Overall, Roar is a home run…
Fables and folktales have a complicated relationship with gender and sexuality. They have sometimes been used as conservative and often sexist stories, intended to preserve dominant cultural narratives and values. However, transgressive authors like Angela Carter, and a recent wave of queer fairy tale writers have also shown how the genre can be mobilized for progressive ends. Roar, Apple TV+’s series of feminist fables, is a recent big-name entry in the latter category, and it absolutely shines.
Roar is an anthology series: each episode tells a stand-alone story, so they can be watched in any order. Like classic fables or allegories, these stories take a series of real-life problems and give each a supernatural, absurdist, or magical twist. In one, a woman is overlooked and treated as if she is invisible, so she literally becomes invisible. In another, a woman’s husband asks her to live on an elevated shelf that he builds in their home, literalizing the way that men can “put women on pedestals” and take away their agency.
This setup could have led to a terribly trite and formulaic series, and the concepts on their own may make potential viewers worried about overly obvious or simplistic allegories. However, the extremely talented creative team behind Roar manages to sidestep potential pitfalls and ensure that these concepts are realized through sufficiently nuanced and intriguing writing, direction and performance.
The series is similar to Shudder’s recent Creepshow anthology series, where horror shorts are used as morality tales with a clear lesson or social commentary connected to each story. Luckily, this one is more consistent than the hit-or-miss horror anthology, with less variation between episode quality. While some episodes are stronger than others, all are worth watching.
Probably one of the most impressive things about Roar is the way that it perfectly balances absurdist and fantastical content with heavy-hitting emotional and political substance. Notably remarkable in this sense is “The Woman Who Was Fed By a Duck.” Somehow, a story about a woman who has sex with a duck manages to be one of the most emotionally compelling and intellectually stimulating television events of the year. Even better, none of this emotional and political depth comes at the cost of its absurdist tone. The episode never sacrifices its commitment to weird, high-concept absurdism, even as it develops into a gut-punch of a serious and mindful story.
Another story of note is the premiere episode, “The Woman Who Disappeared,” which is an exploration of the ways that Black women’s stories are appropriated and misused by white audiences. Issa Rae plays Wanda, a writer with a best-selling memoir. The episode explores how, even though people are fascinated with her story, they are not interested in her as an actual person. People use the book for their own emotional and financial purposes and overlook the real woman whose story they’re reading, leading her to be treated as if she is invisible even as her novel becomes a bestseller. Because this is a fable, she does then literally become invisible.
The script for this episode is extremely tight: every single passing moment is thematically and narratively significant, and there is not a wasted scene. Experiences like a webcam’s facial recognition software not working on Black people’s faces (a real issue) subtly remind the audience of the many ways that American culture tries to render Black people invisible. The topic of invisibility is expertly woven into the fabric of the story. Far before Wanda literally becomes invisible, the script skillfully crafts a multifaceted and nuanced picture of the context that sets the scene for this event. The episode is truly a masterclass in thematically-minded storytelling that holistically infuses every small interaction with meaning.
Other highlights include “The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin” and “The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder,” although the entire series is definitely worth a watch. The acting talent is undeniable: considering that the show gathers powerhouses like Cynthia Erivo, Alison Brie, Nicole Kidman, Issa Rae, Judy Davis and Merritt Wever into one television series, it is no surprise that the performances are fabulous.
High-powered ensemble casts on their own are not a guarantee that a show will be as great as the sum of its actors, and Nicole Kidman has recently proven that great acting does not guarantee quality of writing or direction. Luckily, Roar is not lacking in either of these categories. With fantastic writing and insightful direction, the series is impressive.
One thing that may catch some audiences off guard is that there is a wild variation in how significant the supernatural elements are to each story. “The Woman Who Returned Her Husband” and “The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf” are entirely fantastical from the beginning, and every moment is completely committed to maintaining a surrealist tone. On the completely other end of the spectrum, “The Woman Who Ate Photographs” could have completely cut the supernatural element out and still been exactly the same story; the magic realism is an element of added flavor, but not crucial to the narrative.
This is not exactly a bad thing. It is nice for an anthology to have variety: if every story had the exact same ratio of realism to absurdism, it could have felt repetitive. So in this case, the series’ inconsistency could have been a strength rather than a weakness: either way, it is at least worth noting.
Overall, Roar is a home run. The series was extremely well-done, balancing absurdism and fun, weird storytelling with genuine emotion and smart, politically-conscious writing. Considering that the Cecelia Ahern collection of stories on which this series was based has 30 entries, a second season would not be unwelcome!Watch Roar Now Streaming