HBO renewing “Room 104” was one of the biggest no-brainers in the network’s recent history. Even with the specific connective tissue of the show, this series has already proven that it can be nearly anything that it wants to be. As evidenced by the first five episodes of the series, these stories can span ages, life situations, and genres of storytelling. Episode 5 even transcended time, delivering with “The Internet” the story of a mother and son connecting in more ways than expected in a story set 20 years ago.
Even within the cozy confines of 1997, director Doug Emmett (making his TV directorial debut, no less) brings a different kind of energy to the opening of the episode. Those quick cuts not only signal a new kind of “Room 104” story, it gets the audience right in the mind of Anish, a young writer set to finish his debut novel before pitching it in a New York meeting, days from now. The one catch: he’s forgotten his prized artistic creation and his entire laptop at his mom’s place.
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All of these “Room 104” premises need some level of heavy buy-in: the existence of a spiritual mind cult, a visit from a deceased friend, a pizza delivery guy held hostage. Leaving behind the most important thing in your life, a bulky and hard-to-miss laptop, before taking an out-of-town trip is a similar tough sell, but this series is less about the plot machinations that get these characters to this room as much as it deals with the emotional honesty of their journeys once they’ve arrived.
So most of the remainder of “The Internet” finds Anish on the phone with his mother Divya (voiced by Poorna Jagannathan), trying to salvage the Word document containing his fledgling novel. Once that structure of the episode is in place, actor Karan Soni carries his part of the conversation as the series’ first on-screen solo act. Anish’s call is almost like dictating a heist movie over the phone, only without seeing a burglar delicately make their way through a laser grid, he’s dealing with a mother with an itchy mouse click finger.
Soni keeps those switches, from doting son to panic-stricken obsessive, from being too extreme. These conversations, unfolding in real time, give him the opportunity to follow that emotional trajectory in a way that a show juggling multiple storylines over the course of a half-hour wouldn’t have. Anish’s idle cord-twiddling gets at the anxiety that comes with any tense, over-the-phone talk. Who hasn’t cringed to themselves after asking a tricky question on a phone call, not really sure how it will affect the rest of the conversation?
As Anish takes his mom through the painstaking steps of navigating a laptop, writer Mark Duplass has some fun with some tech-related homographs. The time period makes it understandable that his mom might not be familiar with all these newfangled computer words, but the humor isn’t built on her misunderstanding of “windows.” It’s found in seeing the son wrestle with how to convey the same sense of urgency that he feels.
On her end, Jagannathan manages to get all of this across while staying out of sight, delivering some exasperation at her son’s short temper and a pretty devastating story of the past without either seeming too out of place. Between this and her work in “The Night Of,” she’s shown two different sides of motherhood, both in muted determination and in more overpowering displays of emotion. Listening to her play both sides is another example of what this series gains by keeping the number of people within a certain story to a helpful minimum.
Through Anish, this is the first “Room 104” to be couched in an artist’s experience. But regardless of who these main characters are, the conversations of “Room 104,” like those in other worthy dramas, are rarely what they purport to be at the outset. A simple check-in phone call with a parent can become an entirely different conversation before either party realizes what’s changed. Anxieties over an impending deadline has a way of bringing out the nastiest, rash impulses, even when talking with loved ones. In some ways, “Room 104” continuously offers up the kind of wisdom and lessons offered by a parent: you may not understand now, but give it time and you will.
These characters’ trials may not change the world, but the way that these individual episodes unfold find a way at uncovering new story layers. With the rest of the HBO programming taking on entire relationships, cities and worlds, this is the weekly POV escape that will suit the network for as long as they decide to keep the show around.