she had simply run away and dropped contact with her loved ones after a bad breakup. The show ends there, with Dory in the bloody wreckage of her own botched self-investigation of a non-crime with a non-victim at its center. The only damage that has been caused, in the end, was caused by her own paranoia and recklessness.

This narrative undoubtedly skewers the recklessness of the amateur detective trend, both in fiction and in reality (think Redditors regrettably and incorrectly fingering Sunil Tripathi, a missing student, as a suspect in the Boston bombings), but it’s also an indictment of a paranoid, hair-triggered approach to the world that’s hardly restricted to crime-solving forums.

When a presidential candidate promises to jail his opponent on unspecified charges during a debate, or when a man with a gun shows up at a pizza parlor to “self-investigate” rumors of a candidate’s child sex ring, or even when the media is rocked by thinly sourced assertions that the president-elect might have had sex workers in Russia perform a golden shower for him, it seems our political arena has become little more than another theater for conspiracy theorizing and distracting dramatics.

How different, really, is the allure of true crime mystery from that of a conspiracy theory? It’s been argued that the crime genre’s allure lies, in part, in its ability to grant a comforting order to the universe ― the hero vs. the villain, the mystery followed by the answer. In a rather crotchety 1944 essay, critic Edmund Wilson suggested that the popularity of the detective story at the time was due to ...

“an all-pervasive feeling of guilt and by a fear of impending disaster which it seemed hopeless to try to avert because it never seemed conclusively possible to pin down the responsibility. Who had committed the original crime and who was going to commit the next one? [...] Nobody seems guiltless, nobody seems safe; and then, suddenly, the murderer is spotted, and — relief! — he is not, after all, a person like you or me. He is a villain [...] and he has been caught by an infallible Power, the supercilious and omniscient detective, who knows exactly how to fix the guilt.”

Though today’s crime dramas are more often souped up with an amateur element, allowing the reader to put him- or herself in the infallible shoes of the somehow omniscient detective, the psychology still rings true.

Dory herself manifests both the guilt and the fear; she’s terrified that she’s just like Chantal, a pending victim who will be instantly forgotten, and she feels driven to place herself on the side of justice, instead, by becoming the lost girl’s savior. Her search party, her ex-boyfriend Julian (Brandon Micheal Hall) points out early on, is not really about Chantal ― it’s about Dory’s own lack of control over her life and her thirst for attention. “I think you’ve decided this matters to you because you have nothing else,” he tells her bluntly.

Conspiracy theories play into this same psychological need for control over an unpredictable and frightening cosmos. Many recent conspiracy theories are political; as the country becomes more partisan, the opponents to the party in power tend to respond with conspiracy theories that restore sense to the world as they know it. Donald Trump rose to political popularity through championing the birther conspiracy theory, which held that President Obama could be unseated from office because he was not born in America ― a relatively quick-seeming fix to the Obama presidency, for his most rabid opponents. Trump ultimately, and reluctantly, disavowed birtherism, but he became the conspiracy theory president. During his campaign, he retweeted racially charged fake crime statistics. At rallies, he repeatedly proclaimed, “I alone can fix it.” It’s the sort of self-aggrandizing appropriation of the hero role that makes amateur sleuthing and running for president alike so ego-boosting and comforting: You’re taking control, making sure you’re on the side of good rather than the villain or the victim.

This desperate need to feel worthy and necessary might initially seem understandable, and even innocuous ― in certain settings. Dory’s meddling on “Search Party” appears fairly well-intentioned and mild, at least at first. Of course, inserting herself into a stranger’s life, with little understanding of the situation and the effect she might have, is hardly a harmless hobby. The final result of her quest strikingly resembles a scene that actually took place shortly after “Search Party” premiered: the above-mentioned Pizzagate believer’s ill-fated attempt to search the basement of Comet Ping Pong for a pedophile ring run by Hillary Clinton’s associates.

That horrifying event, also motivated by a misplaced sense of heroism and resulting in (near) tragedy, shared another notable characteristic with Dory’s quest ― it couldn’t have happened without a staggering surplus of confirmation bias, which, in brief, is the tendency to seek out, notice and interpret information in a way that reinforces one’s existing hypotheses. Pizzagate, like many other debunked yet persistent conspiracies, rests on slender coincidences, oddities and manufactured or distorted evidence that proponents focus on to the exclusion of clear and convincing proof to the contrary. Usually, this is because they already believe involved parties ― in this case, Hillary Clinton and her associates, one of whom owns the pizza parlor in question ― are corrupt and evil. Likewise, many on the left have been troublingly frenzied for details about Trump’s alleged golden shower party, recently reported upon by several outlets, the actual evidence for which looks mighty shaky. 

Caught up in her own neuroses and fears, Dory, too, latches on to the smallest scraps of evidence that she’s working on the side of good, easily ignoring or discarding any evidence to the contrary. If given two possible paths, she’ll always pursue the line of inquiry that confirms her original, outlandish theory ― even if, at each turn, her suspicions lead her absurdly awry. She’s still convinced, somehow, that she’s right, that she’s the hero, and that she will be vindicated.

Doggedly pursuing an imagined problem might seem to be merely wasted effort, but it can turn into something sinister. When fighting a great evil, extreme measures might appear justified; if that evil is fabricated, distorted or imagined, then the collateral damage from the extreme measures taken to destroy it remains real. Thankfully, the appearance of a gunman at Comet Ping Pong didn’t result in any casualties, but lives were put at risk by a debunked conspiracy theory. Parents of Sandy Hook victims have been put through unspeakable emotional suffering due to harassment by “truthers” who believe the mass shooting was a false flag operation by the government and that the grieving family members are actors. By the time Dory’s investigation has completed, the body count of her quest exceeds that of the original crime she set out to rectify. In seeking to make herself a superhero, she’s made herself a monster.

“Search Party” couldn’t be more timely and razor-sharp, capturing, in its noir spoof of a crime drama, a sharp satire of our true crime obsessions, conspiracy theory addictions and weakness for political sideshows, as well. 

Throughout the arc of the season, the seductive tropes of the mystery and true crime genres are exploded and revealed for the farce they are, mere pleasing visions that allow each of us to imagine ourselves the heroic protagonist rather than someone who would fuck it all up if we stepped in. Conspiracy theories and crime shows let us imagine that we are capable, not culpable. As the show slowly reveals, humans can wreak untold damage when our self-perceived goodness and guiltlessness, rather than the actual effects of our actions, consume us.

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