TV Review: ‘Room 104’ on HBO and ‘The Guest Book’ on TBS

Room 104 The Guest Book
HBO/TBS

Hotel rooms offer an escape to people on the run from or toward excitement, possibility, and danger. It’s no wonder a lot of key scenes in the acclaimed drama “The Leftovers” took place in anonymous guest quarters in chain hotels; these spaces offered both neutral backdrops for existential crises and recognizable way stations as characters began the strange and exhilarating task of reinventing themselves.

They take very different approaches — from “The Leftovers” and from each other — but two new anthologized half-hours dive head-first into the possibilities offered by those anonymous spaces full of the dreams and, sometimes, the unsavory detritus of strangers.

Each time someone checks into “Room 104,” all traces of the previous occupants have been erased. But the same slightly downmarket motel room is the setting of each installment of this offering from Jay and Mark Duplass and fellow executive producer Xan Aranda. One episode even dwells on the emotional life of the maid who has to clean the room and finds triggers for her memories in the cigarette butts, greeting cards, and abandoned cosmetics.

“Room 104” is the more adventurous of the two new hotel-set series, but also quite tiresome at times. With each episode, one or more elements was off: In several of the five screened for review, the set-up, the payoff, or the overall premise was lacking. That said, some aspects of each installment worked reasonably well, so each merits its own assessment. Each stands apart, after all, as its own short film.

“The Internet” offers a touching payoff, but the first three-quarters of it are almost impossible to get through. Most of us have probably tried to talk a relative through a technology problem on the phone, an experience that can be very frustrating; now imagine watching someone else do that at length with an unseen caller. Needless to say, the half-hour episode began to feel three times as long. But the last few minutes are poignant, if you can get through the rest.

“The Fight,” the story of two women set to compete the next day in a mixed martial arts bout, has a reasonably solid premise, but the characters are not all that interesting, nor is the ending hard to guess. That said, their room-destroying conflicts boast a crisp pace and smart editing, which is also the case with “Ralphie.” The latter episode, an eerie babysitter story that kicks off “Room 104,” evokes old-school horror anthologies, and functions well as a short story come to brief and creepy life.

“Voyeurs,” the episode about the maid, is incredibly tedious, hammering home the same idea again and again, but at least it does so through elaborate dance sequences. “The Knockadoo” establishes its queasy atmosphere quickly, and Tony Todd, Orlando Jones, and Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris are terrific in it. Unfortunately, its conclusion is confusing and ineffective.

All in all, “Room 104” is to be lauded for its adventurousness, but more rigorous attention to quality control could have made it more consistently enthralling. Installments starring James Van Der Beek, Amy Landecker, Ellen Geer, and Keir Gilchrist weren’t offered for review, but if they strike the admirable balance between discipline and atmosphere that “Ralphie” did, they could be worth checking out. 

The Guest Book,” for what it’s worth, is fairly consistent — but its sourness isn’t all that welcoming. More importantly, it lacks jokes that land, which is a problem, considering this is a more conventional single-camera comedy that more openly promises laughs. It rarely delivers. 

In its first two episodes, “The Guest Book” features a lot of hen-pecked men who are dominated by shrill, one-dimensional women, and not only is that kind of scenario generally unfunny, within this series, it makes for predictable storytelling as well. In the two-episode premiere, a host of flat, screechy, and stereotypical characters take part in stories about an angry new mom and small-minded Christians. Neither establish an entertaining vibe nor a reason to check back in.

Not all actors appear in every episode: “The Guest Book” depicts a series of guests staying in a remote cottage, and there are running story strands about some of the townsfolk and the property’s managers as well. But for a show about the hospitality industry, “The Guest Book” is remarkably ungenerous, and wastes a cast that includes fine actors like Danny Pudi, Stockard Channing, Aloma Wright, and Garret Dillahunt.

If you’re looking for a place to stay, on TBS that is, “People of Earth” has much more room in its weird little heart — even if it doesn’t have small soaps on offer.

TV Review: 'Room 104' on HBO and 'The Guest Book' on TBS

“The Guest Book”

Comedy; 10 episodes (2 reviewed); Thurs. Aug 3, TBS, 10 p.m. 30 min.

“Room 104”

Anthology; 12 episodes (5 reviewed); Fri. July 28, HBO, 11:30 p.m. 30 min.

Crew

“The Guest Book” executive producers, Greg Garcia, Alix Jaffe.

“Room 104” executive producers, Jay Duplass, Mark Duplass, Xan Aranda.

Cast

“Room 104”: Hugo Armstrong, Davie-Blue, Melonie Diaz, Jay Duplass, Veronica Falcon, Adam Foster, Ellen Geer, Keir Gilchrist, Philip Baker Hall, Sarah Hay, Poorna Jagannathan, Orlando Jones, Ethan Kent, Gavin Kent, Amy Landecker, Konstantin Lavysh, Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris, Keta Meggett, Natalie Morgan, Ross Partridge, Karan Soni, Dendrie Taylor, Tony Todd, Will Tranfo, James Van Der Beek, Mae Whitman, Nat Wolff. “The Guest Book”: Kellie Martin, Charlie Robinson, Aloma Wright, Garret Dillahunt, Laura Bell Bundy, Eddie Steeples, Stockard Channing, Danny Pudi.

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