tv review

Room 104 Season Two Is Weird, Surprising, and Packed With Great Actors

Brian Tyree Henry, entering Room 104. Photo: HBO

The Mark and Jay Duplass production Room 104 is the closest thing HBO has right now to Black Mirror. Like the Netflix anthology of tech-cautionary tales, each episode of Room 104 is a stand-alone entity that can be seen and understood on its own, without ever having watched any of the show before. Some episodes of Room 104 — all of which take place in the same generic hotel room — are scary. Some are seriocomic relationship studies. Nearly all of them are trippy as hell. And some, especially in the second season that premieres Friday, do indeed explore the effect of modern technology on human affairs.

Unlike Black Mirror, each episode of Room 104 is a half-hour or less, with some even clocking in as short as 20 minutes. That means that even installments that don’t work at all — and thankfully, there aren’t many of those — at least win points for unspooling their yarns economically. Which, ahem, is not always true about Black Mirror.

To help you plan your Room 104 viewing experience, I have ranked all 12 of the new episodes, which feature performances by, among others, Michael Shannon, Judy Greer, Mahershala Ali, Dolly Wells, and Brian Tyree Henry in a musical (!).

1. “Arnold” (Episode 6, airs November 23)

The quality of any given Room 104 episode often rests on the caliber of its actors, who have to carry a half-hour’s worth of television on their shoulders. That brings me to the three words that sum up why this episode is so great: Brian Tyree Henry. If his work in Atlanta or Widows or any of his many other projects hasn’t convinced you what a great actor he is, “Arnold” should do the trick.

The titular character wakes up at the beginning of this episode soaking wet and with no memory of what he did the night before or how he wound up in a hotel room. The rest of the episode involves him pacing around the space, mentally piecing things together as memories of the previous night play out around him. Oh, and also: It’s a musical. Yes, Henry sings, and his voice is lovely, plaintive and, once Arnold remembers connecting the woman he met the night before, blends in perfect harmony with the character played by Ginger Gonzaga. When Arnold ultimately reaches an epiphany about the significance of his night out on the town, “Arnold” turns a mysterious, life-affirming visual memoir into something truly heartbreaking.

2. “A Nightmare” (Episode 8, airs November 30)

This is a tight, disturbing, 20-minute horror show in which a woman, played by Natalie Morales, wakes up from a nightmare, then realizes she’s having another nightmare, and another, and another. Just about everything that could frighten you in a hotel room (with the exception of terrible room service) rears its head in this tautly threaded piece, written by Mark Duplass and directed by Jonah Markowitz. I recommend it, unless you’re staying alone in a hotel room, in which case: Watch it another time.

3. “Hungry” (Episode 4, airs November 16)

This is, hands down, the grossest episode of season two, and it’s that much grosser because it comes with the disclaimer, “Based on a true story.” Two strangers, Gene (Mark Proksch) and Sam (Kent Osborne), meet for the first time to have dinner in Room 104 in what initially seems like their first attempt at a same-sex encounter, but things take an incredibly freaky, unsavory turn. The writing, again by Mark Duplass, and the sense of everyday nerdiness conveyed by Proksch and Osborne create a sense of normalcy that is so at odds with what Gene and Sam are doing that it’s impossible to look away.

4. “Swipe Right” (Episode 3, airs November 16)

Finally, a half-hour episode of television that answers the question: What’s it like to watch Michael Shannon portray a dodgy Russian who launches into a rap performance? The answer: It’s really weird! But also kind of delicious, as is the bizarre back-and-forth that takes place in this two-hander about an online date between Shannon’s political tech operative and an increasingly confused woman brought to warm and believable life by Judy Greer.

5. “Shark” (Episode 11, airs December 14)

In this flashback to Room 104 circa the 1980s, a pool shark (James Earl) starts to question why his cousin (Mahershala Ali), who acts as his manager, is making the same amount of money he does for their nightly hustling. What might have been a reasonable conversation about the equity of splitting their income turns into a full-blown fight in which years of resentment bubbles to the surface. Unlike some episodes of Room 104, there’s no major twist or foray into surrealism. It’s just two fine actors, delivering slow-burn performances that transform into something explosive.

6. “The Return” (Episode 9, airs December 7)

This is yet another two-hander about family baggage, but this time it centers around a mother (Stephanie Allynne) and her young daughter, Elle (Abby Ryder Fortson of the Ant-Man movies), who come back to Room 104, where their husband/father died of a sudden heart attack a couple of months earlier. Both of them are still struggling with the loss, but Elle takes it to another level, insisting that in the bed where he expired, she can get feedback from her father and others from beyond the grave. There’s palpable tension between Allynne and Fortson, who is astonishingly good as a little Harry Potter obsessive who has no idea how to sort her anger and grief.

7. “Mr. Mulvahill” (Episode 2, airs November 9)

This is one of those Room 104 installments that seems to be headed in one direction, then takes a totally wild left turn. Rainn Wilson stars as Jim, a lonely man who instigates a confrontation with his elementary-school music teacher (Frank Birney) so they can discuss an incident from their past. Perhaps because Wilson’s involved, you know something’s off-center about Jim from the get-go. But unless you’re clairvoyant, you’ll never predict what’s been troubling Jim all these years.

8. “Artificial” (Episode 10, airs December 7)

Duplass project veteran Katie Aselton (who, in real life, is married to Mark Duplass) is either a robot or she’s a woman who believes she’s a robot. That’s the premise of this episode, in which Sheaun McKinney plays a reporter attempting to interview her and figure out exactly how she’s programmed. The concept is intriguing, and it’s the most Black Mirror-ish of the bunch. Which almost makes it feel a tad derivative.

9. “Josie & Me” (Episode 12, airs December 14)

Mary Wiseman of Star Trek: Discovery plays a dual role here as a playwright and the playwright’s image of her younger self who helps her navigate memories of a pivotal night at a fraternity party. Wiseman toggles convincingly from carefree college student to more jaded adult, and the episode deals in refreshing and unusual fashion with the way that date rape victims often blame themselves. It just takes a little too long to get to its central point.

10. “Woman in the Wall” (Episode 5, airs November 23)

Sometimes Room 104 presents preposterous scenarios — see Michael Shannon suddenly staging a live rap performance — that work even though they have no business working. “Woman in the Wall” doesn’t fall into that category. As directed by Gaby Hoffmann, the episode tries to do something audacious by introducing us to a sad, possible hypochondriac (an appropriately raw Dolly Wells) who has conversations over several years with a woman’s voice (Leonora Pitts) that she can only hear in Room 104. Aside from the obvious question this raises — why does this voice never speak to any of the many other occupants of this hotel room? — the episode, which jumps through three moments in time, never quite settles into a groove. Its jarring ending also feels out of tonal step with everything that came before.

11. “FOMO” (Episode 1, airs November 9)

Unfortunately, the first episode of Room 104 season two is also its most predictable. A trio of friends gather in that familiar double room to celebrate the 30th birthday of Grace (Charlyne Yi), who deliberately did not invite her older sister Karen to the party. Karen finds out anyway, then shows up at the hotel. Things immediately get awkward, then go totally off the rails, but in exactly the way anyone who has seen Room 104 would expect this train to depart from the tracks.

12. “The Man and the Baby and the Man” (Episode 7, airs November 30)

Indie filmmakers Josephine Decker (who also directs this episode) and Onur Tukel co-write and co-star as a couple who decide to film the events surrounding what they hope will be the conception of their first child. But then, they start arguing over whether they both really want to have a baby. Honestly, this was the only Room 104 episode of the season that made me want to hit the fast-forward button. Indie short films like these always have the potential to become too self-indulgent. Given its focus on two very self-indulgent people, it weighs in too high on the navel-gazing scale.

Room 104 Is Weird, Surprising, and Packed With Great Actors