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The Constrained Elegance of Room 104

The Duplass brothers' new HBO series shows how to do a lot with a little.

Courtesy HBO

Bottle episodes of television—episodes that take place on a single set, with minimal production fanfare—began in the 1960s as shortcuts. Showrunners had locked budgets, and if they wanted to set aside a chunk of funds for the grand finale, they had to find ways to cut corners mid-season. Most of the shows that first produced bottle episodes were camp classics of science fiction: Star Trek, The Twilight Zone, the original Dr. Who. These shows often blew out their funding on glowing lights and metallic costumes, and so they had to compensate with episodes that took place inside the spaceship, or in a hospital room, or on a shuttle bus inhabited by an invisible monster. But what began as a banal fiduciary constraint evolved over the years into an exciting formal challenge for television creators: there’s nothing like trying to write your way out of a cage to enliven a dull season. Bottle episodes tend to be dialogue heavy—what else is there to do but talk?—and often feel more like theater than primetime. Every character pushes their persona to its limits. In one episode of Friends where no one could manage to get ready for a party, Phoebe is covered in hummus; Joey trolls Chandler by rubbing his crotch on all of his pants; and Ross and Rachel fight about punctuality and prissiness. Trapped on a single set, the characters have nowhere to run from themselves. Bottle episodes are about compression, about squeezing a plot into a smaller and smaller space until it bears fruit. When they are successful, they allow actors to forge a deeper bond with the audience. When they fail, they are mostly boring and claustrophobic, and they show the cracks in a show that may already be on the wane. As they say, if you can’t make someone laugh in an empty room, then perhaps you aren’t all that funny.

Room 104, the new anthology series from the ever-prolific Mark and Jay Duplass, is a show made up entirely of bottle episodes. Every installment of the show takes place in the same eerie motel room—two full beds, shabby carpeting—and was shot in a maximum of three days. These constraints were imposed as a way to flush out fresh ideas from writers and directors, like the prestige cable equivalent of Oulipian writing exercises that prompt students to write to a metronome or without using the word “is.” The Duplass brothers have shown that they like to mix it up, that they would be bored with any one approach to putting stories on the screen: They made a highbrow yuppie drama with Togetherness, they made a cartoon for adults called Animals, they were at the vanguard of mumblecore with Cyrus and The Puffy Chair, and they have produced other formal risks, like the indie film Tangerine, which was shot entirely on an iPhone. They seem to have a ceaseless, churning need to produce, and a shared short attention span, which makes Room 104 the ideal playground for their type of experimental eagerness. Each episode is very short, and has nothing to do with the others that have come before or after; the only consistency is the drab set and the fact that each snackable installment airs on Friday nights for the next twelve weeks.

What this means is that Room 104 should be viewed less as a single show and more as a showcase, a collection of very short films from various writers and directors given a prompt and then set loose. There are horror films, comedies, romances, and supernatural science fiction parables, all shoved under the same marquee. And like any potpourri film festival, some of the entries are stronger than others. Mark Duplass wrote seven out of the twelve episodes, but perhaps the sharpest dialogue comes from Carson Mell, a comedy writer whose previous credits include work on Silicon Valley and Eastbound & Down. Mell wrote the show’s decidedly unfunny third episode, “The Knockadoo,” in which a troubled woman (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris) meets with a Scientology-adjacent priest (Orlando Jones) in the motel for a kind of cosmic cleansing ritual. The two change into long white robes and begin to watch a grainy DVD about “transcendence,” and the scene just becomes weirder from there. It is clear that the woman is trying to release past trauma and that the priest is a huckster (he asks for the salvation money upfront), and that she is being taken advantage of inside the confines of the darkened space. The episode culminates in a gory twist, so violent and shocking that it continues to replay in my head when I try to sleep. The Duplasses are horror aficionados, and it shows. In the first episode, “Ralphie,” a demon child straight out of The Omen attacks his babysitter. Because the episodes are so short, the best don’t have any flab on them; they press go and keep speeding ahead through the end. “The Knockadoo” reminded me of a campfire ghost story, a grisly legend designed to make you check your bathtub to make sure no one is hiding there. It made me wish Shirley Jackson were alive to take a Room 104 assignment; the form is perfect for highlighting the creaky and the macabre. Like in her best work, Room 104’s bottle episode format means that the characters are left alone with the dark truths of themselves.

While other installments of the show are not as jarring or propulsive as the micro-horror stories, I found myself admiring the show for taking big, sentimental swings around the room. “My Love” stars Philip Baker Hall and Ellen Geer as a couple in their eighties trying to rekindle their youthful passion, and it is poignant to watch octogenarians fumble with their bodies like hungry teenagers. The episode is directed with a deep tenderness by Marta Cunningham, who made the heartbreaking HBO documentary Valentine Road about a murdered transgender teenager. “The Fight” features two female MMA rookies who rent the motel room in order to choreograph a better fight scene—directed by up-and-comer Megan Griffiths, the episode is a physical romp, limbs akimbo everywhere. To the Duplass’ credit, out of twelve episodes, seven feature women directors, a few making their television debuts. Room 104, given its tight length and shooting schedule, is the ideal onboarding vehicle for new talent. The Duplasses, who have for a long while served as ballasts and champions of indie filmmaking, created a pipeline with this show to bring new voices to HBO. Like the characters, the contrained format enhances and highlights directors, forcing them to show us who they really are.

One of those previously-unheralded voices that I discovered via Room 104 is Seattle-based choreographer Dayna Hanson, who wrote and directed the sixth episode, “The Voyeurs,” which is a wordless dance film in which the motel housekeeper does a modern ballet with her younger self (Flesh and Bones star Sarah Kay). The entire sequence feels like a mirage, or a dream dance, like the technicolor trip from Singing in the Rain transposed onto seedier surroundings. The episode is beautiful, and also like nothing I’ve seen on television before. Before, television had never showcased a half-hour of lyrical dance, and as it turns out, we were the worse for it. Room 104 is most important as a vessel, as a show that can expand and contract to fit bold new visions. Hotel rooms are plain; it is the guests that enliven them. It is the same with Room 104; I hope that, if there is a second season, the Duplass brothers bring in a new handful of diverse, weird, eccentric writers and directors who want to push the boundaries of the space even more. They’ve thought beyond the bottle, and I hope they keep pushing outside of the box.