The 1980s. Neon, spandex, Reagan, the Cold War, D.A.R.E., cocaine…and wrestling.
Yes, wrestling. In the 1980s, wrestling hit it big. Vince McMahon’s WWF left the network of regional territories known as the National Wrestling Alliance and kicked off a boom that brought professional wrestling to prime-time and pay-per-view television. The surge in popularity of such stars as Hulk Hogan, Rowdy Roddy Piper and Ric Flair inspired a nationally syndicated show featuring all female wrestlers, called Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling – or GLOW.
The original GLOW series was short-lived, running for only 4 seasons, but it launched the careers of several wrestlers, and even spawned a future WWE women’s champion. In 2011, an award-winning documentary about the promotion was released, and now, in 2017, it’s making a comeback in the form of a fictional series.
Netflix’s GLOW – created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and produced by Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan – catches you by surprise. It’s not that you shouldn’t expect a show with such buzz to be good, but it starts off so cynically, so downtrodden, that its ending triumph is exhilarating and inspirational. It makes you want to go out and conquer the world.
GLOW introduces us to Ruth Wilder (Allison Brie), a down-on-her-luck actress. At every turn, directors and casting agents tell her she’s not attractive enough. She’s enthusiastic, but she’s knocked for her proclivity for improvisation and not following direction.
Finally, desperate and unable to pay her rent, Ruth answers a casting call for ‘unconventional women’. She finds herself in a run-down gym, surrounded by a group of misfits, a group of misfits who will make history.
I won’t give away any spoilers here, but I will tell you what stands out the most in GLOW are the performances by its three leads, Brie, Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron.
Maron – who is more famous as a standup comedian and podcast star than an actor – is perfect as Sam Sylvia, the sleazy, cynical B-movie director who finds new inspiration in his rag-tag band of performers. He insults, offends, praises and sleeps with his wrestlers, walking a line between public over-confidence and private self-doubt. Through it all, Maron imbues his character with a paranoid frailty, pushing emotion through the character’s cynicism and exhaustion.
Maron’s Sylvia wrings great work out of his women, but it’s his two leads, Ruth (Brie) and Debbie (Gilpin), who find themselves most transformed by their time in his ring. Betty Gilpin shines in the role of Debbie, a former soap-opera star turned bored housewife. When her marriage collapses, her life is thrown into chaos. Wrestling is all she has, but she struggles to understand its psychology. She’s lost, and Gilpin plays the uncertainty with a doe-eyed sadness that, at times, will hit you like a punch to the gut.
Finally, there’s Alison Brie, who hides Ruth’s hidden, sad desperation under a veil of overenthusiastic perkiness that threatens to derail her wrestling career before it even starts. But as the story moves on, Brie lets cracks form in Ruth’s veneer. Beneath the work ethic, beneath the zip, lies a worn-out actress, unsure of how much longer she can keep chasing a dream that won’t come true. Still, behind Brie’s eyes, we can see sparks as Ruth learns her path. Every look is more aware, more determined for the next step. When her breakthrough comes, it’s nothing short of cathartic.
FINAL SCORE – 8/10
Heartwarming, poignant, campy and hilarious, GLOW is well worth your time. Excellent performances, smart writing and compelling storytelling will have you hitting play again at the end of every episode. I’d recommend not bingeing, though. You’re going to want to make your joy last as long as possible.
+ The characters, inside the ring and out
+ Marc Maron – His is a role it seems he was born to play
+ These ladies actually wrestled! Maybe I should have expected it – the show is about wrestling, after all – but I was pleasantly surprised.
+ Wrestling fans, be on the lookout for some unexpected cameos.
– Oh man, this show is bleak at the beginning. It may make the payoff greater at the end, but beware, it’s a downer at its start.
Trey Wydysh spent most of his youth trying to trap his friends in a clumsy version of the Perfect-Plex. He was always far better at the inside cradle. You can follow him on Twitter.
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