Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s new half-hour series, GLOW (short for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) feels like a spiritual combination of two other Netflix shows: Orange Is the New Black and Stranger Things. Its 80s setting is a put together like a pastiche of great movies from that era, in the same way Stranger Things took familiar and nostalgic elements and made something new from it. And like Jenji Kohan’s other Netflix series, OITNB (she is an executive producer for both), GLOW features a large cast of diverse women who are brought together under unusual circumstances, soon discovering it’s in their best interest to work together. Both shows also combine comedy and drama in the hopes of delivering emotional honesty alongside witty barbs.
In theory, all of that should work out pretty well, but in practice it takes some time to come together. Like the show that Marc Maron’s director character Sam Sylvia is trying to make, GLOW requires time to figure out what it is, and what works best. Its sprawling cast, like the wrestling personas they develop, also need several episodes to define themselves as distinct and memorable. As such, the first four episodes (of the eight available for critics) are a little rough; the tone is uneven, the jokes try too hard to shock, and the editing is jumpy. The ladies have so many fits and starts with their origin stories (both individually and as a group) it’s hard to keep tabs on their place in the ever-changing dynamics. But there’s a charm to the show that makes those rough patches worth moving past.
GLOW stars Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress who answers a casting call for “unusual women,” after being tired of underwritten female roles. The call came from Maron’s Sam (a hacky horror director), working with a wealthy young producer (Chris Lowell) to create a women’s wrestling show for cable. The WWE (at the time, the WWF) was at the height of its power, and the hope here is to create a female version that might spark the same interest and passion as its male counterpart.
The result is that Sam ends up cobbling together a group of sundries, from former stunt stand-in Cherry (Sydelle Noel) to a med student (Sunita Mani) looking to impress her WWE-loving grandma. There’s Carmen (Britney Young), who comes from a wrestling dynasty but suffers from stage fright, and the bizarre Sheila (Gayle Rankin), who truly believes she is a wolf. There are many, many more women (14 in all), but they only start to stand out once they develop their cartoonish wrestling characters and backstories (most of which are based on simple and highly offensive stereotypes like “Fortune Cookie” and “Welfare Queen” in order for wrestling fans to recognize them as heroes or heels).
The drama comes when Ruth is attacked in the ring during an early practice by her former best friend (and former soap star) Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), and Sam sees the backstory that could lead the whole program to success. After courting Debbie into being GLOW’s star, Sam moves the troupe into a motel together so they can stay close and train (and for the plot’s sake, to give them a reason to be together outside of practice).
Brie and Gilpin are the lynchpins not only of GLOW but of the show itself. The two are dynamic in vastly different ways, which the show handles very well. The hyper over-achiever Ruth is often reminiscent of OITNB’s Piper — she’s more likable, but also can be overwhelming with her desire to be liked and want to fix everything. Gilpin, who recently had a scene-stealing turn in American Gods, is also driven as Debbie, but for different reasons. Both women are at desperate points in their lives, and they use that to fuel their wrestling personas and commitment to training.
Though there is a kind of sisterhood that starts to develop halfway into the season, most of the early episodes focus on pitting the women against each other, including a very wrongheaded and misguided series of extended jokes revolving around a miscarriage. It’s also a bit disappointing that while GLOW toys with the idea of the women being in charge of themselves, it ultimately defers to them needing Sam and Lowell’s producer Bash, though not in a way that initially makes much sense. For every great moment (like when Debbie triumphantly realizes that wrestling is the same as a soap opera), there is a terrible one (a Russian character tells a Yakov Smirnoff joke without irony). But Brie and Gilpin keep pushing on, carrying GLOW on their backs in the same way their characters are the stars of the wrestling show.
The supporting cast is also good, let it be said (Maron and Lowell are as well), but eight episodes in and I don’t really have a sense of who most of them are. Yet I’m still compelled to keep watching this rag-tag bunch of misfits go through training montages in amazing 80s spandex (or oversized pastel jogging suits) and figure out their moves. There’s something really visceral about how the show does not back away from its stunts and routines in the ring as well — performed by the cast themselves — and does so in a way that feels realistic to how amateurs might learn the trade. As the series finally gets to the moments where the women are performing in front of an audience, it’s glorious, cringe-worthy, exciting, and horrifying all at once.
GLOW works (or doesn’t work) in a 1:1 ratio with how things are working out in its story. When the characters are disorganized and the cable show is a mess, so is GLOW. Once the characters find their personas as wrestlers, they start to have them for viewers. And once the performances begin, GLOW starts to get very good. Towards the end of the season there are well-earned emotional moments that temper the sillier stunts; and by that time, it starts leaning into its feminism not with jokes about miscarriages, but with genuinely funny lines that will feel refreshingly honest for women viewers. The spontaneous creation of backstories and narratives is also a rare and great thing to watch unfold, as if we’re watching a writers’ room test out ideas. (“I am a mom so I know how important it is to be … patriotic?”)
It’s tough in this Peak TV era to recommend a show that requires several episodes to get going — who has the time? But at half and hour a pop, GLOW’s early episodes are a small investment to get to primetime.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
GLOW premieres Friday, June 23rd on Netflix.