“GLOW” is a Classic Underdog Sports Team Fable and a Prelude to Something More

Posted on June 29, 2017

 

Netflix’s new series GLOW, about the late, lamented ’80s women’s wrestling entertainment enterprise, is one of the more pleasant surprises on the TV landscape this summer. We had every reason to believe it was going to be entertaining from the moment we saw the preview materials. Mad Men and Community star Alison Brie as a member of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling? The assurance of an endless supply of eye-popping period fashion and decor? Executive produced by Jenji Kohan of Orange is the New Black and Weeds fame? As we said when we heard of it, “Universe, what took you so long?”

So we’re not pleasantly surprised by how entertaining it turned out to be. We’re pleasantly surprised by how … well, pleasant it is. At the hands of Kohan, there was every reason to believe we’d get a cast full of interesting women of diverse backgrounds and perspectives, many of whom would represent groups that tend to be under-represented in our storytelling. And we got that. What we didn’t get (and sort of expected) was a season of these women in constant conflict with each other. Maybe Kohan and Co. didn’t want to repeat the format of OitNB or maybe they wanted to make a more positive statement about women’s relationships, or maybe they just fell deeply in love with the characters they created. But in the end, season one of GLOW was a fairly gentle affair, given its roots in the sleazy, cocaine-fueled, women-exploiting lowest ends of the “legitimate” entertainment industry. Instead of Boogie Nights-lite, we got something akin to a cross between The Bad News Bears and A League of Their Own, except with the baseball uniforms of both switched out for pastel colored French cut bodysuits and leg-warmers. Instead of a story of exploited women, it served up a story of a rag-tag collection of impossibles and under-employables turning into an impressively cohesive and well-trained team of athletes. We have some issues surrounding that, but first let’s talk about the players and how they shaped the story.

With Alison Brie’s portrayal of Ruth, a never-happened struggling actress who people tend to find insufferable, it’s easy to sniff out bits of Kohan’s signature “cluelessly entitled white lady” lead in the Nancy Botwin and Piper Chapman modes. But to our eyes and ears there was more than a bit of Shelley Long’s Diane Chambers in there as well, albeit with most (but not all) of the pretension stripped out. The great thing about Brie’s winning performance is that it works both in and out of the story: Ruth wears down people’s defenses and they wind up finding her charming against their will, which is exactly how Brie’s performance plays out for the viewer. But while Ruth had a truly fun and biting introductory scene where she deliberately read the male character’s lines in an audition to make a point about the shitty-ness of the female part, we saw very little of that character going forward. Instead of being ballsy, she immediately turned whiney and spent a good portion of the season that way. As we said, she won us over, but she felt extremely undeveloped by the end of the season. Why did she sleep with her best friend’s husband? It’s the main question surrounding her character and it kept coming up but she never truly seemed to answer it.

Marc Maron is better than we could have expected, although the scripts wisely play to his strengths (world weariness, mostly) and avoid what could be his likely pitfalls (sentimentality and grandiose emotional displays). He brings just a hint of sleaze to his part, but never enough to make him revolting to the audience, even when he’s ordering Brie to read the words of Kuntar – and keeps correcting her on the pronunciation. A character like this could have most of the audience hating them, but the writing tended to render him just a little bit toothless and benign for a “guy with a mustache full of cocaine” and an epic case of misogyny.

The true revelation is Betty Gilpin as Debbie, the former soap opera star who’s down on her luck both professionally and personally. Backing her way into a wrestling career, protesting the whole time, she eventuallycomes into her own and reveals herself to be a superstar. Gilpin knocked our socks off earlier this year with a performance that managed to steal two episodes of American Gods, even though they were the only two scenes she was in. She has an incredible gift to transcend the script and find things about the character on her own that she uses to give the character a vital and even tumultuous inner life. Debbie, like Brie’s Ruth, could so easily have come across as a deeply unlikeable person (there’s more than a bit of clueless privilege and classism in her), but Gilpin, like Brie, refuses to let you hate her. By the final scenes of the season, when both characters have fully come into their own as American Belle and her mortal enemy Zoya the Destroya, it was as cheer-worthy as any movie-ending, fist-pump-inducing touchdown, home run or goal.

Having said that, the season could’ve really used more of an arc and definitely more conflict. If you’ve haven’t had a chance, check the GLOW documentary which inspired the whole series, for a rather stark comparison between the real world and the fictional one.  It’s a bit odd to spend six or so hours in the world of ’80s women’s wrestling and deal with so few issues of their mistreatment; to show virtually no drug usage among them, to make the casual misogyny, racism and conformity of the era so bland and impotent. Yes, the ’80s were probably the last gasp of mid-century, Mad Men-style misogyny and perhaps the show is dancing around it all by making it look ridiculous. But it’s a little strange how blithely all the women let these things roll off their backs. No one seems bothered by anything in this world. Elizabeth Perkins spends a few minutes playing a funny but unpleasant wealthy women who stands in the way of GLOW. Until she gets out of the way. Carmen hides her wrestling ambitions from her family, who get mad when they find out… until they immediately relent and become totally supportive teddy bears. Sheila the She-Wolf, who even today would face a great deal of teasing and harassment, is quietly accepted by everyone who meets her. Justine has the worst possible introduction to the worst possible father and … they’re both practically hugging within an episode.

 

There’s no attempt to, say, look at the wrestling situation as a metaphor for anything larger, which it’s practically begging for. This is probably part of the appeal, because it keeps the show relatively simple and easy to digest. But the story kept skirting right up to the line of the idea that Ruth was using wrestling  to punish herself for ruining her best friendship (by practically begging Debbie to beat up on her) and that the Zoya/Liberty Belle rivalry was playacting for a more intense and more personal one (with a LOT of Alex/Piper shades to it). Since the punishment Ruth sought was fake and relatively low-risk, there’s something to be said about her; about the way she’s performing penance but hasn’t really examined herself. The show never really goes there, however.

Similarly, Debbie’s arc tended to be slightly predictable and under-explored. Rich Sommer is kind of adorably nebbishy, but in casting shorthand, he’s the guy you cast for the girl to realize she can do better. There was never really any question that Debbie was going to literally rip off her wife drag to reveal the superhero underneath at some point. It was always going to happen, but the journey there, in retrospect, seemed a little perfunctory. Again, there’s the sense of the show dabbling lightly in metaphor and underlying meanings, in the way that Liberty Belle reflects Debbie’s own petulance and privilege, but it’s always kind of shying away from it, as if it wants to present everyone in this first season but not progress them too quickly.

 

And that’s probably the (slight) issue we had with the season, even though we enjoyed it immensely. At the end, it was revealed to be a prelude, more or less. No one could progress too far as a character (and virtually all of the colorful and likeable side characters are lightly sketched in crayons at this point, in terms of development), because the true story of GLOW hadn’t even started yet by the time the season ended. We’re hungry for more and found ourselves wishing a whole lot of it had been explored more intently, but if you look at it purely as about 6 hours of pleasant character introductions and setups for future arcs, it works as a great foundation.

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