This week, the Duplass Brothers’ HBO anthology show ROOM 104 goes somewhere deep, unexpected and surprisingly affecting.
The first step on its trajectory to humor — it sends us careening 20 years into the past, to a chapter from one of that titular motel room’s prior lives. We are in “Summer, 1997.” A young man, the tech-savvy Anish (Karan Soni) is on his cell phone, leaving his mother an excited voicemail. He’s an aspiring novelist, and he has a meeting with an agent in New York on Friday. Until then, he’ll be holed up in room 104, waiting for creative inspiration to strike… until he realizes he left his laptop at his mom’s apartment, leagues and leagues away.
It’s up to Anish’s attention-deficit, technology-averse mom, Divya (Poorna Jagannathan), to save the day — because his laptop contains the novel he intends to show to the literary agent!
90% of the book, Anish claims, is done, and contained within a Microsoft Word document. He needs his mother to copy and paste the text into an email and to send it to Anish. He intends to access the email in a library. Anish wants to see the writing in context, to face the existing work so he can build off that foundation and wrap up the story in time for his big meeting. Mom happily posits that Anish revert to writing long-hand, just like he did for an apparently captivating short story he jotted down as an excitable 13 year-old.
Mom is happily fascinated by the laptop’s compact appearance (“It’s like a little suitcase,” she chuckles over the phone to her son), and pleasantly skeptical when Anish tries to explain to her what he wants to her to do in a lexicon that’s comprehensible to a technology-averse mom in 1997. It’s funny to hear words like “folder’ and “window” in their literal context, juxtaposed against their digital definitions.
Anish’s mother tries to talk him out of writing what sounds like a hopelessly self-serious tome (the title, “Gently Through The Current,” functions as a particularly funny, recurrent sticking point — it immediately induces more maternal chuckling). The title, Anish pleads, is about societal misconceptions, about embracing a sense of openness to life as it unspools.
“The Internet” was clearly designed as in-the-moment, experiential piece of storytelling. It’s tough to convey the tale’s charms with beat-by-beat conversational unpacking. For instance, the phrase “double-click” becomes a sadly sore hang-up, and proves to be such an out-of-left-field phenomenon for Divya that she finds herself gazing out a window in distraction.
I should note, “The Internet” unfurls wholly in handheld camera coverage, and takes place (as every episode does) entirely within room 104. We never see Divya. All we know about her is what we can glean from her chat with her (initially) holier-than-thou writer progeny. That’s ultimately a defense mechanism, albeit an unconsciously realized one.
Suddenly, things take a disastrous deep dive. His mother, who has taken to vegetable-chopping in between Anish’s monotonous instructions, accidentally pastes blank space over the entirety of the document.
The novel is gone.
The debate becomes one of dreams, of life goals misunderstood at cross purposes.
Anish, in a fit of vulgar rage, instructs Divya to shut the laptop, hop on a bus, and take the laptop to a Mac World store in the city.
That’s when the story goes deeper than I would have ever anticipated. I’m not gong to divulge what transpires in this space. I’ve told you plenty already.
Go watch it.
We can wait all day.
Watch it. Then we can talk.
Are you ready? Okay great. Let’s get to it.
This was not a perfect episode. The big emotional shifts felt very theatrical, and abrupt, and I’m not sure how much of Anish’s ceiling draft I would read if it were published as such.
…But the point of the episode is that creativity, in its purest state, comes from a place of emotional honesty and receptiveness. That draft he visualizes on his motel room ceiling is itself a second draft, a page-one rewrite, of the manuscript his mother accidentally deleted. And he wouldn’t hear of his mother’s (wholly valid), broad notes before the revelatory moment of the episode’s climax. The ceiling draft is not the be-all, end-all draft. It is the first pass at a new, more honest storytelling beginning. And I’d be first in line to buy an autographed copy of that final draft.
In the best episode of Room 104 thus far, “The Internet” strives for one heck of a storytelling feat, by making what could be a funny nostalgia piece about the generation gap manifesting in technology, into something much, much deeper. A meditation on family, and writing itself.
Season 1, Episode 5 (S01E05)
Room 104 airs Fridays at 11:30PM on HBO
Alex Kirschenbaum | Contributor