'GLOW': TV Review

Netflix
'GLOW'
Worth stepping into the ring for.
6/23/2017

Netflix's Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling dramedy has shades of 'Orange Is the New Black' and a strong lead performance from Alison Brie.

Lurid leotards are the new orange in GLOW, Netflix's dramedy set against the backdrop of the camptastic 1980s professional wrestling television series.

Executive produced by Jenji Kohan, Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch, GLOW has superficial similarities to Orange Is the New Black in its excellent, multicultural female-driven ensemble — and deeper similarities in the way it uses a traditionally male space to explore women trying to break from prescribed gender roles and find an individuality that goes beyond stereotypes.

GLOW is sometimes funny, sometimes emotional and anchored by a strong, ego-free performance by Alison Brie, improving across the full 10-episode first season sent to critics.

Brie plays Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress in Los Angeles circa 1985. She's the person brought in to audition when directors claim they want a "real girl" and casting directors want to prove to them that they really don't. Desperate, but not quite desperate enough to do porn, Ruth answers an open call that turns out to be for a ladies' wrestling league that represents the depth to which Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a socially conscious schlockmeister behind films with names like Blood Disco and Gina the Machina, has fallen.

As one might expect, the call attracts a ragtag group led by Sam's frequent stuntwoman Cherry (a very physically convincing Sydelle Noel), daughter to a wrestling dynasty Carmen (Britney Young) and a lot of people with absolutely no clue what to do in the ring. With only weeks before they're supposed to film a pilot for a dismal afternoon slot on a flimsy network, they have to choose characters, learn the tricks of the trade, find a sponsor and, of course, come together as a cast. The squad harmony becomes a greater challenge when Ruth's estranged best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a former soap star, shows up in the gym for an unrehearsed catfight and sticks around.

Like Orange Is the New Black, GLOW has so many characters to introduce in so little time that many of the wrestlers are initially given only broad introductions. Trafficking in stereotypes — Ellen Wong's Jenny becomes Fortune Cookie, Kia Stevens' Tamme becomes Welfare Queen — rich-kid producer Bash (the always funny Chris Lowell) wants to give the people the lowbrow entertainment they want, while Sam wants to subvert the stereotypes in ways that are usually too complicated to be perceived. In this clash, the show takes Sam's side. It doesn't have the extra leeway of Orange-style flashbacks, but there's a steady flow of side story that boosts many of the supporting performances, especially Gayle Rankin as the initially feral Sheila, dubbed the She-Wolf, and Young, whose anxiety about living up to her family legacy is wholly sympathetic. British singer Kate Nash gives a deeper-than-normal spin on an airhead ironically nicknamed Britannica and asked to play a brainy character because of her tony accent.

It takes a few episodes to settle into what Brie is doing, because Ruth is so convincingly a not-very-good actress. The character is an overeager theater nerd whom everybody keeps disingenuously calling plain, and she's doomed by a very bad personal decision to have to play the heel in her matches. In a show of easily categorized characters, Ruth isn't sure who she is. The moment she locks into her identity comes midseason in the one episode written by Kohan, and with those factors in play, it's no surprise that that's when the show seems to settle into itself as well. That's also around the time Maron's character begins an inevitable and welcome transition from crotchety to caring that will be familiar to any fan of the underdog sports genre. The first few episodes felt like they were a lot of Ruth (and therefore also Brie) trying too hard and Sam (and therefore also Maron) rubbing everybody the wrong way, but you gradually realize those are just self-generated stereotypes these characters have to get past as well.

GLOW's affection for grungy San Fernando Valley locations and truly the worst of '80s fashions is evident, as is the conflicted love for this gloriously inane wrestling pilot they're doing. The cast apparently did their own stunts and so there are limits to how much high-flying and death-defying grappling they can do, but driven by the outlandish characters and their natural ring rivals, the fights we see are often hilarious enough to make up for minor deficits in action credibility. The wrestling isn't undersold. Two episodes are built around full-cast showcases and another episode features Ruth doing a lengthy one-woman pantomime of a fight that is probably Brie's standout moment.

It's a show about finding your voice and not letting yourself be put in a box, and it's worth noting that GLOW, which isn't quite a comedy and isn't exactly a drama, has unconventional episodic running times of between 29 and 35 minutes. Trim to conform to traditional comedy running time and characters suffer. Expand to a traditional drama running time and excessive seriousness might be ascribed to Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. What Flahive and Mensch and Kohan have done is make a show that knows itself and understands how to use much of its ensemble, starting with Brie. If a few of the characters remain underdeveloped, well, the unpredictable finale leaves a lot of things for a second season to wrestle with.

Cast: Alison Brie, Marc Maron, Betty Gilpin, Britney Young, Sydelle Noel, Jackie Tohn, Britt Baron, Kate Nash, Sunita Mani, Kia Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Ellen Wong, Chris Lowell, Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson
Creators: Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch
Premieres: Friday, June 23 (Netflix)

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