REVIEW | What "Riverdale" Says About Teen Relationships

The show lets teenagers take themselves seriously, but gives their actions real consequences.

Like most teen dramas, Riverdale is an experiment in what would happen if the world really existed as a teenager views it. As with other high school murder mysteries before it, the show relies on treating teeangers' relationships and emotions seriously, more seriously than most adults do in the real world, and privileging the teenaged point of view as the one that is most often correct. But unlike similar shows, Riverdale doesn't insulate its young characters from facing real consequences for their actions, creating situations that don't often get an honest portrayal on television. While the show doesn't manage to entirely avoid teen drama tropes, it does new and better things with them.

Take, for example, Archie's relationship with high school music teacher Miss Grundy. The predatory teacher and underage student, portrayed as star-crossed lovers, are an unwelcome callback to the disturbing handling of such themes by similar shows — Pretty Little Liars comes to mind. But Riverdale does slightly better than its predecessors by allowing Archie's friends to react in a supportive and realistic way when they find out. Jughead and Betty are both horrified by the relationship, with Jughead seeing clearly how selfish Miss Grundy is being. Though scared of doing anything to hurt Archie, Betty ultimately brings the issue to the attention of other adults.


Riverdale also shows a relatively nuanced portrait of teen conflicts with their parents. Admittedly, some of those parents are downright evil — Cheryl, Veronica, and Betty all seem to have semi-monstrous fathers. But the adults in the show are flawed in realistic ways, too. Betty's parents hide her sister's pregnancy from her and lie about her mental illness; ostensibly, this is to protect Betty, but it ends up being deeply traumatic for her and seriously damages her trust with her parents. Similarly, when Veronica realizes Hiram Lodge's crimes have ruined families other than her own, she sides against him to defend her friend Ethel. Riverdale isn't afraid to show adults making bad decisions, including bad parenting decisions, and kids pushing back against them. Home isn't a safe place for many teenagers, and these plot lines allow a broader range of possible parent-child relationships to exist onscreen.

One of Riverdale's biggest departures from its inspiration, the Archie Comics universe, is that Betty and Veronica are best friends, rather than frenemies who spend most of their time fighting over Archie. Instead of a catty, stereotypical high school mean girl, Veronica is a thoughtful person who feels terrible when she gets together with Archie, and continually checks in to make sure Betty is okay with it. Betty, rather than pining over someone who isn't interested in her, or holding a grudge against Veronica, moves on and finds her own relationship. Love triangles, or things like them, happen in real life — it's one of the reasons they're such popular fodder for drama — but allowing the conflict to resolve in a realistic way, and allowing the young women to remain friends, is an unusual move for the genre.


The show's positive portrayal of open communication between Betty and Veronica is present throughout the show, as well. Characters keep lots of secrets from their parents, but they almost always share things with their friends (or at least, in Betty's case in season two, one friend). The few times when characters keep big secrets from one another — like when Archie and Veronica search F.P.'s trailer for evidence of Jason's murder — there is real fallout, and Jughead almost leaves town. When Archie is cagey with Valerie about his relationship with Cheryl, she ends things with him — and doesn't change her mind even after he begs her to take him back. Where other shows might allow a romantic gesture like this to work, Riverdale allows Valerie to be open and honest about her emotions, and move on when something isn't working.

In general, the show gives its teen characters' emotions more credibility than many other shows about young people, precisely because it provides real consequences for their mistakes. Often, this is just a matter of allowing a character to be upset about something for an entire episode or two, rather than having a conflict be resolved in a single conversation. When Archie doesn't reciprocate Betty's crush on him, she stops seeing him for a while to give herself time to sort out her feelings. After Betty tells Kevin's dad about his late-night hookups in the woods, it takes Kevin time to recover from this betrayal.


It's also refreshing that Kevin's conflict with his sheriff father goes beyond the traditional teen drama coming-out narrative. Where many television portrayals of queer teens end, Riverdale begins, with Kevin, a queer character attempting to navigate conversations about safe sex with his dad, and Toni, who's both confident in her own sexuality and doesn't feel the need to define herself as only being attracted to men or women. It's a low bar to rise above, and the show could do a lot better — for example, it has so far chosen not to portray Jughead as asexual, as he is in the comics. But relative to similar shows, at least Riverdale gives its queer characters a fairer shot at being fully realized people rather than sidekicks.

The nuance in

Riverdale's relationships and emotional conflicts let the show go beyond its melodramatic premise. It's not just a campy teen murder mystery — although that on its own would already be very entertaining. It's also a compelling portrayal of the friendships and family relationships in Riverdale, which have notes of real emotional weight. The show's characters are, in their own completely unbelievable way, kind of believable as they face various moral and emotional dilemmas. Riverdale walks that line between dramatization and truth with uncommon insight, making it a truly fresh addition to the teen drama canon.
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REVIEW | "The Good Place" Season 2 Expectations

How "The Good Place" could derail its trolley problem in the season's second half


One of the best things about NBC series The Good Place is that it doesn't drag things out. So far, within the space of half of its second season, it's completely undone everything we knew about its premise from the first season, and built that premise up in a hundred different ways in the space of a couple of episodes. With the season's second half scheduled to begin on January 4, it's likely the only predictable thing about the show is that it will continue to be unpredictable.

There are, though, some key questions the show has set up that are ripe for further exploration. While its first season explained the nature of the afterlife in brief, simple infomercials, in the second season, things won't be nearly so easy. Nonetheless, the show is clearly inching closer to exploring the nature of the entire afterlife—for real this time.


The Good Place has always had at its heart an exploration of the philosophical nature of good and evil, name-checking thinkers from Plato to Camus and using its episodes as testing grounds for moral dilemmas. This is a large part of why the show feels so well thought out and structured despite its wild plot swings—it builds a base for its eccentric characters around a series of age-old, time-tested philosophical questions. This has become especially clear in the second season, in which we get to see a literal demonstration of the classic "trolley problem" thought experiment. The show allows us to view and make sense of its characters through the lens of a series of great philosophical thinkers.

But so far The Good Place has, in large part, steered clear of critiquing the framework it has set up for its characters. While we get to judge Eleanor and friends, afterlife mainframe Janet, and even Bad Place architect Michael for their human (and/or demonic or robotic) foibles, there hasn't been as much room to zoom out, and wonder whether the afterlife itself is morally suspect.

Take the situation of main character Eleanor, who by her own admission wasn't a great person while she was alive, but also wasn't outright evil. Eleanor immediately realized that she didn't belong in the Good Place, but also questioned whether she belonged in the Bad Place—at one point, taking a detour into the Medium Place, which only has one inhabitant. Eleanor and Chidi occasionally broached the subject of whether the ranking system in the afterlife was unfair, but generally focused on whether Eleanor still belonged in the Bad Place now that she was working to be a better person, rather than whether the entire system made sense. Eleanor was framed as one of only three people in the afterlife whose situation contained ambiguity and required determination by ultimate afterlife judge Shawn.


In the show's second season, it's become clear that much of what we previously knew about the Good Place wasn't true. Though it seems the general existence of the ranking system and the Good, Bad, and Medium places was basically accurate, everything else is a bit up in the air. Not only Eleanor, but also Chidi, Tahani, and Jason are the first of their kind in the afterlife. And while Michael is an innovative architect who answers to his boss Shawn, it's no longer clear exactly what Shawn is the boss of. Where he was previously presented as a neutral judge, perhaps godlike in his wisdom, he now seems to be just one of many mid-level managers in the Bad Place. In fact, all of the parameters of judgment and travel between the Good Place and Bad Place that were set up in the first season were later revealed to be part of Michael's fake afterlife.

Now that, at the end of the second season's first half, Shawn seems to have become aware that the fake Good Place situation is going off the rails, the show might be ready to show us exactly how far off the rails things can go. The entire Good Place we know was the result of Michael pushing back against Shawn's control over the Bad Place. Now that Michael is facing Vicki fighting him from one side, and his human torture victims trying to convert him to humanity on the other, it seems dominion over the Bad Place is becoming increasingly democratic. If Shawn tries to reassert control, there's a fairly large number of people (and/or robots or demons) who could react badly.


There are any number of directions this could lead. We've seen that Michael can create entire new areas of the neighborhood when he wants to; as he gets better at creating "opposite tortures" for his human companions, what's to stop him from creating a real good place—or something like one? So far, it hasn't been clear what would happen if Shawn completely loses control; there may be a more senior demon, or perhaps an actually neutral judge, he can call upon. We also know that Janet can travel between areas of the afterlife by summoning trains, which could mean that an escape to another neighborhood is in the works.

So far, in The Good Place, the Bad Place has been presented as the low point of a stratified and deeply unfair hierarchy. As that hierarchy begins to crumble, one can't help but wonder how all of this is affecting the real Good Place, and whether Michael's act of rebellion in creating a fake Good Place may have afterlife-wide repercussions.

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REVIEW | YACHT embraces change with new EP 'Strawberry Moon'

Yacht's new EP "Strawberry Moon" is different from the band's previous work, but that's for the best.

"A lot has happened since the last time YACHT released music," the group wrote in announcing the release of its new EP, Strawberry Moon. Though band members Jona Bechtolt and Claire Evans made clear in the rest of the announcement that they were referring to the world at large, the statement could as easily have been referring to Yacht itself. Last year, in addition to an election that shook the worldview of many in the art and media worlds, Bechtolt and Evans provided Yacht fans with their own microcosm of a fake news crisis. After the two pretended that a sex tape they made had leaked, it became clear that the move was a hoax designed to garner attention for a music video, leading to backlash from media and fans.

"It's a different world. We've been wrapping our heads around it," Yacht's announcement continues. This is presumably in reference to Donald Trump becoming president, but more than just that is different. The seeming shift in how the music world is responding to claims of sexual harassment and other sexual violence in the post-Weinstein moment was prefigured in the response to Yacht's sex tape stunt, which many felt inappropriately made light of actual revenge porn. In 2016, perhaps Yacht could reasonably claim not to have expected such a response to its publicity stunt, but in 2017, such unawareness seems unthinkable. It's in this landscape that Yacht has put forth its latest, and perhaps is related to why the EP feels more apolitical than much of the band's earlier work.


The standout track is "Strawberry Moon," a song that's closer to a standard indie pop hit than pretty much anything else Yacht has done. It's beachy, warm, and full of coy innuendo ("You came too soon / It's three in the afternoon / Now there's nothing to look forward to"), an updated "Afternoon Delight" by way of electronic pop. "Strawberry Moon" is reminiscent of Bechtolt's earlier work with The Blow, as well as drawing some influence from the lo-fi, female vocalist driven style of acts like La Sera and the Dum Dum Girls.

The EP's other strongest song is "Look Alive," which is slightly less pop than "Strawberry Moon," but still equally catchy. It's also different from what Yacht normally does, but it uses the band's signature combination of bouncy, enticing beats and unexpectedly dark lyrics: "One of the guys / He has been radicalized / Ladies, look alive." There are strong notes of optimism, too, as in the lyrics, "Don't run and hide / The only way to change your mind / Is to vocalize." The song's layered, echoey chorus turns the lyrics "look alive" from a warning into a psychedelic call to action. Though the song is quite different from "Strawberry Moon," it's similarly indebted to California sunshine pop. If the Mamas & The Papas had a synthesizer, it might sound something like "Look Alive."

Longtime fans of Yacht will find the most familiarity in "Hard World," a dance-pop hit full of the band's classic hyper-cynical exuberance. The song's upbeat, slightly funky backing is layered under Evans' singsong spoken word vocals, which inform us, "If everything's alive / Then everything hurts / Then everything we do is the worst." There are also unexpected hints of earnestness—"It's a hard world / For the little things," goes the track's hook.

The EP's remaining songs, "Shame" and "Finger Like A Gun," aren't far off from Yacht's earlier work, either. But both tracks feel something like watered-down versions of the band's earlier standards. Unlike "Dystopia" (2011), which takes a real, if psychotic, pleasure in the declaration, "The earth is on fire / We don't have no daughter / Let the motherfucker burn," or "Psychic City" (2009), which opens with nearly a full minute of guttural, utterly joyful "Huh"s and "ay yeah yeah yeah"s, these songs don't seem cheerful. A tone of genuine sadness and nihilism lurks under the surface.


Rather than encouraging us to revel in the fucked-up nature of the world, as Yacht typically does, these songs seem to suggest we should look away. There's a bit of a remove here, both in the musical quality—an excess of guitar soloing in "Finger Like a Gun" and endless lyrical repetition in "Shame"—and the lyrical content. In "Shame," rather than delving into a personal emotional conflict, the speaker "look[s] at a stranger" and "wonder[s] what it takes her / To live through another day." "Finger Like A Gun" presents us with "the emoji of a fist" rather than the fist itself.

Where "War on Women" (2015) told us "The war is over if you only close your eyes / The war is over if you want it / If you want to tell yourself a lie," "Finger Like A Gun" insists, "It's a nice oblivion," and "Shame" simply says, "I'm fighting realness… Fight the authenticity / With what's left of feeling." Instead of sarcastically pretending to look away from reality in order to emphasize how glaringly awful it is, here Yacht is genuinely looking away from reality. It's telling that instead of the gleeful depravity of titles like "Dystopia" and "I Wanna Fuck You Til I'm Dead" (2015), Strawberry Moon instead chooses "Shame" and the image of a toy gun.

Even when Yacht isn't at its best, it's still innovative and extremely danceable. But it's in the songs which are least like what the band has done previously that the most joy and creativity emerges. "Strawberry Moon" and "Look Alive" are each, in their own way, clear departures from Yacht's earlier work. A lot really has changed since Yacht's last album, and it feels like the group is still figuring out precisely what that means for its music. But it's clear that, in the meantime, Yacht is moving in exciting new directions.

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REVIEW | In 'The Florida Project' Women Break Down and Break Free

In "The Florida Project," Willem Dafoe joins a cast of female characters struggling to get by without traditional gender roles.

In an early scene of The Florida Project, two women watch three children clean spit off a car, arguing over whether one of the children, who didn't spit on the car, should be helping to clean. The girl in question isn't either woman's daughter, but they fuss over her anyway. When the dispute resolves, it's more because both women see that the children have worked things out for themselves than because they've reached any sort of resolution. But, as soon becomes clear, these women—each long-term residents of motels located in Disney World's shadow—aren't enemies in the way two suburban neighbors who disagree over childcare might be. Though they have their disputes, mostly stemming from the children each cares for, they also rely on one another for support.

Like director Sean Baker's previous film Tangerine (2015), which he also co-wrote with Chris Bergoch, The Florida Project centers largely on female support networks built up in the absence of men, and the ways in which these women build spaces for life to exist in the midst of extreme poverty and hardship. In the case of Halley (Bria Vinaite) and her daughter Moonee (Brooklynn Prince), life looks like struggling for work, improvising entertainment, and a network of friends whose support makes the difference between the survival or collapse of their family unit.

Moonee's dad isn't in the picture, and her best friend Scooty (Christopher Rivera) is also being raised by a single mother. The kids' friend Dicky (Aiden Malik) lives with his single father, and they soon meet Jancey (Valeria Cotto), who's being raised by her single grandmother. Moonee and Scooty are partners in crime, and the same is true of Moonee's mom Halley and Scooty's mom Ashley (Mela Murder). While Ashley goes to work at her restaurant job, Halley takes care of the kids, which mostly looks like resolving disputes with various adults upset over Moonee and Scooty's antics. Though it's not what most would consider a traditional family, it functions a lot like one, with Halley taking some degree of responsibility for both children, while Ashley sneaks free pancakes to Halley and the kids.

And it's a life, one in which the characters struggle to get by, but also do far more than just survive. Halley and Ashley genuinely care for one another, creating the space for their children to feel loved and mostly safe in the midst of extreme poverty. Moonee's days involve helping sell perfume in a Disney hotel parking lot and watching her mom struggle to convince a state worker to give them discount bus passes, but there's also room for ice cream, carefully orchestrated bathtimes, and hitchhiking to watch the Disney World fireworks on special occasions. There's potential for improvement, too—Ashley is trying to get Halley a job at the restaurant, and the women watch out for each other as various men come and go in their lives. When the kids have gone to bed, there's time for them to talk, share a joint or a couple of beers, and hang out in the motel pool.

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The film's strength lies in this ability to show us how, though things aren't perfect—and a lot of it is devastating—there's good here, too. Through the eyes of Moonee, Scooty, and Jancey, we're able to see real joy in this intensely difficult life, and their parents' ability to turn a run-down motel into a home is evidence that there is something that looks like stability here. Conforming to any sort of traditional gender roles is both impossible and the last thing on anyone's mind, with women serving simultaneously as caretakers and breadwinners. Halley's main source of male support comes from Bobby (Willem Dafoe), the motel manager who also serves as childcare backup, such as when he chases away a creepy old man getting too close to the kids. There are men living here too, such as Dicky's father, but he doesn't seem to have strong interpersonal ties to others in the community, and ends up moving away. It's the women who end up staying around, perhaps because they care about each other, and perhaps also because they have no other choice.

Which makes it all the more devastating when we see how easily this measure of security, built up by surpassing and ignoring traditional family values, can still break down due to an inability to live up to those values. Though there's a lot behind Halley and Ashley's falling out, a major factor is that Ashley feels betrayed by Halley pursuing sex work while she was supposed to be watching Ashley's son. We get a glimpse of the fact that a man, perhaps Scooty's father, is back in Ashley's life, making it easier for her to stop relying on Halley for childcare. And we see Halley's ability to care for Moonee falter as she loses support from Ashley and is forced to take more and more clients just to make enough money for food.

Rather than idealizing or patronizing characters in extreme poverty, The Florida Project explores how humanity can still exist in such hardship, without ignoring how tenuous such a life can be. Trouble, when it arrives, comes in the form of state institutions with neither the ability nor the desire to forgive Halley for failing to live up to impossible moral standards. Tellingly, the film doesn't show Halley and Moonee overcoming this roadblock, or end on another note of falsely redemptive hope. Instead, it allows the audience to turn away into a gorgeous fantasy, marred slightly by the knowledge that in real life, this is not how the story ends.

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REVIEW | Why 'Room 104' Is The New 'Black Mirror'

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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