In a time where serialization is the standard, HBO decided to zag a bit last year with Room 104, a 12-episode anthology series created by Mark and Jay Duplass where each episode, as opposed to each season, is a separate and complete story. The only requirement each episode must meet is that they must take place in the same seedy motel, in Room 104.
One may think that this greatly limits the variety of stories, but somehow the opposite is true. While the episodes of other shows with a similar format, such as Joe Swanberg’s Netflix series Easy, are tied together either thematically or tonally, Room 104 deviates from the norm even further. Each episode is not only a completely separate story, but also a completely different genre.
The first episode of the first season is straight psychological horror that dances on the edge of reality. In a later episode, the room becomes the cage where two MMA fighters fight. There’s an episode told completely through interpretative dance, one told as a one-man musical — starring Atlanta’s Brian Tyree Henry — and sprinkled in between them are the stories more akin to traditional rom-coms, thrillers, and dramas, except none of them are particularly traditional.
Most of the stories begin in ways that we’ve seen time and time again — two strangers meet in a motel room, a couple spends the night, a lone individual takes a pit-stop at the motel while on a business trip — but quite quickly it becomes apparent that things are not going where you think they’re going, and just when you think you might know where they’re going, it veers in a different direction. We describe a lot of shows as “unpredictable”, but few shows are unpredictable in the way that Room 104 is unpredictable.
Throughout the two seasons, the second of which concluded this past weekend, there are moments that are genuinely haunting, others that are tear-jerking, and some that are absolutely thrilling. All of it is done remarkably well, and one can’t help but attribute that to the premise of the show. If you restrict an entire story to a motel room, the best way to tell that story becomes to focus on the characters and the plot. What’s lost with scenic variety is made up in full with fresh stories and memorable characters.
Following its debut season last year, the show’s truly blank canvas quality has started to catch the attention of various filmmakers and actors. While the Duplass brothers write a majority of the episodes, the directors and actors are different from episode to episode, which means it’s not a large commitment, adding to the appeal of working on the show. This is why after the debut season featured very few recognizable names, the second featured names like Michael Shannon, Judy Greer, Brian Tyree Henry, Natalie Morales, and the Oscar Award-winning Mahershala Ali.
While the show is already fantastic, the possibilities it brings to mind are just as exciting. The premise of the stories all taking place in a motel serves a great purpose, but I don’t see any downsides to having episodes take place in adjacent rooms of the same motel. That could add room for crossovers and easter eggs, encouraging multiple viewings. Regardless, Room 104 could potentially go on forever, and here’s hoping it does, because there’s nothing quite like spending a night in Room 104.
Bonus: Episode Rankings, Through Season 2
- “My Love”
- “The Return”
- “The Internet”
- “Mr. Mulvahill”
- “Red Tent”
- “The Man and the Baby and the Man”
- “The Missionaries”
- “Swipe Right”
- “Woman In The Wall”
- “The Fight”
- “Pizza Boy”
- “Josie & Me”
- “I Knew You Weren’t Dead”
- “A Nightmare”
- “The Knockandoo”