The mania for season-to-season anthologies hasn’t resulted in quite the same appetite for the episode-to-episode anthologies that used to be the medium’s bread-and-butter. HBO’s new half-hour series Room 104 feels almost experimental and new, even though its premise is the most basic and traditional of film school exercises: Tell a single story within the confines of a single motel room.
It’s a lesson in creative use of space (it’s one room, plus a bathroom, maybe with a closet or two), elapsed time (guests rarely stay in a room more than a couple of nights) and set decoration (finite furniture, but ample redressing possibilities).
Created by Jay and Mark Duplass, who seem to have fairly free rein from HBO within a certain minuscule budget and if they’re OK with airing at 11:30 p.m., Room 104 really does have the feeling of a student film anthology in many of the best ways possible. It’s a series with few rules and few real restrictions, and with running times of under 30 minutes, even an episode with a questionable creative conceit is over before it can really grate.
The eponymous setting is described as “a single room of an average American motel” and indeed, its exact location is mostly irrelevant and the quality of accommodation seems fungible from week to week, director to director. It’s just two beds, a small table and a vanity area. In one episode, characters refer to having stayed in the room 56 years earlier, so that’s its age, but depending on whose eyes the room is shot through, it can appear comfortable and average or it can reek of practically pay-by-the-hour desperation.
Unlike something like the anthology film Four Rooms, Room 104 has no connective tissue binding its various entries. Although Mark wrote many of the episodes, the brothers didn’t co-direct anything here and whether the tone and style of their past work is an inducement or deterrent to you as a viewer, Room 104 doesn’t feel like a Duplass brothers film. The six episodes sent to critics, celebrating a diverse assortment of either lesser-known or lesser-known-to-TV directors, aren’t bound by genre or form, and they’re mostly pretty good.
The show’s premiere episode, “Ralphie,” is either a horror movie or an internalized nightmare. A babysitter (Melonie Diaz) arrives to watch a small boy for the evening and learns that, locked in the bathroom, is either the child’s evil twin or something even stranger. It has the plausible tone of an urban legend and, with the bathroom closed off, forces helmer Sarah Adina Smith to work in an even smaller space. It’s creepy, weird and sticks with you.
Smith also directs the differently unsettling, somewhat less bracingly satisfying “The Knockadoo,” which features the compelling Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as a woman who is taking the last steps toward enlightenment with the emissary (Orlando Jones) of a strange religious cult, only to discover that opening herself up to her new faith might have unexpected consequences.
Don’t think, though, that Room 104 is a horror anthology. “Voyeurs,” from writer-director Dayna Hanson, starts with a cleaning lady’s (Dendrie Taylor) curiosity about a dirty room and the clues pointing to the lives of its prior occupants, but becomes a literal dance of obsession with Sarah Hay (proving more alluring in 20 minutes than in the entirety of the Starz ballet miniseries Flesh and Bone). “Voyeurs” is dialogue-free, in contrast to “The Internet,” directed by veteran cinematographer Doug Emmett. Set in 1997, an aspiring novelist (Karan Soni) spends the episode on the phone trying to talk his mom through emailing him a copy of his manuscript, a non-stop and ultimately revelatory conversation. “The Fight,” directed by Megan Griffiths, somehow turns the room into a ring for an impromptu battle for pride between two gutty MMA fighters, and then the episode the following week is a meditation on love and pain and the passing of time driven by a beautiful turn by Philip Baker Hall.
The intricate choreography of both “Voyeurs” and “The Fight” prove how few limitations the space presents in the right hands, while Hoffman and Luqmaan-Harris‘ performances showcase the advantages of the space’s intimacy. “Ralphie” illustrates how the structure can be used for no-fat, effective storytelling, and there are hints, here and there, of how a budget-conscious motel like this can be used for critiques of race and class. Room 104 has a fertile format, and I think the Duplass brothers and their creative team are only beginning to tap its potential.
Cast: Hugo Armstrong, Davie-Blue, Melonie Diaz, Jay Duplass, Veronica Falcon, Adam Foster, Ellen Geer, Keir Gilchrist, Philip Baker Hall, Sarah Hay, Poorna Jagannathan, Orlando Jones, Ethan & Gavin Kent, Amy Landecker, Konstantin Lavysh, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Keta Meggett, Natalie Morgan, Ross Partridge, Karan Soni, Dendrie Taylor, Tony Todd, Will Tranfo, James Van Der Beek, Mae Whitman, Nat Wolff
Creators: Mark and Jay Duplass
Directors: Anna Boden & Ryan Fleck, Patrick Brice, Marta Cunningham, Doug Emmett, Megan Griffiths, Dayna Hanson, Chad Hartigan, Ross Partridge, Sarah Adina Smith, So Yong Kim
Premieres: Friday, July 28, 11:30 p.m. ET/PT (HBO)