There may be no more immediately appealing premise on TV than that of GLOW. Netflix’s new comedy series follows the 1980s-era women who became powerhouse wrestlers — a fictionalized version of the real GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling series that ran from 1986 to 1989 — and is rife with all the sparkling spandex that scenario implies.
I mean, come on. How do you possibly hear that premise without wanting to tease your hair, throw on some Pat Benatar, and strut through your commute like a snarling Valkyrie preparing for a dramatic showdown?
The first season of GLOW — which is executive-produced by Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan — relishes the drama and feistiness inherent in its story, unfolding something like a TV version of A League of Their Own. Led by an ornery director slash coach (Marc Maron), a ragtag group of misfits band together to become a team, learning how to care for each other as they just so happen to kick each other’s asses around a wrestling ring.
The first half of the season is slow to start, devoting most of its attention to checking setup boxes and establishing that this show sure does take place in the ’80s (and if you don’t believe me, just ask its cocaine-stuffed robot). But once GLOW shakes off the exposition, settles into its own rhythm, and allows its excellent cast to shine, man, can the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling be fun.
GLOW’s best asset by a long shot is its cast — and the show improves by leaps and bounds once it realizes it
At first, GLOW depends almost entirely on its leads to carry it while the aspiring wrestlers fumble their way toward some kind of expertise. Now, this strategy makes some sense, if only because those leads are Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin, two incredibly charismatic actors who rip into whatever material they get with as much ferocity as their characters’ wrestling alter egos rip into each other.
Brie plays Ruth, the tenacious Rachel Berry of GLOW, who takes everything deadly seriously, especially if it’ll help her get into character. Gilpin — who won my allegiance forever with her magnificent breakdown in the first episode of American Gods — is Debbie, Ruth’s former best friend and foil, a furious ex-soap star whose boredom with her life as a new mother is so palpable that her fury radiates off the screen. Both actors are fantastic, breathing real life into the convoluted conflict the show throws them into for the sheer sake of including a rivalry. Having seen the entire season, I still have no idea why Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband, but damn if Brie and Gilpin don’t sell the shit out of the heartbreaking aftermath anyway.
Outside Ruth, Debbie, and their director Sam (Maron at his crankiest), though, the characterization gets a little more sparse. The diverse cast of characters follows the Orange Is The New Black model, but with only 10 half-hour episodes and a whole lot of story to get through, no one gets that much time to truly blossom.
GLOW’s saving grace, though, is that all the actors are as game as their characters no matter what. Some manage to take the sporadic moments they’re given and make meals out of them, like Sydelle Noel’s no-bullshit matriarch Cherry, Gayle Rankin’s she-wolf Sheila, and Britney Young’s introverted Carmen. Even Chris Lowell manages to steal some spotlight as “Bash,” the coked-out pretty boy whose longtime passion for wrestling leads him to pour his significant cash flow into GLOW and, in some surprisingly touching moments, coach Carmen through her most insecure moments.
It’s pretty simple, really: Seeing a group of women fearlessly dive into the glittered world of entertainment wrestling headfirst while men stand by in awe is just a rare kind of TV treat — and the show knows it.
The show’s best, most inspiring moments are also its most self-aware
The original GLOW was an unapologetically campy cliché-fest that turned Reagan-era paranoia into full-on brawls. (The longtime enemy of its all-American hero, for instance, was a terrorist named “Palestina.”) Netflix’s take doesn’t entirely shy away from that history, especially as Sam and Bash push the women to embrace stereotypes as their wrestling personas.
But it also has the gift of hindsight, and as such, it makes sure to call out the casting of a Cambodian woman as “Fortune Cookie” and a black woman as “Welfare Queen” as the eye-rolling offenses they are. One of the season’s best and most self-reflexive moments comes when Welfare Queen (Kia Stevens) and Cherry flip Sam’s script during a match and kick the shit out of a pair of Ku Klux Klan characters instead of the helpless old white ladies he’d planned for them to take on. It’s too bad the show doesn’t devote more time to unpacking the fact that it, too, features a Palestina-esque terrorist character who ends up getting so aggressively booed by the audience that it more than vaguely traumatizes her — but with any luck, GLOW will follow its own self-referential instincts to that end in season two.
This GLOW is also explicitly (and aggressively) going for a more overtly feminist vibe than the original ever could have attempted in the ’80s. For example, Ruth only goes out for GLOW in the first place because she’s sick of auditioning for secretary roles. And as the season continues, it not only becomes clear that every woman who signed up for GLOW did so because they couldn’t fit in anywhere else, but that the only way GLOW will be successful is through their dedication. Sam is an alcoholic addict who snaps at the faintest sign of discouragement; Bash’s enthusiasm often makes him too frantic to focus on a single task long enough to actually complete it.
The women of GLOW, meanwhile, train their asses off, hurling their bodies around the ring with equal parts abandon and determination. When the cash flow dwindles to a trickle, they throw themselves into fundraising. When Sam’s stories prove lackluster, they work to execute their own twists with the kind of enthusiasm he could never script. GLOW, both the show and the show within the show, lives and dies by its ferocious women — which, in the end, feels exactly right.
The first season of GLOW is now available to stream on Netflix.