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GLOW Season 2

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And so we return to the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and their ongoing battles within and without the ring. Netflix’s feminist underdog story, which traces the fortunes of a troupe of dreamers, wannabes and cynical veterans at the very fringes of the entertainment world as they try and carve out a place for themselves in the fascinatingly lurid milieu of professional wrestling, is such a vibrant, funny, and defiantly weird piece of television that it’s easy to forget that, under all the spandex and big hair, it’s actually doing serious cultural work.

At base, GLOW is about marginalised women fighting for self determination. The ace up its sleeve, the thing that makes it such a pitch perfect cocktail of comedy and drama, is that failure is built into the narrative model. Hell, most of the characters have already failed, from Alison Brie’s would-be serious actress to Betty Gilpin’s fallen soap star to Marc Maron’s cynical B movie auteur, and they expect to fail again. Moreover, the world expects them to fail. What this means is that every little victory, every incremental win, feels momentous. It means that even when we’re laughing at the excesses of the period and the setting, we’re cheering for our characters – it’s a heady emotional high.

Season 2 does lack the novelty of the previous run, although it still pops with vitality. Whereas the sheer audacious weirdness of the conceit could carry us through the first 10 episodes, now the show – like its characters – has to settle into the production groove. The sprawling ensemble means that there’s always something going on, even when it feels like, overall, we’re not making too much narrative headway. As we said, small victories, incremental steps. The focus remains more or less on Ruth (Brie) and Debbie’s (Gilpin) frenemy-ship, as the latter tries to flex her muscles by taking on a producing role on the show-within-a-show, while the former leans into her position as the wrestling franchise’s chief bad guy, the USSR-themed Zoya the Destroyer.

There’s more interesting stuff happening elsewhere in the ensemble, though, especially when the show grapples with issues of race and representation. Kia Stevens’  Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson has to deal with her college student son learning that she’s playing a damaging African American stereotype in the ring, while Sunita Mani’s Arthie struggles to shed her character “Beirut the Mad Bomber”, a role she finds particularly demeaning given that she’s actually Indian.

Meanwhile, Maron’s embittered Sam Sylvia tries – and largely fails, because, hey, he is who he is – to forge a meaningful relationship with his newly discovered daughter, Justine (Britt Baron), although the real meat of his arc is him dealing with his feelings for go-getter Ruth, whose talents he both respects and finds threatening. Men feeling threatened by talented women is a big theme in GLOW, and its embodied by guys we’re also positioned to like – mainly Sam and rich kid producer Bash (Chris Lowell), who spend a lot of time shutting down freshly minted producer Debbie just because they can.

Which sounds heavy, but GLOW‘s charm is that it channels these themes inside a bright, poppy, garishly candy-coloured package, and it never lets its thematic concerns bog down the action of the narrative, which nimbly skips along. For a show that concerns itself with failure and the fragility of dreams, GLOW is almost never not fun. It’s hard to see it lasting for too many more seasons – after all, what’s the end game here? – but while it’s here, it’s a must watch.

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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.