Room 104: A new HBO anthology series that is mind-bending
We're not given much background before being dropped into the first episode of the new HBO show Room 104. Neon letters flash against a cloudy grey sky, upbeat yet slightly eerie music plays, and then we're inside a motel room.
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Room 104, the latest project of Duplass Brothers Productions, follows a recent trend of anthology shows that introduce new characters and scenarios each season or each episode, while also setting itself the challenge that every episode will take place in the same room. In so doing, it shows us the limits of the anthology format, but also the potential it holds to pick apart the structures of more traditional television.
Television anthology series dramas were prevalent in the 1950s and '60s, but have been rare since then. In the last few years, though, the format has been making a comeback. Compare the reception of the NBC anthology drama Fear Itself (2008)—which was unceremoniously cancelled after two seasons—to that of American Horror Story (2011), whose episodes are regularly watched by over three million viewers, or Black Mirror (2011), which was picked up by Netflix in 2015 after its first two seasons.
The rise in anthology series has been coupled with a rise in two real-life behaviors—technology use and social isolation. Our loneliness as a species appears to be increasing, with one study finding that between 1985 and 2006, the number of people who felt they had no one to discuss important issues with nearly tripled. Studies have linked increased use of social media to loneliness—possibly because lonely people go online more in an effort to combat feelings of isolation, or because interacting with people online can actually make us lonelier. Whatever the case, technology use is definitely increasing. Since 2013, online dating among young adults has nearly tripled, and overall time spent on mobile devices has increased by about a third.
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Many anthology shows incorporate these themes into their premises. American Horror Story, though in many ways part of the traditional horror genre, takes just as much interest in the ways close interpersonal relationships can be horrific. Black Mirror, which focuses explicitly on the terrors advanced technology can wield, is equally as interested in how the Internet shapes our interactions with both friends and strangers.
In a world of increasing social isolation and technological advancements, perhaps it's not surprising that shows that don't rely on a deep familiarity with specific characters are also gaining prevalence. Rather than getting to know characters as friends, anthology shows allow us to pass them in a single episode or season as strangers, knowing that we won't get to see any more of their story once that time limit is up. But Room 104 is perhaps the first of such shows to focus so explicitly on the potential meaning to be derived from encounters between strangers.
Even when Room 104's characters aren't unknown to each other, the format ensures that they will be strangers to us. The show's premise is that each episode takes place in the same motel room, but everything else—the genre, characters, and plot—changes each episode. The structure allows for an extremely broad range of thematic and structural experimentation, including episodes in which the room seems to be supernatural or haunted, an episode in which a major character is just a voice on the telephone, and an episode told entirely through dance. Since Room 104 isn't tied down to including any of the same situations or characters from episode to episode, it can take risks that more traditional shows can't.
One half-hour scene in a single room isn't much time to get to know someone, and Room 104 banks on the fact that viewers, like its characters, will take these fleeting chance encounters to have deeper meaning than they would usually be assigned. The show ranges in genre from romance to crime drama, but generally hovers somewhere in the psychological thriller range. Hardly a beat goes by without a long gaze, significant gesture, or weighty silence passing between characters, and most episodes have a reveal or turn of some sort. This is often effective, as in the show's first two episodes, "Ralphie" and "Pizza Boy," which both have genuinely unsettling moments. At other times, the technique falls flat, leaving the trappings of a twist-filled emotional drama with none of the substance.
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This is especially true in the show's fourth episode, "I Knew You Weren't Dead," which is premised on a middle-aged man named Daniel (Jay Duplass) whose friend Patrick (Will Tranfo) unexpectedly shows up at his hotel room, even though Patrick died when they were in their twenties. Daniel is given a hastily sketched emotional conflict—he cheated on his wife, who won't forgive him, and he desperately wants her to take him back—to serve as the backdrop for the real meat of the episode, which revolves around his guilt over his friend's death.
The episode isn't interested in specifying the situation beyond the general idea of a man who believes he can see his dead friend, and it comes at the cost of much of the consistency and believability of Daniel's character. What we know of the characters and the situation is nonspecific and trope-filled, and Daniel's reactions to Patrick fluctuate wildly from moment to moment, as the episode swings between horror, buddy comedy, and epic emotional drama. In a show that already gives little time to get to know its subjects and understand what they're dealing with, characters who lack coherence become all the more difficult to engage with. It's easy to feel sorry for Daniel as a stranger, but not to identify with him—the episode just doesn't give a clear enough idea of what's happened to Patrick, and what it means to Daniel.
In other episodes, the brief time we're given with characters is used to startlingly captivating effect. In "Phoenix," which I found to be the show's strongest episode, the stakes are immediately clear, and protagonist Joan (Amy Landecker) is artfully rendered as a fully realized character in just a few key gestures and lines of dialogue. We get to see the specifics of her desperation—gulping water from the sink, smoking a cigarette, halfheartedly dabbing at a gash on her arm—before learning anything else about her or why she's ended up in this hotel room.
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As the episode develops, the story emerges of a woman whose status as the sole survivor of a plane crash may provide her the chance to escape her everyday life. The plot contains enough conventional elements to be conveyed quickly—an unhappily married woman engaged in an affair that causes her both joy and guilt. Yet it also makes strong, specific choices, such as when Joan's immediate reaction to realizing that everyone thinks she's dead is to call her boyfriend and suggest that, if she never tells her husband and children she survived, they can be together without hiding anything. Moments like this allow the episode to reach beyond parable into something distinct enough to carry emotional weight. The twist ending of "Phoenix" is truly unexpected, and the specific groundwork laid for Joan's character allows it to be quite affecting.
Overall, Room 104 is much more willing to be unconventional with its structure than with its character and plot. A key example is the episode "Voyeurs," which is told almost entirely through dance, rather than dialogue. This type of risk is one of the strengths of the anthology format; since the show isn't tied to an entire season of dance-focused episodes, it's free to provide a single one with no strings attached.
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"The Internet," which focuses on a young man in 1997 who will lose a huge professional opportunity if he can't talk his technophobic mother through the process of sending an email attachment, is another example of this structural boundary-pushing. The story is told through a phone conversation, meaning that the mother's character is developed entirely through a voice on the telephone. Given those limitations, the episode is remarkably successful, but it isn't quite as great at challenging overdone tropes of overbearing Indian mothers and technology-challenged parents.
Nonetheless, Room 104 deserves credit for the number of successes it has within such strict limitations. Though we never see a character outside of the hotel room, and are given less than thirty minutes with each of them, the show manages to create a lot of real emotional investment within those constraints. Perhaps unexpectedly, Room 104 is most successful when it stays away from universal emotional conflict, and focuses on the small idiosyncrasies of its characters. These are the things that allow us to feel we might know them, to find them relatable even in such a short time frame, creating space for a random encounter with a stranger to reach into something more.
Julia is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn, NY, who covers politics and pop culture with a focus on labor and gender. Follow her on Twitter.
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