Thursday, July 06, 2023

The Horror of Dolores Roach, on Prime

During the sixteen years Dolores Roach was in prison, Washington Heights considerably gentrified. The streets are now safer and the property values have greatly increased. Apparently, these are bad things. At least Roach can rectify the safer streets in creator Aaron Mark’s eight-part, Blumhouse-produced The Horror of Dolores Roach, based on his original podcast, which premieres tomorrow on Prime.

Empanadas are the meat pies of New York City, so it makes sense to make them the vessel for Mark’s modern-day
Sweeney Todd riff. Getting us to sympathize with the notorious mass murderer will be a trickier proposition. The actress playing her in a one-woman show likes to think she humanizes the killer, but Roach begs to differ, when she introduces herself to the thesp after the opening night performance. She insists on telling her the full, supposedly unvarnished truth (if ever there were a narrator with the potential for “unreliability,” Roach would seem to be it, but Mark and the battery of writers do not play that game).

Roach was happy with Dominic, her drug-dealer lover, back in the era of Giuliani New York, except for the fact criminals like them were getting busted. Eventually, it happened to her, but not Dominic. Since she refused to turn on her lover, they threw the book at her. When she finally gets out, the Washington Heights she knew is completely changed (she even missed the Broadway musical—so unfair). Fatefully, the only thing that stayed the same is the empanada shop, now operated by Luis Batista, the late original owner’s son. Conveniently (or maybe not), he always carried a torch for Roach, so he is delighted to let her stay in his spare room.

For a while, Roach actually thinks she might get her life back together as an unlicensed masseuse, but then she starts killing people. It always happens in a one-darned-thing-after-another kind of way. Usually, they are asking for it too, like Batista’s sleazy landlord, Gedeon Pearlman (of course, the socially conscious series makes the implied Jewish character a greedy landlord). However, Roach and Batista are subsequently stuck with Pearlman’s son Jonah hanging around looking for his father and chatting up Nellie Morris, their cashier. Fortunately, he won’t look for his father where Batista has him hidden: in the meat locker and in the empanadas. In fact, Batista will need more “meat” when the new flavor becomes a hit. Reluctantly, Roach keeps obliging.

The writing is intermittently clever, but it is frequently undermined by the urge to offer social commentary. Frankly,
HoDR is at its most interesting when Roach puts her pity party on hold, to start contemplating her own culpability—it does happen, eventually. The slightly meta twist towards the end is also genuinely amusing. If you can slog through the first episode, which is the longest and the slowest, you might as well go all the way.

Justina Machado turns out to be an effectively sly narrator, but her portrayal of Roach is exhausting, due to the way it lurches back and forth, from self-pity to psychotic mania. However, Alejandro Hernandez hits the perfect note of weirdness for Batista (who often comes across emotionally and socially under-developed). Kita Updike and Ilan Eskenazi are terrific stealing scenes as Morris and the younger Pearlman. Cyndi Lauper is also hilarious as Ruthie, a theatrical missing persons investigator. However, Marc Maron’s cartoonish portrayal of the elder Pearlman is highly awkward, even deserving the dreaded “P” word: “problematic.”

It takes a while for the gross-out scenes to come, but eventually they do—and they are suitably macabre.
HoDR definitely has a New York sensibility: it expects you to hang around waiting to be disgusted. Like the city itself, some of its New Yorkness is entertaining and some of it is annoying. It is definitely a mixed bag, but it improves as it goes along, which is something (it is also probably worth noting Blair Witch co-director Eduardo Sanchez helms two of the later episodes). Mostly just recommended to loyal Lauper fans and Blumhouse completists, The Horror of Dolores Roach starts streaming tomorrow (7/7) on Prime.