During the 1980s pro wrestling boom, television was overrun with musclebound men in colorful tights, slamming each other to the canvas in arenas across the country. Then, in 1986, promoter David McLane and director Matt Cimber came up with a syndicated TV series spotlighting what they called the “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” a.k.a. G.L.O.W. For the next few years, they had a hit with a show that featured a diverse cast of mostly ordinary-looking women – as opposed to the weight-lifting Amazons who’d later infiltrate the WWE. The league connected with an audience that liked the sport’s simple, often silly “good vs. evil” morality plays, and wanted a break from staring at the same hairy brutes week after week.
In Netflix’s new half-hour dramedy GLOW, Alison Brie plays an aspiring actress in early Eighties Los Angeles who, after finding herself fed up with her limited choices as a woman in show business, becomes drawn to the idea of playing a powerful character in a leotard and tights. Co-starring Marc Maron as the league’s grumpy-but-ambitious creative visionary, the show quickly develops into a rich period-piece, using actual wrestling history and culture as the staging ground for stories about ladies of varying shapes, sizes, colors, and social backgrounds. Each of them are trying to make some money while expressing themselves – and perfecting a wicked piledriver move.
So before you spend next weekend debating whether Matilda the Hun had better moves than Debbie Debutante, here’s what you need to know before the series’ first season drops on June 23rd.
You’ve never seen Alison Brie quite like this.
Brie has kept a relatively low-profile since she wrapped up her star-making stint in the cult sitcom Community, gracing a few voiceover gigs (BoJack Horseman) and indie comedies (Sleeping With Other People, the upcoming nunsploitation riff The Little Hours). But she comes back hard here as the frustrated actress Ruth Wilder, who goes into her audition for the Gorgeous Ladies intending to bring some of her acting training into the ring. Unlike the other women, however, Ruth doesn’t have an obvious gimmick. She’s not burly, she’s not “ethic” and she’s not drop-dread beautiful. Much of the first season is about her figuring out who she really is, and finding a wrestling character to reflect it.
There is a complete lack of self-consciousness to the physicality of what Brie is doing here, which goes beyond her doing her first nude scenes. Ruth is a woman who thinks she’s better and bolder than she actually is, and the actress playing her displays a lack of vanity by allowing herself to come off as weak, weaselly and (literally and figuratively) exposed. This is the kind of part that Brie fans have been waiting years for her to take on: “a female J.R. with a touch of Cruella de Vil,” as Ruth herself describes this ringside persona.
The fashions are very Eighties. And we mean very Eighties.
Are you a fan of teased-out “big hair” and jazzercise attire? Good news! GLOW is lousy with Lycra; we’re pretty sure the make-up crew must’ve gone through a case of Aqua Net a day. The show depicts a Reagan-era L.A. where cocaine is plentiful, and everyone dresses like at any moment they could be called to the set of either a porno flick or a Van Halen video. There’s some subtle commentary to the way the writers and costumers use the look and mood of the era – especially in the character of Ruth, who at the start of episode one is practically smothering in heavy skirts and high-collared blouses. By the end, of course, she has made herself over into a feral, leotard-clad savage. It’s like that old saying: Dress for the job you want.
The original G.L.O.W. show was groundbreaking in its own way.
Back in the days when TV had fewer channels and not everyone had cable, UHF stations began buying up odd original syndicated programs like American Gladiators and various pro wrestling series. Anyone who wants to understand how television has changed over the past 30 years – and how it began serving increasingly niche audiences – one of the best places to start is with what happened in the late Eighties and early Nineties. Small local broadcast outlets began replacing old sitcom reruns with an explosion of new talk shows, game shows, athletic competitions and pulpy adventures. Suddenly, creative types didn’t need to water down their visions or go to one of the Big Three networks to find an audience.
There was something raw and inspired about these ringside bouts-cum-soap operas that really connected with the hundreds of viewers who quickly went from curious lookie-loos to passionate fans. (For those who’d like to know more about the real league of grappling gals, there’s a fascinating documentary by Ben Whitcomb called GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, also available on Netflix.)
Marc Maron gives the best performance of his career.
Because Maron is best-known today for the probing interviews on his WTF podcast, people may have forgotten that the edgy stand-up comic is also a terrific character actor, with a growly voice and an angry energy that makes him absolutely magnetic in the right role. He’s been given a gift in the form of GLOW‘s Sam Sylvia, a veteran B-movie writer-director (similar to the real league’s Matt Cimber), who’s grudgingly taken on the job of handling the creative side of this new wrestling league. Some of the best scenes in the show’s first season have Sam coming up with characters and plot-lines on the spot, based on whatever spark he sees in his ladies. At one point, he asks his cast what the essence of G.L.O.W. is going to be – after one suggests “Blood?” and another “Tits?,” he sighs and says, “Storytelling.”
It has a twistier plot than you might think.
Netflix has asked that TV critics not to say much about what actually happens in the show until after it debuts – there are more than a few narrative surprises along the way. We will note, however, that most of the first season is about the process of casting, rehearsing and shaping the concept of this women’s wrestling league. There are a lot changes along the way. There are personality clashes, motivated by reasons that cut a lot deeper than “she rubs me the wrong way.” There are multiple cases where characters step into the ring for a shot at redemption in their personal and professional lives. It’s a backstage melodrama with as much egomania, rage, and pathos as an actual wrestling match. What happens when the cameras are on may be phony. But the emotions behind it are real.
The creators have written for some of the best TV shows about women of the past decade.
When it was still in development, the series got a lot of attention thanks to one of its executive producers: Jenji Kohan, whose Orange Is the New Black helped popularize binge-watching and, along with House of Cards, ushered Netflix into the “prestige TV” era. But the show’s actual co-creators are Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who previously worked together on the writing staff for Nurse Jackie. Flahive has also been a writer for Homeland, while Mensch worked on Kohan’s pre-Orange Showtime hit Weeds. Between them, they’ve spent the last several years telling stories about complicated women in difficult situations.
GLOW takes advantage of its creators’ experience with dramedies where sex, drugs, violence and femininity are part of a series’ DNA. More than anything, this is a story about ladies who’ve been excluded from show business for one reason or another: because they had kids, because they’re the wrong physical “type,” because Hollywood’s tastes changed over time. Flahive and Mensch keep the action focused on what their crew of aspiring wrestlers really want to get out of the experience – be it exposure, a paycheck or hedonistic fun . They’re highly attuned to the questions of how women often have to compromise to achieve career satisfaction. Is allowing yourself to be objectified or stereotyped a fair trade-off for a few minutes in the spotlight and a chance to play a strong female character? Can exploitation ironically lead to empowerment? Those ideas are what fuels the show more than just the concept of recreating yesterday’s mascara-smeared catfights. It’s lean-in feminism doused in period kitsch. Get in the ring.