The Duplass Brothers, the brains behind the television series Togetherness and films such as The Skeleton Twins, have another new show on HBO, premiering this week. Called ROOM 104, it’s an anthology series, with each roughly half-hour episode featuring a self-contained cast and story, all set in the same dreary motel room.
Half a dozen installments were made available for critics (not the first six, but a selection from throughout the season), and I reviewed two of them in preparation for this article. In the premiere, “Ralphie,” a babysitter watches a kid named Ralph, who has an evil side named Ralphie. Or does he? The third episode, “The Knockadoo,” finds a woman seeking spiritual guidance to transcend, a task made difficult by a memory from her past.
Going by these two installments, I’d say that ROOM 104 is going for creepy and supernatural in the makeup of the program. Both episodes have things that cannot be explained by science (or possibly reality in general), they’re both a bit scary, and they are both very dark in tone and lighting. They did kind of feel like the same episode in a lot of ways, with the narrative arc and ‘twist’ endings following a similar, broad pattern. I am slightly curious if that trend will continue, not something you necessarily want in a series like this.
They’re also both kind of ambiguous about what’s going on. While one may think they’ve surmised what they’ve seen based on what plays out on screen, there are multiple ways to interpret the endings of them. When done well, this is a great element for television shows to make use of. But when done in a mediocre or gimmicky manner, then it’s an obvious and annoying ploy. In ROOM 104, it’s sadly the latter. Or, at least, it fails to feel fresh and interesting.
I kind of found the entire thing lackluster. While I have enjoyed the Duplass Brothers’ comedy writing and acting roles, sometimes they go into weird territory that I do not want to follow them into. This series is that, seemingly weird for the sake of being weird, no clear vision or point really coming across, at least not in the two episodes that I’ve viewed.
In general, I like anthology shows. Black Mirror is a terrific example of the genre, The Twilight Zone is a classic, and I even enjoyed Metal Hurlant, which never really took off in popularity here. It’s a cool format in which to tell very different tales, explore a short-form topic, and pose questions to make one think without having to deal with continuing consequences or reset to a baseline.
But it’s tricky to do well, and I just don’t feel ROOM 104 goes deep enough. While the endings may not be completely clear, neither episode left me with anything to consider, or challenged my assumptions and views in any way. I didn’t feel any type of connection to them, can’t imagine bringing them up for discussion with anyone, and didn’t feel like the installments had anything to say.
I don’t want to trash the Duplass Brothers. As I said, they’ve made many worthwhile contributions to the media landscape, and I have been a fan of much of their past work. I just think this one falls short for them, or perhaps it just isn’t for me. The production design seems solid, I just didn’t think the stories were as innovative or engaging. Maybe some of the other episodes will prove me wrong. The nice thing about a series like this is there are new chances every single week to get it right.
ROOM 104 premieres Friday on HBO.