Check into ‘Room 104’ and find your world upended

Melonie Diaz babysits Ethan Kent, whose character may have an evil alter ego, in the first episode of “Room 104.”
Melonie Diaz babysits Ethan Kent, whose character may have an evil alter ego, in the first episode of “Room 104.”

There is something disturbingly nostalgic and oddly futuristic about the new anthology series from Mark and Jay Duplass. Premiering on HBO on Friday, “Room 104” comprises a series of stand-alone vignettes, all set in the same motel room but with different characters.

HBO made six episodes available to critics. They run the gamut from unnerving to poignant. “Ralphie,” the series premiere, is about a babysitter (Melonie Diaz) attending to a cloyingly sweet boy named Ralph (Ethan Kent) while his dad goes on a date. The boy insists there’s an evil alter ego named Ralphie in the bathroom, and that he mustn’t be disturbed. The sitter concludes this is a lonely boy with an active imagination.

“My Love,” at the other end of the emotional spectrum, focuses on a pair of octogenarians (Ellen Geer, Philip Baker Hall) who check into Room 104, where they first made love decades earlier.

A third episode, “The Internet,” is about a Pakistani American (Karan Soni) who finally lands a meeting with a publisher willing to look at the manuscript of his novel, discovers he has left his computer at his mother’s (Pooma Jagannathan), and tries to instruct her by phone on how to use a computer so she can email him the manuscript. It’s the most overtly funny of the episodes, in a Beckettian way.

In fact, the entire series is laced with irony-based humor, but don’t anticipate any belly laughs. A trademark of the Duplass brothers is their understanding of how emotional inertia, and even bathos, can be nudged and tweaked to become sources of oblique and unsettling humor.

Mark Duplass wrote several but not all of the episodes. One of the most memorable is “Voyeurs,” in which a middle-aged motel housekeeper (Dendrie Taylor) encounters her younger self (Sarah Hay) in Room 104. The episode, written and directed by Dayna Hanson, becomes an actual pas de deux, or perhaps, in a way, a solo with two dancers.

Although the time setting is not integral to the individual episodes, the look of the room itself feels old-fashioned and underscores a subtle but telling acknowledgment of how television in the deceptively placid 1950s and fracturing ’60s reflected unsettling times. It’s reminiscent of shows like “The Twilight Zone” and “The Outer Limits,” even “Playhouse 90,” which premiered with a drama written by Rod Serling.

The Duplass brothers manipulate us by feeding our anticipation at times or, at others, our gullibility or cynicism. In “Ralphie,” we begin thinking that there is no evil alter ego, just as the sitter does, but soon we begin to doubt ourselves. In “The Internet,” we are certain the man will never be able to get through to his mother, but he is so hopeful and she is so jolly, we catch the glimmer of a happy ending.

It is not easy to watch these episodes, because we cannot remain passive to them. They are demanding in their wily manipulation of our reactions. We feel as if we’re in a battle of wills with the Duplass brothers.

They may not always win, but the battle is never less than interesting.

TV review

‘Room 104’ premieres at 11:30 p.m. July 28 on HBO.