While Stranger Things fumbled its second series – not ruinously, but it did – GLOW, Netflix’s other unapologetic ‘80s nostalgia piece with the booming period soundtrack and the gleeful nods to that decade’s film canon, returns even stronger.
In watching any quasi-biopic like GLOW which focuses on a traditionally marginalised group breaking into areas which were previously de facto segregated, it’s hard not to think of Hunter S. Thompson’s ‘wave’ section of Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – when he describes there being “a fantastic universal sense that whatever we were doing was right, that we were winning…our energy would simply prevail. There was no point in fighting—on our side or theirs. We had all the momentum; we were riding the crest of a high and beautiful wave”.
True to form, after the first season left off on the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling at such a positive point, it halfway feels as if things had gotten so chummy and content that the narrative has no choice but to backslide a bit to keep any conflict or tension going. Don’t be fooled, though. This isn’t a retread of the same struggles, but rather a slow and steady advance into new challenges – or, in the case of GLOW’s A-list heel/face duo Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin), further development of the still-simmering betrayal which, despite the experiences of millions of film characters, wasn’t completely resolved by an uplifting climatic scene.
GLOW finds a rich seam of both comedy and drama in presenting the kayfabe as having distinct cracks in it, with the onstage events being informed by what’s going on backstage. This was at its strongest with Debbie’s hatred of Ruth for sleeping with her husband – which has been constantly smouldering in the background, and finally comes to a head midway through this season, appropriately enough onstage, when Ruth, in a particularly bad place and rolling on cocaine, fluffs a submission hold and breaks Ruth’s ankle.
Even this, which serves as an episode’s shock ending, cannot resist the show’s unstoppable positivity. Before Ruth has even hit the ground in the next episode, it has already switched gear into a bonding experience, in which the entire cast and crew rally around one of their own and do anything they can simply to make things better – and, yes, Ruth and Debbie finally air out all their resentments. It’s a bravura performance from both Brie and Gilpin, and, having had a good mutual shout, the relationship finally begins to get better.
Following that, you might worry that the show has once again made the mistake of having its main plotlines a bit too resolved – and, sure enough, the next episode is almost entirely an episode of the in-universe show, which goes beyond just the wrestling and draws in cheesy skits, dance numbers, and a glorious PSA song about how you shouldn’t kidnap children (tongue-in-cheek enough that it would have fit right in on Brass Eye’s ‘Paedogeddon’). But this leads directly into one of the other loose ends from the first series, when Justine’s mother catches the episode and, many months late, figures out where her daughter’s gone.
Despite the cocaine, the bedrock cynicism, and having had to suffer the singular indignity of discovering your magnum opus has already been done by a little film called Back to the Future, Sam (Marc Maron) – the girls’ Eeyore-esque director – pulls himself round into being the best father that, given the above, he possibly could be. Good enough, certainly, to ultimately send Justine back to her mother rather than sign off on her first choice of running away with Billy Offal, who might be dreamy but has accomplished little else.
In the ‘80s, the tradition of the casting couch was in full swing, and of course applies double to any sort of all-female production. While Sam made it a fun thing, even when he tried it on Justine seconds before she revealed her true identity, the second season covers the dark side of it – and it’s a practice which is almost entirely dark side. An executive from the network invites Ruth for a business dinner, which turns out to be in his hotel room, which turns into him asking her to show him some of the moves, which turns into him wedging his face in her tits.
When Ruth doesn’t respond to this grade-a flirting by giggling and knitting the guy a sweater, the network promptly moves the show to a 2am graveyard slot. Without wishing to diminish the plight of those who suffered the fat, sweaty attention of the likes of Harvey Weinstein, whereas he screwed up enough that even Hollywood couldn’t stomach his perversions, this illustrates the dynamics of casting couch at their height – not flinching from showing the consequences of the Sophie’s choice Ruth had thrust upon her, where either you get fucked, or the entire cast and crew of the show get fucked (as Debbie later explains, in fairly similar wording).
But, by then, even the crooked sort of patronage that passes for good business practice in the media can’t stop them – they already have a small but devoted fanbase. This is a double-edged sword, since it means receiving (Polaroid) dick pics, but it does keep the show humming along – and, while Sheila is initially freaked out to encounter someone who’s copied her wolf costume, when, come the finale, there’s a whole chunk of the audience wolfed up and cheering her along, it can’t help but be uplifting.
While Ruth and Debbie are obviously the leads, backstage it was a different story, with professional stuntwoman Cherry (Sydelle Noel) as first-among-equals. On the strength of the GLOW pilot, now she’s landed a plum job on a buddy cop show – but, after a wonderful display of bad acting, has to come back to the ring. This causes some tension with newcomer Yolanda (Shakira Barrera), who’s replaced her as Junkchain (eventually rationalised with a black Junkchain v. hispanic Junkchain grudge match) – but, much like the brief Cherry-Melrose feud of the first season, they move past this quick, instead of it degenerating into interminable cattiness.
The grudge match allows Cherry to ditch the hated Junkchain persona in favour of Black Magic, a voodoo priestess character who’s even more exploitational – but far more enjoyable for Cherry, as she bears more than a little resemblance to what she and Keith get up to when they’re off the clock. It’s not just here that GLOW continues to comment on the outrageous stereotypes integral to wrestling with surprising nuance. When Tammé (Kia Stevens) visits her son at college, he’s already bristling at the casual racism he encounters at Stanford, and is initially disgusted by her ‘Welfare Queen’ persona. However, after attending a match he finds himself seeing a new side to his mother, and, like the viewer at home, is quite taken with the flamboyance of it all.
With Cherry initially absent, Carmen (Britney Young) takes over as stunt supervisor, a role in which she finally comes into her own as a Lumberjackson. At one point she tempts fate by copying one of her brother’s signature moves, for which her equally huge siblings appear to be very angry with her – but even though the producers must hastily mollify them, this too seems to run into the cracks in the kayfabe. When they call her out for it on a radio phone-in, and when they invade the ring, on reflection it feels far more like they – as established wrestlers – are giving formal approval to both their little sister and the entire sport of lady-wrestling.
The only bum note of the second season is the offscreen death of Florian, Bash’s butler. After being AWOL for most of the season, Bash gets a call telling him that Florian has died of AIDS-related illness – the most ‘80s death possible, just beating out ‘cocaine overdose’ and ‘being hit in the head by a boombox playing Hungry Like The Wolf’. The issue is that it comes out of nowhere, and does less to develop Florian’s character than it does Bash’s – whose response, tellingly, is to rush into a visa marriage with Rhonda, which I only hesitate to describe as a rebound because the show never comes out and admits to anything. (Contra Yolanda, who’s so out-and-proud that Arthie falls hopelessly in love with her after a single shared scene.)
Still, this is a minor quibble – it’s one plotline out of many, and plays directly into the glorious finale (yes, the marriage happens in the ring, what did you expect?). After this wrestling wedding battle royale extravaganza – and really, stuff like that should happen more often – the gang gets a happy ending, courtesy of a strip club owner Sam met at Justine’s prom, which sets them squarely on the path to greater challenges once more. If GLOW ever has to end, we all know it could only finish on a montage of freeze-frames on each of the main characters, as subtitles explain all the fantastic things they went on to achieve – but let’s hope that’s still a good way off.