This week, the Duplass Brothers’ new HBO series ROOM 104 kicks things off on a dark and stormy night. A tense woman in a long white pull-over cardigan pours herself a glass of Cherry 7-Up mixed with Smirnoff vodka. This is Deborah (Sameerah Luqmaan-Harris).
She opens the door to welcome Samuel — played by Orlando Jones, the “Make 7-Up Yours” guy — in from the rain. Is it a coincidence that the beverage ties in with the man? I think not.
Deborah, a devout fan of Samuel, explains to him that she’s watched all 11 of his cult’s evangelical DVD’s (and has re-watched the tenth disc many times over). Samuel in turn explains that he has a new set of DVD’s they need to experience on this night, and expresses cartoonish frustration when he discovers that the room does not come armed with a DVD player of its own. As he changes into his ceremonial white robes, he requests that Deborah call up to get a DVD player from the motel’s front desk. She complies. When the motel attendee knocks on the front door, Samuel hides, confiding in Deborah that he cannot be seen in his ceremonial robes.
Samuel, it turns out, is just in town for Deborah, to help Deborah achieve a higher plane of consciousness with this brand-new set of DVD’s. If he lingers too long, he claims, he’ll be recognized.
Armed now with that previously elusive DVD player, Deborah and Samuel watch the beginning of the video, which bears more than a passing resemblance to the hypnotic “Salome” sketch from Tim And Eric Awesome Show, Great Job! on Comedy Central. The video announcer, in front of a Casio electronic keyboard, spews instructive nonsense, peppered with random associative images (“Friends. Family. Strawberry ice cream”).
Here, Samuel pauses and requests a one-time fee that will give Deborah unfettered “life-time access all the transcendence centers across the country.” Samuel faux-angrily confides that he “hates money,” but that it is necessary to fund his proselytizing. Deborah understands, and hands over a mid-sized package envelope containing what must be a thick bundle of catch.
As Deborah sits, utterly entranced, in front of the TV monitor, Samuel hops around — across the two motel beds, by the table adjacent to the door, changing the overhead light to adjust the ambience. Deborah, now in a pseudo-trance, reviews a childhood sense memory, an instance of abuse at home at the hands of her mother. Deborah’s mom is angry for Deborah’s messy dish-washing, and hits her in the back of the head for “getting water all over the place.”
Deborah’s other childhood memories bore Samuel. He instructs Deborah to try “different windows,” as he seeks supernatural past recollections that involve a “ghost or a boogeyman or something.”
Deborah switches gears, and now recalls a bizarre after-school encounter with her friend Herman. In the story, recalled verbally by Deborah, Herman implored her to follow him into the woods, looking for a “knockandoo bird.” Its feathers, Herman insisted, fold over its head like a top hat. Deborah doubted the truth of this claim, so Herman led her deep into the woods, to a small hut over a rickety old bridge. The sides of the hut were littered with holes, which Herman attributed to the knockandoo (he stated, ominously that “those are knockandoo holes”).
Here, past-Deborah harbored second thoughts. Herman pressured her into letting him show her one of the birds in the hut. Herman stuck his own member through the hut, and Deborah instinctively smashed it with a rock. At school the next day, Herman insisted that his penis was fixed — improved, even — by the “pink doctor,” but that the doctor was so mad at Deborah, he insisted that Deborah visit him in the woods again, lest the doctor tattle to her mother (whom young Deborah lived in mortal terror of). She did as instructed, returning to the small cabin. A man in a white doctor’s coat greeted her there. He wasn’t a doctor, he insisted, but a “magician,” named John Knockandoo. He elevated her five or six inches off the ground as a demonstration of his “tricks.” That day, on her way home, she experienced her period for the first time.
Back in the present day, on this dark and stormy night, Samuel tells Deborah that there is some “blockage” in her struggle to achieve transcendence. He shows Deborah a series of illustrations, of ferocious demons, that “Father” (the speaker in the video series) has to deal with on occasions. He ascribes her blockage to these demonic entities. We return to the video, as Samuel’s explanations cannot alleviate Deborah’s general confusion. “Father” insists on a “painless procedure” to remove the demon blockage deep in Deborah’s nasal package.
Deborah offers Samuel some emphatic resistance at the concept of the blockage removal tool (which resembles a screw driver with a particularly long steel shaft). Samuel puts his pedal on the gas, insisting that she go through with the procedure, lest she experience some permanent damage to her soul.
A series of terrifying images flashes through Deborah’s mind amidst the procedure, and we are supposed to realize for the first time that Samuel, the assumed quack, isn’t a quack at all, but a legitimate agent of good against subterranean subconscious forces of evil. We see flashes of strange images — the terrifying magician in the woods, raising young Deborah off the ground; a series of penises; the “Father” on the tap — all floating in front of the cult DVD series’s creepy yellow composite background. Deborah flips out, swats the removal device away, and screams bloody murder at Samuel, who proceeds to choke.
Then we cut to black, because heaven forbid we get an actual explanation for what was actually going on within Deborah’s subconscious. Was there really a demon-entity blockage? Did Deborah, by halting the blockage mid-stream, unleash the demonic force upon Samuel? Those were the conclusions I at least drew by the end of the episode. If it had been three minutes longer and provided a wrap-up instead of an abrupt and confounding non-resolution, this would have been the crown jewel of Room 104‘s young season. Instead, it has fallen into a frustrating pattern, wherein it offers juicy set-ups and refuses to explain exactly what has transpired. Last week’s episode, “Pizza Boy,” made a solid effort to more or less explain things without being wholly overt, and maybe that kind of route is the most we can hope for moving forward. This show’s obvious spiritual grandfather, The Twilight Zone, was so great precisely because it effectively, expediently resolved its twisted and similarly mysterious set-ups. Room 104 feels like it’s going out of its way to avoid anything so concrete, which is fairly frustrating. “The Knockandoo” was consistently intriguing all the way through, only relenting when the credits rolled. And yet, I can’t say I left satisfied.
Season 1, Episode 3 (S01E03)
Room 104 airs Fridays at 1130PM on HBO
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor