This past weekend, Room 104 returned for a second season on HBO, where the anthology series is somehow even more unpredictable despite remaining in its predictable setting, an utterly unremarkable hotel room that has already seen some sh*t. Brothers Mark and Jay Duplass have arrived with a fresh installment of surreal, suspenseful scenarios which dive in and out of various genres and prove that there’s no shortage of stories for this room to tell.
The second batch of such tales veers even further into strangeness. From an episode (“Swipe Right”) that stars Michael Shannon as a mysterious Russian who raps, to another (“Shark”) featuring Mahershala Ali as a hustler, to a musical installment (“Arnold”) starring Atlanta‘s Brian Tyree Henry, this season will take viewers places they’ve never been while never leaving the room’s unsettling confines.
Mark Duplass, who wrote roughly two-thirds of the season, spoke with us about the show’s risky methods and his hopes for the daring season finale.
You wanted to make this series for a good decade, and you told us that the first season was sort-of about unleashing what you and your brother were suppressing. Did you approach the second season differently?
That Room 104 is now a place where we get to tell a different kind of story, and that’s what’s still exciting to me about it. I think we’re leaning a little more into the strange and outlandish, and we’re having more fun with it. We’ve got this experimental place that HBO has given us, to play creatively and do what we want, and this is a kind-of once in a lifetime opportunity, we thought we’d just let loose a little bit with season 2.
You also called this the “the Tinder of the TV world” and now have a Michael Shannon-starring episode called “Swipe Right.” How did you get him to sign up to play a loverboy Russian with mad rap skills?
He was surprisingly excited to do it, and I think that part of what’s so great about this show is that, having been making movies for the past 15 years, there are so many people that I’ve wanted to work with and wanted to work with us. But it’s very hard to find 6-12 weeks to make a movie or TV series, but when you walk about doing a 25-minute episode over the course of 2-3 days, that really becomes something where all of the people that we wanted to work with could have a chance to do it. And that’s how we were able to make these episodes, with Michael Shannon and Mahershala Ali and Judy Greer and now my wife Katie Aselton, and Natalie Morales. These people are very, very busy, and when you tell them, “Hey, let’s go make a little one-act play in a hotel room for a couple of days,” you’ve got a much better chance of having them do it.
Much of the first-season buzz revolved around the episodes with elements of the supernatural, and while the second season is equally eerie and unsettling, the standout moments emphasize struggles within human connection. Was that intentional?
I don’t think that it was necessarily curated in that way. I will say that as wild as we want to get with some of the storylines — venturing into surreal, supernatural, sci-fi — at the core of it, I am who I am, and I’m mostly interested in human [interaction], so that stuff’s always gonna come through, especially while writing 9 out of the 12 episodes in season 2.
Even the “Artificial” episode, which was kind of a reverse Turing-test story, felt oddly human, even though it was about robots.
I attribute a lot of that to our director, Natalie Morales, who is just an amazing person, and to my wife, Katie Aselton, played the lead in it, and Sheaun McKinney as well. They’re just supreme human beings, and they have a great attention to the human condition, and we all wanted to make something with a heavy, sort-of speculative, sci-fi concept, ultimately, it felt very personal.