For some viewers, HBO’s Room 104 — a recent half-hour anthology drama from the Duplass brothers, the folks behind HBO’s Togetherness and many, many indie films — will be like nails on a chalkboard. The stories will feel too small and intimate, or too weird, since the indicate veers wildly from interpersonal drama to genre fun. The indicate’s single setting — a hotel room in an unnamed hotel in an unnamed city — will feel too claustrophobic. They’ll wonder why the only thing that connects one episode to the next is that one hotel room.
But for some viewers, myself included, Room 104 will be an often thrilling search for at what TV can be when it looks to its past and finds ways to update outmoded formats for the future.
It’s not the best recent indicate of the year or anything — anthology dramas are, by their very nature, too hit and miss to win any sort of consistency game. But the hits rise to sublime heights, and even the misses are intriguing on the level of, “I can see what they were going for here.”
Most importantly, Room 104 feels like a prediction of where TV might be headed in the next several years. As serialization takes over and becomes the bland, boring default, a tough snap back to standalone episodic content is on the way.
First, though, let me order you what this thing actually is.
The only regular character in Room 104 is in the title
In our contemporary age, “anthology drama” often means “anthological miniseries” — a indicate like American Horror myth or factual Detective that tries to capture a consistent vibe or tone or genre, even as each season features a recent myth and characters. (The first season of FX’s American Crime myth focused on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, for instance, while the next installment will concern the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace.)
But classic anthology dramas — deem shows like The Twilight Zone — changed up their subject matter, characters, and even genres from episode to episode. The only connective tissue was the belief that you were, say, entering the Twilight Zone, where weird things could happen. Beyond that, the sky was the limit.
There was a pretty substantial problem with this format, however, one that made it increasingly expensive to produce: Each and every episode required recent actors and recent sets and recent costumes and on and on. In the early days of television, that was fairly easy to manage, because studio backlots had a lot more standing sets. whether The Twilight Zone wanted to enact a Western episode, well, there were plenty of “Western town” sets around Los Angeles. Now, that’s less and less factual.
I beget no belief whether sign and Jay Duplass (the creators of Room 104) knew they were solving this problem when they created Room 104, or whether they just solved it by accident, but by setting total of the indicate’s stories in the same hotel room, they remove any need for wild setting shifts. They beget one set, which can be dressed to reflect a variety of different time periods, and total they beget to enact is bring their actors into that space and turn them loose.
Even better, they’re using that basic framework to support up-and-coming directors and performers, quite than just hiring a bunch of their famed, renowned Hollywood pals. The brothers beget long been supportive of emerging Hollywood talent, and that penchant is fully on display in Room 104. sign Duplass wrote several episodes, and Jay Duplass stars in one. But the brothers didn’t direct any episodes, instead choosing to turn them over to a variety of promising newcomers, who establish their own spins on each myth.
Similarly, while you’ll recognize handful of the series’ actors (mostly of the “character actor” variety, like Orlando Jones and consummate “hey, it’s that guy!” Philip Baker corridor), Room 104’s players tend to be grand actors you likely haven’t seen in other projects.
It’s easy to suppose, to assume how this experiment might beget failed. After total, confining every episode to the exact same space — we never even see what’s just external the room’s door — could beget resulted in a late, stultifying series that feels trapped by its own self-imposed constrictions. And there are certainly episodes that strain against these bonds, just a bit. But for the most fraction, the restrictions prove remarkably freeing.
Room 104 can enact things no other TV indicate can enact
I’ve described lots and lots of TV shows like “no other indicate on TV.” But the more times I’ve said it — and meant it — the more I’ve realized that it’s not really total that tough to smash recent ground in a TV universe where appealing to an ultra-specific niche of TV critics and the readers who follow them faithfully can derive you a four- or five-season speed. What I’m drawn to, increasingly, are programs that don’t speed absent from what TV does well, or what it’s always been, but speed toward it, then figure out ways to innovate within those restrictions.
So I won’t say that Room 104 looks like no other indicate on TV, because, well, Black Mirror (similarly varied in its approach) is right there on Netflix, and in the early ‘90s, HBO broadcast a very similar miniseries named Hotel Room from David Lynch. (There, the employees of the hotel remained the same across several decades of time, but the room’s occupants changed. Here, we barely see the hotel’s staff.) But the things Room 104 finds to enact that are innovative feel total the more thrilling for how eerie it seems that they’re happening in a standard hotel room.
By this I mean that the Duplasses rightly note that the confines of just such a room are one of those public spaces that collapse the usual boundaries we expend to sort people. Gender, race, sexuality, lesson, course, age, religion, and other signifiers plunge by the wayside whether you’re able to rent a nice-but-not-that-nice hotel room, and that allows Room 104 to play host to everyone from beleaguered babysitters to MMA fighters just scraping by and hoping to derive a substantial payout to an elderly couple celebrating over 50 years of marriage.
Not every myth has to be for everyone, and not every myth even has to work, because the very next week will bring something entirely recent. And in the democratizing space of the hotel room, everything collapses in on itself. total of these characters, no matter how different, sleep in the same bed at the finish of the night.
Intriguingly, the indicate’s creative personnel also expend this belief to play with genre. The Duplasses are known for their appreciate of tiny, intimate stories approximately emotional turmoil, often among couples. But they’ve got a weirder, wilder streak as well, as evidenced in some of their features (including the pseudo-slasher film Baghead and the sci-fi drama The One I appreciate, which they produced). Thus, Room 104 dips into outright horror a couple of times, as well as sad comedy and even an honest-to-God sports film (yes, confined to a single hotel room).
And in the series’ most unexpected installment — “Voyeurs,” airing September 1 and written and directed by Dayna Hanson — the indicate becomes, for 25 minutes, a ballet, approximately a housekeeper cleaning the room while imagining the life of its current guest, before things catch a turn and the audience slowly realizes just where her flights of fancy are turning. There is one line of dialogue — “Housekeeping!” — and then an entire episode told via dance. Where else are you going to see that?
We’ve lived through a Golden Age of Television and then a Platinum Age of Television and then an era of Peak TV, largely defined by the belief that “serialization” equals “complexity.” But that’s a totally arbitrary distinction, and you can point to any number of silly, heavily serialized shows that challenge it.
I would hesitate to say Room 104 totally shatters that belief — at least one of the episodes is so messy I can’t fairly get sense of it — but it’s a breath of fresh air nonetheless. Imagine stumbling upon two women dancing an elaborate tale of sorrow and loss, no dialogue, just music and movement, late on a Friday night, and being captivated by it. Room 104 captures that feeling only sporadically, but that it does at total makes me hopeful, both for it and for television’s future.
Room 104 airs Fridays on HBO at 11:30 pm Eastern.