This article contains spoilers for Search Party season 4 episodes 1-3.
Through two seasons on TBS and one on HBO Max, Search Party has defied genre expectations. While ostensibly a comedy about young Brooklyn millennials, each new year of the show has brought another unexpected tone to the table.
Season 1 was a Nancy Drew-style mystery, with Dory Sief (Alia Shawkat) and her friends searching for their old missing college acquaintance Chantal Witherbottom (Clare McNulty). When that search went…poorly, season 2 dealt with the life and death consequences and added “paranoid thriller” to its genre collection. Season 3 then took on the formatting of a legal drama, all the while maintaining the show’s original millennial comedy charms.
For season 4, which premieres its first three episodes Jan. 14 on HBO Max (three more follow on Jan. 21, with the final four arriving on Jan. 28), the latest genre is a bit harder to identify. In fact, even the show’s creators Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers aren’t entirely sure how to categorize this one.
“We don’t have the genre pinned down, other than it being kind of the ‘captive’ genre,” Bliss says. “There’s not exactly a genre, other than like Misery to compare it to.”
In many ways, season 4 is Search Party’s biggest swing yet. Bliss and Rogers report writing the show in an exploratory fashion. That approach has taken Dory, Drew (John Reynolds), Portia (Meredith Hagner), and Elliott (John Early) in some fascinating directions. And this year it brings Dory into the clutches of a demented stalker, Misery-style.
Amidst the drama of Dory and Drew’s murder trial in season 3, the show introduced a shadowy stalker (Cole Escola) who became increasingly more obsessed with Dory and her celebrity. After a close call at Elliott’s wedding, the season culminated with the stalker (known at the time as only “The Twink”) finally nabbing his prize and kidnapping Dory, imprisoning her in your typical stalker dungeon.
Season 4’s first three episodes find Dory living in a prison fabricated to resemble her own apartment that her stalker (who is revealed to be named Chip) made for her, and fed a steady diet of chicken nuggets and reassuring words. The vibe is in keeping with Bliss and Rogers’ Misery and Silence of the Lambs inspirations with a sickly sunnier Search Party twist. Though Elliott, Drew, and Portia continue on with their lives (and share one hilarious drunken group makeout session), the energy of these early episodes relies on Shawkat and Escola’s strange dynamic.
Bliss and Rogers have proven to be shrewd talent scouts through three seasons of Search Party, but casting the role of a stalker-turned-captor who would torment their lead for nigh a whole season was particularly tricky.
“When we were writing season three, we knew that whenever we got to season four, whoever the stalker is would end up being a very important role,” Rogers says. “We had to choose wisely and cast someone that you would really want to watch be the villain for an entire season.”
As they’ve done before, the writing duo turned to the New York comedy scene to find the perfect match. Escola, who is best known for their cabaret work and charming appearances on Difficult People and At Home With Amy Sedaris is indeed a revelation as Chip, a gender-bending child of privilege who insists his biggest issue is that he “was given a few too many options growing up.”
“We knew that we love whenever Cole plays women and how much they embody these really strange flavor nuances in their female characters,” Rogers says. “We didn’t quite know how to justify it, but we knew that we wanted Cole to be a woman when they go into town. That was just like, ‘we’ll figure it out when we get there.’ We were friends with Cole already, and they are already so connected to our cast and the world of the show in general.”
Acting opposite of Escola is Search Party’s lead, Shawkat. Shawkat’s Dory has always been the central cog in executing each new genre that the show wants to explore. Season 4, however, demands the most emotional and physical investment out of the actress yet. Shawkat is shorn of her curly locks and asked to embody the fragile mental state of a persona not only literally imprisoned but also wracked with guilt and grief over the path her life has taken thus far.
“I remember going back onto set the first day and we had a particularly physical scene. (Shawkat) did an incredible job, and we were like, ‘Oh right, Alia is an incredible actress, great! We don’t have to worry about her at all,’” Bliss says.
Adds Bliss: “She’ll come into the writers’ room every now and then and poke her head in, to see where the story’s at and has really insightful thoughts and likes to understand the character as much as possible and get into the head of Dory and be right there deep into the psychology of it. I don’t know what more to say other than she’s incredible to work with for that reason.”
With seven episodes left to go, Shawkat, Escola, and Search Party itself have plenty more opportunities to pay homage to Misery, Silence of the Lambs, and more in crafting its vision of a “captive” drama. Stay tuned for further transmissions from the show’s superb fourth season.
Search Party season 4’s first three episodes are available to stream now on HBO Max.