“Babies are boring,” Sam Sylvia growls, “I mean, they don’t party, they haven’t traveled, and they have no sense of irony.” That particular brand of humor is the hallmark of GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), Netflix’s yet-young show about women’s professional wrestling in the 80s. Cerebral, yet silly, the show starts with compelling characters: Ruth (Alison Brie) is a struggling actress with a much more successful actress friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin). Both, however, happen to be sleeping with the same man: Debbie’s husband (Brie’s fellow Mad Men alum Rich Sommer).
This inciting action sets the stage for the next few seasons, as Ruth finally lands a small and fairly uninspiring paycheck role as a wrestler for trust-fund kid Bash’s passion project, which then spirals out of control when Debbie gets cast for the same show. Tensions rise as the friends-turned-foes are forced to work together, all the while slasher flick auteur Sam Sylvia goads them from the sideline.
Like other character driven television that came before, GLOW sets the stage and lets the drama unfold naturally, with as few Deus ex Machina as they can get away with. However, while the episode-to-episode plot moves the story along at pace, the real strength of the show is the characters. From the runaway punk kid to the girl who thinks she’s a wolf, and the similarly unique spectrum of characters that fill out the background, no character remains two-dimensional for long. Everyone has conflicting desires that sometimes lead to explosive confrontations, making this less of a feel-good comedy than the season 1 trailer might have you believe.
The most shocking thing about the show, however, is the reaction I get telling someone about the show. “What’s the name again?” is the most common reaction, followed by “Oh, I think I’ve heard of it. It looked weird.” The lack of broad viewer support leads me to believe that the show is a bit of a unicorn. Similarly unique programming like Santa Clarita Diet, or The Good Place, also started with fairly slow audience support that grew to cultish levels over time, and it’s reasonable to expect GLOW to experience the same phenomenon. Its iMDb ratings haven’t faltered between seasons, while its popularity continues to rise. The second season finale earned a stellar 9.2 on iMDb, the highest ever single-episode rating for the show, and Metacritic clocks critical reception as overwhelmingly positive.
As far as tone goes, the show isn’t Tuca and Bertie levels of weirdness for weirdness’ sake. It’s a carefully selected menu of human quirks and foibles that feels refreshingly new while still managing to retain a real-world familiarity. That familiarity appears to ring true with at least a few viewers: Netflix has been heavy-handed with the chopping block recently but still chose to make another season of GLOW.
Vignettes like Ruth and the wolf girl learning to appreciate each other, or the development of Ruth and Debbie’s conflict storyline for the show provide an intriguing front-story for the rest of the drama to unravel in pieces behind the scenes. Sam Sylvia chafes at being forced to direct something he considers beneath him, leading to frequent blowout fights with cast members, financiers, and producers. The supporting cast members split into fault lines behind Debbie and Ruth, leading to friction as loyalties are tested. Bash needs his mother’s approval while wanting his own legacy and struggling with innate identity issues. Racial or sexual orientation stressors open up new storylines with the characters almost as fast as they can be resolved.
Currently, the 1980s have made their way back into the cultural zeitgeist with all the neon-windbreakered, leg-warmed zest of a coked-out stockbroker. Stranger Things, Ready Player One, and Cobra-Kai revel in the era while Outrun and Vaporwave music consistently break into the mainstream. GLOW falls into rank behind them, but unlike the rest isn’t quite as blinded with saccharine nostalgia (or in Stranger Things’ case, outlandish plot twists).
Instead, GLOW chooses to focus on more human moments that resound with viewers. There’s still humor available in spades, but the show shines brightest in one-on-one interactions between characters. Obsessively reaching for realism can seem slightly—or perhaps overtly—bleak, but GLOW works this to its advantage. Feel-good moments don’t feel as good if everything before them was less stressful than a Brady Bunch episode. The character development is superb, with no mustache-twirling from any of the antagonists. Characters pivot in their likability between episodes, in natural and identifiable swings of logic or emotion. The more abrasive characters soften, and some of the softer characters show their teeth.
I would go amiss not to mention the wrestling itself. Given that the series is set in the golden age of wrestling, it would be a shame if the choreography wasn’t up to snuff. Thankfully, the stunts deliver on the premise of the show with gusto. Huge suplexes off of turnbuckles, giant clotheslines, and kayfabe-testing armbars exist galore. In the moment it’s easy to forget exactly what kind of show you’re watching, and thinking back afterwards it’s tough to tell which storylines you enjoyed more.
Strangely enough, most of what happened in the show happened in real life. GLOW was a real show on in the 80s, and quite a bit of the plot shows the characters in their true-to-life struggles to gain recognition, acceptance, and admiration from viewers for breaking new ground in all-women’s pro wrestling. The showrunners do a good job of avoiding preachiness or round-table discussions wherein the characters are all on the right side of history.
When people ask me what the show is about, I have a hard time saying exactly what it is. On its face, it’s simple: a show about women’s pro wrestling in the 80s. However, within a few episodes, it sheds this slugline like a chrysalis and evolves into something much funnier, much greater, and much more human than most of its sister shows on Netflix.
If any of this sounds appealing, you’re in luck. Season 3 drops in its entirety on August 8th, giving you plenty of leeway to blast through all three seasons over the weekend and furiously Google “GLOW season 4” next week along with me.
GLOW Seasons 1 and 2 are streaming on Netflix. GLOW season 3 drops August 8th.
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