Warning: mild plot references
Los Angeles, circa 1985. When Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) auditions for yet another insubstantial female acting role and doesn’t even manage to land the part, she appeals to the casting director for pointers. She is told that she is the ‘real’ girl that no one wants to cast and is offered pornography as a career alternative. Horrified, she leaves the casting call and returns to her small apartment where she has a voicemail message waiting; it’s the casting director with a tip-off for an open call. A local project is looking for ‘unconventional women’ and when Ruth arrives at the open audition the next day, she finds herself in a gym with a wrestling ring. She and the other women are introduced to the world of GLOW, or the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an opportunity to star in a TV show as female wrestling stars.
Netflix’s latest release GLOW, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, is a sweet slice of 80s nostalgia and a fun, colourful fictionalised story of a real female professional wrestling promotion whose cast of twelve were young performers trying to break into show business. The music is a throwback treat and this 10-episode series really sells the world of female wrestling. Women the world over will be fantasising about their powerful wrestling persona and their moment of glory in the ring, if only for the duration of the show. The young women who make it to the final dozen to form GLOW are exposed to sexism in the industry on a daily basis and from a grotty gym they transform their bodies into weapons. It’s glorious to watch.
It’s impossible not to view this show through a 2017 lens and the script even appears to acknowledge this. In one scene, the director of GLOW Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) has the women promote themselves to him and brainstorm their characters. When Melanie “Melrose” Rosen (Jackie Tohn) presents herself in an overtly teasing and sexual manner, he says in his signature dead-pan way, “I like the whole ‘please objectify me’ vibe. Tremendous”. It isn’t era-appropriate dialogue, it’s a nod to the present day from the 80s; a way to make this moderately sexist character easier to empathise with.
From this woman’s perspective, it works. Sam becomes a character who it is possible to warm to, a man who crucially only sleeps with a GLOW member because she saw his soft side in a dating video. He is a dysfunctional character with a troubled paternal respect for the women whose likability is helped along tremendously by Maron’s comic flair. Of course, there is an issue with the fact that the form of female empowerment we are witnessing caters to the male gaze, but if you look at the Hall of Fame-ers in male wrestling they are doing exactly the same; showing off their physique in minimal outfits and presenting their bodies as an attractive, powerful ideal. It might only have been a baby step, but it was nonetheless a step for women and GLOW celebrates this with an array of vibrant, strong and funny characters in the ring.
The show has a very strong cast, featuring Sydelle Noel as no-nonsense Cherry with a firm hold over Sam who shrinks in her presence and Britney Young as Carmen, the daughter of a famous wrestling giant who suffers from stage fright. Kia Stevens puts in a hilarious performance as Tammé whose wrestling persona The Welfare Queen throws food stamps over her enemies whilst Sunita Mani plays the uncomfortably funny Beirut the Mad Bomber in the ring, having been encouraged by producer Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell) to play the Arab ‘stereotype’ as a result of her Indian heritage.
Alison Brie is a triumph. Her performance as the broke and desperate Ruth is pitch-perfect, making a morally ambiguous character likeable and someone you cannot help but root for. It is in her numerous scenes as different characters and wrestling personas that her star quality really shines through, however. Her accents are amusingly solid, Ruth’s enthusiasm admirable verging on the cringeworthy and her performance as the ‘professional actress’ is painfully perceptive, mask work and hyperbolic script reads and all. Betty Gilpin is fantastic opposite Brie, both in the show and in the ring, as the ex-soap opera star Debbie Eagan. The pair’s chemistry is compelling, both as Ruth and Debbie and as their wrestling enemies, Zoya the Destroyer and Liberty Belle.
There are moments in the show where you might lose some enthusiasm for this zero-to-hero story, however. With a strong cast of predominantly female actresses, GLOW attempts an Orange Is The New Black-style exploration of the personal lives of the women outside of training but fails to show much of substance with any bearing on the overarching narrative. If you were to take the entire first episode, complete with Ruth’s character set-up, and stitch it to a series of the training segments and the two performances, GLOW would make an excellent movie, but the series suffers from having either too much time to make a gripping story of the womens’ progress and success or not enough time to explore their individual stories. The result is some incredible, rousing and awe-inspiring training sequences and performances with, unfortunately, a lot of inconsequential filler scenes around the edges that render episodes 2 and 3 rather dull and episode 7 an absolute hit.
The scenes of training and performance make for a fantastic ride and you will likely find yourself checking your watch for when the wrestling can start again when the characters are at parties or hanging around in bedrooms – something, to the show’s credit, many viewers won’t have ever wished for before. GLOW presents wrestling as not only a physical feat but an art or, as Debbie screams at a male wrestling match, “IT’S A SOAP OPERA!” The show has some moments that could definitely have been left on the cutting room floor but is overall a very watchable and funny look at the 1980s, the entertainment industry and the world of pro wrestling.
What is my favourite quote from the show, you ask?
“It’s not looking good for the white supremacists!”