It was a hostage situation like none other. The beginning of Search Party Season 4 finds Dory (Alia Shawkat) being held captive in a basement by her stalker Chip (Cole Escola). But it's not just any basement — the room is a recreation of her Brooklyn apartment in miniature made entirely out of felt, bringing new meaning to the idea of the "crafty" kidnapper.
For Search Party creators and executive producers Sarah-Violet Bliss and Charles Rogers, keeping Dory cooped up in a dingy dungeon was never part of the plan. "We've always tried to put the 'Search Party spin' on any idea that felt too familiar,” Bliss and Rogers say over email. “In that same regard, we knew we wanted Dory's torture chamber to be colorfully elevated.” The result is a twisted, kitschy take on hostage horror made possible through a singular vision and a feat of production design.
Bliss and Rogers initially liked the idea of Dory being held in a bizarre version of her own apartment. "The only problem with that is that she would have access to so many sharp tools and items that could facilitate her escape," they note. "We needed to make sure she had nothing helpful at her disposal, and knowing that Chip had a penchant for doll making, it made sense that he'd be a felt expert, as well.”
The kitchen area. (Courtesy of HBO Max)
Dory is horrified to discover there is no detail too small to be recreated in felt, from the fake contents of her medicine cabinet to the fluffy suds of "water" from the shower she's unable to take.
A very unhelpful shower. (Courtesy of HBO Max)
The basement also serves as character development for Chip, acting as a twisted calling card for his talents. “Ultimately, Aunt Lylah has a line upon discovering the felt apartment that Chip could have been a very talented artist. And that is true," Bliss and Rogers say. "Chip is undoubtedly some kind of genius on some level for having the will to construct so much insanity and push another person through it like a spiritual haunted house.”
Actually constructing the basement was easier said than done for production. Midway through its creation, the art department — production designer Danica Pantic, art director Cara Alpert, and set decorator Casey Adams — discovered the soundstage would not have the right dimensions for the apartment to be the same size as the original. The felt apartment's dimensions were forced to shrink down slightly, and the terrors expanded for Bliss and Rogers in an unexpected way.
“A lot of big felt furniture and pieces that had started to pile up in our offices weren't going to fit in Dory's felt chamber, and they just kind of became the set dressing for the Search Party office space. It was like we were living in Dory's felt apartment, as well."
Ultimately, the felt apartment became a creative engine for the season in its own right, setting a new bar for Season 4’s twists.
“As this season started to come together, we realized that things were getting a little campier and louder, and that was either something to fight against or just fully embrace as the natural escalation of the show's tone. So, once we settled on the felt apartment, we thought that Elliott and Portia's apartment should get a louder makeover, and that everyone ends up wearing a wig or costume or has an alternate persona this season as a way of keeping that throughline going. It all ended up being this season's aesthetic.”
Whether it was the felt cheese graters in the felt dish rack, the pipe-cleaner plants, or the titles on the book spines behind Dory’s “couch,” the level of detail is simultaneously adorable and chilling.
“I've read comments about this season where people say we don't explain how she goes to the bathroom or showers — and for the record, if you look hard enough, the answers to those questions are there. There's a felt toilet lid with a hole in it on the ground and there's a bunch of body wipes in the bathroom," Bliss and Rogers say. "Did we say it was a good solution? No. But it's the best Chip could come up with."