"It really helps when you know the season is your last because if you get too weird or too crazy, they can't cancel you, because you're already gone," Mark Duplass said, reflecting on the upcoming final season of Room 104. "It's a little bit like senior year. Just kind of go do what you want."
The anthology series, created by Duplass and his brother Jay, premiered on HBO back in 2017. True to the format, each episode was a stand-alone story, but with one catch: they were all set in the same nondescript hotel room, the eponymous Room 104. While building up hype for Season 1, Duplass regularly billed it as "the Tinder of late-night TV." With each episode being wholly unique, if one didn't sit right, there would be a new episode with all characters next week. Even the genre would change, with the show existing in the realms of comedy, drama and horror, depending on the episode.
Back in May, HBO announced that it was pulling the plug on Room 104, making Season 4 its final round of episodes. Ahead of the July 24 premiere, PopCulture spoke with Duplass, as well as Executive Producers Sydney Fleischmann and Mel Eslyn, who looked back on the show's evolution, what viewers can expect, as well as what the future may hold.
At first, Room 104 felt more like a measured experiment, with its single setting and limited, rotating cast. "We were so excited about all the different kinds of stories that we wanted to tell," Duplass said about the earliest days. "Then quickly realized that unless we deeply collaborate with others, the thing is going to start to repeat itself."
The interim between Seasons 1 and 2 also came at a time when Duplass and his brother were "consciously uncoupling as a codependent artistic creative force," he explained. Even admitting that the transition was "painful," he conceded that it ultimately benefitted the show. "When we make episodes in Season 2, 3, and especially in 4, they're less reflective of my own personal vision or Syd's vision, but more about how do we be good collaborators and supporters and use our platform, and whatever experience we have with the show to get a new kind of story and show something that hadn't been seen before, in front of or behind the camera. That has kept us fresh — and I think it's a different ecosystem as a whole."
Fleischmann agreed, adding that the biggest change was "how we look at it is that was we were looking at it from like the audience perspective" vs. "this cool new perspective." Now, the show that had been pitched to viewers as a series they could dip in and out of each week, depending on their taste, has become "a collaborator Tinder" to nurture up-and-coming talent and "finding new people to work with and bring into the room." What resulted was a "really versatile show and experience over these four years."prevnext
Changing the View
"I feel like with Season 1, it was kind of like dipping our toes into what we could do with the room," Eslyn said, adding that the "emotional, intimate relationship" stories that the Duplass brothers were known for ended up being where things naturally gravitated. At least at first "Then it really was Season 2, [when] everybody stood back and was like, 'Oh, okay, now we get it. Now let's really push ourselves and get wild and push the boundaries of the room.'" She added that this same shift was prominent through both Seasons 2 and 3, given that they were filmed back-to-back.
"I think the evolution has been pretty organic," Fleischmann said, whose own position as EP evolved to directing. "Each season we get to build on what we did before and you get to take these bigger swings and bigger risks because we could see what worked and what didn't." Echoing Duplass' sentiment, she added that knowing the show would end with Season 4, the creative team kept asking one big question: "What are all the leaps that we want to take and stories that we want to tell in this last window that we get?"prevnext
A Bolder Experiment
"I think in all honesty, we did feel a sense of, 'We don't want to end the show without feeling like we tried to do some of the more daring things,'" Duplass explained. "I think that's why you see more of that in Season 4. But I also think that just logistically speaking, once you've done a lot of things, your brain just starts to reach further and further out for the new things."
"That's something we didn't necessarily anticipate with the show, or we didn't do by design, but organically made it a little more interesting," he continued. "But I think what it does is it increases your chance for failures, so it keeps a little more on your toes, keeps things a little more exciting. Things felt a little more vital this year, I think, because of that."
The result is episodes like "Avalanche," which not only subverts traditional storytelling but pushes the very limit of the very meaning of the room itself. As Fleischmann put it, it was made with an idea of "let's just go for it, let's just see what happens," and that the episode's star, Dave Bautista, was "the glue to keep all of these wild, abstract ideas together." It's part of what she called part of the show's natural progression, "asking bigger risks and doing these exploratory episodes."prevnext
One such episode is "The Murderer," Season 4's premiere that tells the story of a local wayward rock legend, who was inspired by Red House Painters frontman Mark Kozelek. "So, I'm sort of obsessed with Mark Kozelek and his darkness and what happens when he gets his nylon string guitar," Duplass explained. Though he'd initially written the episode, and the character, with Kozelek in mind, "he ultimately wasn't up for it." While the casting didn't work out as initially planned, Duplass took on the role himself, in addition to writing and directing.
"I started thinking more deeply about the nature of what it means to be a fanboy of these kinds of artists in particular, and how kind of self-oriented the fans are," he went on. "The artist's pain and even, in this case, this appearance or potential death, seems to only exist for their amusement and ability to enjoy. And I've always found that weirdly vampiric and dicky. Then I got super excited once we also talking about the myth and the lore of one of these rock stars and what you expect them to look like when they walk in the room and that he would essentially be, like somebody said, ' an uncle in a bad oversized golf shirt and khaki cargo pants.' So that was really the essence of it."
Duplass also wrote (and sang) the songs, pushing his creative role even further. "I got really excited about songs inside of a narrative as expositional tools, as breaks from dialogue as like, how could you use that?" This was in spite of the fact that he didn't think he had "any particular skills or acumen to employ them," which itself encompassed the very nature of Room 104.
"That's what the room is all about," he proclaimed. "You don't have to know how to do something to try it. You just have to be excited about it and be willing to try it."prevnext
Along with Fleischman, Eslyn also grew beyond her producer role, working at first as a "whisperer" during Season 1, and later as a writer and director. One of her contributions to Season 4 is "Oh, Harry!," a traditional sitcom send-up with a sinister undercurrent, which came from an idea dating back to when Duplass first pitched her the show almost a decade ago.
"When it was finally getting made, I was like, 'Oh, there's definitely got to be a multi-cam episode,' and I just had that in my back pocket," Eslyn said. The idea came to fruition for what she called "the now or never season," a place where all their best-unused ideas could get one last chance to thrive. "I grew up loving sitcoms like Wings and Cheers and Night Court, and they had the sitcom pacing and these patterns of the comedic timing that I kind of had in me and that desire to be able to explore that territory, which was new for me."
Eslyn also joked that the casting of Kevin Nealon as the bumbling sitcom dad was done to write the wrong that the SNL alum had never been cast in that type of role in real-life, it also owes some of its existence to a veritable sitcom legend. "Mark and I had just made a movie with Ray Romano right before we were starting to really look at what season four was going to be and I think just being around Ray, I was like, 'Oh my God, I need to spend some time with a sitcom family!'"prevnext
In a season dominated by the unconventional, there was still the question of how to bring a show as sprawling Room 104 to a fitting conclusion. As Fleischmann explained, it was a problem that inadvertently solved itself with the series finale, "Generations," which she also directed. "It was actually a very cool discovery for us because it was not written as the final episode, but after we shot as we were cutting them all, we really started to see what the end of 'Generations' says," she said. "It just by default makes a statement about the whole series."
The episode also served as a metaphor for her own tenure at Room 104. "I really felt solid ground under my feet, and directing 'Generations' felt like the culmination of that. My personal growth throughout the show, and the responsibilities that I've taken on and the responsibilities that I've been able to delegate. It was a very cool experience to see the show from another angle."prevnext
Even though Season 4 takes a radically different approach to storytelling, some themes manage to transcend the episodes. However unintentional that may be.
"It's interesting, we don't often operate from a thematic standpoint or look for overarching lines," Duplass said, although he admitted that "they do present themselves for whatever reason." He also referenced a running gag the crew had, that each season will reflect whatever he's "working on with this therapist." Which he admitted, "may be some elements of truth to that."
Similarly, Eslyn believed that those commonalities start to arise simply due to the nature of storytelling, even in a 22-odd minute episode. "I think all of us as artists, the executive producers and creative team of the show, we all are constantly struggling with our own self-identity, so I think that that just organically comes up."
Some of that can be owed to the approach to Season 4, which she explained was her, Duplass, Fleischmann, and writer/director Julian Wann asking themselves questions about their own "hopes, dreams, fears and desires" and how they'd tackle them in the show's final run. It's something that Duplass himself will have to contend with during an upcoming marathon live-tweeting of the entire series run leading up to the premiere.
"I'm going to be forced to watch 18 hours of Room 104 straight," Duplass said, slightly pensive. "I think that I'm going to learn a lot about myself through lines that I didn't plan to put in there — but are clearly there.”prevnext
While Season 4 had finished production months ahead of the coronavirus pandemic, the series' premise does feel different in light of current events. "I think when you look at a show like this and think, 'Oh my God, a single location with maybe one or two actors,' there's a DNA in it that makes it a quote-unquote, pandemic friendly show," Duplass explained. "There's a lot of that terminology going on in our business right now."
Eslyn also noted that her and Duplass have still been collaborating on projects despite the pandemic, which she said is owed to Room 104. "We have kept very busy and I credit that to us knowing how to work within confines pretty damn well," she said. "So, we're like, 'Oh, we know how to make something creative within one room and with rules.' I think Room 104 is very much in line with that.”prevnext
The Legacy of 'Room 104'
Room 104's ambitions ultimately lied beyond being "the Tinder of late-night TV," it proved not only as a means to challenge storytelling conventions inside a confined space. It also served as a stepping stone for up-and-coming voices in entertainment, many who cut their teeth working within the show's deceptively limiting sandbox.
"Maybe it's foster care," Duplass mused about the show. "There's a lot of these stories and these filmmakers us come to us to get a little love and then they go off and they build their own lives and families from there. That's been really fun." He mentioned alums like Sarah Adina Smith, Jenée LaMarque or So Yong Kim, who "kind of got their episodic TV directing starts with us in a lot of ways and then go on and have these magnificent careers." It's an aspect of the show's legacy that he considers "a cool little pride point."
Though Room 104 won't be making any new episodes, at least not in its current iteration, it will continue to live on as part of HBO's massive streaming library online, providing an opportunity to find new fans years from now. While Fleischmann admitted that she didn't "think about how the episodes will stand the test of time," she does have confidence in "these stories being authentic to what they are to the perspective that they're telling."prevnext
"I can't believe HBO let us make 48 episodes of this show," Duplass confessed. "In this current climate, unless you're like a hit after your first season, you're canceled because it's too much s— to watch, anyway. They let us do four seasons of this show, and I'm so grateful that this thing will exist. And I am hopeful, honestly, that we'll have a chance to ride again, somehow somewhere, whether it's in video form or maybe who knows, maybe there'll be radio plays or short stories or something because I don't feel like we're definitely done."0comments
"I mean, for those who are reading this and you do not understand the business, we are an anomaly to have lived this long because we probably didn't bring in enough viewers to justify their expenditure, but they believed in it and believed in us — and that's becoming increasingly rare."
Room 104 premieres Friday, with new episodes debuting Friday nights at 10 p.m. ET on HBO. New episodes, along with the first three seasons, are available to stream anytime on HBO and HBO Max.prev