Women Be Choppin’.
By Matt Fowler
This is review for all 10 episodes of first season – debuting Friday, June 23rd on Netflix. This review will be non-spoilery, with a separate piece where I discuss the ending and other story specifics going up this weekend.
Netflix has whack-a-mole’d up some gold again with the addictive, digestible, and delightful GLOW – a moving and funny fictionalized account of the very real mid-80s all-female wrestling series, featuring a group of models, actresses, and other types of performers hitting the mat in an attempt to cash in on the Hulk Hogan-era wrestling boom.
Yes, as I mentioned back in the first impression piece I wrote up based on the GLOW pilot screening down at the ATX Television Festival, G.L.O.W. (as an acronym) is an actual thing that happened. And personally, I used to watch it. A lot.
I don’t know that I loved it, but I sure saw it. You know how when you’re a kid sometimes you just see things on TV without having an opinion of them either way. You just bear witness. I am, however, a huge wrestling fan and have been since, well, around the exact time and date depicted in this show. So, to preface everything, I’m coming at this show as someone who’s familiar with the old G.L.O.W. – aka “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” — and as someone who’s been watching pro-wrestling non-stop since then.
It’s important to note those two things, I suppose, because what I love most about Netflix’s GLOW — aside from its superb balance of cute and cruel, pristine and prickly — is that it follows a group of entertainers and dreamers, from different walks and avenues, who come together to, basically, learn what wrestling, as an art, is all about. Yes, this was wrestling from three decades ago so there were still very crude, base, and racist elements to the gimmicks and caricatures (some could even argue we haven’t come all that far since), but it’s still an artform. Granted, one that’s rested, for most of its existence, quite low on the creative totem.
Alison Brie stars here as Ruth, an actress who can’t even land basic day work much less something that lines up with her lofty aspirations of finding a decent female role in 1985. At the outset, you’d think Ruth was the hero of the piece. The down-on-her-luck artist who falls in with a bunch of fellow misfits to pull off a Hail Mary, putting their assorted skills and grit to use in the world of wrestling. But only part of that is true. Like most good wrestling storylines, Ruth’s path isn’t all that set in stone and the person you may assume is the babyface becomes, thanks to some poor life choices, the heel. And a lot of this season involves Ruth having to re-discover herself within the realm of wrestling.
With most everyone hating on her for the traits she seems to find most admirable about herself, Ruth begins to embrace the idea of being the villain of the piece. “Try not giving a f**k,” GLOW director Sam Sylvia (played by Marc Hero) tells her early on, regarding everyone else’s opinion of her. “It’s very liberating.” But Ruth isn’t the only one on a journey of self-redefinition. Everyone from performer to backer to director has their moment of clarity regarding wrestling. That “ah ha” moment where they get it and connect with what’s going on in the ring and realize why these types of shows put butts in seats.
Betty Gilpin co-stars here as Ruth’s long-time friend, and fellow (former) actress, Debbie, who’s forced to make some very tough choices about her own life. Debbie’s life collides with the GLOW project in a very calamitous manner and after a while her arc intertwines with Ruth’s in an exciting way that integrates some very old wrestling adages about how a great heel is what truly makes a great babyface.
On a show filled with colorful characters, all trying to shape and mold themselves within the even-more colorful world of wrestling, Marc Maron’s Sam, the salted “kicking and screaming” director of a project he doesn’t quite understand, is a fun standout. All at once he has to play critic, coddler, angry boss and doting dad. Never without his trademark honesty, or a defensive insult, Sam and his ladies take turns falling down and hoisting themselves back up. Often literally. What’s created during these first 10 episodes is a somewhat crass and unorthodox support system. A fragile family for a bunch of L.A.’s cast-asides. Sam is at the heart of this, as sometimes it’s his aloofness that helps his women unite while other times, when he cares, his investment helps make everything gel.
Filling out the rest of the ranks here, just like the original G.L.O.W., is a mirthful mix of actors, singers, and wrestlers. Ellen Wong (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World), Sunita Mani (Mr. Robot), Kate Nash (singer/songwriter), Jackie Tohn (semifinalist on American Idol), and Kia Stevens (“Awesome Kong” for you wrestling fans) are all part of this “wing and a prayer” project, with most of their characters having to come to terms with getting saddled with a rather cloddish and stereotypical ring characters – horrid depictions of minorities ranging from “Blaxploitation” to a shrieking Middle Eastern “terrorist.” The white performers get the benefit of better treatment, from a gimmick standpoint, but not too much better (sexy scientist, music video tart, and – um – “wolf”). It’s all worth it even just to watch Alison Brie storm around trying to hone in on a villainous USSR overlord character, Yakov Smirnoff’ing it up with a thick Russian accent.
You don’t have to be a wrestling fan to enjoy GLOW, but if you are, you’ll enjoy small moments with the likes of Christopher Daniels, Joey Ryan, and George Murdoch (formerly “Brodus Clay”) and more pronounced scenes with John Hennigan (“John Morrison/Johnny Mundo”) and Kevin Kiley (formerly “Alex Riley”). Hennigan, in fact, plays a crucial role in the pilot and then, for whatever reason, gets awkwardly written out off-screen in the season’s only moment of apparent clumsiness. Overall though, GLOW is an ensemble sitcom with 80s kitsch — and a power anthem soundtrack to back it up — but it possesses heart, soul, and a deviant cleverness that creates both an intimate portrait and a sense of spectacle.
GLOW is fundamentally fun and effortlessly engaging, following a troupe of lost performers who find family and friendship through an art form that, in most other situations, they’d never consider trying. Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron triumphantly triple-team this series as anchors in performance, but pawns to production – just like with any good wrestling show. The money is in the chase, and GLOW honors this.