One of the smarter and more ironic things about GLOW is that it’s a story about female wrestling, an arena of manufactured conflicts and over-the-top melodrama, and yet it’s very gentle in its storytelling approach. Working its way through a mid-’80s anti-feminist landmine field of exploitation, titillation, and the ever-present threat of sexual harassment or abuse, it remains super-charming by dialing back on the conflict and letting the smaller moments shine. This works on a whole lot of levels, but the most notable to us is the way it draws such a sharp line dividing the ridiculousness of the wrestling matches with the much quieter forms of ridiculousness in these characters’ lives, whether it’s meeting their husband’s new girlfriend at a car wash or sitting in an emergency room in a ridiculous costume or showing up on prep day dressed in preppy styles because you misunderstood the term, GLOW excels at depicting life’s awkwardness, even if the low-conflict atmosphere occasionally works against it.
In our review of season one, we found this same approach charming, if a little limited:
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.
But it seems pretty clear by the close of season two that this low-conflict style is a feature of the series, not a bug. For the most part, it works by focusing on the relationships of the women as team-members, but when it wants to make a larger point, it tends to back off of it, time and again.
Take Tamme’s son and his reaction to seeing his mother humiliated on stage through the use of hardcore racist tropes. He had every reason in the world to be disgusted by the work his mother was doing, especially considering his status as a Stanford student consistently categorized by his blackness by the white people around him. The script came right up to the point where he would have said some of these things, but then never really goes there. They hug it out and go get something to eat instead. There’s almost something deliberately ’80s-esque about the way the show handles these Very Special Moments.
Take Ruth’s near-rape at the hands of a television executive or the early implication that the cameraman who kept hitting on her was creepy and possibly dangerous. The former led to some emotional showdowns (which we’ll get to in a second), but the latter story point seemed to course-correct in mid-stream and it took us some time to come to the conclusion that the camera guy really wasn’t going to rape Ruth – and we don’t think that was the intent of the writing. This is going to sound kind of awful, but if you’re going to tell stories set in this world about sexual harassment and then render it so toothless, you’re failing to make your point. We’re not suggesting the show needs more rape or anything like that, but the show clearly wants to say something about the world these women live in and how it intersects with the world as we know it today, but it doesn’t always seem willing to cross that line or follow through. You can’t examine rampant sexism and the constant threat of sexual assault by making all the male characters so likeable and largely toothless, but it’s especially bad when characters like Marc Maron’s get a somewhat unearned redemption arc.
Still, because the show keeps bringing up ideas and concepts without truly following through on them, so much so and so consistently, it’s hard for us to classify it as a problem or an issue with the show when it’s so clearly a choice. From sexual harassment to rape to AIDS to drug abuse to racism, the topics keep coming up and keep getting played down. And while we think the argument could be made for how the harassment and racism storylines played out with fairly mild repercussions, we’re struggling mightily with the show’s depiction of Bash as a closeted gay man. For some reason, the show takes a somewhat frustratingly coy approach to discussing or portraying Bash’s sexual orientation. Eventually, it gets you to the point that you understand him as someone who is same-sex oriented but hasn’t effectively come to terms with it, but it’s so weirdly vague about the particulars. His scene in the gay bar seemed to indicate that he had no real experience with gay men, but his pursuit of Florian and his utter breakdown at the news of – and reason for – his death seemed to indicate that he might have had a relationship with him. Or maybe not. It’s hard to tell. Believe us, we don’t need anyone to explain to us why a closeted gay virgin might react irrationally to AIDS, but we just don’t understand why the script had to be ambivalent about it. Again, there’s this sense that this show is looking at serious issues but doing so in a vague, hug-it-out, very ’80s sort of way and we still can’t tell if that’s a slyly deliberate storytelling choice or if the show isn’t being bold enough in its storylines. Except for Ruth, none of the women are sexually harassed. Except for Debbie, none of the women are subjected to demeaning behavior about their worth. And Debbie makes one of the least likely characters to be doing cocaine, yet she’s the only one shown doing it. We can understand focusing on a few main characters to play out certain storylines, but it leaves the world they live in – a world defined by exploitation, sexualization and loaded to the rafters with drug use – seem weirdly undefined. Everyone sits around motel rooms and gyms talking about problems they don’t seem to have.
This was an insanely enjoyable season of television. We had a few issues with the structure and some of the creative decisions, but you’ve literally heard every complaint we have. Now let’s get to the good stuff.
While the season is full of awkward moments and occasionally fatally low on conflict, it somehow manages intense moments of catharsis, which makes it very much akin to a wrestling match. The conflict is phony but the emotional payoffs can be amazing. And we’re very aware that our complaint about conflict is at odds with the fact that this season had one of the best-written and best-acted argument scenes we’ve seen in ages, when Ruth and Debbie go balls-to-the-wall in the emergency room over broken limbs and broken hearts. It was so well-written, with each woman dredging up every bad thing they could remember about each other, that you almost felt like you were in the argument yourself. And if that scene isn’t Alison Brie’s submission for an Emmy, she’s making a mistake. Betty Gilpin has always been amazing as Debbie, but Brie really plumbed the depths of this character and dredged up some emotional sludge in that scene. Ruth makes more sense now as a character when before, she just seemed like a set of character traits looking for a through-line. She’s awkward and weird and off-putting, which are not easy traits for an actress with ingenue looks to pull off, but when she notes that the “just a show” everyone else keeps dismissing has changed her life, she says somewhat sadly, “I have people now; people who come with me to the ER; people who care if I’m hurt.” And at the end of that great argument scene, the show wisely did NOT have them hug it out. They’re two women who just don’t know what do with each other or who they are to each other. Locked together in dysfunction.They went from two women bound by their friendship to two women bound by the terrible things they’ve done to each other to two women who’ve fallen in love with this weird, fucked-up career they’ve carved out for themselves; an unlikely leap forward toward self-actualization and creative expression.
And while we have some problems with Marc Maron’s storyline and how it absolves him of a whole lot of bad behavior, falling back on the lazy trope that being a father to a daughter somehow cures misogynists of their misogyny, it’s to the show’s credit that it didn’t follow through on a Ruth/Sam romance, and seems to exist in a space that considers it out of the question. In other words, we don’t get a will-they-or-won’t-they sense from their interactions; more a sense of two people who like and respect each other but are on awkwardly different wavelengths past that. Or at least, we hope that’s the direction. If nothing else, Marc Maron deserves credit for taking a major leap forward as an actor, bringing a depth and weight to his portrayal of Sam with none of the self-awareness or winking to the audience you sometimes get when comedians act. The writing on the character may have been inconsistent and somewhat timid, but his acting made up for a lot.
All of the buzz for the season centered around the show-in-a-show 8th episode and it was all very well-deserved. It was a technical marvel and a storytelling delight. In highly specific TV criticism terms, it was a total hoot. Past all the effects and synth music; the bad video and laugh tracks, was a surprisingly smart and subtle series of metaphors about the characters’ lives. Britannica’s post-Sam breakup mannequin was turned into a sketch, which in turn foreshadowed her marriage to Bash. Liberty Belle conducted a Griefercize class in the blasted-out empty landscape of Debbie’s home, wailing about her lost child in the empty rooms of her former marriage. Zoya the Destroya was split down the middle, with Ruth portraying both the woman who broke up Liberty Belle’s family and the woman who was committed to helping her put it back together. Melrose’s storyline about losing her jacket and her mojo was turned into a song about makeovers (which has been stuck in our heads for DAYS) and how fashion determines your destiny. And Beirut and Yolanda got a lovely (if highly unlikely) dance number that foreshadowed the culmination of their feelings for each other by season’s end. Just a brilliant episode of television that worked on multiple levels, going much deeper than the surface imagery suggested.
And that, in the end, is why the show works for us, even if there were parts that seemed underdeveloped or perhaps not as courageous as it could have been. Anyone who remembers the ’80s knows just how sleazy things could get and might get occasionally frustrated by the timidity of the show in depicting the decade’s darker sides, but it’s astonishingly adept at working metaphors (in essence, all of the wrestling matches have character-based or story-based undertones and callbacks), has a talented cast playing characters you can’t help but love, looks AMAZING (it nails the ’80s look much, much better than shows like Stranger Things), and gives you moments of poignancy and great fun in every episode. Pure entertainment. Just like a wrestling match full of colorful characters in silly costumes.