Room 104 — as in the actual hotel room — is thoroughly unremarkable. It has two beds, a small table, a TV, and a bathroom. If it looks a little on the cheap side (other than an oversized vanity next to the bathroom), it also looks like a place where many kinds of guests would be comfortable enough spending a night or three.
Room 104 — as in the new HBO drama created by brothers Mark and Jay Duplass (Togetherness) — stands out far more than the room in which every episode takes place. A traditional Twilight Zone or Black Mirror-style anthology drama (as opposed to more recent seasonal anthology shows like American Horror Story and True Detective), it features new characters, stories, and even genres each week, with the confined space of the room as its only constant.
The fixed, modest location would seem to limit what kind of show can be, but the Duplass brothers (who wrote many of the episodes, alone or together, but didn’t direct any in a rarity for their careers) turn that limitation into a feature, not a bug. The very anonymity of the room means it can be anything: the setting for a horror story of a babysitting job gone awry in the opening installment, or an improvised MMA arena for two female fighters preparing for a bout, or the stage for a wordless ballet between a jaded housekeeper and a younger guest. Sometimes, it’s just a hotel room, like the simple story of an elderly couple celebrating their anniversary in the place where they honeymooned 56 years ago. But had that story suddenly revealed the husband and wife to be alien invaders, it wouldn’t have felt wrong for all that Room 104 can be.
Because there’s no continuity from episode to episode — the first of which airs Friday night at 11:30 — HBO was able to send critics a random sampling of six episodes from across the season: the first, third, fifth, sixth, eleventh, and twelfth. They can be watched in any order, but that modular versatility comes with a cost.
TV mostly got out of the episode anthology business by the end of the ’60s in part because research showed that viewers liked following the same characters and stories from one week to the next. And those shows were at least consistent in terms of genre and tone; you knew what kind of story Alfred Hitchcock Presents was going to give you every week, if not the specific details. With Room 104, you never know quite what it’s going to be. My podcast partner Brian Grubb has no appetite for horror and was turned off by the babysitting episode. A viewer who enjoys the grimy intensity of the MMA story might run out of patience for the episode that’s largely a panicked phone call in 1997 from a novelist (Karan Soni) trying desperately to explain to his immigrant mother how to email him the manuscript he accidentally left at home.
I’m less horror-averse than Brian, but the first couple of screeners — both the babysitter story and one about a woman (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) participating in a ritual for a Scientology-esque religious cult — turned me off because they ended abruptly right as their stories really seemed to be getting to the point. They were both interesting but thin. Then for curiosity’s sake — since an anthology show by design lends itself well to “It gets good by episode XX” even more than a serialized show — I tried the phone call episode, which ultimately proved to be both more uncomfortable (I’ve been the guy on the phone trying to talk older relatives though seemingly basic computer techniques) and more emotionally satisfying. That was enough to keep me going through the rest, and the ballet story (it will air sixth overall) wound up being one of the best, most distinctive episodes of TV I’ve seen all year. Written and directed by Dayna Hanson, it takes its time revealing the link between the housekeeper (Dendrie Taylor) and the guest (Sarah Hay), turning the simple hotel room into the space for a complicated, stunning, self-explanatory dance routine.
Though HBO canceled Togetherness after only two seasons, the Duplass brothers maintain a strong relationship with HBO executives, who seem willing to give them the freedom to experiment within certain budgetary limits, often (see also the animated comedy Animals) in an out-of-the-way Friday timeslot. Between the single set and the scale of the cast — the most recognizable actors in the screeners were Soni (the cab driver from Deadpool), Orlando Jones as the cult priest performing the ritual, and Philip Baker Hall delivering a heartbreaking turn as the man revisiting his honeymoon spot — the show can’t cost very much, and as we’ve seen with Louie and other recent auteur series, when the price goes down, the creative possibilities can go way up.
Inconsistency is baked into the DNA of this kind of anthology, even when the subject matter varies much less than it does here. There are Black Mirror episodes that don’t work at all, but when you get to something like the metaphysical romance “San Junipero,” and earlier struggles seem worth it for that payoff. (Similarly, I didn’t love most of HBO’s other Friday anthology show High Maintenance, but the episode told from the dog’s POV was fantastic.) Not every Room 104 story worked for me, but I’m glad I kept going long enough to make it to the dance episode, and the best ones were so powerful that I’ll happily gamble a half-hour at a time on the others. This one simple hotel room can become anything, and when it turns into just the right thing, look out.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org