Amazon Original series “The Horror of Dolores Roach,” based on the hit Gimlet podcast, isn’t shy about its influences. Giving a contemporary, gentrification spin on the Victorian cannibalism tale of Sweeney Todd: The Demon Barber of Fleet Street, the new series from creator Aaron Mark injects winking nods at every turn and then some, including a reference to William Shakespeare’s Titus Andronicus. As tongue-in-cheek as these knowing references can be, it also underscores how familiar Dolores Roach’s predicament can be, though it’s offset by Justina Machado’s relatable and empathetic performance.
Much like Sweeney Todd, we meet Machado’s Dolores Roach at the far end of a lengthy prison sentence she didn’t quite earn. Dolores took the fall for her drug dealer boyfriend Dominic and spent sixteen years in jail, and her release leaves her with very little to her name in a now-gentrified Washington Heights. Her boyfriend missing, her family long gone, Dolores reunites with an old stoner buddy, Luis (Alejandro Hernandez), who gives her room and board and lets her give massages for cash in the basement under his dilapidated storefront, Empanada Loca, the only familiar remnant of her former life. As Dolores’s life gets back on track, a scummy landlord (Marc Maron) causes Dolores to snap. The good news is that Luis just found a new meat supplier for his failing business, but the bad news is that it leaves Dolores scrambling to evade getting caught as the body count rises.
Save for a flashy Broadway opening sequence to set up Dolores’ story, complete with a cameo by Bryan Fuller, the series quickly settles into a more self-contained story set almost within and around the empanada shop. It falls into a repetitive pattern that sees Dolores constantly in a reactive state, struggling to cover her latest lethal mishap and the horror-fueled comedy that ensues. A new obstacle enters Dolores’ path, threatening to unravel her precarious semblance of life, forcing her to freak out and run damage control as everyone around her exacerbates matters. Rinse and repeat.
“The Horror of Dolores Roach” struggles with its narrative, never exploring Dolores’ plight beyond her immediate predicaments. The gentrification of Washington Heights serves as a backdrop and not much more, and Dolores herself is multiple steps behind the Dominic subplot that landed her in prison in the first place. Instead, it’s a series of events in which Dolores is struggling to catch up, leaving Dolores without as much agency as the take-charge character should have.
Luckily, it’s the performances that carry this eight-episode inaugural season. The series may put Dolores at a constant disadvantage. Still, Machado keeps it engaging thanks to a profoundly human performance that captures a woman desperate to find her bearings in an upside-down world. Dolores’ almost twenty-year prison stint froze her world in time, and Machado’s exploration of a character trying to catch up goes far here. Empanada Loca employee Nellie (Kita Updike) and Hernandez’s volatile Luis bring emotional depth through their budding relationships with Dolores. When the narrative threatens to get stale, it’s the cast that fleshes out this cannibal comedy.
A clever concept winds up stalling, spinning its wheels as Dolores falls into a repetitive pattern. It’s there that the series shows glimpses of greatest but leaves so much on the table. Her past largely shapes Dolores in the present, but the series becomes more focused on her scrambling to cover bodies rather than exploring her deadly temper. It makes for a breezy, likable first season that does enough to hook you but fizzles with its surface-level storytelling right to an unsatisfying end.
“The Horror of Dolores Roach” premieres on Prime Video on July 7, 2023.