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Search Party - The Girl in the Basement/Something Sharp/Escape to Nowhere - Review

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Over the course of its small-screen life, the constantly genre-bending comedy “Search Party” has been a millennial mystery, a psychological thriller, and a courtroom drama. In season four – which premiered last week on HBO Max with “The Girl in the Basement,” “Something Sharp,” and “Escape to Nowhere” – the series mixes tones once again, going both “Misery” and meta on us.

When we left her last year, Dory (Alia Shawkat) – having alienated her friends with her sociopathic handling of her murder trial – was being ambushed by her obsessed stalker Chip (Cole Escola). Waking up as “The Girl in the Basement,” she finds herself shackled and shaved (“I needed your hair to make my Dory doll’s hair more authentic,” Chip offers as way of explanation for her new look), as was chillingly teased in the season three finale. But it’s almost more horrifying when, one glass of knockout water later, she wakes up again, this time in a padded cell that’s an eerie replication of her apartment. “This is a better version of your life,” Chip explains, laying out his thesis that Dory has been dragged down by her awful friends and that only he, her “best friend,” can save her. Dory makes a valiant effort to escape, but doesn’t make it far before she runs into a steel door with a coded lock. So for now, Dory is forced to acquiesce and play Chip’s game. Chip is both kinda ridiculous (his grooving along to Deee-Lite’s “Groove Is in the Heart” on the car radio, all the while Dory is in the trunk, was hilarious), but also believably scary, so props to Escola for threading the needle well. And Shawkat does a great job tapping into Dory’s dark ability to code switch and survive, even if she’s thwarted at this point.

Back at home, Portia (Meredith Hagner) and Elliott (John Early) have decided to throw Dory an acquittal celebration, never mind that Dory isn’t answering any of their calls or texts, and that they’re both kinda unhappy with her. When they drag Drew (John Reynolds) away from the equally inappropriate congratulatory meal he’s enduring with his Midwestern family, they find a letter from “Dory” in the apartment basically dumping them and making excuses for her absence/silence (and sidebar – I giggled every time Elliott mocked “Dory” referring to them as “the gang” in the letter). The three then get super drunk, detail the ways Dory has messed up their lives, share an odd yet kinda hot triple kiss, and then leave Dory a nasty message, of course completely unaware of what she’s enduring. 

And after a savage cut early in “Something Sharp” – where the sticker she places on her cell door from her daily apple multiples by dozens – we see it has been going on a while. While Chip mocks up pictures to post to her social media to keep up the lie that she’s finding herself in Europe, Dory’s going slowly insane in her padded prison. She’s so desperate for company that, when Chip presents her with doll versions of her friends to berate, she’s instead overjoyed to see them, even in inanimate form. And because he’s been feeding her the exact same meal every day, she ends up soiling herself, which forces Chip to take her upstairs to shower (...which, eek, means he hasn’t let her bathe this whole time), revealing that he’s been holding her in the basement of his aunt’s house. Dory’s nearly at her wits’ end when a chicken bone from Chip’s new culinary offering presents her with the titular object, and fresh hope.

Meanwhile, “the gang” have been moving on with their lives in on-brand ways. Drew has literally fled from reality by taking a job at a fairy-tale themed amusement park he loved as a child, but since he’s keeping his true identity a secret, that balloon of happiness will surely pop soon. Elliott is asked to switch teams politically to stay employed at his cable news network job and, unsurprisingly, sells out his beliefs with barely any hesitation. And most interestingly, Portia shows up at a casting session seeking the part of...herself, in a movie based on the trial. Amusingly, the producers decide they want to stunt cast her as Dory instead. Portia makes a token effort at this point to contact Dory and ask her permission, but otherwise, it seems like her friends don’t miss having Dory in their lives as much as she misses them.

And “Escape to Nowhere” finds them still escaping into their new status quos. Elliot almost aggressively embraces his new professional/public identity as a self-hating gay conservative, lapping up the notoriety. Drew panics when his new lady love finds out about his past, but after she shares a sordid backstory of her own, they bond over choosing their theme park workplace as a “chance to be happy.” And Portia is literally stepping into Dory’s shoes during a costume fitting, though she is somewhat uncomfortable with the cinematic liberties the movie is taking with something she and her friends really went through. “Don’t you wanna honor us,” she asks the completely disinterested director (played beautifully by Tami Sagher, who I recognized from season three of “GLOW”), “we really were real people.” But for now, she’s not ready to walk away.

Attempting to get away, though, is Dory. She contrives a way back upstairs and then, with the help of her sharp object, escapes the house through a bathroom window. Dory gets one stroke of luck when a noisy neighbor (personified by TV royalty Ann Dowd) distracts Chip from giving chase. But otherwise, it goes pretty bad. She’s forced to flee into the snowy woods barefoot and wearing a ball gown straight out of Krystle Carrington’s wardrobe. The shelter she stumbles upon is abandoned, doesn’t have a working phone. And when she finally flags down a ride, her notoriety ends up being her undoing when it distracts the driver, resulting in a crash that puts her back in Chip’s clutches.

But hope is not lost. Because Drew sneaks a peek at Dory’s social media and is immediately suspicious of one of the faked pictures Chip posted. And accosted outside of work by his wedding planners from last season, Elliott is stunned to learn that Dory’s twink stalker did not die after all. So it seems like “the gang” might soon get to work (heh) finding Dory.

So that’s the first chunk of “Search Party’s” fourth season. What did you think of the genre swerves the show went for this year? And which episode worked the best for you – “The Girl in the Basement,” “Something Sharp,” or “Escape to Nowhere?” Please share your thoughts in the comments section.

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