(Caution: mild spoilers about HBO's series Room 104 ahead!)
You might never be able to look at a hotel room the same way after watching Room 104.
The new HBO series, from brothers and Togetherness creators Jay and Mark Duplass, sets 12 episodes inside a nondescript, fairly blasé hotel room (in the middle of nowhere, America at an indeterminate time period) and tells a number of stories from a multitude of characters. Each story is completely unrelated to the previous, making this anthology series more akin to Black Mirror or even The Twilight Zone than say, the anthology series Fargo; you can jump in and watch any of the stories without feeing like you missed anything.
"Swipe right or swipe left, we don't give a s***," Mark Duplass added.
That said, you should absolutely watch each one because while some are better than others, the tales are compelling, deeply engrossing and in a few cases so haunting that they'll linger in your psyche long after you've "checked out" of the series. And while Room 104 isn't technically straight-ahead horror, a few of the stories' subject matter, pacing and suspenseful direction may have you getting up to turn on another light or ensure your door really is locked.
That's especially true of the first episode "Ralphie." In that one, a babysitter played by Melonie Diaz is left in charge of a boy who ever so gradually reveals himself to be troubled, to say the least, and by the end either a master manipulator, a demon spawn, both or neither. Another, "The Knockadoo," has Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris playing a woman looking for some spiritual guidance from what appears to be a charismatic cult leader played by Orlando Jones — that meeting once again carefully winding the viewer into a ball of nerves and anxiety as it unfolds.
"It's great for us to be able to get weird and have HBO give us money to be able to do it," Mark Duplass says.
Toying with your emotions is one of Room 104's enchanting qualities: it's not just the pacing of the storytelling that's gripping, but the creative challenge of stuffing a complete story into a half-hour slot that's so impressive. Though Mark Duplass wrote seven of the episodes (and it has a handful of directors, including seven women), the series maintains its surreal tone throughout due in part to the blandness of the setting and dreamy filter applied over each episode that gives it consistency.
Setting several stories in one place isn't exactly a groundbreaking idea but Room 104's cleverness lies not so much in the concept, but its ability to successfully capitalize on the intrigue. And as wildly unpredictable as the stories are, the setting is a reminder that spaces have just as many stories to tell as people do.
Room 104 debuts Friday, July 28 at 11:30/10:30c on HBO.
Additional reporting by Lindsay Macdonald.