Series Breakdown Rating:
Aesthetics and Style: 5
Overall Plot: 6
Audience Assumptions: No familiarity
Season One – ****
Part One: Wrestling: It’s Like Sportsball, But With More Soap Opera
Sometimes a series comes along with a premise so unique that I can’t help but take notice. I would like to think I reward ideas based solely on their originality, but in reality, I’m not so generous. Sometimes, I need a little something more. I knew what GLOW was long before I got around to watching it, and I was sold on recent praise of the second season’s complex characters and humor.
I think this context is important because I like GLOW, but I don’t think I got the same thing out of it the person I heard praising it did. GLOW is a fairly new Netflix series about a crew of actors hired for an all-women’s wrestling show (The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling — a real thing, I was surprised to learn in retrospect) who slowly come to depend on one another like a family. The show is focused on the concept of wrestling, sure, but more than that, it’s an exploration of the lives of these women (and a few men, but they’re unimportant if we’re being honest) in the sociopolitical quagmire of the 1980s. It’s about limitations on the social mobility of women of the time and an odd facet of counter-culture that developed in response.
I’ll readily confess, wrestling really isn’t my thing. I only have a vague understanding of modern wrestling as a form of entertainment, and like many of the uninitiated, I used to think of it as a sport before anything else. I’m not sure how accurate the series is in its portrayal of wrestling, but it seems to know its shit. The characters learn about the sport along with the audience, auditioning for an occupation none of them fully seem to grasp. It’s a basic acting job where quality and context matters little (something the lead character, a self-proclaimed real actor, refuses to acknowledge), and where camp is key. The wrestling characters in the show they’re creating range from caricatures to outright stereotypes, and the script is largely ad-libbed with cheesy lines. However, even though the acting (within the wrestling show – the actual actors in the series are quite good) is on a comparable level to that of a McDonald’s mascot, the job is surprisingly nuanced. The wrestling moves are designed to look impressive and require a skilled safety instructor to teach the women to pull them off without seriously injuring each other. The character creation and writing also has to be tailored to satisfy a very particular audience – one which is drawn to both the brutal physicality of sport but seeks a narrative and emotional mooring line to provide context for the combat. The show the characters end up creating is not unlike a long, convoluted anime or comic book series.
The way the series presents wrestling makes it compelling even to those like me who don’t really care for it. I’m not about to binge WWE episodes, and I can’t say that I get terribly invested in the storylines within the wrestling show itself, but the process is enjoyable to watch. GLOW is yet another of those shows that demonstrate any idea executed well is a good idea.
All that praise merited, plot isn’t really the series’ strong point. It succeeds in concepts, larger themes, and especially scene work where the emotions of characters shine. The camp of the wrestling show can be fun, but it’s largely enjoyable because of the perspective the series takes; once the wrestling becomes routine to the characters, it loses much of its initial appeal for the audience as well. This is a larger issue for the second season, where the camp becomes indulgent and its appeal is more heavily based personal tastes.
The series adopts an overall lighthearted attitude, but I wouldn’t really call it funny. I’m not even entirely sure if I would call it a comedy, at least not in the modern sense of the word. Aside from the deeper issues the characters face, humor mainly seems to derive from either the wrestling gimmicks or subtleties of the actors’ interactions. As such, the show rarely provides belly laughs; it’s amusing, but it’s not necessarily trying to tell jokes. Some might find this approach appealing, especially those who enjoy the humor of series like The Office (not necessarily the cringe comedy aspect, though there is some of that in GLOW – rather the way character expressions and intonations can communicate humor). I’m more partial to series that throw jokes at you a million miles per minute, but GLOW’s style admittedly leads to a warmer, more character-focused atmosphere. Whether it works depends on what you’re looking for in a show.
Part Two: Finally, Proper Furry Representation
The compassion in this series is what sets it apart from so many others, especially among Netflix originals. The series distinguishes itself right out the gate by designating its main cast to be almost exclusively women, most of whom are minorities and/or middle-aged with families. I’ve said it before and I’ll say it a thousand times more: diversity makes for better stories. Even though it might seem obvious that given half of the population is biologically female, half of all fictional characters should likewise be female, plenty of writers have pointed out the paucity of female characters in fiction. For those that do appear, roles are often limited to daughters, mothers, and lovers of the more important male characters. GLOW has its own issues with representation (we’ll get there), but it’s a step in the right direction merely for having a mostly-female cast.
Crucially, because the cast is majority female, their perspectives enliven the narrative. The characters are underappreciated and pressured in ways that men, especially in the 1980s, never have to consider. They work ten times harder for the same jobs and receive little respect for it. The actors are lorded over by a sleazy hack of a director whose claim to fame mainly consists of terrible horror films he thinks are overlooked works of genius. The minority characters especially are shuffled into demeaning positions that they resist, while the white characters have an inherent privilege they are loudly oblivious to. The series sets up these dynamics, and takes care to point out how they reflect on societal issues, forcing characters with relative power to accept their personal failings and elevating its disenfranchised characters to greater levels of autonomy and acclaim.
One of the most satisfying and hilarious scenes of the first season comes when the two black actors, Cherry and Tammé, playing the characters “Junkchain” and “Welfare Queen” respectively, confront the producers about the negative image that their characters present. The producers decide to keep the characters villainous stereotypes that delegitimize impoverished minorities, prompting Cherry and Tammé to recruit some of the other actors to don KKK outfits in the ring for their characters to fight. Junkchain and Welfare Queen to body slam some white supremacists and become minor heroes within the show’s storyline to uproarious applause. The fight doesn’t air and the show’s story element doesn’t last, but this episode is full of the sort of edgy, ridiculous comedy I think this series was originally going for, and on occasions like this where it lands, it’s effective.
The comedic moments are often outshined by the pathos of the series. As the characters start to come into their own, their relationships to one another become more complex and familial. This is the heart of GLOW, and what allows it to get away with material that might be weird or unsettling in another context. For instance, one of the wrestling characters, Sheila, is a wolf furry. To say she acts eccentric would be an understatement; when forced to room with the series’ de facto protagonist, Ruth, Sheila growls, sniffs around, and brings dead animals into their room. Disgusted but trying to cope with her new roommate, Ruth talks to the girl on her level, which turns out to be a simple act of decency that the girl has never received. Although it comes out of her yelling at Sheila, Ruth does tries to empathize, and in doing so, comes to understand the girl’s lifestyle and personality a bit better.
I could list off about a dozen more memorable moments that seem almost intrinsically tied to this series. The fake miscarriage, the women planning their wrestling characters, Ruth talking to the Russian motel manager after she decides to play her character as a stereotypical Soviet, the show finale, Carmen’s father accepting her career choice, and Debbie getting into the gimmicks of wrestling all come to mind, but one scene stands out above all else in the first season: the abortion.
At one point, Ruth discovers she’s pregnant and decides to get an abortion. It’s the right decision, but it’s still a hard one and she feels terrible about it, imagining the pregnancy to be the culmination of her bad life decisions, dogging her just as she’s found her calling in life. She tries to keep it hidden from the other characters, but Sam finds out, and, refraining from any sort of judgement, he drives her to the clinic and waits with her. It’s a very quiet scene amidst the chaos of the surrounding episodes; not sad, really, just quiet. It shows what Ruth has to go through and the number of times she has to confirm that yes, this is what she wants, and no, nothing the doctors imply about her womanhood is going to change that. It’s not about whether she wants to have a baby, it’s about whether she can, and the audience knows by this point that financially, occupationally, and emotionally, she can’t. Abortion is an extremely touchy subject, but it’s something a lot of women go through, and it’s comforting to see a series that takes it seriously.
Part Three: A Mostly-Female Show About Actors and Wrestling? Yes, Please! What’s That? Only the Male Characters Are in Positions of Power? Ah. Okay, Then.
The cast of characters comprises a large number of people (well over a dozen with all named figures included), but it can be distilled down to a core trio of main characters, the wrestling crew of major characters, and a handful of minor recurring characters. The main characters are Ruth, Debbie, and Sam.
Ruth is the ostensible protagonist of the series, and she is problematic to say the least. She’s an aspiring actor who’s landed a few jobs, mostly in theatre, but has yet to find a way to make a living out of her hobby. She considers herself highly talented, easily worthy of main character roles like her friend, Debbie, but her confidence in her own ability is misjudged and she comes across as arrogant with little justification. She’s persistent, but she’s not a particularly talented actor, and like many inexperienced artists, Ruth mistakes passion for quality. She initially sees the role of a wrestler as beneath her, arguing with the director and acting against his instructions during the audition. She’s declined the role but returns to beg for the job, throwing everything she has into mimicking the hokey melodrama of wrestling characters. She eventually wins the role of the series’ main villain.
Debbie is Ruth’s best friend, or, as of the end of the first episode, former best friend. She was one of the main characters on a soap opera for several years and has since retired from acting for the most part, settling down to raise her new family. She’s more restrained than Ruth, possibly the better actor and definitely more skilled with social interactions. She doesn’t even really want to be a part of the wrestling show, only landing the starring role when the director sees her fighting with Ruth over the latter sleeping with her husband. She’s often more level-headed but struggles to cope with difficulty, falling into despair as her marriage starts to crumble.
Sam, the director of the show, is the third main character and the bridge between the two main female characters and the rest of the cast. He’s abrasive and misogynistic as the men of this period were expected to be (and in many places, still are), but to a slightly lesser degree than the other men in the series. He has nigh complete authority over what happens in his show and covets its integrity as a reflection of his self-worth, believing himself to be an underappreciated artiste despite his relatively unimpressive past works. However, he does listen to the women on his show and exhibits occasional compassion, granting leniency that goes far beyond the façade of dominance other men fully embody.
You may notice some immediate issues with these characters set up as the primary protagonists. All three of the main protagonists are white and Sam is the one male major character in a cast that is otherwise all-female. One of the show’s highlights is its diverse cast, which the main characters thoroughly fail to represent. Ruth is portrayed as poor in the first episode, but this never returns as a major issue for her personally. The production struggles financially and she’s very much dependent on it, but her narrative follows a very standard story of an artist who finds their calling in a small production they dedicate their lives to keeping afloat. Her propensity for sleeping around and stepping on other characters’ toes doesn’t help her likability. Debbie is a working mother and I give the show props for depicting her as an imperfect mother who doesn’t just spend all day doting on and caring for her newborn as many mothers in fiction do. However, she’s still extremely affluent compared to the minority characters, and the bulk of her character arc concerns her love life. She’s the most relatable of the three protagonists, but that’s not really saying much. Sam can occasionally be an interesting character, but he’s likewise unpleasant much of the time, and being the only man and the only character with much authority gives a lot of his lines unintended baggage. This diminishes later in the series as the women claim more roles for themselves and Sam is humbled, but it still affects enjoyment of the series.
The only real reason any of these people are given more focus than any of the others within the main cast is that they have bigger roles in the production. While this makes sense from a narrative standpoint – the main characters are those more directly invested in the broader plot of working the show – I think it reflects something of an oversight given the series’ intent. This isn’t really a show about wrestling or the origins of a particular wrestling operation, but a story about a group of women living in the 1980s. The wrestling show is the hook and nexus that provides a bearing for the audience; it relates the characters to one another and acts as a source of conflict within their personal arcs. Series that revolve around a place of operations like a work environment (The Office, Parks & Recreation, 30 Rock, any forensic or hospital drama, etc.) often incorporate characters with a range of occupations into their main cast because it makes for a more varied environment. If all of the characters in a show about a film are janitors, the writers have to work harder to make them compelling to the audience. The same is true for characters in more appealing positions like doctors, actors, directors, executives, scientists, etc. who may have a greater influence on the work environment itself. Audiences need variety.
GLOW has some highly compelling characters. Its side characters are charming, especially those with established character arcs, and even the protagonists, for all of their faults, get several captivating scenes. I think the series has a lot of potential, but I think it still has yet to prove itself as a series. How much potential it has will largely depend on how willing it is to give the more minor characters their time in the sun.