Review: Check in and stay a while: TBS’ ‘Guest Book’ and HBO’s ‘Room 104’ look at hotel life

Television Critic

Ever wonder who’s stayed in that hotel room before you?

Me neither, but apparently there are others who have, thus two new television anthologies that explore the sometimes disturbing, sometimes humorous week-to-week life of a short-term rental.

HBO’s “Room 104” by Mark and Jay Duplass (“Togetherness,” “Animals”) is a wildly creative drama set in a respectable roadside hotel room, where anything from a Hitchcockian horror story to an immigrant tale like “The Namesake” can, and does, take place.

TBS’ “The Guest Book,” on the other hand, is a situational comedy created by Greg Garcia (“My Name Is Earl,” “Raising Hope”). By visiting a mountain cabin rental known as Froggy Cottage, dysfunctional families, sexless couples and longtime friends hope to get away from it all only to find their problems grow when exposed to fresh air and pines.


In “Room 104,” which debuts Friday, a different scenario unfolds each week over 12 half-hour episodes. Though the show never leaves the one room, the characters, tone and story line vary so much from episode to episode that the only constants are the cheap furniture, and the element of surprise.

In one episode, Orlando Jones is an Internet-made self-help guru who’s finally meeting a devoted disciple to help her reach the program’s highest -- and most expensive -- level of consciousness. The story unfolds somewhere between reality and the supernatural, where lightning crashes and lights flicker for maximum tension during “the process.” Is it a complete sham or a life-changing event? You’ll see.

In another, a frustrating phone call, in which a young man (Karan Soni from “Deadpool”) attempts to help his immigrant mom (Poorna Jagannathan, “The Night Of”) navigate the World Wide Web, reveals a deep family secret.

But unlike some previous episodes there’s nothing foreboding here; instead, it’s a bittersweet and ultimately touching tale. Unlike the premiere babysitting gig that turns into a psychological thriller/horror show when a seemingly sweet little boy reveals a very different side to his personality once he ties a cape on.

This eclectic series is the answer for those burned out on all the binge-watching. Check in or out when you please. No commitment required.

“The Guest Book,” which premieres Aug. 3, also features half-hour episodes in which the cabin guests change from episode to episode. But that’s where the similarities end.


The TBS series offers a world outside the cabin and recurring characters that loosely connect the stories between episodes. And of course there’s that book that each renter fills out, leaving the next to read about what happened before they checked in (foot sex, baptisms in the hot tub, etc.).

And each episode is driven by situational comedies that are uneven in story and execution.

The henpecked science teacher (Danny Pudi) and his nagging, haggard wife (Lauren Lapkus) haven’t had sex in the year since their child was born. Things aren’t the same “down there,” explains his wife, who refers to the child they left with babysitters in every derogatory term possible because that part of her anatomy looks like “lasagna that’s been punched.”

A subsequent episode featuring Stockard Channing as a meddling mother is a much more successful attempt at humor. She’s a devout Christian who is determined to make sure her grown son doesn’t marry his atheist girlfriend. She devises a scheme to fix the situation by inviting them up for a mountain retreat, and let’s just say there’s hell to pay.

The recurring cast include Charles Robinson as Wilfrid, the manager of rental cottages; Carly Jibson as the scheming owner of a local strip club; and Lou Wilson as her unfortunate stepson and stooge.

You’d never want to stay at the properties in either of these far-flung series unless you wanted to end up dead or blackmailed by a stripper, but as television, “Room 104” is definitely worth a weekly visit, while “The Guest Book” is best left as a Plan B when all your other usual Thursday night choices are exhausted.

‘Room 104’

Where: HBO

When: 11:30 p.m. Friday

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

‘The Guest Book’

Where: TBS

When: 10 and 10:30 p.m., starting Aug. 3

Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)