At one point during the penultimate episode of the first season of GLOW, Netflix’s new show from creators Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive, a character states about wrestling that they’ve “come close to getting what all the fuss is about”. That’s how I felt throughout the shows strong freshman effort. I don’t watch wrestling, I don’t know much about wrestling, and I don’t think I’ll ever be a wrestling fan. It’s not because I dislike wrestling, it’s just not something that holds much interest for me. But when the wrestling truly begins in earnest in GLOW it is genuinely captivating and exciting. Mensch and Flahive, along with executive producer Jenji Kohan create wrestling scenes that manage to be funny while also informing character and advancing the plot. It’s just a shame that it takes so long to get to them.
GLOW the TV show is loosely based on real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women’s professional wrestling league begun in 1986 and lasting in some form or another until the present day. It begins with struggling actress Ruth Wilder (Allison Brie) receiving an invitation to audition in 1985 for an all women wrestling show. Directed by Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a sleazy former exploitation film director and produced by Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell), a trust fund kid paying for the league with his parents money, the fictional GLOW gathers together a bunch of misfits and follows them as they struggle to launch their wrestling league.
If a group of misfits try to do something unique and struggle to overcome outside barriers while also learning to accept the others in the group sounds like a bit of a sports film cliche, that’s because it is. However, GLOW uses this setup as a springboard to showcase a variety of captivating and compelling supporting characters. Characters such as Sheila “the She-Wolf” (Gayle Rankin) who always appears dressed as well, a she-wolf, or Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade (Britney Young) who simply wants to follow in her wrestling family’s foot steps feel like they have real reasons to want to wrestle, to fit in somewhere. Maron hilariously steals every scene he’s in, and Lowell adds depth to a someone that could have been a stock rich kid character. It’s a real joy to watch these actors play off of each other and this interaction provides many of the shows plentiful laughs. When GLOW wants to be funny, it can be really funny.
It is when GLOW wants to be more dramatic that it can grind to a halt. Chief among these is the shows most annoying subplot, the fallout between Ruth and her best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) after Ruth has a brief affair with Debbie’s husband Mark (Rich Sommer). Debbie, a former soap drama actress, eventually joins GLOW as it’s lead wrestler and main draw while also attempting to reconnect with her estranged husband. While Gilpin’s performance as Debbie is great, managing to be both funny and heartfelt, the scenes devoted to her attempting to save her marriage feel like something that has been done a million times before.
That is the one main problem with GLOW, that the dramatic beats of the story aren’t anything new. The league will need money, certain people will have a falling out, friendships will need to be mended, and at the last minute someone will bail them out and they will succeed against the odds, learning something about themselves through wrestling. It’s something that’s been done before. These characters are so good it does them a disservice to put them into cliched dramatic moments. It also takes time away from one of the shows real strengths, watching these characters behind the scenes of creating a wrestling show. We don’t see much them learning to wrestle until episode 5, and there isn’t a training montage until episode 7 which is also when the first real wrestling event occurs. The scenes of them learning to wrestle and wrestling in front of a crowd are such a joy that you wonder why it took them so long to get there.
That isn’t to say to that every dramatic moment the show has is bad. A late season abortion story line manages to be both funny and grounded, it feels in character and never become preachy. Another solid dramatic moment is when a character reveals that she is Sam’s daughter, a move which reveals new things about both of them and creates a new interesting character dynamic that can be interestingly explored in a future season. Even the more dramatic interactions between Ruth and Debbie can be good, with both Gilpin and Brie showcasing real dramatic skills that make you feel and empathize with both of them.
But where GLOW really shines is when it devotes its talented actors and strong characters to wrestling and comedy. While never treating the act of wrestling itself as a joke it creates situations within the ring that manage to be very funny with one notable moment being a match involving KKK members and a welfare queen. This is also one of the moments that touches upon the ability of wrestling to perpetuate negative stereotypes by showcasing them, an interesting thread that is hopefully expanded upon in further seasons. GLOW also leans into it’s 1980’s setting, never becoming a parody of the 80’s, but mining it for some really funny jokes such as a house party a drug toting robot butler.
When GLOW is firing on all cylinders it is a genuinely great show that can bring a smile to your face and make you laugh while also making you wish you could spend more time with its characters. When it’s off it can feel like a prequel to a much better show that appears right around the corner, where it isn’t bogged down by cliched dramatic beats. Luckily for us, GLOW is firing on all cylinders far, far more often than not. GLOW season 1 may be uneven at times but it creates compelling characters, memorable scenes, big laughs, and ensures that you’ll want to get back in the ring for season 2.
GLOW Season 1 (Netflix, 2017)
Starring: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young and Marc Maron.