The play turned podcast turned Prime Video series is appealing but lacks the killer instinct to become a must-
On a fundamental level, The Horror of Dolores Roach confirms that old chestnut, “You can never go home again.” The titular Dolores Roach (Justina Machado) tries it twice over the course of the limited series—adapted from a Gimlet podcast which, itself, was adapted from an off-Broadway play—and each time finds an increasingly hostile environment has overtaken the “home” she knew.
The second time she returns becomes the framing device for the series. After disappearing years earlier, Roach’s story has become first a podcast and now (seemingly on Broadway) play. It’s in reverse, you see. Aaron Mark, the play’s creator who has contributed to both the podcast and this series adaptations, has an alter ego in Caleb Sweetzer (Jeffery Self), the podcaster who’s ridden Roach’s tragic blood-soaked tale to personal fame. But she’ll get to him later. First, she has to make Flora Frias (Jessica Pimentel), the actor playing her on stage, truly understand what life was like being Dolores Roach.
From there, The Horror of Dolores Roach largely abandons the framing device save for the final episode. The mirror image meta-ness of the fictional journey of Roach’s story resembling the real-life journey of Mark’s work is fun. It also promisingly points to the theme of gentrification that informs the main story. However, using it so little doesn’t seem to add much to the production. It’s more of a hint of an idea than a strong device.
In its place, we move to the first time Roach returned home. After 16 years in prison for drug charges—and a pointedly silly tossed-on “assaulting an officer” claim, arguably the show’s subtlest and smartest jab at criminal justice—she returns to her old Washington Heights neighborhood. Her boyfriend, the actual drug dealer, has long since left the area for parts unknown. Worse, after years of steady gentrification, the neighborhood no longer resembles the place she knew. It isn’t quite Brooklyn, but the message is clear. People with money—and, typically white skin—have made the neighborhood too expensive for those who made the Heights home in the late 20th Century. Dolores lost 16 years of her life and her community.
Machado’s voice perfectly captures the dark humor that gives the series its kick.
There appears an oasis, though. Empanadas Loca, a local, generational shop, still stands. Now under the direction of Luis (Alejandro Hernandez), the owner’s son, the restaurant remains as delicious as ever. Unfortunately, the block’s tastes have changed, and the rents have skyrocketed, a one-two combo leaving Loca on its last legs. Nonetheless, Luis–just a kid with a crush when Dolores went away and still smitten–opens up a basement apartment for her to live in and operate a not strictly legal, but otherwise legit, massage parlor. For a moment, things seem stable, if not exactly easy.
But then a customer gets a little too handsy, and Dolores responds with force. Luis helps out the only way he can think of, butchering the body. Soon, the neighborhood unwittingly snacks on the dispatched bad client in the form of secret recipe empanada. Powered by the new menu item, the restaurant begins a resurgence. And then the bodies start piling up.
Machado’s voice perfectly captures the dark humor that gives the series its kick. Her mix of horror and matter-of-fact acceptance of her circumstances pulls you on her side even as her protests of how out of character and control this is for her ring increasingly hollow. Her declaration, “I don’t want to be a serial killer,” while trying to murder yet another person, earns a double giggle. First, you laugh at the unusual exclamation, then chuckle at how little her words match her current actions. To paraphrase the internet meme, if she didn’t want to be a serial killer, she could simply not murder people.
Hernandez proves equally strong as he takes to cannibalism like a duck to water. Equally comfortable discussing his self-developed strains of marijuana as he is carving up a human body, there’s a seductive nature to amorality. If he’s so chill about it, why should we worry? His dedication to the shop as his legacy and his crush on Roach give him further shading. A latter scene about an adolescent injury whose inclusion I remain skeptical about nearly justifies itself purely as a chewy showcase for Hernandez to sink his teeth into.
Rounding out the cast with the likes of Marc Maron, Cyndi Lauper, K. Todd Freeman, and Judy Reyes in small but essential parts helps as well. They add to The Horror of Dolores Roach’s cockeyed sense of humor and increasing sense that it, and the audience, are sinking deeper into unreality. The more saturated with blood the show grows, the harder it becomes to gain a sense of solid ground. It reflects Dolores’ state of mind—wild, panicked, and more than a little altered.
Sadly, that sense of fantastical horror begins to blot out the show’s most potent weapon, its social criticism. By the time someone is being choked with a microphone, The Horror of Dolores Roach has long ago lost its perspective of gentrification for the giggling grand guignol of it all. It’s a shame as the series does set itself up well by touching on both the economic and cultural gentrification of the neighborhood and the storytelling gentrification of the play, which centers a white man’s account of a Latin woman’s story. Mark also seems very aware of it, as evidenced by his thoughtful interviews. Alas, it all drowns under the wave of bloody viscera and dark as midnight jokes.
There’s still plenty to enjoy about The Horror of Dolores Roach. That’s why this reviewer remains convinced it is worthy of a watch. However, it’s difficult not to mourn the hint of the series it could’ve been. One still stained red and full of guilty laughs, but that stuck the blade of social commentary deeper and twisted it.
The Horror of Dolores Machado heats up the fryolator on Prime Video starting July 7.