The 1980s-set wrestling series might just reinvigorate Netflix—and television as a whole.
When Orange Is The New Black first dropped its first season on Netflix, it was exciting. Sure, House of Cards did the binge-release first, but OITNB just felt different from the rest of TV. The peculiarity and specificity of the setting, the intense focus on women's stories, the strange mix of humor thrown into a horrible situation—basically, the Jenji Kohan of it all. You didn't binge-watch it just because you could; you binge-watched it because you couldn't stop. There's a similar vibe happening in Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's GLOW, which might be the most promising debut all year.
Set in the 1980s, GLOW is a fictionalized story of Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, the women's wrestling promotion that capitalized on the success of the still-booming WWE (then WWF). Like its real-life counterpart, most of the characters in GLOW aren't actually wrestlers but aspiring actresses, models, or stunt women who fell into the trade while trying to find roles. Most have never watched a match. "Are you hiring actors to play wrestlers, or are we wrestlers?" someone asks director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) in the pilot episode. "Yes," he replies.
At the center of GLOW is Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an "unconventional" actress who can't quite seem to land any roles. Per a tip, she ends up in a grimy gym with a group of diverse women (age, body type, race, everything else—one young woman basically identifies as a wolf) auditioning for Sam, a boozy B-movie director desperate for new success. A handful of the women who don't bail make the cut and, as you would expect, become something of a makeshift family by the season's end. Sort of.
GLOW could just go the straightforward route of following a ragtag team of weirdos as they face obstacles and beat the odds—and it certainly does occasionally follow these familiar beats. But GLOW also zigs and zags throughout, throwing in genuinely surprising twists (and some predictable ones, but that's par for the course) while finding realistic and creative character motivations. The feminist message is clear from the beginning, as are the themes of self-assuredness and trying to find yourself. In multiple mirror scenes, the budding athletes stare down their reflections, trying to figure out who their wrestlings personas are—but also trying to figure out how that relates to their own true selves. Some women are mothers, some are cheaters, some are bitches, and some are genuinely pure—but GLOW puts them all on equal playing field because it's more about how they reconcile these traits both personally and professionally.
Of course, and as is still true of wrestling, there are characters that lean heavily into stereotypes and caricatures such as the "Welfare Queen" (Kia Stevens) armed with food stamps, or "Beirut" (Sunita Mani), a Lebanese terrorist who the crowd is all too happy to jeer. (The series Reagan-era setting also comes into play.) The show's writers navigate these characters with welcome self-awareness, putting up both sides of the battle. When Sam explains that it's a commentary on stereotypes, one of the women shoots back, "But will other people understand it?" GLOW is always sure to display the women's unease and discomfort, but also their occasional glee; it's always more fun to play a heel than a face.
GLOW makes great use of its ensemble cast by finding and displaying each woman's individual strengths, creating memorable scenes out of someone howling on roller blades or clumsily rolling out of the ring. Brie is especially endearing here—it's hard not to fall in love with her as she runs around her bedroom in a cape, flexing and poorly mimicking Hulk Hogan. The always-charming Chris Lowell (who plays Bash, a trust fund wrestling-obsessive with the cash to fund the project) just looks like he belongs in the 80s, right down to being the only man to convincingly say "bitchin'." Even Marc Maron is in his element as a scuzzy, narcissistic alcoholic and drug addict who, if you squint, has some good qualities floating around. Surprisingly, the pairing of Maron and Brie is particularly delightful—likely because it isn't leading to an ultimate romance but instead depicts a slow-building, reluctant mutual respect between two people who refuse to budge in their separately odd ideals.
GLOW is debuting at a perfect time, after a long season of great but sometimes dour television. It's a breath of fresh air, one that's light and lively to go along with the summer season. It's the antidote to this last Orange Is The New Black season (Kohan, for the record, is also EP on GLOW) which found itself circling around, struggling to find comedy, and diving deeper into tortuous episodes. On the contrary, GLOW is like the younger, eager cousin who has already figured out its tone and navigates it effortlessly. The entire season goes by too quickly (it's built for a binge-watch, and the one break I took was an excruciating wait), but it ends on a note that literally had me clapping. I finished it yesterday; I can't wait to watch it again tomorrow.
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