Has HBO Found Its Own Black Mirror In Room 104?

Photo: Jordin Althaus/HBO.
Television is so packed right now, it’s impossible to understand what every new show is actually about right off the bat. That’s why people need comparisons. Oh, Netflix is premiering a series about a mild-mannered brunette father and husband who’s actually caught up in the drug trade? It could be the next Breaking Bad (spoiler alert: it’s not). The same easy association could be made between HBO’s latest bizarro, celebrity cameo-filled anthology series Room 104, which premieres Friday night, and Netflix’s cult favorite anthology series Black Mirror. Except, just like in the case of Jason Bateman’s Ozark and Breaking Bad, the comparison is flimsy at best.
The direct aims of these two series couldn’t be further from each other. Black Mirror uses its standalone drama episodes to explore how society's obsession with and need for technology will eventually rip us apart in various terrifying, indelible ways. Season 3’s “Playtest” forces us to question what’s real and what’s absolutely not, as augmented reality continues to take over the digital world. The same season’s “Men Against Fire” took the same premise of “Can You Really Trust What You’re Seeing Anymore Thanks To Technology?” and adds a layer of military criticism and zombie-vampire-nightmare creature monsters.
Room 104 doesn’t have nearly as critical an aim. Instead, the Mark and Jay Duplass-created series hopes to reveal the myriad of bizarre, sometimes scary, and always deeply human things that can occur in a single motel room. It’s the kind of motel we’ve all existed in, since it has no name, no specific location, no Motel 6 sign to be seen out of the window. We don’t even hear any sounds from outside. Whatever happens in Room 104 stays in Room 104. And that’s the point, since the anthology is meant to question what exactly happens behind closed doors.
The way Room 104 goes about its goal of understanding what happens between people when no one is looking puts it diametrically opposed to Black Mirror. While 104 has a very general aim, the Netflix favorite consistently hammers the exact same deeply nuanced topic: the collision of “humanity’s greatest innovations” and “darkest instincts,” as the show’s Netflix explainer reads. On the other hand, no two episodes of 104 explicitly deal with the same theme at all. Friday's premiere, “Ralphie,” gives us the claustrophobic tale of a babysitter trapped in Room 104 with an adorable young boy named, Ralph, who’s terrified of someone locked in the bathroom named, you guessed it, Ralphie. What spins out from there is a thriller that investigates the duality of everyone around you. Also, for a reason I cannot reveal, there’s a surprise shock of blood. In the next episode made available to journalists, Orlando Jones-starring third installment “The Knockadoo,” all meditations on personality plurality are gone. In its place is a look at the extreme measures people use to deal with a lifetime of repressed traumatic memories. Later in the season there’s a brutal, bloody martial arts battle, a time-bending dance sequence, and an elderly couple’s upsetting relationship drama. None of these episodes come from the same emotional, or intellectual place.
Although Room 104 actually shares very little in common with technophobic Black Mirror, it does probably owe its existence to the Emmy-nominated series. The Duplass brothers originally came up with the idea for their new HBO show over a decade ago, but their agents “told them no one would watch an anthology show,” the collaborators told The Daily Beast. Wondering why they got the green light now? “Honestly, we got more popular. And anthologies got more popular. Like Black Mirror came out and we were like, ‘Oh, maybe this will work!’” The League alum Mark told the publication.
Although we can thank Black Mirror and its modern-day anthology brethren for Room 104’s birth, if we’re going to compare it to a show, we have to compare it to the original weirdo anthology classic, The Twilight Zone. Room 104 already feels like an eerie place from the beginning. As the babysitter (Melonie Diaz) of premiere “Ralphie” adjusts to her new surroundings, it’s clear something is going to go in a truly strange direction at any moment. The episode lives up to that assumption by the time the credits roll. That atmosphere of an impending unexpected ending remains throughout the entire series’ first season, up until the octogenarian-focused finale “My Love,” starring Philip Baker Hall and Ellen Geer. Everyone who’s ever watched Twilight Zone similarly knows you should hold your breath until the very last second while watching the iconic series.
Despite all the comparisons, it’s probably best to let Room 104 stand on its own — the Twilight Zone didn’t exist in one surprisingly large motel room after all. Instead, the Duplass brothers have managed to create something completely new, and deeply weird, for television. And considering how many copy cat shows are populating networks right now, that’s definitely worth celebrating.
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