The beauty of the anthology series as an idea is that it is entirely liberating in terms of narrative. Essentially, you’re being asked to make a series of short films, the kinds one would find in The Outer Limits, The Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, Black Mirror, and Easy. You can switch styles, tones, aesthetics, themes, genres, directors, actors, writers, and music without having to worry about sustaining some larger arc. No offense to larger arcs – Twin Peaks: The Return is the best series of the year – but this decade is littered with mediocre series that overburdened themselves by using substantial episode time building up some far-off conflict that, they assure you, will be the end all be all. It never, ever is.
So, hearing that Room 104, Mark and Jay Duplass‘ most recent project with HBO was an anthology series, I was swiftly bought by the barebones concept: each episode unfolds within the confines of the titular motel room. The confines, which house an array of psychological dramas that tip into horror and the supernatural often enough, turn out to be fine for the most part, though the need to hang your hat on an honest-to-goodness gimmick evades me at the moment.
Much like The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt, Room 104 allows for a myriad of delightful, demented performances. Melanie Diaz is a sturdy anchor in the otherwise disposable “Ralphie,” while Orlando Jones and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris give career-highlight performances in the uniquely physical rhythms of “The Knockadoo.” James Van Der Beek, Karan Soni, and Mae Whitman also do nuanced work with fascinating characters, and they lend genuine emotional undercurrent to narratives that are often hung on the promise of a climactic twist.
Though few of these episodes sport an idiosyncratic style, the writing is the real issue here. In fact, the direction is tied directly to the writing in all of these episodes, and there is a beleaguering tendency for an episode to be plot-driven and built toward an obvious climax, which gives more than a handful of these episodes a preordained quality. The entire experience, but for the actors and the occasional flash of imagination, such as in “The Knockadoo,” begins to feel programmatic as the series goes along.
For whatever the ecstatic bursts of color and intermittent explosions of physical energy, such as an episode about a distressed professional dancer, that are evinced throughout the course of Room 104, the series brandishes a consistent lack of imagination when it comes to exploring the troubled woman who falls in with a religious cult or the lonely, lost Mormon boys who feel at a distance from their strict faith. By putting focus on the circumstances they find themselves in over the people they are, the series produces little more than cheap thrills.
Room 104 airs on Sunday nights on HBO at 10 p.m. starting July 30th.