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Ostensibly, what lies at the heart of Apple TV+’s Roar are a series of essential truths about womanhood today — or, at least, the essential truths about womanhood as understood by a certain type of woman (mostly straight, mostly middle-class, mostly American) today. All eight half-hour episodes of the anthology are created by women and center on women characters dealing with issues like mom guilt or misogyny or abusive relationships, with a touch of magical realism to elevate these everyday concerns to the stuff of fables.
Yet in its attempts to universalize these intensely personal experiences, Roar loses much of the heart that makes them worth caring about to begin with. It’s not that the series is lazy; each installment seems carefully planned and polished, and even the worst have some standout moment of wit or beauty. It’s that in trying to speak for so many, Roar ends up saying very little at all.
Nearly every tale is packaged the same way, with a title that suggests an old folk tale, a familiar situation with a whimsical spin and often a closing bit of dialogue that summarizes the story’s themes for anyone still not getting it. From there, Roar varies in style and tone — though the series as a whole is created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (GLOW) and based on the 2018 short-story collection by Cecelia Ahern, each individual episode is spearheaded by a different combination of stars, writers and directors.
Most of the fantastical flourishes stem from a common metaphor made literal. At best, they help deepen the characters and stories we’re watching. In “The Woman Who Returned Her Husband,” easily the most moving episode of the entire season, the marriage market — by which I mean an actual aisle in a big-box store — becomes a way for Anu (Meera Syal) and Vik (Bernard White) to reassess their 37-year relationship, and for us to better understand the restlessness that’s driven them apart.
And even less wholly successful entries can yield moments of disarming beauty or strangeness, like the dreamy montage of memories that flood a motel room when a mom (Nicole Kidman) devours family photos in the otherwise flimsy-feeling “The Woman Who Ate Photographs.”
But too often, Roar doesn’t seem to have much to add to the metaphor that the metaphor itself hasn’t conveyed already. It’s a clever idea to have Wanda (Issa Rae), the literary hotshot protagonist of “The Woman Who Disappeared,” realize she doesn’t just feel invisible to the white male execs adapting her latest bestseller, she’s actually invisible to them. Or to have Ambia (Cynthia Erivo) of “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin” discover that her all-consuming guilt about being a working mom is leaving bloody wounds (including one so horrifyingly, delightfully grotesque that I had to avert my eyes). But the concepts peter out before they can get dialed up another notch, or find themselves subverted in unexpected ways.
At least it’s easy to see what those premises were going for. “The Woman Who Was Fed By a Duck” is a fairly straightforward drama about an increasingly toxic romance, or it would have been if not for the fact that Alisa (Merritt Wever) is dating a mallard duck (voiced by Justin Kirk). What’s accomplished by making her love interest a waterfowl is unclear, since their relationship still unfolds more or less along the same dynamics as it would have if he’d been a human man — only with the added layer of confusion and discomfort that comes from watching Wever (who deserves so much better) try and make bedroom eyes at a duck.
What makes Roar so frustrating is that it’s not all bad. Indeed, considered piece by piece, many of the choices it makes seem quite good. The cast is unimpeachable; even the minor roles are filled with popular and beloved performers like Daniel Dae Kim, Jake Johnson and Jillian Bell, to say nothing of its starry leads. Each story has a distinct tone and aesthetic — whether it’s the spiked-cupcake pastels of “The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf,” a fairy tale about a beauty (Betty Gilpin) put on a pedestal, or the sickly grime of “The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder,” a Se7en-esque thriller starring Alison Brie. There are lines that made me wince in recognition, and bits of physical comedy that made me chuckle out loud.
But the episodes feel like less than the sum of their parts. The entire series, even more so. Roar‘s reach for the universal comes at the cost of the specific. Its characters are flattened into paper dolls acting out quirky little fables meant to convey broader, more profound revelations, instead of being fleshed out into three-dimensional individuals with arcs worth caring about in their own right. Which, I suppose, is yet another one of those relatable lady experiences: the disappointment that comes from watching even well-intentioned, painstakingly crafted, ostensibly empowering media reduce our stories to what they “mean,” instead of seeing us for the strange, complicated unique individuals we actually are.
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