Duplass Brothers Call HBO Anthology 'Room 104' the "Tinder of Television"

"It is sort of this space of infinite possibility," Jay Duplass says of the half-hour series' wide range of genres and stand-alone stories.
Courtesy of HBO

Most TV shows usually fall into one of two genres: a comedy or a drama. However, HBO's new anthology series Room 104 looks to defy that common perception by jumping genres from episode to episode.

"When you show up here, you literally don't know what you're going to get," co-creator, writer and exec producer Mark Duplass told reporters Wednesday at the Television Critics Association summer press tour. "It's kind of like the Russian roulette of television."

Premiering July 28, Room 104 tells the stories of different groups of people who at one point or another end up staying in the room at an American motel chain. Each half-hour episode tells a different story and features a different guest cast. The first season's stars will include Mae Whitman and James Van Der Beek, among others.

Made with his brother and longtime collaborator Jay Duplass, Room 104 marks their first live-action series since Togetherness was canceled in 2016 after two seasons. "That show got canceled, we got real sad and upset, and then we said, 'We have this new show, and we can make it really cheaply, but it's going to be a little wilder and a little bit more of a risk,'" Mark recalled.

Thankfully, the higher-ups at HBO had other projects to worry about. "To their credit, [HBO vp comedy] Steve Barker and [programming president] Casey Bloys said, 'You know what? We gotta figure out what our next Game of Thrones is going to be so you go ahead and make your show, but just make sure it's cheap.'"

That was just fine with the Duplass brothers, who said the small budget helped them get back to their indie filmmaking roots. "Quite frankly, I think we may have had too much money to make Togetherness," Mark said.

The sameness of that small motel room setting pushed the Duplass brothers to find other factors to make each episode distinct and different from the one before it. "We were looking for as much diversification as possible," Jay said.

That meant different genres, different guest cast and also inviting different directors. While the Duplass brothers directed every episode of Togetherness in addition to writing all of the series, neither of them stepped behind the camera on Room 104. "We've been interested in expanding the circle of collaborators," Mark said of the decision to hand out the directing duties to third parties. In an age where diversity behind the camera has become a bigger topic, it also helped them bring in new perspectives. "If we directed all the episodes, they would look all the same and it would get boring very quickly," he said.

Because each episode is a stand-alone story, the Duplass brothers said HBO gave them free rein on casting and "letting us cast people who aren’t normally represented on television," Mark said.

After the much more serialized Togetherness (the Duplass brothers also exec produce the animated comedy Animals on HBO), the idea of an anthology series specifically excited them because it allows new viewers to jump in whenever.

"In the era of peak TV where you guys have so much shit to watch, … we want Room 104 to be your casual dating experience," Mark said. "You pop in, you watch one episode, have some sex with that episode, and you don't even have to come back."

Jay tried to build on that analogy, dubbing Room 104 "the Tinder of television."

While the Duplass brothers initially thought the small setting would have limited their number of ideas and episodes, the opposite has been true thus far, with Mark floating the idea of a musical episode in season two. "It is sort of this space of infinite possibility," Jay said. "Literally anything can happen in a motel room."

Added Mark: "By HBO enabling us to make this weird stuff and be this weird Friday night show, … it doesn't have a ceiling on it, at least not yet."

Room 104 premieres Friday on HBO.

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