The anthology series Roar (Apple TV+), from the makers of GLOW, promises eight standalone stories about “what it means to be a woman today”. Considering that these stories involve sex with a duck, teeth emerging from bloody wounds and teenage “incels” in basements, what it means to be a woman today is certainly unsettling. This is an adaptation of a collection of short stories by Cecelia Ahern, and its weird streak is enjoyable. It helps that it comes with ample star power: Nicole Kidman, Issa Rae and Cynthia Erivo star, among many others.
The title of each episode is also the sum of its plot, and sometimes this is exposing. The Woman Who Ate Photographs has Kidman attempting to care for her mother – who has dementia – and beginning to eat photographs, causing a powerful visual and physical nostalgia, as if she were back in the moment she has just consumed. The Woman Who Found Bite Marks on her Skin has Erivo playing an executive and mother who develops bloody wounds when the pull of family life starts to intrude upon her work – or perhaps it’s the other way around. In The Woman Who Disappeared, Rae is a memoirist being courted by Hollywood after her book is a smash hit, but who begins literally to disappear when trying to stand her ground in a meeting led by three identikit corporate white men. The Woman Who Was Fed by a Duck, meanwhile, has Merritt Wever as a woman in her 30s who is tired of being single and is seduced by a suitor who doesn’t seem to be “defective”, unlike many of the men she meets. Not only is the suitor a duck, he’s a duck who pretends to be a feminist, but who also has a nasty streak. There are some scenes in this episode that are indelible in the mind.
Each instalment is about women who either feel – or are – unheard, unseen, or sometimes both. The four standouts take this notion and strap it to a more solid storyline. Betty Gilpin stars in The Woman Who Was Kept on a Shelf as a former model who becomes a literal trophy wife, until she tires of being passively adored and dances her way back out into the world. It’s The Artist Is Present as performed by Betty Friedan. Roar is indulgent enough to allow itself an extended and lovely musical interlude, and it is at its best when that more experimental and confident side has the space to shine. GLOW alum Alison Brie is The Woman Who Solved her Own Murder, playing the ghost of a murder victim who must hear all the assumptions the boorish detectives make about her life as they investigate the crime. In what is probably the best of the bunch, Meera Syal is The Woman Who Returned her Husband. It takes place in an Edward Scissorhands-style, brightly lit suburbia, and turns into a touching and surprisingly frank exploration of marriage, routine and the conflict between endurance and happiness. And The Girl Who Loved Horses is a mini-western/buddy movie that looks fantastic and makes excellent use of Alfred Molina as a baddie.
When this series is at its weakest, the concepts struggle to become more than just that. These episodes are based on clever ideas, neat “what if?”s, but some of them don’t quite stretch to 30 minutes’ worth of storytelling. That’s not to say they aren’t entertaining, or thought-provoking, in their own ways, though they do have a tendency to leave little room for the audience to interpret, as the point is explained with a heavy hand. As is often the case with anthologies, then, it is a mixed bag, at times more of a curiosity than it is a fully realised vision. But when it works, it really works, and even when it doesn’t quite come together, it is different enough to demand your attention. That is, after all, what these women are trying to do.