‘Roar’ review: Apple TV Plus’ feminist fables are more of a yawn

Betty Gilpin as The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf, in the Apple TV Plus anthology series Roar.

Apple TV Plus

I should have known as soon as the opening credits theme played that Roar, the new Apple TV Plus anthology series based on Cecelia Ahern’s collection of short stories 2019, was going to be more of a self-satisfied pop hook than an actual roar. Not quite a chorus of women expressing shared frustration, but something closer to the female swagger of a pink coffee mug printed with “I am a woman, hear me roar.” They might as well have used the Katy Perry song instead. You know, the one also called Roar.

Like its source material, each of the show’s eight standalone episodes, billed by Apple TV Plus as “darkly comic feminist fablestakes a different metaphor about femininity and makes it literal: The woman who was kept on a shelf (Betty Gilpin) becomes a literal trophy wife. The woman who slowly disappeared (Issa Rae) becomes literally invisible. And so on. (Ahern’s stories also include a literal biological clock and a literal heart worn on a literal sleeve, among other things.)

The questions raised by each episode title are intriguing, but most of the answers are ones I’ve heard before: Doctors don’t take women’s pain seriously; offices do not have enough space for breastfeeding mothers; the algorithms are not optimized for black skin. Check, check, check.

Read more: Here are the best TV shows and the best movies on Apple TV Plus.

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Alison Brie as the woman who solved her own murder.

Apple TV Plus

Roar is more fairy tale than speculative fiction or science fiction, with some of the fantastical elements woven directly into the fabric of each episode’s hermetic world. For example, The Woman Who Returned Her Husband (Meera Syal) has kept a husband’s guarantee slip for 37 years and brandishes it unceremoniously at the service counter of a Costco warehouse store that also sells husbands. But in other episodes, the women are almost as surprised by their situation as the audience. The woman who was fed by a duck is initially shocked to find a talking duck in the not-so-proverbial encounter pond – though her disbelief disintegrates pretty quickly. I won’t spoil as much as warn you of what happens next? My notes just say, “I hate it.”

Apple TV Plus, fresh off of original series success Breakup and one surprise Oscar win for CODA, put all the right chess pieces in place with Roar: The star-studded cast includes Nicole Kidman, Alison Brie, Cynthia Erivo, Daniel Dae Kim, Merritt Weaver, Ego Nwodim and more that will send you down an IMDb rabbit hole . The team behind the scenes is equally pedigreed, with GLOWCarly Mensch and Liz Flahive are directing the series, and Kidman is also serving as an executive producer. The dollhouse-like set design is as aesthetic as it is symbolic, and a few of the titular women are wearing some pretty fabulous shoes.

But the conceit of the cliché made literal never quite takes off, largely because the show doesn’t seem at all interested in any of its own investigations. Or maybe it’s because an extended metaphor isn’t the same as a fully realized story, or that peddling cliches is a risky business that raises the bar for original storytelling even higher. Perhaps the source material is the problem, as Ahern’s stories also seem to confuse awareness with gender equity and personal empowerment with systemic reform.

Perhaps all of the above. Or maybe the show was written by an AI bot that was exclusively trained on Twitter talk and workplace sexual harassment training videos.

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Cynthia Erivo as the woman who found bite marks on her skin.

Apple TV Plus

But black mirror Once inspired by an Internet cottage industry of hot shots and reflections, Roar doesn’t give its audience much about the water cooler. One major problem: each of the title’s eight characters is underdeveloped and somewhat anonymous, all the better summed up in the length of the episode’s title. The effect is not, as apparently intended, of an eight-part harmony that encompasses “what it means to be a woman today“Maybe the show could have used the connective tissue of a narrative framework or some sort of inline character. And every woman’s job is tied to an arc just like you understand the rules of her world, like despite Roar’s streaming provenance, execution has taken precedence over storytelling, it’s more vignette than story, premise without plot, amuse-bouche without entree.

Another major problem is Roar’s novice approach to feminism. His conclusions are not just patted, but on the nose and a bit hackneyed, and they end up, at best, regurgitating well-digested talking points, and at worst, excusing what they aim to excoriate. (Somewhere in the middle of that spectrum: it’s just not interesting to watch.)

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Nicole Kidman as The Woman Who Ate Photographs.

Apple TV Plus

Because those who marinated in the same Twitter talk as the aforementioned AI bot have heard it all before. And those who don’t, for example, describe women as “s*** trash” in incel chat rooms (The Woman Who Solved Her Own Murder) or say things like, “I really don’t know how you do, ladies!” (The woman who found bite marks on her skin) may continue to tell herself that she is not part of the problem.

I should have known when I heard the theme music. I should have known that when I saw the shamelessly vulvar promotional art. I should have known when I saw the word “feminist” sandwiched between lines of marketing copy. The woman who watched all 8 episodes of Roar on Apple TV Plus, streaming April 15? It doesn’t have to be you.

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