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HBO’s ‘Room 104’ blazes the trail for anthology shows and deviates from TV norms

By Noah Harper

Section: Arts

August 25, 2017

I gave up on watching “Game of Thrones” this year. I was half a season behind, and when I started trying to catch up, the episodes were just so long and the number of installments left too daunting, so even though I’d been invested in the series for years, I decided I just couldn’t do it anymore. It’s just another in a growing canon of critically-acclaimed, hour-long dramas—dubbed “Prestige TV”—that are starting to feel more onerous than entertaining.

However, there’s another HBO show in its freshman season that I’ve discovered is the perfect antidote to my “Prestige TV” fatigue. “Room 104,” created by kings of mumblecore Jay and Mark Duplass, is the antithesis to the popular—and cumbersome—hour-long drama, and an indication of just how far television has come in the present Golden Age.

Let’s first back up a bit and think about our current TV moment. It’s generally agreed that “The Sopranos” kicked off the new Golden Age of television. A monolithic, sixty-plus hours saga about a mobster with family problems and unshakeable existential despair, “The Sopranos” showed that TV could be “serious” and began the spate of sprawling, multi-season shows.

This show, and the hallowed and revered ones that followed it (“Breaking Bad,” “Deadwood,” “Mad Men”) are all cut from the same cloth. Though thematically similar—it’s already been observed that these all explore male-dominated power structures—Prestige TV is homogenous just from a format perspective. These shows, with their long arcs, are often sixty-plus hours in their entirety and are full of characters whose narratives develop and overlap.

There’s nothing particularly wrong with these TV shows—they’re among my all-time favorites—but they can be fatigue-inducing, and they’re not easily conducive to watching socially.

Another structural problem with Prestige TV is the time investment. Unlike watching a movie, knowledge of the deep backstory is required to really enjoy a show. You have to put in the hours of getting to know the characters and the plot; it’s not very fun watching a show with your friends who are three seasons in when you’re a newcomer. The previous investment factor is one reason why I think movies are still popular, but with the advent of “Room 104” and other similar shows, TV is starting to adapt to this problem.

TV as a medium is elastic: Episodes don’t have to all be the same, and it allows writers to try out different things. “Room 104,” and the relatively recent anthology trend, however, take this to a whole new level.

Starting with “Fargo” and “American Horror Story,” the cable channel FX has pioneered the anthology trend of having shows that wholly reinvent themselves every season. This gets rid of that annoying need to catch up on years of past episodes to get into a show, because every new season is a blank slate.

But if FX popularized this trend for TV shows, HBO has elevated it to a whole new level with shows like 2016’s “High Maintenance” and this summer’s “Room 104.”

Both shows have half-hour episodes, meaning that they’re more efficient than the typical hour-long drama, but what makes these two shows fascinating examples of the present TV moment is their outright rejection of building an overarching narrative.

While “High Maintenance,” which features a series of character portraits of the idiosyncratic in NYC, has tangential connections (each story features at least an appearance from bike-riding weed-dealer “The Guy”), the only constant in “Room 104” from episode to episode is the space itself. Each episode happens in the same motel room, but besides that, each episode is completely different. These kinds of anthology shows are built to tell extremely inventive short-form stories, while lacking any sort of season-long narrative arc, making them extremely easy to just jump in and start watching at any point.

Of course, this makes “Room 104” and “High Maintenance” extremely difficult to describe to people. I’ve received plenty of skeptical looks when trying in vain to explain the two shows. However, these shows are TV in its most nimble, accessible form; plus utterly addicting and novel.

“Room 104,” like most anthology shows, is best without any prior introduction. A few weeks ago, I was on a road trip with my family and I just put it on. We were all captivated: The first episode was about a babysitter trying to take care of a boy with an insane doppelganger living in the bathroom, the second about a couple including a pizza delivery boy in their sadistic love games, and in the third, a woman participates in her cult’s exclusive “transcendence ceremony.”
Every episode is different, a surprise, a mystery—and if you don’t like one, you can just skip to the next.

I’m not done watching traditional Prestige TV (I’ll get around to catching up on “Game of Thrones”), but I am excited by the emerging diversity in the TV landscape. For a show to be able to thrive in an environment with over 500 other scripted shows in competition, it has to do something to truly set itself apart. Anthology shows like “Room 104” have already done that, and I’m excited to see what other surprises are in store.

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