Slipping quietly out into the world in 2017 on HBO, Room 104’s first season got a bit lost between all the Game of Thrones and Westworld fervor that was going on at the time. The half-hour anthology series—birthed from the minds of the Duplass Brothers—takes place in a basic motel room, the titular Room 104. Every episode is different: different characters, tone, plot, genre, even different time periods. The room is a constant of sorts, but even there, each Room 104 is different, has a character of its own. Sometimes dingy and depressing, other times, brighter, more classy—but never that classy, it’s always still just a motel room. The show’s aim is to tell tales of everyday people, striving for connection and meaning inside a single room.
Whilst maybe not getting the best viewing figures (but possibly helping pull in a few more streaming subscribers), Room 104 is largely a hit with critics, which is difficult for a half-hour anthology show to pull off. The 20-25 minute episodes don’t have a lot of room for character development, for building tension, or drawn-out suspense. The old adage about short stories being harder to write is true for television too. Without familiar characters and existing viewer engagement to fall back on, making a 25-minute show set entirely in one room entertaining in any way is a huge challenge, yet one that the Duplass brothers seem to not only regularly excel at but actually revel in.
HBO has actually attempted this sort of thing before. In 1993 three half-hour episodes of Hotel Room aired, two of which were written by Barry Gifford and directed by David Lynch. Like Room 104, the only constant in the episodes was that it took place in a hotel room. In this case, number 603 of the New York City-based Railroad Hotel. The reception was not great, however, and no more episodes were made.
Produced by Duplass Brothers Productions, who have built careers from regularly churning out astonishingly high-quality movies and TV shows on a fraction of the normal budget, Room 104 has had comparisons to Black Mirror thrown at it, but the resemblance seems to relate to it being an anthology show and very little else. Most of the ideas are borne from the creative think-tank of the Duplasses and the other producers, with Mark Duplass writing a decent portion of the scripts and pulling in directors for each episode to develop things further.
This creative cohesion is possibly what gives Room 104 its consistent quality, although as an anthology show that isn’t scared to try things there are obviously episodes that work better than others. Unlike Black Mirror, if you get one that isn’t quite your thing, you only have 20 minutes or so to watch before you get another one that is probably closer to the mark. The better comparison to my mind would be to Inside No. 9, a British black comedy anthology that is more often than not set inside one room, or a house, always changing every time and playing with a multitude of styles and genres. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if this wasn’t at least part of the inspiration for Room 104.
Given the self-imposed restriction of having a motel room to set every episode in, it’s an impressive feat for a 12-episode show to feel so varied and continuously surprising, especially over multiple seasons. Season 1 for me was interesting, but overall felt a little unsure of itself, and too self-consciously focused on the fact that the story was in a motel room, rather than just on telling a story. Some episodes like opener “Ralphie” drew you in with good storytelling and a build-up of tension, but then ended clumsily and disappointingly. Others were merely quirky and fun, but the one standout of Season 1 for me was “The Knockadoo”, an intense 27 minutes that arguably managed to deliver the most fully-formed character of the season in Deborah (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris).
It was probably the strangest story in Season 1, and also the one with the most inconclusive ending, which I fully expect would make the episode one of those that some people love and some people hate. That is in fact one of the more impressive and enduring characteristics of Room 104: the refusal to play it safe, to take risks with the structure and form of the storytelling, and whilst that is inevitably going to produce episodes that some people just don’t like at all, is also the reason it produces episodes that will make some people laugh out loud, feel uneasy, or just be transfixed for 20 minutes. That these may be the same episode, only different viewers is very much the nature of anthology shows, but also a testament to the bravery of the show’s creative team.
Season 2 ramped up the intensity somewhat, seemed bolder, and a little more confident to experiment with story, ignoring the motel room setting more often than not. These are mostly stories that are set in a motel room but could just as easily be set somewhere else: a living room, a bar, a diner. Zeroing in on the characters rather than the setting plays to the traditional Duplass strengths, as was evident in the excellent and criminally under-watched show they had on HBO previously: Togetherness.
The first episode “FOMO” was, for me, the least interesting of the season—being surprisingly formulaic—and made me worried somewhat for the prospects of the second season, but thankfully it was followed by “Mr. Mulvahill”, which saw Rainn Wilson knocking it out of the park as a troubled man confronting his former teacher. The ending is so obviously not what you expect that it somewhat becomes what you do expect, but that doesn’t really affect the quality of the episode as a whole though.
Aside from “FOMO”, the overall quality of the season seemed much higher, and with increased acting firepower the delivery of the scripts is often much more convincing and absorbing. “Arnold” is a musical episode which I couldn’t help but love, in spite of my usual loathing of musical episodes, and this is in large part due to the skills of Brian Tyree Henry (Atlanta) playing the confused Arnold trying to piece together what happened the previous—somewhat drunken—evening.
Likewise, by far the most surreal episode of the season “Swipe Right” would probably not have been so delightfully enjoyable without Michael Shannon playing the odd and elusive Russian on a date with a baffled Judy Greer. Featuring Shannon at one point breaking into a rap with his bodyguards ripping off their pants and providing backing dancing, it makes no real sense, but it’s delicious crazy nonsense, and you owe it to yourself to watch the clip above, because even without the rest of the episode, you need this in your life.
The masterclass of the second season was “Shark”, written and directed by Mark Duplass, and being largely a dialogue between Mahershala Ali and James Earl III. It is an impeccable character study crammed into half an hour, and even if the rest of the episodes were uniformly mediocre would make the season worth the price of admission alone. Apparently Duplass and Ali are friendly but had never found time to do something together. Duplass told Ali, “Come up with a character you like and I’ll write you a story.” Ali did, and gave it to Duplass, who wrote an episode.
In an interview, Duplass said, “I wrote him a script overnight and sent it to him. He loved it, so I said, ‘Give me two days when you’re free in this three-month window and we’ll shoot it together in two days.’ He did. It was the perfect way for us to collaborate creatively together in a short time frame.”
It’s telling that I’m having to make a concerted effort to not talk about most of the second season episodes in one way or another, whereas that temptation is less prevalent with the first season. What is exciting is that Season 3 was filmed back-to-back with Season 2, to save money, so hopefully we’ll see the same consistent quality and bold storytelling in Season 3, which premieres Friday, September 13 on HBO, at 11 pm ET/PT. This time, we’ll be watching along here at 25YL, with articles on each episode dropping shortly after the episodes finish. Until then, perhaps we can get a sense of what Season 3 will bring us in the trailer.