When staging a series in such a unremarkable setting, it’s not hard to imagine there’s a temptation for a show like “Room 104” to over-correct with fanciful visions that go far beyond the confines of its solitary location. But so far, the show has done an impressive job of differentiating these episodes in subtle ways. Take this week’s episode “The Knockadoo,” an excellent starting point for those who haven’t caught up with the series yet.
While two people huddle around a hotel bed, watching a flickering TV screen, the two lamp lights behind them frame the pair in a contrasting pink and blue. It may be the same physical place that a pizza boy encounter occurred the week previously, but this unnerving half hour of television shows what this series is capable of when it subverts its own premise.
“The Knockadoo” is the first episode of “Room 104” to really engage with something happening outside of the room itself. There were the texts to the father in the unnerving premiere “Ralphie,” but with a trio of finely-tuned performances at the center of “The Knockadoo,” the specificity of those characters hint even more at what makes this closed-off space even more dangerous territory.
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Orlando Jones and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris star as two members of a general wellness cult who meet in a motel room for a special session. With the help of the group’s spiritual leader (Tony Todd), appearing in DVD instructional videos, the pair set out to rid Luqmaan-Harris’ of a “spiritual blockage” that means dredging up some horrific childhood memories.
In a self-reflexive way, “The Knockadoo” uses the TV as a storytelling tool much in the same way that director Sarah Adina Smith’s equally disorienting feature film “Buster’s Mal Heart” did. So much of the first two episodes have been about these characters constructing narratives for themselves, so this episode bringing in a series of DVDs not only provides a chance to play around with some additional video formats, but it’s a fresh way to keep these “Room 104” episodes from just becoming a series of simple two- or three-handers.
That’s the real promise of the series overall, that it becomes more than just a series of tiny chamber plays cut together with shots from a few different angles. What Smith does in slowly revealing the subtle changes in posture, demeanor and framing tells this compact story just as much as anything the character say. Through three episodes, “Room 104” has established itself as a series you can watch on mute and not lose the emotional heart of the story.
Again, much of that loops back to the performances, too. Though he only appeared in two episodes of “American Gods,” Jones made a fierce impression. But while Mr. Nancy drew his introductory power from a fiery speech to shipbound slaves, the incremental changes in this character’s temperament — from warm spiritual guide to exasperated grifter — proves that Jones can play emphatic and reserved in equally satisfying ways.
“Room 104” is going to have its share of monologues over the coming season, but Luqmaan-Harris makes her journey through unsettling memories something more than cheap exposition. Even confined to a single location, there’s room for this show to transform physical movement through multiple locations and focus that journey on a psychological plane. Although the interaction between the two in-room occupants takes a turn for the monstrous, the eerie pleasant veneer that Todd brings to this spiritual instructor shows that the series can present one side of a character and still tap into their sinister, duplicitous nature.
To some extent, “Room 104” revolves around a certain element of rug-pulling, the idea that these people inside this room are never who they appear to be at first glance. But there’s a distinct way that this episode takes that concept and completely subverts its own ideas of reality in a horrifying closing minute. No matter what night of the week it airs, when a show defies normal TV conventions like this, it’s worth adding into any viewing rotation.
And in this version of that artifice being stripped away, there’s some real drama lying underneath. It doesn’t just peel back the layers to find a metaphysical twin or people pretending to be something that they’re not. This gets at emotional issues of psychological control and exploitation of past traumas. It may be one of the more bizarre ending to an episode you’ll see the season, but it also shows what the series might be capable of when it touches on something tangible. “Room 104” may hook viewers by what it withholds, but there’s plenty of what makes it in that’s worth recommending.
“Room 104” airs Fridays on HBO, and is streaming now on HBO Go and HBO Now.