With an outstanding ensemble cast and sharp writing to ground its outlandish subject matter, GLOW is a knockout.
Are you hiring actors to play wrestlers, or are we the wrestlers?
Let me say this from the outset: I don’t give a shit about professional wrestling, be it men’s or women’s. I can only name three wrestlers, and that’s only because The Rock, Hulk Hogan, and John Cena have become celebrities whose spheres of influence have managed to extend beyond the constraints of the WWE. It is the near opposite of almost all the culture and entertainment I love, and you may feel the same way. Still, do not let that dissuade you from watching GLOW, Netflix’s new series about female professional wrestlers based on the real 1980s show of the same name. It’s smart and hilarious, subtle and heartfelt — four words I wouldn’t use to describe the “sport” of wrestling itself. GLOW is fantastic, and you’ll be missing one of the best shows of the year if you let something like distaste for professional wrestling get in the way.
GLOW originates from a clever solution to a common television problem: how do we get more female-centric shows when the demographic that drives production and ratings has always been young men? GLOW’s creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch even work the problem into their show’s opening scene, in which struggling actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie, Community) delivers a powerhouse monologue about business and power for a TV audition. After her take, she wipes tears away from her eyes and thanks the casting director for the opportunity. “There just aren’t roles like this out there for women right now,” she gushes. Stone-faced, the casting director informs her that she was reading the man’s part. Deflated, Ruth performs the real audition: a knock at the door and an announcement that the male character’s wife is on the phone.
Ruth is desperate for work, any work, but there may be a reason that she’s not even getting the limited parts that do exist for women. Ruth is an adult version of a high school theater kid, a hyperactive ball of overacting and enthusiasm that makes her exhausting even if her heart is in the right place. Things are no better for her best friend, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin, Nurse Jackie), a former soap opera actress whose push for better plots ended with her character written into a year-long coma and subsequently recast. So when the casting director calls offering Ruth a role in an “untraditional” television production, she agrees to audition without any further questions.
The production in question is “The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” or GLOW, which producers hope they can sell to a young male audience that wants the physicality of professional wrestling, but with more sex appeal. The term “cat fight” noticeably pops up in the sales pitch. It’s a bridge too far for half of the gathered crowd, who immediately walk out the door, but Ruth is intrigued; she soon finds herself learning chokeholds and arm bars in a dilapidated gym. The whole operation is under the sarcastic, half-hearted management of washed-up B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). Sam smokes his way through every episode, remembering the glory days of his schlock horror films as his actresses learn enough wrestling moves to hopefully be convincing.
Even if you aren’t a wrestling fan, it’s impossible to not appreciate the physicality and commitment of GLOW’s actresses and, by extension, their real world inspirations. GLOW presents wrestling as a meat ballet where much of the bruising is real, even if the stories’ consequences aren’t. It’s soap opera gymnastics, equal parts acting and athleticism. Brie, Gilpin, and the other actresses are really throwing each other around for your amusement, and you can’t ignore that.
GLOW’s secret weapon is its excellent ensemble cast, the phenomenally diverse group of talented actresses who Sam shapes into a stable of stereotype-heavy wrestling characters. There’s Melanie “Melrose” Rosen (Jackie Tohn), the Sunset Strip party girl, Jenny “Fortune Cookie” Che (Ellen Wong), Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade (Britney Young), Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson (Kia Stevens), and a half dozen more. It’s not hard to wonder about the real-life careers of the actresses, probably enduring their own histories of rejection, stereotyping, and lack of decent roles, but here they are given space and script enough to star. Each works to add nuance to the stereotypes of their character, both in the ring and in the larger show itself, and the results are as stunning as any neck-breaking piledriver.
Of particular note is Britney Young’s portrayal of “Machu Picchu,” a big-bodied woman who grew up in a family of wrestlers, but even so struggles to earn her father’s approval for GLOW. What is Young’s career story like? It’s not hard to imagine hundreds of rejections for her, even if I hope Hollywood isn’t as superficial as I fear it is. It shouldn’t be, because she is fantastic in GLOW, providing the show’s emotional heart. Her interactions with the show’s producer, trust fund baby Bash Howard (Chris Lowell), are an odd pairing and an endless delight.
But even with Howard’s coked-up enthusiasm, Sam isn’t sure that the project can work until the day Debbie charges into his gym, letting a newly discovered secret about Ruth spill onto the mat, and dishing out a pummeling that sparks Sam’s imagination in an explosion of neon lights and 1980s rock. Debbie Eagan is the blonde all-American star that he can build his show around, even as she and Ruth’s real-life baggage threatens to tear the GLOW team apart at every turn. GLOW’s half-hour episode runtime makes it fly by, and the fact that it’s a pure, hilarious joy to watch only doubles the effect. If you’re like me you’ll be up past your bedtime squeezing in extra episodes.
Marc Maron, probably best known for hosting the podcast WTF with Marc Maron, has never been better than he is here. He finds surprising nuance in Sam’s sarcastic persona, pushing him into a vulnerability that no other role has ever demanded of him. Every actor involved in GLOW is working beyond their comfort zone, from Maron baring his soul to Brie baring skin. Betty Gilpin wrote an article for Glamour about the struggle for confidence when you’re concerned that everyone is only looking at your body. It sounds like the experience of making a show about, starring, produced, and largely written and directed by women was a liberating one for all involved parties, and the results are evident and transfixing onscreen. Yes, GLOW deals with stereotypical storylines for female characters; career vs family, pregnancy, physical ability, and sexism all appear in the show, but how they are dealt with is a breath of fresh air.
I worry I’ve undersold just how funny GLOW is. The scripts are snappy, and the comedic timing is note-perfect. You will laugh out loud consistently. I’m unabashed at how much I enjoyed this show, and I literally stood up and cheered during the season finale. I even found myself appreciating wrestling a little bit more, though I probably won’t be tuning into Wrestlemania anytime soon. What I will be tuning in for is more GLOW as I’ve already rewatched half of the first season, and I eagerly await an announcement about the second. Don’t miss out. This is one of the best shows Netflix has ever made, and among the best shows of 2017.