Have you heard of Room 104? It’s alright if you haven’t. The brainchild of brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (The Skeleton Twins, Duck Butter), it premiered on HBO last year somewhere between Game of Thrones and Westworld and, like many things, it got a little lost in the shuffle.
It’s returning this week, however, and it’s time to sit up and take notice. The anthology series is finally hitting its stride in its sophomore season, growing beyond a cool storytelling conceit into a star-studded, artistically prestigious endeavor.
The premise of Room 104 is simple — each half-hour episode tells a unique story with unique characters. The only commonality is the eponymous motel room that serves as the show’s sole setting. It’s a setup rife with possibilities, a virtual black box theater for character-driven storytelling.
But the first season doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the format. The episodes are competent, they’re polished, and they’re mostly fun, but there’s a certain immaturity, in content and in delivery. Specters of the past abound, as do split personalities, unprompted bouts of violence, and ambiguities that are just a little too ambiguous to work.
Our Valerie Ettenhofer, who reviewed the show last season, declared the best episode to be “The Knockandoo,” and I have to say I agree. A very intense half hour driven almost entirely by monologue, the episode reached far beyond the show’s usual themes into sexual abuse, trauma, and male power… or at least I think it did. Because while “The Knockandoo” is the most rewarding episode of the first season, it’s also probably the hardest to interpret. And the weirdest.
This new season has taken its cue from this episode in terms of weirdness, and it’s an excellent decision. While there’s nothing quite like the whack-a-mole penises of “The Knockandoo,” the general vibe is much more out there, much more complex. It’s at once more chaotic and more focused. The risks are greater, and the goals loftier, but more often than not the payoff is worth it. The second episode, “Mr. Mulvahill,” sets the tone especially well with its dreamlike balance between the painfully real and the ethereally bizarre.
It doesn’t hurt that it’s carried beautifully by Rainn Wilson.
That’s another sign that Room 104 is taking itself more seriously — the stars are much bigger. Along with Wilson, this season boasts the likes of Mahershala Ali, Brian Tyree Henry, Michael Shannon, and Natalie Morales, none onscreen for more than a single episode.
With what is clearly a bigger budget and heavier clout, the show spreads its wings creatively, pushing the limits of what can be considered inside a motel room, sometimes realizing characters’ imaginations and recreating people and places that exist only in their minds. The room is forever present, though, and a stray pillow or lamp will poke into frame to remind you of the limits of the setting. It works more often than it doesn’t, and the creative reward (one such episode is, inexplicably but wonderfully, also a musical) is well worth the stretch.
But these artistic stretches are integrated well, and not overused. There are some truly odd moments. (You’re going to see two actors you know very well singing and/or rapping. It’s not going to happen as you expect). But just as prevalent are the realistic, purely human moments that draw heavily on the motel room setting. These two types of moment co-mingle and co-exist, each coming on with so little warning that it’s never clear at the onset which way an episode is going to go.
Sometimes it’s not clear for a long time, and half the fun is in figuring out what kind of rabbit hole you’re being led down.
Not every episode is a slam dunk. Room 104 is an anthology, and almost by definition, it bears inconsistencies. Some episodes are raw and intense. Some are bizarre in the best way. Some are bizarre in an okay way. Some are downright tepid. It’s a virtual grab bag, but the hits of this year are stronger and more numerous than the hits of last year, and the highs are as varied as a woman’s frank and brutal argument with herself about her past, a stunningly non-sequitur rap performance, and a home movie of the most realistic, pragmatic, monogamous sex you’re ever going to see.
That’s the reward of the anthology format, and it’s well worth a couple of duds along the way.
Room 104 premieres Friday, November 9th at 11:30 pm ET/PT on HBO with two back-to-back episodes: “FOMO” and “Mr. Mulvahill.”