Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Britney Young, Sydelle Noel, Britt Baron, Jackie Tohn, Ellen Wong
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There’s magic in taking something ludicrous and finding the humanity in it, and GLOW knows that trick well
Deep in the heart of ’80s Los Angeles, struggling actress Ruth Wilder is barely holding onto her dreams of stardom. Desperate for a job, she finds herself auditioning for hustling B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), who has put out a call for “unusual women”. But Sam isn’t putting together another SF schlockfest for the drive-in and grindhouse circuit; he’s been hired by a wrestling-mad trust fund kid (Christ Lowell) to create a new franchise, The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or GLOW.
GLOW was a real thing back in the day, and in the hands of creators Liz Flahive (Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Orange is the New Black) it becomes a framework to dig into issues of female empowerment, exploitation, friendship, and rivalry. Thankfully it’s also funny as hell and boasts a stunningly on-point eye for period detail (people who lionise the ’80s aesthetic too often forget how much spandex and hairspray that decade burned through).
What makes it special is the way the show acknowledges the garish, overblown and frequently ridiculous trappings of the ’80s wrestling scene, and yet somehow manages to make it all kind of awesome. That’s largely thanks to an ensemble of desperate and down on their luck women who are pretty much down to their last shot at some kind of stardom – they make this stuff amazing because they have to. Brie is, of course, front and centre as Ruth, a sparkly “serious” actress who dives into the task of creating a “heel” (wrestling bad guy – there’s a lot of lingo) with gusto. Her chief rival is her former best friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a failed soap star whose suburban marriage crumbles, leaving her with nowhere to go but GLOW. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) is the group’s de facto wrestling coach, worrying that she may miss her last chance at the spotlight, which is generally being hogged by Melrose (Jackie Tohn), a party girl whose “look at me” persona conceals deep insecurities.
They’re all deeply flawed, instantly likable people, and the show’s deft writing means they pretty much all come across as three-dimensional characters. GLOW doesn’t shy away from the ugly and problematic side of showbiz, and although the period setting may let the viewer pretend that things have improved with time and distance, you know deep down that the creative team are speaking from personal experience when the series tackles sexism (pretty much all the time), racism (Sunita Mani’s character gets forced to play a terrorist stereotype in the ring, while African American Kia Stevens’ persona is the “Welfare Queen”), the male gaze (again, all the time, but at least Maron’s is self-aware), infidelity, betrayal, and more. The large, diverse cast means the show can tackle these themes from a variety of angles, at the very least touching on a number of viewpoints and experiences even if the inclination to dive in deep is lacking.
But that would all be for nothing if GLOW wasn’t also a hell of a lot of fun, packed with crackling, arch dialogue, a fine line in self-deprecation, and a weird kind of Mickey Rooney “let’s put on a show!” gumption. Honestly, there’s nothing else quite like it out there at the moment. Yes, ’80s women’s wrestling is a weird and often laughable milieu. But there’s magic in taking something ludicrous and finding the humanity in it, and GLOW knows that trick well.