A giant hamster appears out of nowhere to prod at an addict’s struggles. A wrestler with signs of CTE grapples with action figures to prod at his demons. A long-haired fantasy warrior… well, I kinda don’t wanna tell you what the long-haired fantasy warrior does. Part of the fun of Room 104, Mark and Jay Duplass‘ episodic anthology series for HBO, is seeing how each initial premise gets modified, twisted, and turned into something much more experimentally engaging. Its fourth and final season just might be the show’s most ambitious, surreal season yet, as the freedom and audacity of the program allows the Duplass’ eclectic crew of filmmakers and performers to reach some dazzling, unforgettable heights. But it also results in a few trips and stumbles along the way.
Every episode of Room 104 has an inherently different premise, given its status as an anthology series with different stories each episode (think a generally lighter-toned The Twilight Zone). Only one constant threads them: They all take place in room 104 of an unnamed hotel (and even then, this rule gets bent to the point of fracture numerous times in season four, usually to its benefit). As such, it’s a touch difficult to tackle the season as a whole piece, given its “whole piece” is “a bunch of little, unrelated pieces.” It’s even hard to reckon with it as a collection of short stories from the same author, given that while the Duplass brothers created it, each story comes from a different author with radically different intentions and genre touchstones. I suppose it helps to think of the Duplassi as curative voices of the program, the collectors of separate visions in the same room, the mixers of Room 104‘s Chex Mix. I’ve demolished through the entire bag in one sitting, and can clearly differentiate between what tastes great together, and what tastes off.
We’ll start with the worst of the Chex Mix, the rye chips of Room 104 (sorry/not sorry to rye chip defenders). Unfortunately, the very first episode of the season, “The Murderer,” is easily its worst half-hour. Mark Duplass writes, directs, and casts himself in the title role, a Daniel Johnston-esque outsider musician whose famed concept album causes a group of enthusiastic teens to make him play them a private concert in their hotel room. Feeling like a weaker shadow of his depressive-obsessive creep in, well, Creep, his central musician is given a bonkers vocal inflection, ample room for Duplass (the performer, not the character) to perform his original songs, and a queasy fascination with Hari Nef, who shows our title character unwarranted pity. It attempts to mine similar gold from similar creative fascinations of the Duplasses (how many times do I need to see this guy aggressively play guitar at a woman he’s scaring and intriguing in equal measure?), and does so with a tone-deaf fall on its face. It’s shockingly bad, this episode, an abjectly bad choice for a premiere.
Other misfires, while never quite reaching the lows of “The Murderer,” still have recipe misfires baked into their delicious-on-paper designs. Melissa Fumero‘s leading performance in the high-concept “Bangs” feels too untethered to a base reality, too uncomfortably “put on” to properly orient us with Jenée LaMarque and Lauren Parks‘ twisty, too-discursive script. “The Hikers,” a refreshingly low-concept two-hander, features a dynamite showpiece of jump-cut assisted performances from its stars Shannon Purser and Kendra Carelli, but it juts out of nowhere, a jagged beginning of a good idea that wasn’t given a properly smooth runway to launch. “No Dice” has a dark-and-stormy premise I’m simply in love with, but it gets too loud too quickly, not bothering with enough substance underneath. These episodes inadvertently highlight some of the flaws of short-form anthology storytelling: Because of the need to reset and communicate quickly, consistency and quality control can be hard to come by, and the fundamentals of “character-building” and “showing, not telling” writing can be tossed in favor of “the next high concept or fun twist, quick!”
On the flipside, there is a beauty to short-form anthology storytelling. If you don’t like one, the next one’ll be radically different. And luckily for potential viewers, Room 104‘s fourth season has many more hits than these misses. “Fur” takes three wildly different genres — one of them is “female-driven high school coming-of-age story,” and I wouldn’t dare of revealing the other two — and smushes them together in a charming, courageously daffy story. “Oh, Harry!” gives us a delicious piece of meta-casting in the form of Erinn Hayes, a surprising lead performance from Kevin Nealon, and a fucking with one of TV’s most tried-and-true formats that will leave your brain, indeed, fucked. “Foam Party,” directed confidently by Natalie Morales, compresses every satisfying beat from a teen horror movie into an under-20-minute package, and I’ma need someone to hire Morales to direct a horror feature driven by practical effects, stat. “Generations,” the final episode of the season — and thus, oddly, the series finale — has a wonderful command of weight and atmosphere, an unforgettable leading performance from Ntare Guma Mbaho Mwine, and even a philosophical idea behind the appeal of hotel rooms that gives the disparate series a sense of connection.
And then, there are four out-and-out masterpieces in the season, episodes of television that are unlike any I’ve ever seen, that will stick to my brains and bones for some time. I’ve alluded to three of them already: Jillian Bell and her trauma-hamster in “Star Time,” Dave Bautista and his fleeting memories in “Avalanche,” and the long-haired fantasy warrior who, when you see what he does near the beginning of “The Last Man,” will make you laugh and cry in equal measure (and they commit to the choice, hard. I friggin’ love it and can’t wait for you to see it). The fourth banger, “The Night Babby Died,” involves video games, childhood fractures, and a beautiful performance from Lily Gladstone. All four of these triumphs do, in fact, have some thematic similarities, even when their stylistic methods of communication differ wildly. They all involve pains of the past, unorthodox coping methods, and desperate attempts at writing a new future with the power of storytelling and legacy.
With these four episodes, Room 104 hits its goals out of the park with unreserved inspiration. They serve as fantastically bold self-contained stories, while inadvertently harmonizing to create a beautiful piece of music about life. And even with the missed opportunities and out-and-out duds outlined above, Room 104‘s final season remains a bowl of Chex Mix worth diving into, for its audacity and experimentation alone, and its astonishing treats especially. The Duplass brothers’ one constant ethos of their multifaceted “auteur theory” might be “let creators create with glee.” Room 104, by not always achieving purity, achieves a pure vision of this idea. I will miss it.
Room 104 airs weekly episodes on HBO, starting July 24.