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GLOW season 2 is less than the sum of its parts. But those parts are amazing.

Netflix’s ambitious wrestling comedy tackles how women can navigate spaces built by men, to stunning and occasionally stilted effect.

Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin, left) and Zoya (Alison Brie) duke it out in the ring.
Erica Parise/Netflix
Emily St. James was a senior correspondent for Vox, covering American identities. Before she joined Vox in 2014, she was the first TV editor of the A.V. Club.

The second season of GLOW, Netflix’s winning comedy about professional women wrestlers in the ’80s (based very, very, very loosely on the real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), is terrific, a big step up over season one in humor and in character growth and plotting. By the time all of its plots collided together in the double-stuffed finale, I was grinning from ear to ear.

I’m recommending the show, to be clear. If you have a spare afternoon this weekend, watch it. For God’s sake, watch it.

But something in GLOW holds me back, just a bit. The show, as best I can determine, lacks the sort of strong center required to hold together a series with as many characters as this one. In its first season, the center came from the friendship-turned-foeship of Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a long-running relationship turned sour after Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband. Season two shifts this relationship away from the center of the show, prioritizing other things.

To be clear: This is just fine in theory. The show teems with interesting characters, any of whom could become its center. But season two never succeeds in finding something as interesting as Ruth and Debbie’s conflict to slide into center stage. That turns it into almost a collection of comedic sketches occasionally interspersed with wrestling matches — not unlike the TV show within the show.

Being left wanting more from a TV show (especially one built to be watched over a handful of days) is never a bad thing. But I could never escape the feeling that GLOW season two kept circling something without ever quite zeroing in on it. And looking at season’s two strongest episodes might help us better understand why. And I’m going to have to spoil the entire season to talk about this.

Season two takes on ideas of how women navigate spaces built by men

If the first season of GLOW was about the ways that narratives about women and people of color are often turned into stereotypical fodder for a viewership presumed to be largely white and largely male, the second season is (I think) about how women learn to navigate power structures built by men.

This means when the season does a riff on #MeToo (with Ruth confronting an unscrupulous network head who all but promises her advancement if she’ll sleep with him), it doesn’t feel strained. But it also leads to the show trying to tell stories about all of the people in its massive cast working within the rules built for them by men who don’t give a shit. And while that’s admirable, the series only has so much real estate.

Take one of the season’s best episodes, its fourth, in which the build-up to a big match between Debbie and opponent Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens) becomes a focus on how both women, single moms raising sons (Debbie with her ex-husband’s help, Tammé seemingly without help), navigate trying to build a better world for their boys while also chasing their own dreams.

In particular, the episode is heartbreaking when it comes to Tammé, a black woman playing a wrestler dubbed “Welfare Queen.” Her Stanford-attending son gets his first chance to see his mom wrestle live on the night she has to defend her title against Debbie’s “Liberty Belle” character, a walking, (Southern-accented) talking celebration of white Americana. She defeats Welfare Queen, then leads the audience in a chant meant to push Welfare Queen to “get a job.”

Humiliated in front of her son, Tammé leaves the ring, leaving Ruth to have to improvise a new ending to the match. But when all is said and done, Tammé’s son is impressed that his mother learned how to do so many wrestling moves, even as Debbie falls asleep next to her son’s crib.

Welfare Queen versus Liberty Belle for the GLOW crown!
Beth Dubber/Netflix

This is where GLOW excels in season two, in its ideas of womanhood as a kind of performance given to the public, the costume later taken off at home, alone, when nobody but those who love you best can see it. That’s only reinforced in the season’s other best episode, its eighth, which almost entirely (save a 20-second coda) takes the form of an episode of the actual wrestling show.

In its blend of madcap fights with comedic sketches, the episode similarly digs into why certain narratives about women — like the idea that they’re so man-hungry they might trade away their intelligence to bring a mannequin to life — prevail, instead of more realistic ones.

But even in the midst of that, the show celebrates the way the wrestlers bring their own personalities and sensibilities to the potentially horrible material. (It’s to the credit of the show’s writers, led by creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, that they manage to write TV that’s believably bad, but not so believably bad that you can’t watch 35 minutes of it.) If womanhood is a performance, then the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are sneaking something true through all the layers of ridiculousness, an arch sensibility that winks to everybody with eyes to see and ears to hear.

The show struggles when the series-within-a-series doesn’t have any real thematic connection to the meatier character material. Season one was an underdog story about how these women found themselves by joining a washed-up filmmaker to make a TV pilot. Season two’s showbiz story involves trying to make the GLOW within GLOW the best show it can be, the better to avoid cancellation.

But this doesn’t have a ton to do with the season’s ideas about womanhood, performance, and navigating spaces built by men (outside of the very surface-level idea of the network itself being a space built by men).

The season makes a rather drastic shift at its midpoint, with Debbie gravely injuring Ruth while in a drugged haze — sometimes, the show could double as the kind of ’80s public service announcement it winkingly makes fun of in an early episode. But it never finds a way to skillfully bring Ruth back into the story, stranding her in a go-nowhere love triangle plot where one point of the triangle is played by her boss, Sam (Marc Maron). Maron and Brie have good chemistry, but the show never convincingly sells the idea of a pairing between the two as anything other than a storytelling convenience.

Thus, the problem isn’t that GLOW lacks focus; it’s that it has way too much on its mind for the confines of a half-hour comedy with nearly two-dozen important characters. There’s even a late-season arc about AIDS! And yet, even if not everything lands, I always want the show with too much going on rather than the show with too little.

GLOW’s greatest success is its willingness to tell episodic stories

This show has a terrific ensemble cast.
Erica Parise/Netflix

You’ll note that I praised the show for specific episodes, which is not always the case with Netflix series. (Though the streaming service’s comedy and reality departments are generally better about episodic storytelling than its drama department.) And in every episode of GLOW season two — even the ones I wasn’t as fond of — I can point to a strong, episodic hook. This was the one at the hospital; this was the one with the high-school dance, etc.

This is the place where the series improves most markedly on its first season. Dealing out more episodic stories also allows the show to dig more deeply into the lives of some of the wrestlers who didn’t get as much story time in season one. I was particularly fond of one late-season romance between two of the wrestlers that finally gave the series an overtly queer storyline, probably a necessity in a show with such love for high camp; and it simultaneously let viewers get to know two of the less developed wrestlers so much better.

Thus, even if GLOW season two feels like it’s chasing a center it never pins down, its ability to switch tactics in every new episode (most between 30 and 35 minutes, with one shorter and one longer). The episodic focus also allows the show to skip over big swaths of time when nothing interesting is happening, the better to get to the good stuff.

That leaves GLOW slightly less than the sum of its parts. But at the same time, the parts are so inventive, so stylish, and so fun that I feel churlish pointing out how they don’t quite cohere into anything more in the end. Maybe the best advice I can give is: Watch this show. Watch it several times. It’s a good one, and it will leave you feeling better than you did when you started it, which is not something every TV show can say nowadays.

But I still wish both sides of the show’s equation balanced. The season leaves the characters in a place that feels a bit like a Hail Mary pass designed to rejuvenate a show that doesn’t really need rejuvenation, but maybe that’s appropriate. Maybe this is, ultimately, a show about chasing resurrection, about finding a phoenix within who too often fails to raise her head.

Reinvention is easy, GLOW argues. It’s getting everybody else to go along with your own new idea of yourself that takes some doing.

GLOW season two is streaming on Netflix. (So is season one, if you somehow haven’t seen it and still read this entire review.)

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