‘Room 104’ Takes TV Anthology to New Places

The Duplass Brothers’ foray into TV anthology subverts expectations in more ways than one.
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By  · Published on August 23rd, 2017

The Duplass Brothers’ foray into TV anthology subverts expectations in more ways than one.

Motel rooms aren’t memorable. They’re places of rest and restlessness, transitionary locations whose creepiest feature is usually their dubiously washed sheets. Yet in the hands of the Duplass brothers, who have a knack for making small moments surprising, this often-forgettable pit stop becomes a roadside purgatory overflowing with lost souls and weirdos. Room 104 is the latest outing from Duplass Brothers Productions, and because of its uncommon format and premise, possibly their most ambitious. Although the indie icons have tackled mind-bending high concepts in the past with films like The One I Love and Safety Not Guaranteed, Mark and Jay Duplass have never stretched the limits of genre and story quite as far as they do in Room 104.

The series, which debuted on HBO in July, is neither the first nor the best unsettling TV anthology, but it’s still a breath of creative fresh air compared to pulpier cable counterparts like American Horror Story. Each episode is structured around the increasingly tense events of different nights inside the titular roadside motel room, though the first four have varied in tone and depth. Some are structured like straightforward horror stories, while others unfold more internally, building to a point of inevitable catharsis.

Each so far has had some element of strangeness–doubles, hauntings, cults, and changeovers–but unlike familiar hotel-set stories like The Shining, the strangeness is thoroughly human. Yes, a woman’s disturbing story causes an electrical surge and a man manifests the likeness of his dead best friend, but without its special guests, the hotel room itself holds no magic. The camera never looks beyond the room’s confines and rarely lingers on the details of the space itself, instead staying focused on the faces and bodies of the emotionally stranded people captured between its four walls. For better or worse, the Duplass brothers seem to be saying over and over again in new ways, life is strange.

Room 104 adheres to a half-hour format. It’s an unusual choice for a non-comedy on a network known for prestige TV, but also one that that plays to the series’ strengths. By harkening back to the standards of creep-out classics like The Twilight Zone and Tales From the Darkside, Room 104 sets a clear, if impractically high goal: to deliver a story that’s self-contained, provocative, and has room to hit many beats, all within 30 minutes. Its commitment to form lends the show an old-school sensibility that’s in direct contrast to the supersized episodes and multi-hour blockbusters that have become the norm.

Some episodes pull this balancing act off better than others. The pilot, about an unsuspecting babysitter (Melonie Diaz) who is put in charge of a boy named Ralph (Ethan Kent) and his imaginary enemy Ralphie, builds tension in a masterful way but settles for an underwhelming, cliched conclusion. The situation co-opts the horror formula that another Duplass Productions film, Creep, toyed with more successfully: a seemingly innocuous encounter between two strangers grows increasingly upsetting and threatening, with a tenuous sense of trust that’s broken down and rebuilt until it ends with an episode of sudden, perhaps easily avoidable violence. But where Creep felt lightly subversive and genuinely scary, “Ralphie” is generic and, when compared to a lineup of enthralling later episodes, a strange choice for a pilot.

Then there’s “The Knockadoo,” a Southern Gothic-tinged episode that somehow evokes the works of both Stephen King and Toni Morrison. Like other episodes, this is an intense, dialogue-heavy 30 minutes, but it’s also the first episode to transcend the novelty of the show’s conceit, doing more than just providing an answer to the series’ thin central question: what happens in motel rooms when we’re not in them? Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris stars as a woman preparing for a cult ritual with cautious excitement, while Orlando Jones is the cult priest who perfunctorily pushes her toward transcendence.

Luqmaan-Harris is a revelation, delivering a startling emotional monologue (the first episode with a non-Duplass writing credit, “Knockadoo” is written by Carson Mell) about her character’s childhood with the finesse of a seasoned actress. A single shot focused on her speaking with closed eyes asks audiences to shift through a dozen mini-emotions, including embarrassment, intrigue, nostalgia, confusion, and terror. Establishing a genuine connection to characters you’re not meant to know for more than a half hour can be tricky, but Room 104 has pulled it off. This sequence alone feels more measured and more impressive in its restraint than any anthology series this side of Black Mirror.

Room 104 is establishing itself as a show with an episode for everyone, which inevitably means that not every episode is for everyone. Still, the acting and casting are consistently excellent–Philip Baker Hall, Keir Gilchrist, and Mae Whitman are all stopping by later this season, while Jay Duplass did some great emotional heavy lifting in last week’s episode. Plus, the show has already done the impossible at least once; it’s convinced us to consider viewing our motel rooms not as habitually dissatisfying places to sleep but, as the tagline says, as one room with endless possibilities.

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Valerie Ettenhofer is a Los Angeles-based freelance writer, TV-lover, and mac and cheese enthusiast. As a Senior Contributor at Film School Rejects, she covers television through regular reviews and her recurring column, Episodes. She is also a voting member of the Critics Choice Association's television and documentary branches. Twitter: @aandeandval (She/her)