Room 104 offers new look at anthology format
Anthology television series can either be many different stories with one distinct tone featured in each episode of season (“Twilight Zone,” “Are You Afraid of the Dark?”) or a different story using a set tone that covers one full year of programming (“American Crime,” “American Horror Story”). While the structure may vary and the players change, anthology series tend to take on a distinct tone throughout their run.
That was before “Room 104” came along.
The HBO anthology series has a familiar structure when it comes to different players and stories in each episode, but it tosses out the conventional approach of a similar tone for the run of the series. One week the tale could be deeply dramatic, the next a full comedy. This is the work of Mark and Jay Duplass, who bring their purposely rebellious approach to the creative process to make “Room 104” an original look at a very familiar genre.
“Room 104” is a widely different collection of stories linked together by a single location. Each tale unfolds in a hotel room that changes only slightly to reflect the period in which the story unfolds. In that way, the TV series plays more like a stage production with a different cast each week strutting and fretting through their tale.
That cast includes Hugo Armstrong, Davie-Blue, Melonie Diaz, Jay Duplass, Philip Baker Hall, Sarah Hay, Poorna Jagannathan, Orlando Jones, Ethan and Gavin Kent, Amy Landecker, Konstantin Lavysh, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Keta Meggett, Natalie Morgan, Ross Partridge, Karan Soni, Dendrie Taylor, James Van Der Beek, and Mae Whitman.
The brothers offer the same slightly slanted look at life they have used in more than 20 movies including “Jeff, Who Lives at Home,” “The Puffy Chair” and “Tangerine.” Their approach is to take what’s considered to be mundane and offer a different perspective to induce fear, laughter or tears.
In “Ralphie,” the opening episode of “Room 104,” written by Mark Duplass and directed by Sarah Adina Smith, the tone starts out like any episode of a horror anthology. A babysitter (Melonie Diaz) accepts a job watching a boy named Ralph (Ethan Kent) while the father is out for the evening. The evening takes a turn for the weird when the boy tells the babysitter that his brother “Ralphie” is locked in the bathroom and not allowed out because of his violent tendencies.
As the evening unfolds, the twist in the story is whether or not the evil twin is real or the creation of someone’s overactive imagination.
Compare that to the sixth episode, “Voyeurs,” written and directed by Dayna Hanson, where the story is told through a macabre dance of life. A housekeeper (Dendrie Taylor) rediscovers herself in the items left for her to clean. Each hidden memory unlocks more and more of her younger self who eventually becomes her dance partner in a beautifully staged ballet.
The episode is so rich because of the selection of Hanson as the writer and director. Her background as an experimental stage artist, filmmaker and co-artistic director of the Seattle-based dance theatre company 33 Fainting Spells brings a freshness to the episode. Hanson’s not the typical selection for a director so her hiring is just another example of how the Duplass brothers have taken the familiar and breathed new life into it.
That also goes for the writing. “Ralphie” looks to be headed toward the familiar twist of a traditional horror series, but instead of a twist there’s more a kink. It’s just odd enough to be interesting but not so strange as to be in the outer limits of storytelling.
The same goes for the third episode, “The Knockadoo.” Under the veil of a tale of spiritual activities by a cult priest (Orlando Jones), the script by Carson Mell slowly begins to reflect the deep psychological problems a woman (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) is harbouring while seeking salvation. The real darkness is left open to a variety of interpretations.
The idea of setting the series in a single hotel room is not totally unique as David Lynch’s “Hotel Room” was broadcast by HBO in 1993. Where the Duplass brothers bring their vision to the project is in the way they don’t feel obligated to feed an audience every bit of information but expect viewers to be smart enough (or curious enough) to take the very compelling morsels and create their own final picture.
If you prefer a more standard approach, there are always reruns of “The Twilight Zone” playing somewhere.
Melonie Diaz is the babysitter in the episode "Ralphie" in “Room 104.”