HBO’s Room 104 de­liv­ers short, strange won­ders

The Globe and Mail (Ottawa/Quebec Edition) - - ARTS - JOHN DOYLE

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.

(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.

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