The Duplass Brothers Invite Us Into ‘Room 104’ For Another Season of Strangeness
HBO is still chasing after “Black Mirror” with season two of “Room 104.” Packaged as an anthology of strange and eerie shorts, some running no longer than 20 minutes, it’s inevitably a mixed offering. But when it works it delivers a “Twilight Zone” good time. What helps is that the episodes are diverse, never repeating or staying too close to one sole theme. A brilliant move is to air this show in a late night slot, because it has the perfect atmosphere of something creepy you can discover while channel surfing during a bout of insomnia. Creators Jay Duplass and Mark Duplass know how to make us laugh and get under our skin with these compact doses of bizarre fantasy. As with the first season, they mix up the genres and narratives, but never lose the overall ambiance that makes each episode memorable.
Season 2 begins with two episodes that are both recognizable but pulled off relatively well. Once again we are back in the mysterious room 104 of some hotel located somewhere in TV land. The first offering is is “FOMO,” about a small group of friends holding a birthday party for Gracie (Charlyne Yi). Her other two companions are Matty (Tom Lenk) and Tanya (Pia Shah). But into the get together crashes Gracie’s older sister Karen (Jennifer Lafleur). Karen apparently harbors some kind of old resentment or possessiveness going back to when Gracie was first adopted by their parents. The older sister instantly ruins the party by harassing Matty, who is gay and Tanya. The party will soon spiral into mayhem and possibly murder. The second episode, “Mr. Mulvahill,” is also about nurtured scars as a lonely man named Jim (Rainn Wilson) sets up a confrontation with his old elementary school teacher, Mr. Mulvahill (Frank Birney). Jim wants to confront the old man about an incident from long ago which he is sure changed him forever. He begins recounting old incidents from the past, building up to finally revealing what it was Mulvahill did that rattled his mind.
While shot in soft lights and sometimes neon glows, “Room 104” actually tends to be a lighter affair than its obvious influence, Netflix’s cult smash “Black Mirror,” a show which truly descends (brilliantly) into the darkest depths of human experience and technology. The Duplass Brothers like to tease the audience and bring out a chuckle or two, while at the same time making us get slightly uneasy. The characters they craft also come alive well because of the smart casting. “Room 104” tends to feature some great talents. Last season had notable names like Philip Baker Hall and Ellen Geer. This season will feature guest appearances by Michael Shannon, Judy Greer, Mahershala Ali, Dolly Wells, and Brian Tyree Henry. Abby Ryder Fortson of “Ant-Man” fame will also take on a role. There will even be a musical episode this season, meaning the Duplass Bros are getting ambitious in their tackling of styles (again reminiscent of what Charlie Brooker is doing over at Netflix). This season begins with a strong variety, with two premiere episodes that are effective, while tackling different kinds of narratives.
In “FOMO” the episode inside the nefarious room begins with some relatable millennial humor, as Gracie sits down with a face mask on and laments, “I’m 30 and I drive Lyft!” Matty and Tanya start smoking some weed, everyone seems happy until Karen appears and gradually we realize how insane she is. While the episode can suffer from being slightly predictable, it still creates that feeling of being stuck in an awkward situation with a completely unwanted person. Karen starts teasing Matty about his sexuality, asking if he’s ever been with a woman or if breasts turn him on. Written poorly this scene would be a disaster, but it’s pulled off well because the performances become creepy and genuinely uncomfortable. Little by little Karen takes care of the two friends, making sure to keep Gracie all to herself for the final, bloody conclusion.
“Room 104” is also smart in the way it tells its stories sparsely. Each episode is around 30 minutes, some even clocking in at 20. The casts are small and effective. Season one had some really good, two character stories including a memorable episode about an elderly couple spending a romantic evening together that turns haunting and sad. “Mr. Mulvahill” this season is a tight narrative where suspense builds because the secret of just what Jim witnessed as a child is kept from us until the very end. He shares memory after memory, but keeps the secret close to the chest. Usually with this kind of story we expect the narrative to go a certain way, to some horrific revelation. But the Duplass Brothers do something unique and provide a twist so wild, we scarcely believe it. Let’s just say what begins as a student confronting his old teacher swerves into a story avenue worthy of “Star Trek.” Not kidding. Jim is certain he witnessed Mr. Mulvahill teleport. The writing handles the detail quite well, not exaggerating any of it. It is almost like a good metaphor for when we remember a fleeting moment from childhood, and go back to it over the years, trying to make sense of it.
Like a nice collection of short stories, “Room 104” is one of those shows you can check out for half an hour of entertaining strangeness. It’s a late night inheritor of those shows that were always too weird for primetime. But in the age of peak TV, weird can be far superior to being bland.
“Room 104” season two premiered Nov. 9 and airs Fridays at 11:30 p.m. ET on HBO.