It’s been a long road for The Horror of Dolores Roach. What started as a one-woman show at a theater in lower Manhattan then became a hit podcast on its way to completing a ten-year journey to become Prime Video’s next big summer TV show.
Set in the Upper Manhattan neighborhood of Washington Heights, the show follows Justina Machado’s titular Dolores Roach after a 16-year stint in prison. The show is loosely inspired by Sweeney Todd, but updated to reflect a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood and an empanada shop trying to survive the crunch. Spoiler alert, but the show isn’t called The Horror of Dolores Roach for nothing. Much of the horror is supplied by Dolores herself. Though the question of if she is the hero or the victim is up to audiences to decide.
Washington Heights is likely best known to non-NYC audiences through Lin Manuel Miranda’s 2008 musical (and subsequent film) In the Heights, which many criticized for presenting a vibrant, but inauthentic, version of the predominantly Latine neighborhood. The Horror of Dolores Roach shines in moments where we get to see the titular character interacting with her old home, or what is left of it. In an early scene Hector, a local weed dealer, catcalls Dolores on the street, something she does not react kindly to. Having lived in the neighborhood for a number of years, this exchange felt more real to me than some of the rosy portrayals of Latinidad that Hollywood has been pushing for years.
What I loved most about The Horror of Dolores Roach was the wide range of Latine people that inhabit Dolores’ world. From Nelly (played winningly by Kita Updike), a gen z Dominican check-out girl, to Luis, the himbo-esque Mrs. Lovett to Dolores’ Sweeney Todd (Alejandro Hernandez), the show doesn’t limit its Latine characters to the archetypes we’ve seen before.
It should be noted, though, that this show was not written by a Latine person. It was written by the show’s white creator, playwright Aaron Mark. The issue of representation, and who gets to write for whom, has been debated ad nauseam online. The Horror of Dolores Roach launches amid an ongoing conversation about how, or more often how little, Latines are represented in TV and film. Given that backdrop, I was excited to sit down with the show’s creator and tackle the question head-on.
*This interview has been edited for length and clarity
JASMINE ROMERO: Dolores is a Latina woman. Washington Heights is a Latino neighborhood. Being that you’re not a member of that community, how did you approach writing for it?
AARON MARK: So it was imperative that it was always done in collaboration, you know. And at every turn, it was about bringing more people in and listening to the actors and trying very hard to lead with humility and say, “Look, if I get anything wrong, tell me. It’s okay.” The only way to grow is to hear the feedback. And for TV, to bring in a writers’ room of writers of color and to say yet again, okay, we’re doing this on an even bigger scale. What did we get wrong? What did I get wrong? Let’s address it. We’ve been given this gift to continue to revisit these characters. Let’s continue to address the ways in which this has not felt authentic. How do we continue to make sure that the people involved who are members of the community that’s been depicted feel they can stand behind this?
JASMINE ROMERO: Was it a conversation that you guys had about like well – we have a story about a Latino serial killer, you know, there are a lot of Latinos making very questionable choices in this story – was there ever a conversation about portraying people of color in a negative light?
AARON MARK: There were many, many, many, many, many. And continue to be many, many, many conversations about that. It’s a thing that I think often I’m conflicted about, frankly. And we tried very hard to populate the world of the show with characters of color who are not behaving in questionable ways… who are behaving in ways that I would say are more, sort of objectively pure. Justina [Machado] and [executive producer] Gloria Calderon Kellett, would talk a lot about, like, Yes, Dolores is a Latina serial killer… And Justina should be allowed to play Walter White. Like… people behave badly. As I said, I identify myself as a white Jew. There’s a Jewish character who shows up and behaves quite badly. Nobody’s off-limits in the series. And what was important was to say, okay, if we’re going to do that, we have to go deeper than people think we’re gonna go. We have to take the trope you think you’ve seen and then say, okay, but it doesn’t end with the bad behavior. What is the human experience of that behavior? Let’s explore that behavior. Why does that behavior happen? To deepen that representation, I hope that’s what we’ve done.
JASMINE ROMERO: What does this story say about Dolores? Is she a hero? Is she a victim?
AARON MARK: Oh, my God. I think she’s both. I think she’s both and neither. And I think above all, she’s someone who’s asking herself that question. That’s what was really important to me. She is a character who never has a definitive answer about that for herself. And I feel like, almost all the time when we see anti-heroes depicted, they tend to have a clear defense of “I’m entitled to behave how I’m behaving because of X, Y, and Z, because this happened to me, because this person did wrong.” And part of the essential idea for this character ten years ago was, “This is a character who never forgives herself, whether we forgive her or not.” Like we can be rooting for what she’s doing, but she spends the whole time going, “Is this who I am? I don’t recognize myself. Am I a monster?” That, to me, is the fundamental relatability. I mean, hopefully, we’re not strangling people, but we all relate to “ Am I defined by the thing I did that I don’t feel good about?”
There are certainly plenty of moments for Dolores to question herself in the series. But as the debate about Latine representation in Hollywood rages on, this Latina writer is glad Dolores gets to question herself at all.
The first season of The Horror of Dolores Roach premiers Friday, July 7 on Prime Video.