Film & Television

‘Roar’ Offers Up Fractured Fairytales of Womanhood

Have you ever watched yourself disappear in a meeting of alpha males? Or felt the need to eat your feelings? Been gaslighted by an affectionate-turned-abusive partner? Valued only for your appearance? Or been torn apart by the near-impossible dual responsibilities of career and parenting?

In Roar, a new anthology series on Apple TV+, creators Liz Flahene and Carly Mensch take these metaphorical experiences of womanhood and build smart, entertaining, sometimes disturbing, 30-minute fables.

Based on a short story collection by Cecelia Ahern, Roar benefits from an extraordinary cast of diverse leading ladies, including Oscar-winner Nicole Kidman (who also produces), Tony-winner Cynthia Erivo, Emmy-winner Merritt Wever, and SAG-winner Alison Brie, plus Issa Rae, Meera Syal, Betty Gilpin, Fivel Stewart, and Kara Hayward. They, in turn, are supported by an impressive cast of men and women, making each episode a mini-master-class in acting.

Each installment starts with a title that sounds like an allegory, but in reality tells you exactly where it’s going. And while most of the stories veer into fantasy, albeit fantasies that are presented as natural consequences for the heroines, they are all underscored by feelings that are valid, true, and uniquely female.

In “The Woman Who Disappeared,” Rae (The Photograph) is a celebrated author, whose memoir is being optioned by a Hollywood studio. There is a hint of things to come when the ID camera in the studio lobby can’t capture an acceptable picture. (This is founded in reality; Rae is a Black woman and digital technologies are often biased toward white men.) Once she makes it to her meeting, she listens with horror as a team of producers explains how they plan to depict her life. At first they won’t hear her, then they can’t hear her, and eventually she becomes invisible.

Kidman (Being the Ricardos) stars in “The Woman Who Ate Photographs” as a woman bringing her mother (Judy Davis, The Dressmaker) home to live with her family after an Alzheimer’s diagnosis. Their road trip together is punctuated by growing confusion and current resentments. But, when Kidman finds old photo albums, she is so desperate to hold onto happier times that she devours them, literally, enabling her to briefly capture the hope or elation or love of the past.

“The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf” takes the trope of the trophy wife to absurd levels. Gilpin (GLOW) has been brought up to believe that appearance is everything. “If I had to choose,” her pageant mother says, “I’d rather you were beautiful than smart.” As a runway model, she catches the eye of a millionaire (Daniel Dae Kim), who builds an ornate shelf in his home office where she can look pretty and serve as his inspiration. He eventually loses interest in her and she has to try and build a life back on the ground. Physical comedy, a dance number, and a surprise ending make this one of the silliest and most satisfying stories of Roar

From there, Roar moves into more horrific territory with “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin.” Erivo (Harriet) stars as a driven executive who is also the mother of young girl and a new infant. Returning to work, she experiences familiar conflicting priorities and emotions. With no privacy in her sleek glass office, she has to pump in a supply closet; her husband grumbles and her daughter acts out when Erivo has to work late; despite asking not to travel, she’s almost immediately sent on a business trip. Everyone wants a piece of her, so it’s little wonder when she finds angry gashes and tears in her flesh.

In “The Woman Who Was Fed by a Duck,” what starts off as light whimsy becomes quite dark. Weaver (Unbelievable) is an aspiring — and decidedly single — doctor who is befriended by a talking duck (voiced by Justin Kirk) at the park where she studies for the MCAS exam. The duck is everything a suitor should be, and Weaver brings him home, where life becomes very pleasant until the duck snaps, abusing her emotionally and eventually physically. As a human abuser would, he alternates between berating and pleasing her, cuts her off from family and friends, and casts doubts about any of her plans outside of their relationship. Weaver’s character finds the strength to leave at last in a funny twist that I won’t reveal here.

Brie (Mad Men) stars in (and as) “The Woman Who Solved her Own Murder.” The episode begins at a crime scene; the victim appears to have been involved — willingly or not — in some kinky cosplay scenario. Onsite are two male detectives (Hugh Dancy, Christopher Lowell), who belittle the female sheriff (Ego Nwodim) before jumping to conclusions about the dead woman. Of course, she’s there too, neither seen nor heard but deeply frustrated with law enforcement’s fumbling before taking matters into her own ghost hands.

My favorite of the bunch is “The Woman Who Returned her Husband,” which stars Syal as a 60-year-old and no-longer satisfied wife. Prompted by a girlfriend, she is pleased to learn that, here in America, satisfaction is guaranteed. She can return her husband (Bernard White) or exchange him for a different model at a convenient and accommodating super store. Uncertain of exactly what she’s looking for (other than “more excitement”), she brings a couple of new husbands home on trial, only to realize that any change will have to come from within — and that Husband Number One might have been a bargain after all.

Finally, “The Girl Who Loved Horses” is the only story that isn’t contemporary, and also the only one that features a bond between two women. Stewart plays a capable young woman in the American West who wants to avenge the death of her father, no matter what it costs her. Hayward is the preacher’s daughter who wants to prevent this from happening at all costs. The story includes horses and guns and cowgirls cross-dressing. It also features Alfred Molina as a stock villain who is shamed into good behavior with stories of his estranged daughter. Although the installment doesn’t really fit with the others or with the narrative pattern they establish, it is well acted and beautifully shot.

The same praises apply to all of the episodes — and, appropriately, all are directed by women, including Channing Godfrey Peoples (Miss Juneteenth), Kim Gehrig, So Yong Kim, Rashida Jones, Liz Flahive, Anya Adams, and Quyen Tran (cinematographer, Maid).

Roar has received mixed reviews, and while I haven’t cross-referenced them, my instinct would be that it is scoring better with women than with men. The biggest, most important message that these quirky tales are putting forth is that, whether we like it or not, being a woman means accepting society’s insistent, but often inconsistent, directives about who and what you are and do. While I certainly hope that no reader is literally stuck on a shelf, disappearing, or cohabitating with a duck, Roar’s themes will feel familiar to many.

Roar is available to stream on Apple TV+.

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