As filmmakers, Mark and Jay Duplass embrace a naïveté that’s both refreshing and constricting. They resist the ironic overkill that governs much of contemporary pop culture, yet their sentimentality can slip into preciousness, eliding nuance for earnest punchlines that often boil down to “be nice”—a laudable yet un-fascinating mission statement. In this fashion, their films, particularly Jeff, Who Lives at Home, are reminiscent of Rod Serling’s much thornier writing, and their new anthology series, Room 104, suggests they’re aware of this association and are doubling down on it.
Each episode of Room 104 involves a different set of characters who enact a drama in a drab motel room. The episodes pivot on duets, sometimes between a single character and a voice on a phone, recalling the revelatory simplicity of one of the Duplasses’ early short films, This Is John. The series aims to channel the loneliness, danger, and regret that an inexpensive motel can conjure, and the realism of the setting is almost steroidal, so consciously “universal” it seems fake and stagey in its faux warmth—like an actual motel room. The characters represent self-consciously varied walks of life, and the show’s genre consistently adapts to their respective moods.
Despite the many outward differences between the episodes—which cover subjects such as psychological horror and alienation, autumnal nostalgia, athletic exploitation and sexism, and the tensions between an American-raised son and his immigrant mother—they cumulatively taste alike, as if the same cake batter was poured into different molds. With a few notable exceptions, the characters are wisps who utter functional dialogue that bolsters a high concept, which is quickly introduced and discarded to make room for a new gimmick in the following episode.
The Duplasses don’t appear to trust their central notion of the motel room as a signifier of American rootlessness. The setting only truly matters to one of the stories, which are larded with distracting flourishes. In “The Fight,” directed by Megan Griffiths, two mixed martial artists (Natalie Morgan and Keta Meggett) discover that they’re staying in the same motel the night before they’re scheduled to face off; they rig a side bet as compensation for their pitiful pay, staging a practice battle in Room 104 that turns real. Regrettably, this tight and resonant premise is gummed up with a pointless flashback structure that kills the episode’s momentum.
“Voyeurs,” written and directed by Dayna Hanson, is driven by a bold, initially moving formal experiment that grows tedious. A housekeeper (Dendrie Taylor) cleans Room 104, collecting a litter of Chinese food, red wine, and ceremonial cake, which conjures memories of herself as a young woman (Sarah Hay), who haunts her as she tidies up. The two enact a silent, balletic dance that symbolizes a reckoning with a past; Taylor’s lonely visage is contrasted with Hay’s haughty sensuality, and the women do suggest halves of a single warring personality, with a terrific twist ending shining a clever light of hope. But the dance, cast in noir hues of red and blue, has little lift or tonal variation, and the choreography is too insistent on inviting the audience’s complicity with the characters. As in many of Room 104’s lesser episodes, such as the maudlin “The Internet,” there’s no sense of playfulness or spontaneity.
A nasty streak pervades in Room 104’s two best episodes, which mine the horror genre for a caustic bitterness that gives the humanist Duplass template a welcome shot in the arm. In “Ralphie,” directed by Sarah Adina Smith, a babysitter (Melonie Diaz) arrives at Room 104 to watch Ralph (Ethan Kent), who insists that his evil brother is hiding in the bathroom. The episode generates ingenious suspense entirely though a single conversation: Ralph gradually revels the extent of atrocities that may or may not define his family, as close-ups of the bathroom door attain an aura of dread.
In “The Knockadoo,” written by Carson D. Mell and directed by Smith, Orlando Jones gives a funny and hypnotic performance as a cult priest who exposes disturbing recesses of pain and resentment in a new client (Sameerah Lugmaan-Harris). Their protracted duet fragments into shards of blasphemous, free-associative imagery that suggests the most unhinged passages of Tales from the Hood and The Lords of Salem, attesting to the freedom that Room 104 can enjoy when untethered from the pressure to affirm the bonds of humankind. Yet, there’s something remote and stiflingly preordained about the series, which suggests Playhouse 90 cocooned in a derivative formal polish that stripes it of grit and uncertainty.