We’re obsessed with Netflix’s GLOW, a fictionalized version of the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” promotion. In fact, we love it so much that it simply can’t be reviewed by one person. It’s going to take both Myndi and EJ in a sort of tag team review. Much like the Road Warriors, the Legion of Doom, or the Beatdown Biddies, we’re teaming up to… fight the idea of talking about a TV show? Look, the metaphor fell apart, like, instantly. And we know that. The point is, we’re ready to talk about GLOW.
I have vague memories of watching the original GLOW. I remember that it aired Saturdays at midnight on our local ABC station. I was eleven when it premiered and the promise of “Gorgeous Ladies” was enough to get my attention, even if I didn’t know why. Plus, I liked wrestling. So I remember sneaking to the family room and turning the volume down so low that I had to rest my head against the speaker and watching this weird show. (It’s the same thing I did to watch David Letterman.) It seemed kind of seedy and even as a kid I could tell it was being made on the cheap, but it was fascinating. And I think maybe that’s what I expected from the fictionalization of the promotion, but it’s so much better than that while still recapturing some of what fascinated me when I was scooched all the way up to the TV.
I’ll admit that I’m not a wrestling expert, and I’ve seen people online get mad when somebody who’s not a wrestling fan reviews GLOW. Which is silly, but I will say that I have a respect for professional wrestling. I can’t stand the chorus of “It’s fake!” because, yeah. Of course it is. So is Better Call Saul. There were times as a kid when I was really into the then-WWF, and if I catch a match to this day, I usually enjoy it. I’ll YouTube Mick Foley or Daniel Bryan matches because I’m impressed with the latter’s bonkers athletic ability and the former’s seeming inability to feel pain and infinite capacity to commit to a gimmick. I just get really bored when I try to watch a wrestling show. They’re all three hours long and the WWE has some really sleazy management and the weird racism and sexism still creeps in. But show me a good match by itself, and I’ll have a great time.
Now, I was an easy sell from jump street on this one because GLOW stars Alison Brie, who spunkyreaders may have gleaned, is my absolute favorite. I’d watch the entire series if it had been nothing but Brie saying mean things about me. But let’s put that aside. Because this might be her best performance yet. And considering that her big TV roles to date have been Community, Mad Men, and BoJack Horseman, that is not something I say lightly.
Her Ruth Wilder is a struggling actress in 1985 which, frankly, was not a great time for actresses in general. She’s desperate for work, which leads to her auditioning sight unseen for televised wrestling. And that’s a good premise for a show. But the twist right away is that Ruth, who doesn’t make great decisions, is sleeping with her best friend’s husband. And this is what fascinates me about GLOW.
As great at TV is, and it is great, it’s still true that in 2017 men are allowed to be flawed in a way that women aren’t. Don Draper and Walter White and John Stone and any number of guys can be utter bastards and still be heroes. When it comes to women, they can go way over the top for a refuge in audacity approach (Nurse Jackie), but more likely, they don’t have the same latitude. People are still mad at Skyler White today, and the only thing she did was not be cool with her husband becoming a drug kingpin. It’s getting better, particularly on the streaming services, but it’s still a tough haul for female characters. And on most shows and for most fandoms, Ruth would be unforgivable.
Part of the reason you keep rooting for her is that Alison Brie is either the most charming person in America or the second most, depending on what Terry Crews has been up to. But part of the reason is that GLOW embraces one of the great wrestling tropes. Ruth is the Heel, her (former) best friend Debbie is the Face. The Heel is the bad guy we’re supposed to boo and the Face is the clean-cut model of goodness who eventually prevails. But anybody with any familiarity with professional wrestling knows that sometimes people love the Heel and the Face just doesn’t get over with the crowd.
And let me be clear, this is nothing against Betty Gilpin, who plays Debbie. She does an amazing job but her character is supposed to be kind of a pill. Everything about her indicates that she’s the good guy, but then she’ll just be mean or flake out on her co-stars.
Because Ruth does this bad thing right away. But once you get past that, once you get past the way she really hurt her best friend, you end up rooting for her. She tries hard despite her immediate lack of talent. She puts herself out there to support the other wrestlers time and time again. She steps up and saves the day. But she also sits there with the person she wronged every day, and that person is absolutely right to hate her. In their scenes together, Ruth tries so hard and sometimes Debbie cracks a little, but eventually they’re back to square one again. Debbie’s right, but man, are we ever rooting for Ruth. She’s the charismatic Heel and even though we’re supposed to boo when she enters the ring (both figuratively and literally), she’s just so awesome.
It’s a clever dynamic that’s hard to do with characters grounded in the real world, and GLOW nails it.
The series was created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who previously worked on Orange is the New Black. That had me expecting a certain tone – the weird “we’re calling this a comedy but you will not laugh” thing. But GLOW is really funny. Marc Maron plays GLOW director Sam Sylvia and it’s the first time he’s been really convincing. And yes, I’m counting the seasons he spent playing himself on his IFC show. His cynicism is funnier in the service of a character than it is when he makes us wonder if that’s just how he is all the time. Brie is consistently funny pretty much everywhere, but she does some especially great work here. Whether it’s giving her wrestling person a Les Mis backstory or cutting a promo, she’s hilarious. And you’ll think that her promo is going to be the funniest thing she does, until she lands on her ring persona of Zoya the Destroyer, the evil Russian. The persona is funny, and the bit where she shows off her Communist-themed moves in the ring by herself might be the best scene on anything all year, and this is the year when Jim Gordon punched a guy so hard that his face came off and landed in a puddle.
The supporting cast, most of whom have only a few credits, are good all around. Almost all of them get a nice showcase over the course of the season. Britney Young’s relentlessly positive daughter of a wrestling dynasty, Carmen, is a particular standout. As is Gayle Rankin’s heartbreaking “Sheila the She-Wolf”. If you told me I’d care so much about a character who claimed to suffer from ‘species dysmorphia’, I wouldn’t have believed it for a second. And here’s the other thing – the whole cast is good at acting, but they also get good at wrestling. (Well, other than Kia Stevens, who plays Tamme. She is an actual wrestler so she didn’t need to get good at it. She started out great at it.) By the time the season winds down and they film their first show, the cast looks like they could actually get in the ring in real life. They’re not there to make wrestling look dumb or make it seem like it’s ridiculous for women to wrestle. These matches are fun to watch and the big Ruth/Debbie fight in the season finale is legitimately thrilling.
It’s a show that’s about literal female empowerment in the way that they learn how to hurt people. But it’s also the more important kind of empowerment, simply by giving us a cast of mostly women and letting them be flawed and screwed up and amazing in all the ways that TV men get to be. I loved it, but in a bigger and better way than I expected to love it. And I’m excited that it’s getting so much buzz – this is the show people are talking about, and that can only be a good thing.
Unlike my colleague, I was never really a wrestling fan, and only remember hearing about GLOW, not actually watching it. My dad loved Rowdy Roddy Piper and Hulk Hogan, and I think, at 74, he might still watch WWE. It was truly never my thing, but as a part of pop culture, it is stuck in my brain along with everything else I managed to absorb over my lifetime.
I gravitated toward this show for both the cast (I also love me some Alison Brie) and the 80s kitsch, which is absolutely my thing. As EJ stated, the cast is uniformly great. I detected a bit of OITNB’s signature storytelling device when it came to getting some of the individual backstories, and I’d be willing to bet we’ll get more of that should season two get a green light. Aside from Brie and Maron (whom I’ll get back to in a sec), Betty Gilpin is fantastic as Debbie and Sydelle Noel kills it as Cherry. I want to know more about people like Sheila and Melanie. There’s a lot to work with here, that’s for sure.
The cool thing about what Alison Brie is doing is that she’s playing so far against any type she’s ever been cast as previously, it’s astounding. It might be a bit cheesy of me to say that she being brave by baring it all (quite literally in the pilot) to play Ruth, but it’s true. This character is a mess of a person. She’s almost completely broke and sleeping with her best friend’s husband, yet she’s pretentious enough to wonder what her character motivation should be in a TV wrestling audition. Plus, for someone who is trying to get work in front of a camera, you’d think she’d try a bit harder with her personal style. Her lack of makeup most of the time is noticeable and it’s a little jarring, but that’s surely by design.
I am loving Marc Maron in this role as well. EJ is right that this is probably by far the best acting he’s ever done. Sam has layers and levels we haven’t seen yet, and should we get a season two, the last minute plot twist of him learning that one of his cast members is actually his daughter will give him a lot of great material that I’m guessing Maron has never come close to tackling. I’m excited to see that.
I’m also excited to see more of the absolutely perfect 80s wardrobe they have this cast sporting. It’s like Mad Men in that way, yes Mad Men. The period details are so perfect that they almost become beside the point, but when you catch one that you relate to (one of Debbie’s chunky knit sweaters or the impossibly high cut leotards), it blows your mind.
The bottom line here is that, if for some reason, this is all we ever see of this story, it will have been a great one-off, but if we get multiple seasons to watch both the show they’re producing and these characters grow and change over the years, we’ll be really lucky to sit back and enjoy.