“Why did we do this to ourselves?”
It’s the question showrunner Liz Flahive jokingly admits to asking herself as we dive deep into the trippy, feminist Magical Mystery Tour that is ROAR. The anthology series on Apple TV+ marks Flahive’s second producing adventure with longtime friend and co-creator Carly Mensch. Their first, the nostalgic neon-drenched ode to an 80s-era women’s wrestling league that is GLOW, found its home on Netflix, and in the hearts of streaming fans craving a comedy series filled with diverse and complicated portraits of femininity. It featured an eclectic mix of established names like Alison Brie, Marc Maron, Betty Gilpin, and Chris Lowell; newcomers like Sunita Mani and Britney Young; and bonafide brawlers like Kia Stevens. Beneath the camp and spandex was a subversive investigation into sexism and gender equality following the Women’s Liberation Movement of the 1970s. It was a critical success and, as Flahive puts it, a “dream” show but, like so many things, it came screeching to a halt before production of its fourth season got underway thanks to the pandemic shutdown.
When Netflix couldn’t iron out the logistics of filming the already greenlit installment amidst ever-changing COVID protocols and talent availability, the streamer simply canceled it – a move that was met with plenty of fan outrage and a few petitions begging for its eventual return.
“It’s like they ask you to build a house, but you can only live in it for 15 to 30 minutes,” Flahive says when talking about the cancellation. “When you’re making a show, when you’re building a cast when you’re building a crew when you’re building a season, you’re investing, especially as a showrunner. You’re living in that house for a really long time creatively and you’re investing in it.”
Besides the restrictions placed on them by the pandemic, personnel changes at Netflix may have contributed to the eventual decision to end the show so abruptly. Just a month before the announcement, Cindy Holland, who championed the streamer’s move into original content, producing shows like Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is The New Black, exited the company she helped build. Jane Wiseman, the head of Netflix’s Original Comedy Series, also cut ties with the platform.
“For a few seasons, we had a very good run creatively and had a lot of great support from Cindy Holland and Jane Wiseman and Jenji Kohan. I think, like anywhere else, places change, things change, what places want change,” Flahive explains. “That’s complicated and hard as a creative who’s told one thing season one, and then by season four, you hear something very different.”
For Flahive and Mensch, the relocation to Apple TV+ brings a new challenge: an anthology series, something they’d never done before. The show was also an adaptation of a collection of short stories, which only added to the trial-by-fire nature of the project.
“After we made GLOW, which was the joy and privilege of our lives, we were approached by many people to make something similar or adjacent,” Flahive recalls. “And I think as much as we love making shows about women, obviously, we just wanted to make sure we were always pushing ourselves in a new direction and doing something new.”
GLOW fans might notice some overlap between the two series, especially in terms of the cast — Mensch and Flahive have invited old friends like Brie, Gilpin, and Lowell to come play in their new surrealist sandbox – but the ties run a bit deeper than that. As Flahive explains, the idea for ROAR came to them while they were still in pre-production mode for season three of their Netflix hit, pushing them past their self imposed policy about being “monogamous creatives,” the allure of an anthology series’ self-contained nature and the opportunity to mix genres and work in different characters proving too powerful to not at least entertain.
With episodes that focus on everything from maternal guilt – something Flahive admits both she and Mensch could write about “until the cows come home” – to the commodification of Black art and the universal experience of being stuck in a toxic relationship heightened with a fantasy element that involves a talking duck, ROAR is impossible to pin down. Some of its episodes, like Cynthia Erivo’s body-horror-infused examination of modern motherhood, are stomach-churning. Others, like Brie’s satirical romp that tasks a spectral stand-up comic with solving her own murder, borrow the same comedic purpose GLOW felt driven by. And still others, like Issa Rae’s futuristic thriller about a Black creator whose work gets co-opted to the point where she begins to disappear, feel straight out of the Twilight Zone. The reason? Both Flahive and Mensch were determined to bring in different perspectives to translate these stories to the screen.
“The stories in the book, they’re pretty sparse,” Flahive explains. “We sent the book to our writers — Halley Feiffer, Janine Nabers, and Vera Santamaria — and we were like, ‘Tell us which stories you respond to. And then let’s have a conversation about the ones that you think you’d want to write.’”
That creative freedom and loose collaboration style opened up the show, giving it space to evolve from its origins in ways that feel fresh and relevant. Nabers, a playwright, producer, and writer on shows like Atlanta, connected with the story titled The Woman Who Disappeared. In the book, that tale focuses on an aging academic who disappears because society starts to ignore women who are older, refusing to see them as real people, but Nabers pulled a different metaphor from it for the show.
“She was like, ‘I think there’s a story in there about the commodification of Black art and how Black women are not seen as their stories are being taken and told,’” Flahive explains. “The collaboration between her and Issa and Channing Godfrey Peoples, to kind of make that episode, was really its own thing — and I think feels very different from what’s in the book in a great way.”
There’s a thrown-in-the-deep-end vibe inherent to most anthology stories. As one-offs, episodes are never given much time to flesh out backstories and set the scene before the real action ramps up. That’s true of ROAR too. We meet most of these characters in the midst of life-changing circumstances that render their past selves almost irrelevant. It’s an interesting change of pace for the creators of a show whose first season felt like one giant exposition explaining the origins and motivations and conflicting personalities involved with the formation of an early 80s women’s wrestling league.
“The pace of season one of GLOW, which I adore, was very intentional,” Flahive says. “But the constant roller coaster of these episodes is just wild. There is no backstory, it’s just, ‘Get on the train.’ We have to hit the ground running, we have to understand a lot of stuff, which puts a lot of pressure on everything: production design, costumes, the writing, the direction being crisp … Just making sure we’re setting you up to get on the ride with us, and then it can get messy and complicated.”
When you ask Flahive which kind of storytelling she prefers – the kind that lets you have a beginning, middle, and end in just one episode or the kind that gives you the real estate to build a world over the course of multiple seasons without the guarantee you’ll get the chance to say goodbye to it, she doesn’t have a ready answer.
“It’s such a double-edged sword,” she admits. “You do love falling in love with characters, season after season. That’s kind of the magic of TV. But with [ROAR] these episodes all ended where we intended them to end, which is nice. So ideally we’ll get to have it both ways one of these days.”
The sting of GLOW’s cancellation still feels particularly fresh for fans – every so often a call for its renewal or a movie follow-up makes the rounds on social media – but maybe there’s comfort in knowing that its creators, Mensch and Flahive, found a way to move on from the disappointment by channeling some of the same elements that made the Netflix series so popular into a new show that’s inspiring them to experiment with and challenge the notions of what they thought they were capable of.
“[ROAR] has been sort of a creative balm to what happened with GLOW,” Flahive says. “We’ve finished all eight of those stories. We saw that they had a beginning, middle, and end. I think if this taught us anything, it’s that there are lots of different ways to tell a story. You just keep going. You move your house and you bring new and old friends with you. That’s the magic of making things.”