HBO’s Room 104 delivers short, strange wonders
The anthology series’ second season contains little masterpieces of concise storytelling
One of my counterparts who writes about TV in the United States recently came up with a plan. He describes it as, “A new, recurring set of recommendations based on how much, or how little, time you have to watch.” It’s a great plan. In answer to the persistent question, “What should I watch?” the key is whether the questioner wants to see 12 hours, just six episodes of under an hour, or a 30-minute drama. At this time of the year we’re all too busy. Too little time to do all that’s required in the preholiday period, and never enough time to indulge in contemplation or entertaining drama or comedy that is substantial rather than slight. Here’s a suggestion.
Room 104 (episodes air Fridays and Sundays, midnight, HBO Canada, and on-demand) returned for a second season recently and each episode is just 30 minutes long. Some are as short as 21 minutes. They vary from the desolately funny to the macabre to the strange-but-melancholy. Some are little masterpieces of concise storytelling. An anthology series, it’s the work of brothers Jay and Mark Duplass (they made the movie Creep and the series Togetherness). The simplicity is both old-school and audacious. Each separate story is set in one room – Room 104 in a motel somewhere. It is to be emphasized that it is not exactly a full-scale horror anthology. It tends to disturb rather than frighten. Sometimes there’s a twist at the end, and sometimes you sense exactly where it’s going but want to see it done in the contained style that the limitations command.
The episode airing on Sunday, called The Return, is about despair and done with unnerving rigour. What happens is this – a mother (Stephanie Allynne) and her young daughter, Elle (Abby Ryder Fortson of the Ant-Man movies), are in Room 104, where the woman’s husband and father of Elle died of a sudden heart attack some time earlier. The dynamic is about loss, and the mother is deeply worried about her daughter’s understanding of what happened.
Elle has her own plan. A Harry Potter fan, she insists she can cast a spell that will allow her to hear from dad through the bed in which he died. Her mother frets, the distance between fiction and reality being invisible to her daughter, a child trying to deal with rage at the loss of her dad. In minutes, though, something powerful is unlocked and it is not what you expect.
Even with the stories confined to very limited space, some episodes are visually arresting, as the directors rise to the challenge of restricted space. At the same time, the beauty of the terse dialogue commands the viewer to extrapolate wildly, to allow the mind to imagine what bought these characters to this confined space. Further, the theatrical quality of the production, the simple room being like a stage, frees actors to embrace anger, joy and paranoia with gusto, but nothing goes over the top because the narrative is so tightly wound and short.
The episode Mr. Mulvahill (which you’ll find on-demand) begins with an obviously trou- bled man Jim (Rainn Wilson) waiting in the room, playing Beethoven’s Ode to Joy on a trumpet. It quickly becomes clear that he’s waiting for his old school teacher to come to talk to him. He’s commanded Mr. Mulvahill (Frank Birney) to discuss an incident at school from years ago. The teacher is wary when he arrives. All the elements of a confrontation about abuse seem bottled up inside Jim. But that isn’t what transpires.
An episode called FOMO is a ghoulish take on family dynamics, one that erupts when a sister isn’t invited to a birthday party.
The series is a fine achievement, especially in this age of sprawling series that seem to swell and inflate constantly. Here, that plain room becomes a large arena for storytelling. And not a single second can be nonessential. At 30 minutes, it fits your tight schedule.
Also airing this weekend
Take Light (Sunday, documentary Channel 9 p.m.) takes us to Nigeria, Africa’s biggest oil producer. Only about half the population has electricity, mind you. The doc, splendidly made by Shasha Nakhai and full of arid humour, is about how people cope and what they try to do, dealing with a privatized power company. We meet Martins, a polite and religious family man who is obliged to cut off service to non-paying customers, and Godwin, who freelances as an electrician reconnecting the people who are cut off. It’s about the staggering level of corruption and ingenuity of people who are trying to find a better way.
Some episodes of Room 104 are visually arresting despite being confined to a small motel room.