Roar is what happens when a group of five-star chefs combine their talents, roll up their sleeves, and wind up making a garbage plate. All the ingredients are there, and all the skill, but it somehow adds up to a muddled creation that’s less than the sum of its parts.
The Apple TV+ anthology series (all eight episodes streaming now) is essentially a collection of modern fairy tales about female empowerment, based a 2018 short story collection by Irish author Cecelia Ahern. The episodes open with bright typographic title cards that more or less tell you what you’re in for: “The Woman Who Disappeared,” “The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf,” “The Woman Who Was Fed by a Duck.”
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On the page, Roar couldn’t sound more appealing for a certain type of audience (read: your intrepid reviewer). Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the minds behind Netflix’s canceled-too-soon masterpiece GLOW, the show features a who’s who of female creative talent on both sides of the camera. Aside from the creators, episode writers include Janine Nabers (UnREAL), Vera Santamaria (PEN15, Orange Is the New Black), and playwright Halley Feiffer. A refreshingly diverse cohort of directors includes Rashida Jones (Angie Tribeca), So Yong Kim (Dr. Death, Transparent), Anya Adams (Fresh Off the Boat, The Good Place), Channing Godfrey Peoples (Miss Juneteenth), and cinematographer Quyen Tran (Maid, Palm Springs).
And then there’s that cast: Issa Rae, Nicole Kidman, Cynthia Erivo, Merritt Wever, Judy Davis, and GLOW stars Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, to name a few. Hell, even the male ensemble is amazing: Jake Johnson, Daniel Dae Kim, Hugh Dancy, Nick Kroll, Jason Mantzoukas, and Alfred freakin’ Molina. With this dream team and this pedigree, how could Roar go wrong?
We have no earthly idea. But man, is it a mess—albeit an interesting mess. The series’ eight half-hour episodes vary widely in quality and tone, and only a precious few nail the assignment. The stories read like fables, and like Aesop’s, are mostly populated by archetypes and come with a too-neat moral at the end. Sometimes this works, but even the best installments of Roar tend to pull their punches right when you want them to go further down the rabbit hole.
Take the opener, “The Woman Who Disappeared,” penned by Nabers and directed by Peoples. Issa Rae stars as Wanda, a newly famous novelist who goes to Hollywood to meet with execs who want to adapt her book for the screen. But even in this rarefied air, she’s a Black woman in a world not built for her. During a meeting with a room of smooth-talking producers—all of them white men—she feels her voice getting ignored as they talk about spinning her writing into something it was never meant to be; and then she literally becomes invisible.
It’s a rich metaphor that gets more complex as it goes, and Rae beautifully evokes the existential horror of her situation. But then, in the episode’s final act, it becomes something much more simplistic, sacrificing nuance for a generic message of empowerment through self-actualization. It feels like a cheat.
Some episodes, on the other hand, are just kind of dull. “The Woman Who Ate Photographs,” written by Flahive, boasts the star power of Oscar winner Nicole Kidman. She plays Robin, a woman driving her aging mother Rosey (Oscar nominee Judy Davis) — who is in the early stages of Alzheimer’s — through the Australian hinterlands to come live with her. When Robin stumbles across an old family photo album, she begins to literally consume the faded snapshots, causing her to relive old memories in brief, impressionistic bursts. But mother and daughter never go deep enough into their complicated history, and very little comes of the magical-realist premise. It ends, once more, in a sunny denouement that feels unearned.
And then there are the installments that are just plain weird. There’s “The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf,” which features Gilpin as Amelia, a model who marries a wealthy man (Kim) who invites her to sit on a high shelf in his vacant mansion so that she can be his muse as he works. She’s a trophy wife. Get it? Despite its facile premise, this one is worth a watch for the always magnetic Gilpin’s performance; she leans hard into the candy-colored unreality of the episode’s world, so manic and childlike that you can’t help but be charmed, even if it ultimately amounts to nothing.
But trust us on this: Please, please skip over “The Woman Who Was Fed by a Duck.” Does it star respected master of subtlety Wever? Does Mantzoukas make an appearance to charm the pants off of viewers as per uszh? Yes. But it’s also about, quite frankly, a woman who has a sexual relationship with a talking mallard.
The nice part about an anthology series, however, is you can just watch the good ones. And thankfully, there’s a trio of them: “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin,” a body horror-tinged nightmare starring Oscar nominee Erivo as a woman who, while trying to balance motherhood with her high-powered job at a male-dominated company, discovers that a malevolent force is leaving bloody tooth marks all over her body. Jones directed this one from a script by Mensch and Flahive, and it’s a thing of stark and evocative beauty — a metaphor that actually makes good on its promise.
Brie is at the top of her chatty game in “The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder,” the clever (if unoriginal) tale of a ghost trying to get to the bottom of her grisly death while the detectives assigned to her case (GLOW’s Christopher Lowell, and, in an inspired bit of stunt casting, Hannibal’s Hugh Dancy) prove to be utterly incompetent. It’s simultaneously a sendup of the male-centric dead-girl mystery genre and a character study of a woman discovering too late that she was completely misunderstood.
And then, finally, there’s that understatement we’ve been looking for in “The Woman Who Returned Her Husband,” an episode that could easily fly under the radar for its lack of A-list names. But don’t sleep on it: Santamaria pens the story of Anu (Meera Syal), who at the age of 60, finds herself dissatisfied with a marriage that’s grown stale and trades in her husband (Bernard White) at a big-box store for a newer model. The story is funny and sweet, and a lovely look at both what it means to be an immigrant in America and the ways in which people never stop growing, both separately and together.
But three episodes out of eight, in this age of peak television, just isn’t going to cut it. Roar has built a daring experiment, bringing in a diverse group of female writing, directing, and acting heavyweights — which makes the series almost fascinating in its failure to deliver. There’s a solid chance the main fault lies in the source material, but that doesn’t absolve Roar of its faults. The world always needs more stories of women’s empowerment, sure; but we’re all grown-ups here, and we don’t need that message spoon-fed to us — and certainly not by a duck.
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