Today’s question: how good can a show about wrestling be if the wresting in the show isn’t very good?
The answer, at least if the show under discussion is Netflix’s new series GLOW, is…well, pretty good, actually! Maybe that’s because of the show’s many other strengths, or maybe it’s because of the extremely game nature of the cast, or maybe it’s because (shh, don’t tell anybody) the show isn’t really about wrestling at all. But GLOW, which could easily have become a disaster given its premise and execution, has turned out to be one of the summer’s most delicious television pleasures.
GLOW is based on a true story, sort of. It’s not an entirely invented story posing as the truth, like Fargo, but rather a heavily fictionalized dramatization of something that did really happen, like Orange is the New Black (with which it shares a producer in Jenji Kohan). There really was a TV show in the mid-’80s called G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies of Wresting); it really was the product of a dotty movie producer and a director he hired to give it some credibility; and it really did consist largely of untrained women drawn from the ranks of out-of-work L.A. actresses. There, though, the resemblance ends.
In the interests of reviewing the show that got made instead of the show I might have wanted, I won’t dwell too much on these historical breaches. Many of them were likely due to legal issues, too, so it would be unfair to judge it by that standard. Still, it would have been pretty hilarious to make the show’s bankroll a parody of the notoriously shady and egomaniacal Meshulam Riklis instead of the generic rich boy played by Chris Lowell (which would have also allowed the introduction of a Pia Zadora analog). The wrestling tends to get pretty short shrift, as well, given that the real ladies of G.L.O.W. were respectably trained by Mando Guerrero.
All that aside, though, GLOW is generally a real treat. It throws itself headlong into is period setting, and while there’s a few anachronistic moments, it nicely conjures not only the mid-’80s, but the mid-’80s in Los Angeles — a period which I can testify, having lived through it, that had a very specific flavor all its own. Its soundtrack (a quality that, for better or for worse, we have come to expect a lot of in the era of Quality Television) is also highly enjoyable, blending obvious button-pushing classics with a few deep cuts. It has that particular blend of the too-bright colors of the 1980s and the washed-out palette of the 1970s that characterized the time and place, and the costume design is definitely on point, both in and out of the ring. It also understands its characters with an insider’s wisdom: the near-panicky desperation of actresses who reach a certain age and realize they just aren’t going to get the parts they need to make it, as well as the blend of resignation and relief of the actresses who have just given up trying.
The cast, many of whom are unknown to me, is quite good. Anchoring the show is Allison Brie as Ruth Wilder, who combines a bit of Annie Edison’s eager-to-please intelligence and Trudy Campbell’s exhausted entitlement with some elements that are entirely new. There are few comic actresses who have Brie’s gift for physical comedy, and she gets to show that off in GLOW while also doing some interesting character work. Marc Maron is excellent as burned-out, cynical director Sam Sylvia, who hides the fact that he still thinks he’s capable of creating real art behind a façade of detachment. Rich Sommer shows up playing another of his oblivious, self-centered, self-pitying creeps, and Nurse Jackie‘s Betty Gilpin really sinks her teeth into the role of Ruth’s friend turned arch-nemesis. A few of the newcomers, particularly Sydelle Noel & Bashir Salahuddin as a couple who are show business veterans and the towering Marianna Palka, are particularly impressive. Most importantly, the entire cast works together extremely well, and naturally seems to be having a great time doing so, selling the narrative of the power of female friendship a lot better than the sometimes clunky script does.
The script is probably the weakest part of GLOW‘s first season; it relies pretty heavily on clichés of female empowerment and the hey-gang-let’s-put-on-a-show trope, and its attempts to make its racial stereotyping subversive are sometimes a bit cringe-inducing, even given the limitations of the period. A handful of characters (particularly Sheila the Wolf Girl) are painfully under-written, and a few scenes that are supposed to be revelatory — as when Gilpin attends a wrestling match for the first time and figures out that gasp!, it’s a soap opera for men! — will probably come across as pretty corny for anyone with any familiarity with wrestling.
But, as I mentioned, GLOW isn’t really about wrestling. It’s about show business, and about the hundred little things that have to go right (and the million little things that can go wrong) for a show to succeed, and the way that success can imprint itself in the minds of the people involved so that they lose all their self-consciousness and throw themselves into a role. And it’s really good at that! It even manages to make what could easily be a shitty, melodramatic turn involving Maron finding out that she’s got some growing up to do turns out to be well-executed and devoid of the kind of emotional overexertion it could easily have fallen prey to.
GLOW has been renewed for a second season, and that’s good news, because none of the problems that it has can’t be rectified by a bit more time and care. The season finale shows the promotion taking off in spite of itself, and that will not only leave some more room for character development, but will take off the thin edge of storytelling that depends on people facing the failure of a project and replaces it with the equally rich ground of what happens when they succeed. Hell, maybe even the wrestling will get better.