Friday, July 28, 2017

REVIEW: 'Room 104' - A Babysitter Struggles to Watch a Boy and the Horrors That Follow Him in 'Ralphie'

HBO's Room 104 - Episode 1.01 "Ralphie"

Things go horribly awry when a babysitter arrives at Room 104 to watch an unusual boy named Ralph.

Anthology series were really popular in television for the first few decades of its existence. They ultimately went away because audiences proved that they would rather watch shows with continuing storylines and characters. It's one of the great benefits of TV. The viewer gets to stay in a particular place or with a specific character over a long period of time. The form is very experimental and can allow for many different types of stories. In the last few years, anthologies have been making a comeback - though as season-long entities. FX's American Horror Story isn't the same show from year to year but it is a season-long story comprised of 12 episodes. Those types of shows have become really popular and even reinvented the term limited series for awards recognition. Episodic anthologies are really rare though. Netflix has Black Mirror which is a very successful version of it. And now, HBO has Room 104 from Mark and Jay Duplass. It appears to be even more experimental though because it doesn't want to be the same show or genre in each episode. This opening episode is very much a horror story. But it's my understanding that the rest of the season will vary wildly in terms of tone and genre. That's very exciting. So even if this type of story didn't work for you, the show may still be your thing. Of course, that creates the possibility of this being a very uneven season that could divide any potential audience. As such, it will be very interesting to see how these stories play out.

For the longest time, the horror genre wasn't my particular thing. I didn't want to watch a movie or TV show where the purpose was solely to terrify me. Over the past few years though, I've warmed up to the genre a bit more - at least in television because who has time to actually go and see movies? When the storytelling is intelligent and purposeful, it can really be an inventive genre. If a project only wants to scare the audience with cheap thrills, it's not that entertaining or successful. Sure, it could still be a hit but it's not something that particularly exists me. The human condition added on top of that is what's ultimately important. If the audience can't care about the characters the horror is happening to, then why should we be investing in it at all? All of this is a roundabout way of saying that I liked this opening episode of Room 104. It does a nice atmospheric job of setting the mood early on. It takes a long time for the episode to be about what it truly wants to be about. As such, it feels like it's just getting good in the end and then it abrupt cuts to the closing credits. That's a bit problematic. But overall, it's a solid first entry for the show.

The premise seems very simple and innocent in the beginning. A woman, Meg, is hired to babysitter a kid, Ralph, in a hotel room for a couple of hours. Meg seems to be a professional who has references. She conducts herself very well in her handing of traditional problems with children. Ralph even says that she would make a good mom. And yet, the intrigue and mystery is there immediately that something isn't quite right. The action is very slow and deliberate. Story beats play out for awhile. There is an uncomfortable aura throughout this hotel room. There is nothing inherently scary about the room itself. It is just a standard hotel room with two beds, a table, a TV, a bathroom and a vanity. But the direction makes it feel like this vast space that exists between Meg, Ralph and the overall mystery of whether there is something in the bathroom. But then, it's also intimate and traumatizing when Ralphie is actually revealed and starts attacking. It's a horror story that pulls the audience in through that intrigue. Meg may be able to forget about Ralphie and just have a pleasant time with Ralph for most of the evening but the audience is never about to forget that detail because he's the title character of the episode.

Meg just worries that she'll get caught failing to listen to Bradley's instructions for watching his kid. Ralph still wants to be up and talking even though his father is due to come back to the hotel room at any moment. Ralph wants to talk because he has a story to tell. His mother is dead. There's the official story and the one that Bradley made up to tell everyone. The fictional story is her wanting to escape from the world so much that she tied a noose in her closet and hung herself. That's absolutely horrifying. It's so unnerving to listen to this kid share this story while also knowing that it's just a story. If that's the lie, then the truth has to be so much worse. It's not completely surprising that Ralphie is the one who ultimately killed the mother. But that's the moment where everything shifts in the story. From that moment on, Ralphie can no longer just hide in the bathroom. He needs to become an active part of the story. He needs to make his evil intentions known. There are scares leading up to that point. But things are taken to a new level once it's confirmed that Ralphie does exist. He's a mirror image of Ralph. It's enough to confuse Meg into believing that it's just some sick and twisted game Ralph is playing. But it's also enough to truly freak her out.

And of course, the show does ultimately confirm that Ralph and Ralphie aren't the same. They look the same and can seemingly jump back-and-forth between each other. But Ralph is good and Ralphie is evil. Ralph is doing his best to contain it but Ralphie is let loose. He kills Ralph and tries to do the same to Meg. She fears for her life long before that moment happens. She wisely calls 911. But that doesn't save her in the end. Ralphie still kills Ralph and moves his attention to her. But the moment where she got on top of him was the moment it was clear things were going to end very badly for Meg. She may not die because of this babysitting job. But it will change her life forever moving forward. It's all because once Bradley returns and sees the horror happening, Ralphie is suddenly Ralph. The camera lens does play tricks to make it appear as if it's possible that Meg is just seeing double. This is just a trick somehow. A mental break that is having lethal consequences. The show lives in that uncertain horror throughout this episode. It seemingly confirms that Ralphie exists only to pull back from the conceit in the end to reveal the true horror of a dead kid. But it also ends on that ominous note of the bathroom door closing once again. Meg can't explain what happened. Others could be exposed to Ralphie but the damage has already been done. That's an intriguing place to end the episode. The show could have done more but that would have likely taken it away from the title room. So instead, it cuts to black where Meg lets out a laugh of disbelief over how horribly awry this job went.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Ralphie" was written by Mark Duplass and directed by Sarah Adina Smith.
  • The biggest question that this episode leaves unanswered is this: How aware is Bradley to what's going on? He has to know about Ralphie in order to feel it's necessary to create a story to share about how his wife died. But if he does know, then it would be incredibly reckless for him to leave Ralph with a stranger and go out on dates. He seems a little too careless or perhaps in denial about the whole thing.
  • Of course, it also doesn't seem like Ralph and his dad are all that close. Ralph is envious of the fact that Meg and her dad used to watch television together. He doesn't have that with his dad. Why is that? Does Bradley genuinely not care about his son? Or does the Ralphie of it all scare him away?
  • There's also the innocence of Ralph wanting to know what sex is so that he can understand what his father is talking about. He seems very perceptive of the world around him. He's curious and wants to have these conversations. Meg seems wise and able to avoid saying the wrong thing though. 
  • There's really no time or place to this story either. It's only important that it happens in a hotel room. One that isn't great but is good enough for a one-night stay. The first responders can arrive quickly but not soon enough to protect Meg from being attacked by Ralphie.
  • This is going to be a show that truly highlights great acting and directing. It's such a confined space but the possibilities for story are endless. Melonie Diaz and Ethan Kent play off of each other well while there still being the creepy and unsettling feeling thanks to the strong direction from Sarah Adina Smith.