Hit and miss. Inconsistent. Stylistically all over the place. HBO's new series Room 104, which premiered on SKY's SoHo channel on Saturday night, is all of these things - and that's exactly what makes it so exciting.
Each half-hour episode is set within the confines of the titular Room 104, a standard twin share room at a nondescript American hotel. This single location is about the only thing the series' 12 episodes have in common. Each has a different director and cast, and the series, co-created by prolific indie filmmakers Jay and Mark Duplass, covers a range of genres and time periods.
The first episode, Ralphie, is a horror about a babysitter called to Room 104 at short notice to keep an eye on a kid who is refusing to come out of the bathroom. Things get progressively weirder and darker as he tells the babysitter about his sinister "alter ego" Ralphie, warning her not to make him angry, before a well-executed twist pulls the rug out from under our feet.
The episode's intrigue holds for a fast 23 minutes, even if it ultimately ends up feeling a little slight and only ever reaches mild levels of horror movie creepiness. The important thing is it leaves you wanting to see more, wondering what other directions the series is going to go in. The rest of the episodes hop from drama to comedy and back to horror; there's one about a mixed martial arts fighter and another is a wordless ballet from the perspective of a cleaner.
Some of these episodes will probably be kind of bad, or at least not everything will be to everyone's tastes. But that is precisely the beauty of the anthology series, the slightly old-fashioned TV format that could be in a position to make a comeback in the streaming age.
A revival of the Twilight Zone style of storytelling certainly seems like an appealing alternative to committing to another endless series which will likely either get boring or implode under its own narrative weight around series three. A show where it doesn't matter if you miss an episode or watch it all out of order? Sounds absolutely liberating.
In truth, the series of standalone episodes tied together by a loose theme or set of rules never really went away. Netflix's cult science fiction anthology Black Mirror is probably the most popular current torchbearer, while the BBC's dark comedy Inside No. 9 (also available to watch on Netflix) is a similar concept to Room 104 in that each episode takes place inside a different "number 9".
Here the likes of supernatural Maori anthology Mataku (hosted by Temuera Morrison) and kids series Freaky have been made this century, while TVNZ1's Sunday Theatre seasons consistently provide some of the best local television of the year.
With NZ On Air's funding of big budget drama series becoming increasingly difficult to justify, a show like Room 104 could provide one viable - and much more fun - alternative. For the most part it uses young or lesser-known talent both behind and in front of the camera, and the relatively low stakes of producing one standalone episode encourages risk-taking and innovation.
Imagine something somewhere in between Sunday Theatre and the best of the 48Hours film competition (won in 2004 by a little-known Wellingtonian called Taika Waititi). There would be some absolute clangers, no doubt - but it would produce episodes of pure TV genius.