The Room Where It Happens

There’s an interesting phenomena in Hollywood that I like to refer to as the “Noah’s Ark” effect. Based on the frequency that reboots and sequels are churned out, it probably isn’t too surprising that there is something of a lack of creativity in the entertainment industry. Since there is a lot of money at stake, companies are more likely to take a chance on established intellectual properties that theoretically have a ready-built audience than go out on a limb with something new or unexpected. But studios also don’t want to miss out on what is potentially the next big thing, which is where the “Noah’s Ark” effect comes in. There is a tendency that when one project is being developed, another studio is developing something very similar about the same time. If Disney is contemplating a live-action Jungle Book, then Warner Brothers is going to put out a live-action Jungle Book as well. Olympus Has Fallen is answered with White House Down. The Prestige and The Illusionist both came out in 2006. I’m not 100% convinced that Friends With Benefits and No Strings Attached aren’t the same freaking movie. There’s a weird group-think that seems to believe that if one movie is successful, audiences are going to want another movie with a pretty similar premise. Now sometimes both projects never see the light of day, but the frequency with which this happens is somewhat startling.

While this is most noticeable in films, the “Noah’s Ark” effect extends to television as well. This summer, for example, two new anthology series debuted, both with the same hook that each story focuses on the events in a singular room. In HBO’s Room 104, that singular room is a motel room, while in TBS’ Guest Book the focal point is a rental cabin. While the two series differ in tone, the basic premise is the same – each week, the stories of the new residents of the motel room/cabin are told. On paper, both series are pretty similar, but their differences in execution allow them both to have a place in the crowded TV marketplace. I liked them both, for very different reasons.

HBO’s Room 104 comes from the minds of the Duplass brothers (Mark and Jay) and is the more pure anthology series of the two. From what I’ve seen before, each episode is a stand-alone story, with no connection to the episode before or after it except for the same setting. The episodes also vary in tone; while the two episodes that have aired so far were both unsettling in their own way, the premier was closer to a horror movie while the second episode was something else entirely. While the basic composition of the room stays the same, its appearance also changes week to week, depending on the story being told. Sometimes Room 104 looks dingy, and other times it looks more upscale. Both episodes went in interesting and unexpected directions; Room 104 seems to share some the same DNA as The Twilight Zone or Black Mirror, though it really should be judged on its own merits rather than in comparison to either of those series. While the Duplass brothers oversee the series, they bring in different writers and directors to work on the series.

Guest Book, however, is much more traditional series; it comes from the singular mind of creator Greg Garcia, who was the man behind My Name is Earl and Raising Hope. While the main focus of each episode is on the different inhabitants of Froggy Cottage, there are through lines that connect one episode to another, making it clear that these all take place in the same universe. There are recurring characters that appear in the episodes (some familiar faces for those that have enjoyed Garcia’s other series) and there are side stories that occur over multiple episodes. Tonally, Guest Book is more traditional as well; this is just a straight-up comedy. If you like the first episode, you’ll probably enjoy the second. It’s a less daring series, but it scratches a particular itch.

Both series benefit from the fact that the main characters in each episode are different; because the commitment of the actors is only for one episode, both series are able to get some very well-known actors to come and play in their respective sandboxes. What attracted me to Guest Book wasn’t the premise, but the impressive comedic roster that they were able to assemble: Dani Pudi, Jenna Fischer, Lauren Lapkus, Mary Lynn Rajskub, Stockard Chinning, Michael Rappaport, and Margo Martindale are among the guests that check in. A show that attracts that quality of actor is something that I want to see. With Room 104, I was more attracted to the premise, though the show also boasts some impressive actors as well. It was a pleasant surprise to see James Van Der Beek and Clark Duke turn up in the second episode.

I’ll continue watching both series, though if push came to shove I’d choose Room 104 over Guest Book, simply because the oddity of the former is more in my wheelhouse. I appreciate consistency, especially in comedies, but if I’m watching an anthology series, I’m looking for a show that is willing to take chances and play around with the format. I’m sure that there are episodes of Room 104 that I’m not going to dig as much, but I still appreciate a show that is doing something different. Guest Book is more like comfort food, while Room 104 is more like fusion cuisine. With the former, you basically know what you are getting, but while the latter increases the chance of inconsistency, it can give you exciting new combinations that you never considered. Your mileage on both series will depend on your preferences.

Room 104 debuts new episodes on HBO Fridays at 11:30 pm (EST) and Guest Book airs Thursdays at 10:30 pm (EST) on TBS.