Hit-and-miss TV for the Tinder Generation

'Room 104,' a new 12-part anthology from indie filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass, offers a dazzling array of genres, moods and actors – all set in a single motel room

Creators and executive producers Mark (L) and Jay Duplass attend a panel for the television series 'Room 104' during the TCA HBO Summer Press Tour in Beverly Hills, California, July 26, 2017.
MARIO ANZUONI/REUTERS

Thank god for the Duplass brothers.

Not only have they, along with HBO, given us “Room 104,” an exciting new 12-part anthology, they have saved me (and you) from “Ozark,” a Netflix show so bleak that the prospect of having to review it almost drove me to extreme measures.

In “Room 104,” independent filmmakers Mark and Jay Duplass present a dozen unrelated and unconnected episodes, all of which take place in a nondescript motel room somewhere in America. Anyone familiar with the Duplass brothers’ work would inevitably have had some preconceived notion of what to expect from this new show: something quirky, some implausibly clever dialogue and just a touch of sentimentality.

Those people must have been feeling rather foolish by the end of the first episode. I know I was. Written by Mark and guest-directed by Sarah Adina Smith, “Ralphie” was a psychological thriller in the style of “The Twilight Zone” or “Tales of the Unexpected.” In a taut 23 minutes, viewers are led toward a series of increasingly disturbing possibilities – only for the denouement to be more shocking than I, for one, imagined.

According to Mark Duplass, HBO gave him and his brother a free hand to come up with a new show, after their previous joint venture, “Togetherness,” was cancelled after two seasons. The only condition? Make it cheap. And what could be cheaper than a single-room set, with only a couple of characters in each episode and zero expenditure on dragons?

Far from limiting the show, however, the one-room set frees it. Since each episode is a self-contained unit – much like a motel room – each guest director brings a unique perspective. In that respect, one can certainly understand what the Duplass brothers meant when they described “Room 104” as the Tinder of television.

“In the era of peak TV where you guys have so much shit to watch we want ‘Room 104’ to be your casual dating experience,” Mark said. “You pop in, you watch one episode, have some sex with that episode, and you don’t even have to come back.”

A man using the dating app Tinder, July 5, 2015
Tsering Topgyal/AP

While some may condemn the promiscuousness of that approach, I welcome it.

One of my major gripes with the aforementioned “Ozark” and similar shows is the level of emotional commitment viewers are asked to invest to enjoy it – the number of dislikeable characters  you have to meet, the complexity of the story and the implausibility of plot twists.

With “Room 104,” that isn’t an issue. It’s aired in the old-fashioned way, not dumped on viewers in a binge-inducing pile. You don’t need to remember from week to week which character said what, and who is related to whom. This is one-night-stand TV in an era when even one night is too much commitment. It’s a 23-minute-stand.

Taking a risk

I would not like to see an entire season of episodes in the same style as “Ralphie.” The genre of bizarre and inexplicable happenings, of psychological twists and shocking revelations has been done. But the Duplasses promise us a dozen episodes that, without the same setting, would be unrecognizable as belonging to the same anthology.

There are sentimental episodes. The finale, also written by Mark but directed by Marta Cunningham (who directed one episode of the Bravo network’s “Imposters,” starring Israeli actress Inbar Lavi) is the story of a couple in their 80s who return to the same hotel room where they spent their honeymoon.

And there are what can only be described as avant-garde episodes, such as “Voyeurs,” in which the narrative is told exclusively through the medium of dance.

Clearly, the Duplass brothers are taking a risk. By embracing so many genres, they are exposing themselves to criticism from lovers of those genres. Jay may have described the show as Russian Roulette for viewers, but the same can be said for its creators.

If viewers happen upon an episode that fails to entice them, what are the chances that they will tune in for a second time? Would a viewer hoping for more “Twilight Zone” episodes be interested in a geriatric romance or some terpsichorean experiment? Maybe that’s the charm of this anthology. Maybe the hit-or-miss element of it all is the “narrative arc” that all good television shows are supposed to have.

Instead of seasons-long arcs and characters reappearing in prequels to shows on which they were killed a decade ago, the Duplass brothers have embraced the ephemeral. They celebrate the short-lived.

I certainly don’t expect to enjoy every episode of “Room 104.” That would be an unrealistic expectation, given the almost manic swings in tone and content, genre and cast. But I am happy to be along for the ride.

“Worst case scenario, we have an interesting failure. Best case scenario, it works,” Mark told the New York Post recently. “And that’s really the spirit of the show.”