Writers: Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch
Writers: Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, Halley Feiffer, Janine Nabers, Vera Santamaria
Directors: Quyen Tran, So Yong Kim, Anya Adams, Liz Flahiv, Kim Gehrig, Rashida Jones, Channing Godfrey Peoples
Cast: Nicole Kidman, Issa Rae, Alison Brie, Cynthia Erivo, Fivel Stewart, Meera Syal, Betty Gilpin, Merritt Wever
Streaming on: Apple TV+
In episode 2 of Apple TV+ anthology series Roar, The Woman Who Ate Photographs, Nicole Kidman plays a mother struck by the feverish desire to devour old family photos, furtively snatched straight out of the album. Each mouthful brings with it a wave of sensory pleasures, immersing her into the sights, sounds and smells of that moment, a figment of her past that, just for a second, becomes as vivid as her present. The imagery eventually comes to represent what Roar as a whole is attempting to achieve — snapshots of intensely personal, often unsettling female experiences, balanced out with the whimsy of magical realism. Adapted from eight stories in Cecelia Ahern’s 2018 collection of the same name, the episodes vary in subject matter and tone, from a body-horror take on working-mom guilt to a police procedural that unearths internet misogyny as the real culprit. While some episodes lack finesse, with either the medium or the message threatening to overwhelm each other, sparks of incisiveness and insight make the series worthwhile.
Each of the episode titles function as literal descriptors of the plot, some to better effect than others. The Woman Who Disappeared begins well as a study of performative allyship and how corporations commodify Black experiences while sidelining the Black people they belong to. That the lived realities of its protagonist, a memoirist (Issa Rae), are packaged and sold to White people as a virtual fantasy game is enough of a reference to erasure that her literal disappearance blunts the otherwise nuanced episode.
The Woman Who Ate Photographs has a more delicate touch, exploring a generational gap that seems impossible to bridge, between two people who can’t seem to meet each other halfway. The initial friction between Dementia-afflicted mother (Judy Davis) and beleaguered daughter (Kidman) gives way to the shared understanding that they’re both trying to hold on to a past that’s slipped away without them realising it. The episode crystallises another of the show’s themes — every episode is, in some way, about women who are made to feel invisible. Flipping through old photographs, the daughter realises that her mother isn’t in any of them. “Of course I wasn’t. Who do you think was holding the fucking camera?” she responds. As the episode progresses, the gradual erosion of the mother’s memories becomes the simultaneous chipping away of the daughter’s identity. Is a daughter still a daughter if her mother can’t remember her?, this wistful, deeply sad episode asks.
On the other hand, new motherhood, and the resulting stress of attempting to find a work-life balance define the protagonist of The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on Her Skin (Cynthia Erivo). Her guilt begins eating her up from the inside, manifesting literally as a series of bite marks across her body. The element of body horror lends the episode some grisly contours but by ending too soon and too neatly, it undercuts the emotional churn that it set up so effectively. By contrast, the desire to escape the role of a wife propels the plot of In The Woman Who Returned Her Husband, in which an elderly Indian housewife (Meera Syal) drops her husband of 37 years off at the local supermarket like a defective product. It’s a sweet, if uneven episode, but for a series that urges women to reconsider their worth, the literal commodification of men is an odd choice.
The theme of objectification continues in The Woman Who Was Kept On A Shelf, a standout episode in which the symbolism of a trophy wife is taken to its striking visual extremes. A businessman (Daniel Dae Kim) asks his new bride (Betty Gilpin) to assume the role of a decorative ornament on his shelf, to offer him visual respite from his tedious job. It’s a cleverly couched request that masks control as concern and disguises abuse as adoration. Put on a pedestal, it doesn’t take the wife long to tumble all the way to rock bottom. In keeping with its theme of a societal fixation with superficial appearances, the episode smartly adopts the veneer of an upbeat ending to underscore the tragedy of her life. She sets up a beauty store by the end, a decision that’s empowering on the surface but unnerving on second thought. Still caught in the cycle of toxic beauty ideals, she’s now peddling them to the next generation.
The steadily isolating effects of an abusive relationship also form the theme of The Woman Who Was Fed By A Duck, which follows a single woman in her 30s (Merritt Wever), who falls for a talking duck (voiced by Justin Kirk). The main metaphor — that consistently putting your partner’s needs before yours can begin to feel like caring for a needy, helpless pet — is a bit of a stretch, but Wever’s full-bodied commitment to the more bonkers aspects of the episode (a woman-duck sex scene might ruffle a few feathers) make its ridiculousness easier to roll with.
The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder strikes a better balance as it juggles being a taut police procedural with a near-parody of one. In a riff on the Ghost (1990) template, the spirit of a murdered woman (Alison Brie) attempts to aid the two male detectives assigned to her case but frustratingly discovers that they can’t sense her presence. Instead, they rely on ill-informed projections and misogynistic assumptions to build a profile of her. The trope of the tortured detective with a disintegrating marriage is reworked to great comedic effect in this episode, even though its pointed climactic commentary on online incel culture is an abrupt tonal shift that doesn’t quite land. Still, the underlying message is poignant — the fragmented pieces of someone’s life, no matter how meticulously put together, can’t give you the full picture of what they were like. Another episode that delves into death and the malleability of identity is The Girl Who Loved Horses, the most straightforward of the bunch. What begins as a routine revenge tale takes an interesting turn as the avenger (Fivel Stewart) eventually decides to resort to a torment of the more psychological kind.
Many of Roar’s episodes have happy endings that ring hollow, their intuitive understanding of female pain papered over with platitudes. The best episodes recognise that the real-life issues they’re drawing from are much too messy and complicated to be concluded within a 30-minute-slot. Their whimsical framing doesn’t detract from reality. Instead, it makes it clear that the promise of a happy ever after is as fantastical as any fairytale.