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Room 104, HBO’s exciting new anthology, crams The Twilight Zone into a single hotel room

It’s a funny, scary, dance-filled treat that returns to TV’s past while reflecting the medium’s future.

Room 104
Room 104 turns an entire episode over to modern dance.
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

For some viewers, HBO’s Room 104 — a new half-hour anthology drama from the Duplass brothers, the folks behind HBO’s Togetherness and many, many indie films — will be like nails on a chalkboard. The stories will feel too small and intimate, or too weird, since the show veers wildly from interpersonal drama to genre fun. The show’s single setting — a hotel room in an unnamed hotel in an unnamed city — will feel too claustrophobic. They’ll wonder why the only thing that connects one episode to the next is that one hotel room.

But for some viewers, myself included, Room 104 will be an often thrilling look at what TV can be when it looks to its past and finds ways to update old formats for the future.

It’s not the best new show of the year or anything — anthology dramas are, by their very nature, too hit and miss to win any sort of consistency game. But the hits rise to sublime heights, and even the misses are intriguing on the level of, “I can see what they were going for here.”

Most importantly, Room 104 feels like a prediction of where TV might be headed in the next several years. As serialization takes over and becomes the bland, boring default, a hard snap back to standalone episodic content is on the way.

First, though, let me tell you what this thing actually is.

The only regular character in Room 104 is in the title

Room 104
We peek into the room in Room 104 across the decades.

In our modern age, “anthology drama” often means “anthological miniseries” — a show like American Horror Story or True Detective that tries to capture a consistent vibe or tone or genre, even as each season features a new story and characters. (The first season of FX’s American Crime Story focused on the O.J. Simpson murder trial, for instance, while the next installment will concern the 1997 murder of Gianni Versace.)

But classic anthology dramas — think shows like The Twilight Zone — changed up their subject matter, characters, and even genres from episode to episode. The only connective tissue was the idea that you were, say, entering the Twilight Zone, where weird things could happen. Beyond that, the sky was the limit.

There was a pretty big problem with this format, however, one that made it more and more expensive to produce: Each and every episode required new actors and new sets and new costumes and on and on. In the early days of television, that was fairly easy to manage, because studio backlots had a lot more standing sets. If The Twilight Zone wanted to do a Western episode, well, there were plenty of “Western town” sets around Los Angeles. Now, that’s less and less true.

I have no idea if Mark and Jay Duplass (the creators of Room 104) knew they were solving this problem when they created Room 104, or if they just solved it by accident, but by setting all of the show’s stories in the same hotel room, they remove any need for wild setting shifts. They have one set, which can be dressed to reflect a variety of different time periods, and all they have to do is bring their actors into that space and turn them loose.

Even better, they’re using that basic framework to support up-and-coming directors and performers, rather than just hiring a bunch of their famous Hollywood pals. The brothers have long been supportive of emerging Hollywood talent, and that penchant is fully on display in Room 104. Mark Duplass wrote several episodes, and Jay Duplass stars in one. But the brothers didn’t direct any episodes, instead choosing to turn them over to a variety of promising newcomers, who put their own spins on each story.

Similarly, while you’ll recognize handful of the series’ actors (mostly of the “character actor” variety, like Orlando Jones and consummate “hey, it’s that guy!” Philip Baker Hall), Room 104’s players tend to be great actors you likely haven’t seen in other projects.

It’s easy to imagine how this experiment might have failed. After all, confining every episode to the exact same space — we never even see what’s just outside the room’s door — could have resulted in a slow, stultifying series that feels trapped by its own self-imposed constrictions. And there are certainly episodes that strain against these bonds, just a bit. But for the most part, the restrictions prove remarkably freeing.

Room 104 can do things no other TV show can do

I’ve described lots and lots of TV shows like “no other show on TV.” But the more times I’ve said it — and meant it — the more I’ve realized that it’s not really all that hard to break new ground in a TV universe where appealing to an ultra-specific niche of TV critics and the readers who follow them faithfully can get you a four- or five-season run. What I’m drawn to, more and more, are programs that don’t run away from what TV does well, or what it’s always been, but run toward it, then figure out ways to innovate within those restrictions.

So I won’t say that Room 104 looks like no other show on TV, because, well, Black Mirror (similarly varied in its approach) is right there on Netflix, and in the early ‘90s, HBO broadcast a very similar miniseries named Hotel Room from David Lynch. (There, the employees of the hotel remained the same across several decades of time, but the room’s occupants changed. Here, we barely see the hotel’s staff.) But the things Room 104 finds to do that are innovative feel all the more thrilling for how strange it seems that they’re happening in a standard hotel room.

Room 104
Room 104 turns one episode into a genuine sports movie.

By this I mean that the Duplasses rightly note that the confines of just such a room are one of those public spaces that collapse the usual boundaries we use to sort people. Gender, race, sexuality, class, age, religion, and other signifiers fall by the wayside if you’re able to rent a nice-but-not-that-nice hotel room, and that allows Room 104 to play host to everyone from beleaguered babysitters to MMA fighters just scraping by and hoping to get a big payout to an elderly couple celebrating over 50 years of marriage.

Not every story has to be for everyone, and not every story even has to work, because the very next week will bring something entirely new. And in the democratizing space of the hotel room, everything collapses in on itself. All of these characters, no matter how different, sleep in the same bed at the end of the night.

Intriguingly, the show’s creative personnel also use this idea to play with genre. The Duplasses are known for their love of tiny, intimate stories about emotional turmoil, often among couples. But they’ve got a weirder, wilder streak as well, as evidenced in some of their features (including the pseudo-slasher movie Baghead and the sci-fi drama The One I Love, which they produced). Thus, Room 104 dips into outright horror a couple of times, as well as dark comedy and even an honest-to-God sports movie (yes, confined to a single hotel room).

And in the series’ most unexpected installment — “Voyeurs,” airing September 1 and written and directed by Dayna Hanson — the show becomes, for 25 minutes, a ballet, about a housekeeper cleaning the room while imagining the life of its current guest, before things take a turn and the audience slowly realizes just where her flights of fancy are turning. There is one line of dialogue — “Housekeeping!” — and then an entire episode told via dance. Where else are you going to see that?

We’ve lived through a Golden Age of Television and then a Platinum Age of Television and then an era of Peak TV, largely defined by the idea that “serialization” equals “complexity.” But that’s a completely arbitrary distinction, and you can point to any number of stupid, heavily serialized shows that challenge it.

I would hesitate to say Room 104 completely shatters that idea — at least one of the episodes is so messy I can’t quite make sense of it — but it’s a breath of fresh air nonetheless. Imagine stumbling upon two women dancing an elaborate tale of sorrow and loss, no dialogue, just music and movement, late on a Friday night, and being captivated by it. Room 104 captures that feeling only sporadically, but that it does at all makes me hopeful, both for it and for television’s future.

Room 104 airs Fridays on HBO at 11:30 pm Eastern.