The nice thing about episodic anthology TV shows is that even if you’ve never seen any of Room 104, you can still jump in and watch just one. You don’t have to go back and watch the first several episodes, although there are certainly other highlights. You don’t have to watch more of the season unless the mood strikes. But even if you skip the rest of the show, it’s absolutely worth taking half an hour and sitting down with Room 104’s fifth episode, “The Internet,” airing tonight on HBO.
In Room 104, each episode is a self-contained story that takes place entirely inside the eponymous hotel room, and the stories are a range of tones, styles, and genres. That said, the first several episodes are all some variation on “disturbing” or “creepy.” There’s a cult leader and remembered trauma, and a couple luring a pizza boy into their sexual-fantasy scenario. Two episodes are ghost stories, and one of them is centered on probably the most classic scary story figure — the uncanny child. So while Room 104’s episodes are different kinds of stories about different kinds of people, most of them trend toward horror.
In its own way, episode five is also a horror story. The premise is devastatingly simple — it’s 1997, and a young Indian man has secured a meeting with a literary agent. All he needs is to quickly finish his book, and in order to do that, he needs a copy of the mostly finished manuscript. And in order to get a copy of the manuscript, he just needs his mother to email it to him from the laptop he left at her house. So he picks up the phone and calls her, explaining how to turn the computer on. “Okay, I want you to tell me what windows are open,” he tells her. “All the windows are closed,” she tells him. “It’s very cold outside.”
The glorious first portion of the episode is about the slow, dawning realization that yes, this is actually what this story is about. All Anish needs is to tell his mother how to email a document, and he has to explain it to her over the phone. It’s stultifyingly mundane, it’s small, and it’s very simple. It’s also much more horrifying than any creepy child with an alter ego, or freaky cult leader, or ghost of a dead friend. “The Internet” is a joke on a horror story and a too-real horror all wrapped up together, both hysterical and also scarily, trivially plausible.
It’s a great idea for a small story to tell in a small space, but the episode is really carried by the performances. There are only two characters – Anish, played by Karan Soni, and his mother Divya, played by Poorna Jagannathan, who we know only as a voice over the phone. Soni’s Anish is excellent; he paces around the small space in varying stages of ecstasy and outrage, trying to manage his frustration while modulating his responses to his mother so she doesn’t get angry enough to hang up.
But Jagannathan’s Divya is even better. Even without a physical presence, Divya is still immediately recognizable as a character. At times she’s breezily unconcerned, at other moments, she’s sharply chastising her son for his brusqueness. Her delivery is the bedrock of the episode’s sense of humor. She’s able to perform an unseen mother staring at an unseen computer in a way that produces simultaneous gut-clenching anxiety and snorts of laughter. And the script plays to the humor and horror in equal measure. Divya mocks the goofy title of his novel. At one point, we can hear her actually chopping vegetables in the background as Anish tries to explain the concept of “select all.”
The organizing premise of Room 104 — its single hotel room idea — can sometimes feel unnecessary. Many of the stories have no reason to take place in a hotel other than to fulfill the brief of the series, and although artificial restraints can often produce brilliant ideas, they can also feel like what they are: artificial restraints. Here, though, the hotel room becomes a useful scene-establishing device. Most of the audience will be able to remember at least something about what the world felt like in 1997, but the room’s set dressing adds delightfully mundane visual triggers. Ah, your brain says. That is exactly what a mid-rate hotel phone would’ve looked like in the ’90s. And the room quietly reflects Anish’s growing frustration. Empty bottles of Rolling Rock begin to litter the bedside table. He sits in a perfectly ugly upholstered chair to anxiously pull on his Air Jordans. If the idea is that we’re stuck in a single room, using that room to reflect a different decade is a nice way to use the concept.
There is one more vital thing to say about “The Internet,” although I won’t get into too much detail. Most Room 104 episodes operate on the same logic as a good prose short story. You’re quickly immersed in a premise, you have a few moments to acclimate to the characters and the world, and then at some point, there’s a turn. Often that turn feels like an escalation — things spin farther and farther out of control until there’s suddenly a breaking point. In some cases, it’s a surprise twist, and the story you thought you were following becomes something else entirely. For “The Internet,” the turn that comes toward the end of the episode is even more striking. Anish and Divya’s story often feels relatively shallow, focusing mostly on things like the excruciating pain of listening to someone who doesn’t know how to double-click trying to open a folder. When the story does turn, that shallowness curves into sudden, surprising depth.
Especially when it feels like the best, buzziest television requires several hours of commitment, there’s something particularly delicious about a very brief story that feels perfectly fitted to its very small room.