‘Room 104’: HBO’s New Anthology Series

Ken Tucker
Critic-at-Large
Room 104 (Photo: HBO)

A drab little motel room with two twin beds, cheap furniture, and thin bars of soap, the living space in Room 104 is hemmed-in, generically familiar, a blank living space on which a guest can fill in the drama, comedy, romance, or tragedy of his or her life. Dramatists have been using hotel rooms as a metaphor for the variety of existence for a long time; brother-producers Mark and Jay Duplass (Togetherness) have constructed a new anthology series around the idea. Each episode of the new HBO show is a half-hour, each features a different cast with a different story — a different tone. Only the room remains the same.

Well, roughly the same. Sometimes it is battered, as when the two female MMA fighters in the episode called “The Fight” use the space as a place to slam each other around in a pre-bout wrestling match. Sometimes blood spatters its bedsheets and floors, as in the series opener, “Ralphie,” in which a baby sitter tussles with a very unruly little boy. The room is used for different purposes. In “The Knockadoo,” two converts to a mysterious cult faith try to achieve a transcendent spiritual state. In “My Love,” an elderly couple is revisiting the room as the site where they spent their first night together 56 years ago.

Room 104 is extremely uneven. “The Fight” is tremendously exciting and suspenseful, and well-directed by Megan Griffiths. You are drawn in by the harrowing fight scenes as well as by the secret pact the two women make with each other. By contrast, I found “Ralphie,” the episode premiering on Friday, to be a tedious variation on your average Twilight Zone episode (or, perhaps a better comparison, a subpar Outer Limits episode), with its strain toward a surprise ending. I thought “Voyeurs” — a nearly wordless entry about the symbiotic relationship between a woman making the rounds housekeeping and a female guest — was excruciatingly pretentious and boring. By contrast, the episode about the two senior citizens, “My Love,” written by Mark Duplass (he wrote seven of the season’s dozen episodes) and directed by Marta Cunningham, was lovely and moving, with co-stars Philip Baker Hall and Ellen Geer turning in subtle performances.

Room 104 arrives at a time when the British anthology series Black Mirror has revitalized the Twilight Zone genre, and the HBO production does include a couple of stories that partake of supernatural, or at least inexplicable, phenomena. But the show Room 104 more closely resembles is Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the excellent 1955-62 half-hour anthology that showcased a wide variety of tense little tales. (You can still see it, on the oldies cable channel WeTV — lots of them hold up very well indeed.)

I wonder how well Room 104 will do in finding an audience. These days, there’s so much TV to watch, it seems as though viewers might not make a habit of checking in on Room 104 each week, since there’s no ongoing single narrative to get hooked on. In this sense, it may have made more sense to have Room 104 screen on a service such as Netflix, where all 12 episodes could be made available at once: These half-hours lend themselves to compulsive consumption. Even when I was bored with one, I was curious to click on the next one made available to TV critics. Maybe Room 104 will prove a long-term success, once a bunch of them are available on-demand, where people can binge. As it is, you won’t see the quiet, measured drama of “My Love” until October; set a reminder for it.

Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30 p.m. on HBO.

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