The best thing about Room 104, a new half-hour anthology show created for HBO by Jay and Mark Duplass, is that it’s completely unpredictable: The only unifying factor in the 12-episode series is a faded, unremarkable motel room where each episode is set. The antics within that room could be terrifying (a demonic child who never blinks and torments his babysitter), charming (a wannabe writer in 1997 cajoles his mother into trying to use email), or unsettling (a cult initiation goes very, very wrong). The Duplasses set themselves a handful of ground rules—each episode was filmed in just three days and limited entirely to the space inside the room—but otherwise, anything goes.
The worst thing about Room 104 is that it’s completely inconsistent. The most satisfying episodes function like one-act plays, with well-structured narrative arcs and twists and reveals. The most irritating ones feel overly self-indulgent—transparent opportunities for the writers (Mark Duplass wrote seven out of 12) and directors (a notably diverse group) to play around with form. Still, there’s something thrilling about a show that’s so eager to experiment. With so many shows feeling algorithmically tailored to the preferences of the discerning binge viewer, Room 104 is much less calculated—it would much rather try and fail than, say, offer up a grab-bag of prestige-TV tropes that feels ultimately hollow.
The first episode, “Ralphie,” draws on the Duplasses’ previous work with horror, starring Melonie Diaz as an earnest babysitter. Before she arrives, a father (Ross Partridge) is seen sitting in the motel room with his head in his hands, and the question of what’s troubling him looms ominously after he leaves. There are surprises and jump scares and twists, and if the ending feels less sophisticated than the rest of the episode might merit, it’s at least a gripping and tightly directed 20 minutes. The same can be said for “The Knockadoo,” a dive into a Scientology-like cult initiation involving DVDs, past-life experiences, and a horrific final montage. The strange, chilling story features superb performances by Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris as a woman seeking salvation and American Gods’ Orlando Jones as the snake-oil priest taking her money.
When Room 104 falters, it’s because it’s having so much fun playing around that it forgets that fun might not translate to viewers. “The Internet,” set in 1997, is so script-driven that it could almost function as a radio play. Anish (Karan Soni) is a writer preparing for a huge meeting with his publisher, who realizes he’s left his laptop at his mom’s house. The next 25 minutes involve him painstakingly trying to teach his mother (Poorna Jagannathan) to master Word, Apple shortcuts, and email, in a process that’s as torturous as it sounds. The final five minutes offer a reveal that’s deeply moving but maddeningly brief, given all the effort that’s gone into getting there. Too frequently, Room 104 ends just when it’s getting good.
But “Voyeurs” is something entirely different: a work of interpretive dance directed by the choreographer and filmmaker Dayna Hanson. Again, it plays with time, bringing a tired hotel maid (Dendrie Taylor) face to face with her younger self ( the dancer and Flesh and Bone star Sarah Hay). It’s an extraordinary, dreamlike interlude that feels more like a theatrical performance than an episode of television—which is the whole point. “The Fight,” which comes later in the series, is also primarily physical, presenting a full 15 minutes or so of two female mixed-martial artists brawling to determine how a fight should be thrown. The episode, directed by Megan Griffiths, is intricately staged and shot, but entirely lacking in tension and painfully repetitive.
The final episode, “My Love,” is a slow elegy—a window into a relationship that started in the motel room 56 years ago, and which is revealed to be more complicated than it seems. Philip Baker Hall gives a tender, vulnerable performance as a husband trying to woo his wife (Ellen Geer) all over again. These stories often feel like fragments of ideas jacked into something bigger—sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But they’re less anxiety-inducing than a show like Black Mirror and less cynical than American Horror Story. You might crave a little more attention when it comes to concept, but there’s no denying the creativity behind the ideas. Each work is a drama in miniature, and the room itself is the backdrop, the base, and the precipitating element for what unfolds.
Which could be a horrible idea—a work of television limited to the same rigid environment as a stage play—but somehow isn’t. Hotel rooms bring myriad connotations: affairs, escapes, work trips, assignations. They’re transitory spaces where the only constant is that people never stick around. The appeal of Room 104 comes from the same principle: The viewer’s time with these odd, compelling characters is only temporary. The best episodes, like the best people, are the ones that leave you wanting more.