The end of the first season of Netflix’s GLOW may have felt triumphant, but they really only shot the pilot. Now that introductions are out of the way, and the petty squabbles, roommate fights, and studying of suplexes are largely behind us, the new season makes way for more time for relationships; including Sam (Marc Maron) and his long-lost daughter (Britt Baron), Ruth (Alison Brie) and her quest to have her efforts recognised, and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and her struggles as a working mother.
The show they’re making has also become a cult hit, so our merry band of misfits deal with fan reactions and newfound fame, while still fighting to keep their show on the air. Season two also brings more queer characters and several plots that directly confront the racist caricatures.
Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin continue to dominate every scene they’re in, and both benefit greatly from having something to do other than catfight over a man, a season one plot that could have been a meta commentary if it had slightly more self-awareness about indulging in the same conventions it critiques.
Gilpin’s Debbie gets to focus on herself and her career in a welcome way, which offers the show a chance to explore the reality of tall poppy syndrome, and what it’s like to be the only woman in the room. After negotiating for a better contract (and wordlessly letting the rest of the cast sign a damaging one), she’s a producer, and has to fight tooth and nail to make her seat at the table a reality. A lesson in the ignorant “good men” can inflict, Bash (Chris Lowell) and Sam regularly cut her down for no reason other than laziness and the fact that they can.
Brie shows off even more of her swiss army knife savant-like quality as a performer, and GLOW’s second season wisely leans into it. Brie tends to be involved in many of the low-budget highjinks like filming an opening title sequence in the local mall, a charming and fun sequence in the first episode that is completely winning. GLOW takes bigger swings when it comes to portraying how they create the weekly show-within-a-show, and they mostly pay off, which has a lot do to with Brie’s charms and talent.
One of GLOW’s biggest struggles is how to balance such a large and talented ensemble with a clear desire to focus largely on a central trio as well as contending with still being a wrestling show at its core. GLOW’s biggest wins come from light touches with high impact, like Carmen’s (Britney Young) wordless stare from across the room during the finale, exasperated responses from Debbie’s ex-husband Mark, or the accumulation of Bash’s small moments of frustration and fear throughout the season.
The show suffers from reduced roles for Cherry (Sydelle Noel) and Carmen. While Cherry’s loving relationship with her husband, referee Keith Bashir (Salahuddin), is a highlight (and perhaps the only healthy relationship on the show), Cherry is largely absent in the first half of the season. Even when we do see her, she barely wrestles.
All season it feels like Carmen’s episode is right around the corner, but it never comes. The closest we get is a couple of quick moments that are confined to wrestling skills, industry etiquette, and an unaddressed, blink-and-you’ll-miss-it moment of shock in the finale.
Some characters do see more development. Rich Sommer’s philandering jerk ex-husband manages to feel much more human, without adding screen time, something that’s largely a credit to Sommer and Gilpin’s talent and chemistry. Chris Lowell’s rich kid producer Bash Howard is a much better use of his talents this season, going from being an affable punchline to a slow burning story built almost entirely out of suggestion and the sophisticated restraint of Lowell’s performance. Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) had less screen time this go-round, but it’s used wisely. We get to know her as a character who stands on her own two feet, rather than only seeing her through Ruth’s reaction to her.
We get to see Tammé/Welfare Queen (Kia Stevens) outside the ring for the first time, and the writers smartly pair her with fellow mother Debbie, drawing out more of the humanity of both women who are just trying to do right by their kid and hold their head up high while they do it. Tammé directly confronts the racism of the character she portrays. The conclusions of her journey this season feel a little forced, but the journey itself and her fluctuating feelings toward the role all feel earned.
Character Arthie Premkumar’s “terrorist” wrestler gets more examination this season, and while I don’t want to spoil her story this season, actor Sunita Mani does an excellent job with this slow burn. Even when she’s in the background, her character is always working toward her larger story arc.
It’s hard not to feel like the women of colour are on a rotation of secondary characters, while the main trio of white stars occupy the a and b plots of any given episode. Newcomer Shakira Barrera plays Yolanda, a queer woman of colour who replaces Cherry’s Junk Chain, but is largely relegated to the background. There’s seemingly little to no time to feature Cherry and Carmen this season and their prominence is transferred to other women of colour. There was apparently no time for Tammé in the first season – in spite of her being one of season two’s best characters.
All of this makes it harder to justify all the oxygen devoted to Sam Silvia, in particular. His relative prominence and the absence of some season one scene-stealers seemingly flies in the face of GLOW’s inclusive, girl-power ethos. Marc Maron is talented of course, but it seems the show is counting on his charm as a person to be transferred to his uncomplicated, washed-out director, who has more to do this season, but mostly exists because someone needs to bring Ruth back down to earth.
Like many shows, GLOW takes on a #TimesUp/#MeToo-esque storyline that feels more obligatory than innovative. Women and anyone who has followed the news coverage will see it coming from a mile away. Where GLOW impresses is in the realistic way it shows the fallout. It’s easy to fall into a desire to re-write history by showing uniform solidarity or having women curse out inappropriate sexual advances. But that’s pure wish-fulfilment, and GLOW revels in the messy, seedy, inappropriate side of life. The reality is that there are many good reasons people have kept quiet for so many years, and GLOW wriggles around in the ugly truth about some of those reasons.
Season one focused on building the cast and the mechanics of both wrestling and making a low-budget television show. GLOW course-corrects around issues of racism, LGBTQ storylines and catfight premise of season one, while maintaining its core appeal: a great soundtrack, killer costumes, a talented ensemble, and low-budget, we’re-all-in-this-together vibe of the island of misfit toys. Using the business of making a weekly, low-budget television show as its backbone, GLOW season two explores Hollywood power dynamics around race, gender, and rising stars, and takes a deeper look at the lives of the women and men of GLOW.
GLOW season two is out now on Netflix.