New Summer Show: 'Room 104' On HBO Will Intrigue Hitchcock And 'American Horror Story' Fans

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Brothers Mark, left, and Jay Duplass at the 2015 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. Larry Busacca/Getty

The idea came 10 years ago: An experimental show that took place in one square room—a space so “epically boring” you think, “Could anything interesting possibly happen inside those walls?” says Mark Duplass. The answer to that question is the new HBO series Room 104, co-created with his brother, Jay, which celebrates the drama that can emerge from utter banality. “That’s really the impetus behind the whole show,” says Mark.

Room 104 is a throwback to early TV, when Alfred Hitchcock Presents helped popularize the anthology series. The genre, which thrived through the ’70s, had been out of favor until 2011, when producer Ryan Murphy tweaked the model, extending the idea from self-contained episodes to seasons with American Horror Story; the critically acclaimed Fargo and American Crime Story followed. At the same time, the U.K. series Black Mirror, a modern-day Twilight Zone, was having dark fun with stand-alone episodes, and last year, Netflix got into anthology comedy with Joe Swanberg’s Chicago-based sexcapade, Easy. Even Mad Men creator Matt Weiner has jumped on the trend with Amazon’s currently filming The Romanovs (each self-contained episode focuses on people who believe themselves to be related to the imperial Russian family).

“It’s easier to attract talented directors and actors when you only have to shoot for a few days, versus locking up their availability for months,” says Jay of the appeal of anthologies. Room 104 is the latest of many projects he has created with his sibling partner of 12 years; their Duplass Brothers Production logo has appeared on everything from the 2005 breakout Sundance hit The Puffy Chair to 2014’s The Skeleton Twins (with Bill Hader and Kristen Wiig) to HBO’s two-season quotidian comedy Togetherness, which starred Mark and Amanda Peet. The two-man multi-hyphenate machine writes, produces, directs and acts, with Mark generally cast as a shambolic heartthrob for the new millennium (in film’s like Your Sister’s Sister) and Jay as your best dysfunctional friend or relative (see Amazon’s Transparent).

We’re “intensely collaborative,” says Mark, 40, who stresses the C-word when discussing Jay, 44. “Mark is better at seeing the big picture, and I tend be obsessed with detail, digging deep into one project over the long haul,” says Jay. “We often refer to Mark as the gas and me as the brakes.” The two, born and raised in New Orleans, have become known for what Mark calls a “signature brand of realist-dramatic-awkward comedy,” and Room 104 provided the brothers with the liberating opportunity to say, “Screw all that, to get strange, take the shackles off.”

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The show’s eponymous room is in a U.S. motel, in a place never identified. It exists, Mark suggests, in a “floating place in our mind.” There are no exterior shots, each episode’s action played against the same drab palette of greens and browns. “Everything was custom built and modeled to look like that super banal, corporate hotel that’s just outside the airport,” says Mark.

Each of the twelve chapters, seven written by Mark, could be summed up thusly: Something unexpected happens to that week’s guests, played by a mix of recognizable TV faces (including Jay, James Van Der Beek and Mae Whitman) and lesser knowns. Clichés, like buzzing neon signs or suspicious-looking motel owners, were studiously avoided. “Crazy motel experiences are always different from what you imagined,” says Mark. “It’s never like, ‘I walked into the room, and they were shooting a porno, or some guy came in with a knife!’ It’s the seemingly mundane that creeps up on you, and you’re like, ‘Oh, this is kind of insane.’”

Eccentricities are subtly built, beginning with the unexpected choices of subject. One episode, for example, features an octogenarian couple (the wonderful Philip Baker Hall and Ellen Greer) attempting to recreate their very first night together. “A lot of our protagonists wouldn’t get greenlit for a 90-minute movie,” says Mark. “They’re like the side character, but we’re giving them leading roles.”

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Room 104 also allows the brothers to play with genres, from psychological thrillers to tearjerkers to nostalgia. In the first episode, “Ralphie,” a wholesome babysitter, played by Melonie Diaz, arrives to watch a boy whose father is going on a date. By the time the credits roll, all original assumptions have been upended. Episode 6, “Voyeurs,” is told entirely through modern dance, without a word spoken between the leads, played by Sarah Hay and Dendrie Taylor. “We thought, This is the stupidest thing we could ever do in the first season of a show. We are setting ourselves up for failure,” says Mark.

It took the brothers 10 years to create their dream show because “we didn’t have the credibility to do it,” says Mark. But HBO’s 2016 cancellation of the bleakly funny and underrated Togetherness (the pinnacle of their “realist-dramatic-awkward comedy”) provided an opportunity. “I have no regrets with Togetherness because we got to make exactly the show we wanted, and HBO paid us really well to do it,” says Mark. “But, speaking candidly, they overpaid us, and it was too expensive to keep on the air. That was a really good lesson: How do you make a show that is valuable to the network, no matter what? Room 104 is a great example—it’s cheap, it’s fast, it’s electric. If you keep it small and controlled, they can’t really stop you.”

And if you like what you see, there’s pretty much endless potential, says Mark. “We could make 150 seasons of this show.”

'Room 104' debuts on HBO July 28 at 11:30 p.m.