Netflix brings the ’80s back to vivid neon life with its winning women’s wrestling series GLOW, starring Alison Brie and Marc Maron.
After the first few episodes of Netflix’s incredibly charming new series GLOW, the influence of Orange is the New Black executive producer Jenji Kohan becomes readily apparent. The new show begins by exploring the life of its main character Ruth (Alison Brie), an out-of-work actress in mid-’80s Los Angeles who answers a casting call for a new television series only to find out she’s arrived at an audition for an all-women professional wrestling league, and is joined by a group of women equally determined to make a go of an atypical situation.
In other words, the lead character is met with a situation requiring her to navigate a wide variety of personalities and brand new social conventions if she’s going to make a go of her new circumstances. The primary difference here being that Brie’s Ruth isn’t a guest of the state, and neither are any of the other interesting women who make up the burgeoning Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling TV show cooked up by a coked-out, burned-out exploitation filmmaker by the name of Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), and envisioned and funded by Sebastian ‘Bash’ Howard, a wealthy canned food heir played by Veronica Mars and Enlisted‘s Chris Lowell.
While the adventures of Sam & Bash sounds like a TNT legal drama just waiting to be written, here they make up just a small portion of an otherwise Orange is the New Black-sized ensemble; one that has the infectious personalities to match. This time the characters are drawn by series creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, a pair of talented writers who have worked on shows like Weeds, Orange is the New Black, Nurse Jackie, and Homeland. The result is a winning comedy that leans heavier on certain soapy qualities than its structural forbearer, but makes the most of it due in large part to the much lighter circumstances of its leading ladies.
Along with Brie, who after her roles in Community and Mad Men has long deserved a chance to take the wheel as the ostensible lead, GLOW welcomes another Nurse Jackie alum in Betty Gilpin, who lent Starz’s American Gods a few memorable moments in season 1. With the exception of perhaps Scott Pilgrim‘s Ellen Wong and Mr. Robot‘s Sunita Mani, the rest of the Ladies of Wrestling may make their first impression on viewers here. And thankfully, with characters like Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin), Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) and more, it’s an impression you won’t soon forget. But as with Orange is the New Black, each woman has her own story, her own reason for wanting to join Sam’s shaky enterprise, and over the course of the season, GLOW slowly begins to expand its scope beyond Ruth’s stunted professional ambitions to discover what those reasons are.
As with most new series – especially something as tricky as a comedy that features this many dramatic elements – there’s a noticeable learning curve in the first few episodes. There’s reason to expect that some of it is just Flahive and Mensch finding their characters, and working out who everyone is. Plus Netflix shows, like HBO, are produced in a vacuum, meaning the whole season is in the can before anyone gets a chance to put eyes on it. As such, the degree of difficulty is perhaps exponentially greater since there’s no immediate response audience. Thankfully, though, GLOW comes out swinging with a strong premiere episode that sets Brie’s Ruth up as the protagonist, only to perform a classic heel turn in the final minutes, when it’s revealed Ruth’s been carrying on an affair with Mark (Rich Sommer), the husband of her best friend Debbie (Gilpin). Mad Men reunion aside (what would Pete Campbell think?), Ruth’s heel turn gives the series a tremendous amount of momentum and does wonders for the character, as it quickly becomes clear Ruth needs more than just the drama geek angle to remain interesting.
Amidst the burgeoning wrestling league and the personal drama between Ruth and Debbie, GLOW, the series and the wrestling show within a show, address the lack of substantial roles for women in Hollywood in different way. The idea that women entering into a field like professional wrestling either can’t or won’t be taken seriously (even by male wrestlers) and would need to rely on stereotypes and, of course, sex appeal, is addressed throughout much of first season. We see it when Carmen Wade, aka Machu Picchu (Brittney Young), the only woman in an all-male wrestling dynasty, is told by her father he expects her to find a nice guy and have kids, not wrestle. And again when Sam pitches the series to a network executive by calling it “Porn you can watch with your kids.” The show is very clever in how it illustrates the way in which characters work to alter the perception of and to justify what it is they’re doing, both for others and for themselves.
In that sense, GLOW finds an interesting dynamic among Ruth, Debbie, and Sam. Wrestling is a last resort for all three of them in many ways, and they each process their role in it differently. Debbie is slow to come around, but once she figures out it’s all a soap opera – mirroring her own personal soap opera – she’s all in. It’s different for Ruth and Sam, and over the course of the season, their dislike for one another turns into a grudging respect, as GLOW becomes the only way either can hope to fulfill their creative desires. In later episodes, Brie and Maron play off one another exceptionally well, as the master of schlock and would-be thespian find they’re kindred spirits of sorts.
At just 30 minutes (roughly) a pop, you’ll likely get through the first season in one or two sittings, but unlike some Netflix series, GLOW doesn’t hit a wall halfway through. That might be because, unlike some Netflix series, GLOW actually delivers episodes with a complete beginning, middle, and end. That makes a big difference while watching, especially as the episodes begin to shift their focus to the other women and their relationships with one another and the sport they’re entering. You want to keep watching not because of the ease of the all-at-once method or because one hour (or half-hour, in this case) bleeds seamlessly into the next, but because there’s an actual desire to discover what happens next. In all, Netflix has found itself another winner, one that brings the ’80s back to vivid neon life with this incredibly charming women’s wrestling series.
GLOW season 1 is available in its entirety on Netflix.
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