Room 104 review: Once you check into HBO’s bizarre series, you won’t be able to escape
Cast - Mark Duplass, Sarah Hay, Karan Soni
Rating - 4/5
Actors have show-reels, the Duplass Brothers have Room 104.
Like the many other films and TV shows created by the prolific duo – and there certainly have been a lot – Room 104’s true brilliance lies in the brothers’ raw talent for coming up with high-concept ideas. But this doesn’t come as a surprise, it’s what they’ve always done. They’re the idea guys, leaping effortlessly between genres and mediums; and like true filmmakers, never letting the lack of money (or opportunity) get in the way of the stories they want to tell.
In Room 104, the new anthology series by HBO, the Duplass Brothers – Jay and Mark – have stumbled upon arguably their finest, and most milkable set-up yet. At least till the time you aren’t hit with the dreadful realisation that it might just be an excuse for them to dust off some older (perhaps even rejected) scripts.
But I’m not complaining.
Across 13 tonally, visually, and thematically disparate episodes, Room 104 tells stories about anger and jealousy, betrayal and revenge, about love and hate – themes as old as storytelling itself.
Every episode – and this is the brilliant set-up I raved about a moment ago – is set within the confines of the same motel room, with a new set of characters and stories checking in every half hour.
The room itself is as generic as they come – with a couple of deliberately grey single beds stationed on a stained carpet, a creaky old AC rattling under a suspiciously cracked window, dank corners that seem to hide secrets in the darkness, and a mysterious bathroom from which an almost surreal fluorescent light escapes. Boy, does this room have stories to tell.
It welcomes bored couples, washed-up sports stars, and gay Mormons in stories that jump through time, and switch genres as smoothly as a murderer slipping on gloves – from broad comedy to supernatural horror, from crime thriller to family drama. Sample, for a moment, a couple of loglines...
Episode 3 – The Knockandoo: A spiritually-hungry woman (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is visited by a cult priest (Orlando Jones).
Episode 8 – Phoenix: In 1969, the sole survivor (Amy Landecker) of a plane crash contemplates whether to go back to her old life with her husband and children, or to start over.
Episode 9 – Boris: An aging alcoholic Croatian tennis player (Konstantin Lavysh) forms a bond with a housekeeper (Veronica Falcon) when he reveals memories of his tortured past growing up in war-torn Croatia during the early 1990s while she in turn revels her status as an undocumented immigrant.
And these aren’t even the best ones.
In Episode 5, set in 1997, a young writer (played by Karan Soni – Dopinder from Deadpool) checks in to the room to complete his first book. It’s been his life’s work, and he’s a nervous wreck. He has a meeting with his publishers in a couple of days, and he wants to arrive armed with a complete manuscript. To his horror, he realises that he has forgotten his laptop at his mother’s home. So he calls her, and begins careful process of teaching her email.
It’s a remarkably insightful episode, written by Mark Duplass. It’s a bit unnerving how accurately he understands the utterly unique relationship between Indian sons and Indian mothers – how there’s always the sound of vegetables being chopped in the background, and the overbearing protectiveness of it all. But perhaps it is the universality of the themes he’s dealing with – identity and ambition, regret and hope.
And then there’s Episode 6. It’s the story of the maid who cleans the room, ignored all her life. She sees the mess the previous occupants have left behind – the half-eaten food, the empty beer bottles, and the lipstick-stained cigarettes – and with overwhelming regret, looks into the mirror. She sees her past, when she was a beautiful young dancer, full of dreams. With a nod of acknowledgment, a dimming of lights, and a cranking up of the volume, they – the past and present selves of the maid – begin to dance.
And that’s how the entire episode is told – through interpretive dance. No dialogue, just the optimism of the past and the defeat of the future colliding in a swirl of pirouettes and twirls. Magnificent.
But it all comes to a head with an inevitable episode about a certain unnamed presidential candidate – a man promising to shut out immigrants and refugees, to disregard the rights of the minorities, a man promising to make America great again.
The episode is mostly a conversation between two opposing ideas – the young radical who has been using the room to build a home-made bomb that he wants to detonate before the election, and the old-school AC repairman who drops in unannounced.
The Hitler argument (would you kill him if you had a time machine) is brought up, but so is the shattering idea that despite our differences, we are, whether we like it or not, in this mess together.
For those of you who haven’t really experienced the Duplass Brothers’ cinema, Room 104 is the perfect place to start – even better than their previous HBO show, the underrated Togetherness. The world is a much better place with their ideas in it.
Watch the Room 104 trailer