Justina Machado Is a Chaotic Bisexual Cannibal Star in “The Horror of Dolores Roach”

The Horror of Dolores Roach is a short little romp of a dark comedy on Prime Video (with One Day at a Time‘s Justina Machado in the bisexual titular role) that tells the twisted tale of a woman who goes back to Washington Heights after getting out of prison to find the neighborhood she left 16 years ago a very different place. She finds solace at her old favorite empanada place and as her luck fluctuates, things escalate. The story is inspired by Sweeney Todd, so you can imagine how bonkers this dramedy gets. Both musical theater lovers and Justina Machado fans, Carmen and Valerie both watched this show and are here to discuss the bisexuality, brutality, and boldness of The Horror of Dolores Roach.


Justina Machado smirks at the camera as Dolores Roach.

She’s beauty, she’s grace, she’ll smear blood on your face.

Valerie Anne: I knew going into The Horror of Dolores Roach that this was a retelling of Sweeney Todd, but I imagine it wouldn’t have taken me too long to figure out on my own. That said, knowing it ahead of time made me giggle at phrases like Dolores calling the payment to the landlord a “stay of execution” before any murders happened. Or the little references like when Luis said “A customer!” a la Mrs. Lovett or how he told the podcaster, “We serve the community.” (My dad and I listen to “A Little Priest” on every road trip. Sometimes we’ll just text each other “a shepherd’s pie peppered with actual shepherd on top.” Just normal father/daughter relationship stuff.) Overall I thought it was a fun take on the story, even though it meant I saw some of the plot twists coming a million miles away. Carmen, I know you’re a theatre kid like me, but is Sweeney Todd a show you’re familiar with?

Carmen: Oh for sure!! The first time I saw Sweeney Todd was actually at my high school theatre camp, which put on a production (murdering teens, gotta love them!). And to this day all I need is the first verse and chorus of “Not While I’m Around” to burst into tears on a dime. It’s top three Sondheim for me (and arguably, not number two or three).

If someone told me “we’re going to barely adapt Sweeney Todd and set it in a story about the prison industrial complex, recidivism, and gentrification, all centered on a Puerto Rican woman in Washington Heights” — I would’ve bet a lot of money on that… not working. I wouldn’t have seen the surprisingly apt parallels between 19th century London and 21st century New York, and I would’ve expected the racial and cultural differences to be handled clunkily at best. But no!! Not at all! It felt seamless to me? I was stunned by how elegantly everything came together.

I’m also really grateful that Dolores Roach doesn’t downplay how much this is a Latina’s story, right at its core. I almost just started listing out all the tiny, thoughtful details, but honestly, then we’d never get to talk about anything else! There are so many specifics that are done right and every last one of those details, from the placements of Puerto Rican flags, the Boricua-inflected accents on the Spanish, the Afro-Dominican abuelita who’s a dark skinned Black woman, down to a hilariously well-timed needle drop of Daddy Yankee’s “Gasolina,” all of the indescribable the we love each other — each and every one of those intentional choices felt like home.

I loved all the callbacks and references to the play, but also I was struck by how much of the plot (campy cannibalism aside, you know) was still really relatable? Granted Justina Machado could read a cereal box, and I’d probably find it relatable. She is a generational talent. And I’m so glad that after demonstrating the depths of that talent on One Day at a Time that she found another meaty role (I swear these puns are not on purpose) to showcase her work.

Valerie Anne: I 200% agree!! Related, did you listen to the podcast this was based on at all? I didn’t even know it was based on a podcast until I looked up the actress who plays Nellie and saw that Kita Updike played her in both the podcast and the show. The podcast has a stacked cast though, Daphne Rubin-Vega, Margaret Cho, Lea DeLaria.

Carmen: Actually, ok, yes! I did — but then I forgot all about it. A while back I was researching what Daphne Rubin-Vega had been up to lately (as one does, because being a Rent-superfan is a forever lifestyle) and learned that she’d done a play-turned-podcast audioplay and would be producing it for a streaming network, starring Justina Machado and Judy Reyes.

Daphne Rubin-Vega passing the baton to Justina Machado and Judy Reyes??? Clearly, I was immediately on board.

Judy Reyes has wavy hair past her shoulders as Marcie, and is smiling in a yellow spaghetti-strapped sundress.

“I’ll feeeeeel you, Doloooores.”

Valerie Anne: I know this is likely reminiscent of the podcast this story originated from, but I’m not sure the voiceover was entirely necessary as often as it appeared. I liked it for moments when she was calling someone a “cunt face” in her head while smiling sweetly at them but for things like “I slept like a stoned baby” I’m not sure we needed it.

Though I guess it did serve to remind us she was telling this story to the actress who played her in the bloody stage version of her tale. I think the issue I had is that it kept switching between being a narrator and being an internal monologue. I wish they had stuck with it being one or the other. But this is a very minor gripe. How did you feel about the structure of the show?

Carmen: No I think you’re right, there were moments where the narration pulled me out a bit as well. I’m sure this is definitely stemming from the fact that it’s a podcast adaptation (I haven’t seen many podcast adaptations make it to television? So kudos to the team!), but I think overall the show would have benefitted from scaling them back a little bit — or, like you suggested, cutting the narrations altogether in favor of the internal monologues, or vice versa. It would’ve helped to pick one.

Also, there were places where I struggled with the pacing. It felt like there was deliberate — not necessarily slow, but purposeful — pace to the first six episodes out of the eight, that I was really enjoying. And then the last two episodes were off to the races!! Now I’m sure, as you keep piling up bodies, as one does, the longer you’re doing it, the more frenetic and chaotic things will be. But I would have benefitted from a breather, even if for just a moment, as we careened towards the end.

Two women with curly hair, a brunette white woman and a Latina, tenderly hold each other and share a forehead kiss against a dark wall.

Dirty bluish grey is the new black.

Valerie Anne: Totally agreed re: pacing. We were chugging along then went fully off the rails at top speed.

I won’t lie, I was a little nervous going into this show knowing the main character was bisexual and also that she was the Sweeney Todd of this story. The demon masseuse of Washington Heights and all that. But while her bisexuality was made clear, it wasn’t villainized; she had the relationship with Tabitha while she was in prison, and then she made it clear that wasn’t a “just because I’m in a women’s prison” situation, because she was ready and willing to hook up with Marcie until that went sideways. But she wasn’t overly sexual or using her sexuality to lure victims.

Carmen: I completely agree! I thought that the show’s approach to Dolores’ bisexuality was a bit of a light touch (it was not lost on me that Tabitha and Dolores do a lot of forehead kissing without mouth kissing, an old trope) but it was also surprisingly tender? It was clear that these two women loved each other; in an environment of a lot of hurt, they were each other’s care. Tabitha gave Dolores life skills, and when things were really falling apart for Dolores she knew where she could turn. Which is hard to pull off as a subplot inside of a television show that already has so much going on, but I thought they really threaded that needle well!

(And I also loved that Dolores had an internal monologue about being ready to hook up with Marcie, I laughed so hard!)

In general, I found one of the strengths of Dolores Roach to be tenderness towards sexuality. Luis (Alejandro Hernandez, whom I’ve never seen before but I hope to see a lot more of, soon! He was somehow both riveting and effortlessly natural as their take on Mrs. Lovett, and took my breath away multiple times) has his own difficult history with sex and coercion/abuse, and once I realized where that plot was going I was so nervous! But instead, again, I found care.

Valerie Anne: I loved Alejandro Hernandez in New Amsterdam, but this was a very different role for him and he did a great job.

Also, I loved Nellie as a twist on the Tobias role from the Sweeney Todd story, though I do wish we got a little more character development for her. Which I know is hard in eight 30-minute episodes but I think her having a more emotional connection to either Dolores or Luis could have been interesting, her having more of an investment in the empanada shop instead of only caring about it after she started dating the landlord’s son. Or maybe I’m just biased because I thought she was hilarious and wanted more of her in general.

Kita Updike as Nellie is a Black trans woman with a high ponytail in a braid, she's working the register at an empanada shop in a yellow t-shirt.

“Half a minute, come here sit, sit you down, sit. All I meant is I haven’t seen a customer for weeks.”

Carmen: No, I also wanted so much more for Nellie and Kita Updike!!!

I wondered if the writers purposefully never wanted to explicitly say that Nellie was trans? I get the instinct to not center a character on their transness; I even think that it’s often the right instinct because especially as cis people (I haven’t looked into the production team of Dolores Roach), sometimes there’s a tendency to focus on that one aspect of someone’s identity and forgo everything else. But ignoring whole parts of a person’s identity, and what uniquely makes them who they really are, is equally dangerous for a number of reasons. And in the context of a TV show, it just makes for shallow and uninteresting storytelling, when there’s an opportunity to paint something much more rich and vibrant instead.

There are some implied references to Nellie’s gender (early in the show, Dolores offhandedly makes note of how tall Nellie is, and Nellie visibly recoils. Later Dolores points out that hypothetical prison would be worse for Nellie than anyone else in their makeshift family). But I think, especially as it related to Nellie dating the landlord’s son — a rich, white, cis boy dating a Black trans girl who works at the empanada shop and lives above it in a building that his father owns – there was so much that could have been explicitly explored! Instead we are left empty. Ditto to the layers of friendship and solidarity between a Black trans girl and a queer bisexual Latina. These are upsetting missed opportunities!

Cyndi Laupre has on a silver shoulder length wig and thick black glasses, plus a burgundy blazer, as Ruthie. She is in a back back alley.

“I will catch you, I’ll be waiting, time after time.” – Ruthie’s PI business slogan, probably.

Valerie Anne: Can we talk about how a wild Cyndi Lauper appeared?

Carmen: I am embarrassed to admit this… but I did not recognize Cyndi Lauper at first!!!! I kept going “Where do I know this actress? Why do I know this person?” only for Google to have to tell me! I’m mortified! But at the same time, she was excellent. There was a specific tone of zany campiness that’s required to live in this world, especially by the time her character appears, and she knocked it out of the park! It helped bring everything together.

Valerie Anne: Is there a lot more cannibalism content on TV lately or is that very specifically just a theme in things I happen to be watching? The irony of this being a trend in my viewing patterns and me being a vegetarian is not lost on me.

Carmen: Ha! We are truly in the year, the era, of cannibals. There is something to be said about constantly living through the death and destruction brought forth by a pandemic, the stark realization of how much is truly out of our control, and a turn in our popular imagination to… eating each other? But let’s just say that I can’t quite put my finger on it.

Valerie Anne: As Mrs. Lovett would say, “Times is hard.”

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Valerie Anne

Just a TV-loving, Twitter-addicted nerd who loves reading, watching, and writing about stories. One part Kara Danvers, two parts Waverly Earp, a dash of Cosima and an extra helping of my own brand of weirdo.

Valerie has written 559 articles for us.

Carmen Phillips

Carmen is Autostraddle's Editor-in-Chief and a Black Puerto Rican femme/inist writer. She claims many past homes, but left the largest parts of her heart in Detroit, Brooklyn, and Buffalo, NY. There were several years in her early 20s when she earnestly slept with a copy of James Baldwin’s “Fire Next Time” under her pillow. You can find her on twitter, @carmencitaloves.

Carmen has written 712 articles for us.

9 Comments

    • This is a great question! It’s not very gory for the first four-five episodes at all. Then there are some (no other way to put this) chopped up body parts that are occasionally strewn about in the back half of the series. But even once the gore shows up, the tone of the show overall is more campy than scary — like there’s a lot of dark humor, but no real jump scares to speak of.

      I’d describe it more on the spectrum of Jennifer’s Body than it is Yellowjackets, if those references mean anything to you.

  1. The on-screen chemistry between Justina Machado and Judy Reyes in ODAAT was truly exceptional! Even though I’m not typically drawn to horror, their dynamic makes it incredibly tempting to give it a watch.

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