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GLOW Season One Review

June 23, 2017 | Posted by Jeremy Thomas
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GLOW Season One Review  

Even people who weren’t into professional wrestling in the 1980s generally remember GLOW. The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling sits in that rarified zone of pop culture cheese and over-the-top entertainment that makes it an icon of 1980s entertainment. The four-season wrestling show accomplished the oft-sought after but almost never achieved status of fondly-remembered kitsch that the ’80s were so good at evoking. Nostalgia is a heady drug and for many of us who grew up watching the likes of Tina Ferrari, Tammy Jones, Matilda the Hun and the various Farmer’s Daughters, GLOW is one we’ve never been able to quit.

At the same time, it’s hard to deny that there’s a lot to laugh at regarding the glittery promotion-slash-TV show — and not the intentional humor. GLOW, the new Netflix series from creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, uses that base as a trampoline to take flight. The series, which debuts on the service on June 23rd, skillfully balances the inherent wackiness of the original show’s spirit with a sense of realness and emotional honesty, mixed in with some issues of real weight to craft a story that is as stirring and inspiring as it is silly and funny.

Brie stars as Ruth, an actress trying to make her way in 1980s Hollywood. Ruth is a talented performer who is constantly missing out on work because she doesn’t fit a certain ideal; as a casting agent tells her early on, “Every director says, ‘Bring me someone I don’t know. Someone I haven’t seen. I want a girl who’s real.’ So I bring you in so they can see that they don’t actually want the thing they think they want.” Dejected, Ruth is nonetheless given hope when she gets a unique audition opportunity for “unconventional women.” This leads her to an old boxing gym where B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Maron) casts her and thirteen other women in GLOW, a women’s professional wrestling show.

Ruth has reservations about the project, not thinking of it as a real acting job at first. Complicating the issue is the fact that her best friend Debbie (Gilpin), who she severely damages her relationship with, gets involved. But she doubles down on the work and finds out exactly how demanding wrestling is, both physically and creatively. She also starts to bond with the rest of the cast of the show. That includes the likes of Carmen (Young), the daughter of a wrestler who wants to make it in the business; Sheila (Rankin), a strange woman who identifies as a wolf; Cherry Bang (Noel), a former stunt double who is trying to make it in a post-blaxploitation Hollywood and takes a leadership role in GLOW. As a group, the women try to learn how to make it work in the ring and out of it, fighting not only the perceptions of what they’re trying to accomplish but the pitfalls of their personal lives and the business, including an unreliable financier (Lowell) who has far more enthusiasm than he does business sense.

GLOW is executive produced by Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan and her co-EP Tara Herrmann, which won’t be a surprise to many. There is a lot of that show’s DNA embedded here; both of them take a look at women and the themes of female empowerment, sisterhood and personal identity in a unique setting. The 1980s Hollywood setting is perfect for such a set-up; Ruth, Debbie and Cherry in particular are characters who have found themselves at the mercy of Hollywood’s boys club mentality while others like young punk rocker Justine (Baron) and Carmen are trying to figure out exactly who they are. It all works, thanks in part to writing that approaches its motifs — and its subject matter — in nuanced, well-developed ways. Much like the best wrestling gimmicks, the characters start off as conceptual ones — introduced in an audition process where they’re all presented as familiar tropes — and then layered out in short order to be engaging individuals with depth. None of the characters are saints; instead they’re all flawed, interesting people and their interactions, often awkward in just the right way, make them deeper and more compelling as they grow throughout the season.

Of course, it also helps that the series is often quite funny. That it does so without taking the wrong sort of aim at its subject matter is important. To be frank, it would have been very easy to paint the ’80s wrestling industry (and GLOW in particular) with a broad comedic brush and end up mocking it for cheap laughs. It’s to Flahive and Mensch’s credit that this doesn’t happen; in fact, the series embraces its unabashed respect for the business from the start. While most of the characters (including Sam) don’t have a lot of respect for wrestling going in, they learn just how difficult it is, and how talented its performers have to be. Training sequences show the rough road of learning the art of putting together a good match, and Ruth struggles to find her proper heel persona at first. The women learn to respect and love wrestling and, through the eyes, so should the audience. The actresses perform their own moves, and while there are some creative camera tricks it all looks quite good thanks to stunt coordinator Shauna Duggins and fight coordinator Chavo Guerrero Jr. The cast went through a training camp that included not only physical training but wrestling psychology, and it shows.

GLOW doesn’t just put that commitment to work on the wrestling moves though. The show embraces the glitzy, crazy world of 1980s wrestling in its depiction behind the scenes. It doesn’t let anything off the hook either, tackling sexism and the era’s racist gimmicks in a way that feels real and authentic, and often funny. A sequence in which Cherry and Tamee (Stevens, aka Awesome/Amazing Kong) convince their opponents to flip the script and portray racist caricatures is a fantastic moment and uproariously funny to boot. This is a show that couldn’t have aired on any broadcast or basic cable channel for a lot of reasons, and with Netflix as a home the series is allowed to be authentic and real while still being emotionally engaging, dramatic and funny…sometimes, all in one fell swoop.

Even with all of those elements in play, the wrong cast would have made this fall completely apart. That doesn’t happen thanks to the efforts of the ensemble, who give it their all. Brie is a compelling lead character as Ruth, the “serious actress” who isn’t good enough for the big time but finds her home in GLOW. Her fractured relationship with Debbie forms a big part of the series’ emotional core, and both she and Betty Gilpin make it soar. Gilpin is part of some prime television right now, having played Audrey in Starz’ American Gods, and she gets plenty of room to shine here. Maron’s Sam is the kind of gruff, surly type you might expect from the comedian, but it’s also a role he plays very well and he establishes a lot more to him as time goes on. And the whole of the rest of the (also including the likes of Sunita Mani, Ellen Wong, Kate Nash and Jackie Tohn) form a strong ensemble, each getting their moments to shine.

For those who loved the 1980s, GLOW will serve both as a blast from the past and a wake-up call. By that I mean the actual 1980s, not the nostalgia-hazy version we’ve tended to see in the decades following the era’s end. All the best-worst and flat-out worst of ’80s fashion is on display here, with an eye to authenticity thanks to costume designer Beth Morgan. The soundtrack is pure ’80s awesomeness; to be honest, I was ready to go all-in in the opening moments of the first episode that begin with a neon-inspired title sequence set to Scandal’s “The Warrior” featuring Patty Smyth. All of the design elements come together in a brilliant sequence in that first episode in which Sam, seeing Debbie and Ruth flailing in the ring during an actual fight, imagines it as a glamorous, high-production battle between a classic heel and babyface. Those moments make the gritty, dingy San Fernando Valley locations seem all the more real and keep GLOW grounded while still being a blast.

There are a few familiar touches here and there which are hard to get away from in a series like this, and GLOW does lean into predictability a time or two. This is a story of personal identity and empowerment wrapped in the trappings of an underdog sports story, and most people who have seen even a few of those will be able to call some of the show’s plot twists early on. But that doesn’t stop the telegraphed story turns from being handled well. At approximately a half-hour each episode (varying from twenty-nine to thirty-five minutes), the series never drags and the characters remain a ball to watch throughout. While there may have been good reason to be initially skeptical about whether a series based on the creation of GLOW could work, the cast and crew proved all the doubts wrong by delivering one of the best new shows of the year.

The final score: review Amazing
The 411
Netflix has another absolute gem on their hands with GLOW, a dramedy that succeeds by taking its campy subject matter seriously in exactly the right way. Strong performances by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin and the rest of the cast pave the way while creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch deftly toe of the lines drama and comedy for a series that feels incredibly relevant today without losing any of its fun. It's a blast for wrestling and non-wrestling fans alike and likely to be another hit in Netflix's impressive roster of television shows.

article topics :

GLOW, Netflix, Jeremy Thomas