Six episodes were provided for review prior to broadcast.
I know that when I first step into a hotel room, I do the best I can to avoid thinking about all the people who were in there before me – but that’s mainly for hygienic reasons. To say the least, if I was one of the residents of Room 104, there would be other motives for sidestepping those truths.
Borrowing from the psychedelic imagination of The Twilight Zone, the first season of the Duplass Brothers’ Room 104 hosts a compendium of eccentric, gothic tales. Traveling in and out of the realm of reality, the show plays with a whole assortment of diverse characters and situations. Some are relatable, others are not, but all are connected by one common motif: their stay at the sometimes haunting, sometimes dynamic, sometimes hospitable motel room.
With these characters checking in and out of the show each episode, the room itself can be considered the series’ only recurring role. Not just because it’s the perpetual setting, but because it plays an actual part in every episode. After its supernatural involvement in the show’s haunting premiere, “Ralphie,” the intensity of each subsequent story is amplified by the idea that anything could happen at any time, solely because we’re in-between those four walls. Talk about a first impression.
Since the series is advertised as a genre-shifting entertainment, there’s no harm in spoiling that the room does not always display such paranormal abilities – thankfully, not every episode is like “Ralphie.” However, all of the directors, within their own distinct styles, find ways to animate the room in one way or another. The most noteworthy and innovative example is in “Voyeurs” (episode #6), where 104 beautifully illuminates a dance between a forlorn housemaid (Dendrie Taylor) and her past self (Sarah Hay).
From housing a religious initiation to withstanding a kickboxing match, this luckless room hopefully takes more damage and sees more whackos than we ever will at a chain motel. But for every oddball with their oddball problems, there are everyday people with their everyday – or better put, less remarkable – problems. The occasional glimmer of reality from some of the occupants, including an aspiring author and an elderly couple, serves as this show’s primary reminder that 104 is only a check-in away, rather than a dimension away.
Though one of the show’s best qualities is its graceful ability to switch tones and genres, Room 104 seems to be at its most comfortable, not to mention enjoyable, when it focuses on the plausible rather than the implausible. Having already mentioned my distaste for the preposterous, unnerving story of its opener, I finally started enjoying myself at the show’s halfway point with the very real tale of Anish (Karan Soni), a writer faced with the urgent and infuriating task of explaining the internet to his mother (Poorna Jagnnathan).
Plots like this are the ones fans will be able to find solace in – seriously, who hasn’t had an equally frustrating conversation like this with their parents? – but they also host the series’ best performances. Soni, who we all know as the sociable taxi driver from Deadpool, does a remarkable job ringing out all of the zeal he can muster from a usually dull and rudimentary conversation. In an attempt to not spoil anything, I’ll say that writer/co-creator Mark Duplass also packs a powerful emotional punch and leave it at that.
Expectedly, this Duplass brother wrote nearly all of the amiable stories season 1 has to offer. Like The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock Presents, the climax of each of these episodes has a twist – some are profound, and some are disturbing, but each one is uniquely original and appropriate to the particular genre and setting of the events.
There aren’t many recognizable names on the marquee here. This detail may aid the “typical American in a typical motel” feel the series is striding for, but it is also puts each part of Room 104 at the risk of a hit-or-miss performance. However, the majority of the acting is up to par, but there are some exceptions on both sides of the spectrum.
Focusing on the positive, Phillip Baker Hall’s nearly perfect soliloquy in the season finale, “My Love,” makes up the show’s most impactful and outstanding display of passion – it is truly heartbreaking. But after ending on such a powerful and effective episode, perhaps Room 104 will jump back into season 2 with a comedy. Who knows?
What’s so fascinating about a theater is that it can be manipulated to accommodate any number of productions. The directors all walk through the same door, but never keep the same stage. Room 104 offers its artists the same creative opportunities, and to our pleasure, they take advantage of it, radically modifying the appearance of the room which in turn, creates a sometimes beautiful, sometimes haunting setting for their tales.
As with any anthology series, not all of Room 104 hits the mark; however, each episode is produced with marvel ingenuity and beauty which in turn, carries the show’s sometimes dismal plot.