The following review contains some spoilers from the first episode of Room 104.
When HBO canceled Togetherness, the weird, uncomfortable, emotionally in-tune series from brothers Mark and Jay Duplass, after just two seasons, I was distraught. Just as “peak TV” means more and more quality shows to check out, so too does the churn of content, and the shifting nature of viewership, bring about the cancelations of shows that deserve more time to explore their creative visions. Togetherness wasn’t a series grand in scope or novel in premise, but it was achingly human. Across 16 episodes, it explored the strains of marriage and friendship in a way that felt honest, trading in dramatic fights for subtle bits of aggression and disappointment.
My own disappointment at the end of Togetherness was somewhat abated by HBO’s announcement that the Duplass brothers would be back in 2017 with an anthology series, Room 104. The premise, at first glance, seems perfectly suited to the kind of low-key personal drama that guided the pair’s previous outing: The new series, which offers up half-hour looks at the various happenings in a single hotel room, is ready-made for digging into the nitty-gritty of relationships and how there are commonalities when it comes to human flaws and triumphs despite the shifting time period and anthology format. So, when I received screeners for the show, I sat down with the expectation of seeing, in some way, a more condensed version of Togetherness’ Season One finale, in which Melanie Lynskey’s character uses the blank slate of a hotel room for her own personal transformation, inviting all the joys and consequences that come with it.
You can imagine my surprise when the series premiere of Room 104 starts out with a creepy kid telling his babysitter that he has his evil brother locked in the bathroom; later in the episode, he details a grisly matricide and then chases the babysitter around the room, attempting to choke the life out of her. It’s a surprising and shocking first episode that couldn’t be further from the tone of Togetherness. In fact, the episode, and much of the first season in general, share their DNA with the horror anthology film V/H/S more than any cozy, complicated drama. That first episode acts as a confident, ambitious destabilizing force, removing any preconceived notions about what Room 104 can and will be and opening up endless narrative and tonal possibilities.
Just because the premiere is destabilizing doesn’t mean it’s not intriguing. In fact, “Ralphie,” named after the monstrous toddler who terrorizes his unsuspecting babysitter, is a compelling piece of short-form horror storytelling, drawing on the tropes of babysitter/demon-child films and crafting something truly terrifying in its 27-minute running time. Thus, with each new episode, the question remains simple: Can this specific standalone story sustain enough intrigue and narrative tension to justify watching? It’s a simple question with a difficult answer. What that means is that Room 104 varies wildly in quality. Where one episode might make an emotional impact by offering up a fascinating shift in perspective and empathy, as in the season’s fifth episode, “The Internet,” another might be bogged down by its lack of clarity and thematic weight, as in the third episode, “The Knockadoo.”
In some ways, each episode of Room 104 shares the same connective tissue. Namely, there’s often a late-episode twist or some sort of revelation that forces us, and often the main character, to shift his or her understanding of the surroundings. On top of that, there’s a supernatural element to the series, as the Duplass brothers and their team of writers and directors use the hotel room as a setting seemingly out of space and time. Even when there’s a specific period setting, like the summer of 1997 in “The Internet,” there’s a feeling that the room doesn’t adhere to traditional laws of nature. That’s a creative boon for the series, as it allows each writer and director the freedom to get a little weird and explore how certain experiences resonate across differing circumstances. The frustration a son feels trying to help his mother navigate the Internet while also dealing with her emotions rings true beyond 1997, as does a woman’s search for something meaningful amid a mess of life’s problems.
To say that Room 104 fully succeeds in forging these connections—whether through the use of familiar horror tropes or an inspired play of light and darkness to provide insight into the characters—isn’t exactly true. The series is often only fitfully compelling, struggling to build something meaningful within the limited span of each episode. At the same time, there are flashes of something more exciting. The anthology structure and the single-room premise allow for distinct interpretations of similar content, and the joy that can be found here and there comes through seeing how each writer and director executes his or her own unique vision. Where “The Knockadoo” is a meandering mess with a lackluster payoff, “Voyeurs,” from choreographer, writer and director Dayna Hanson, is a beautiful, nearly wordless episodic ode to the way our life, body, dreams and perspective can change in an instant, all told through interpretative dance and mood lighting. Much like the ups and downs of the human existence that the series occasionally attempts to unpack, you have to wade through many struggles and failures to find the pleasure in Room 104.
Room 104 premieres Friday, July 28 at 11:30 p.m. on HBO.
Kyle Fowle is a TV critic whose work has appeared at The A.V. Club, Entertainment Weekly and Esquire. You can always find him tweeting about TV and pro wrestling @kylefowle.