“Keep him interested,” socialite Birdie (Elizabeth Perkins) commands her new daughter-in-law Rhonda (Kate Nash) as they say their farewells after first meeting. “However you see fit.”
These ominous words, intended to imbue the eager young bride with hope she didn’t know she needed, buzz in the air between them and eventually crawl inside Rhonda’s anxious brain. After all, wasn’t spontaneously eloping with her boss — a wealthy young wrestling promoter — exciting enough? Keep him interested.
The yearning for novelty is a key theme throughout GLOW‘s tart and magnetic third season, so far the best chapter in this series. As the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling lose their TV gig in Hollywood and gain a months-long Las Vegas residency, season three finds its characters struggling against the tide of boredom, stasis and emotional unrest. (Not to mention health scares, identity shifts and the weight of separation.) Ironically, for a vivid and upbeat 1980s-set comedy that has always been invested in examining the art of artifice, GLOW‘s hyper-focus on professional stagnancy provides the writers ample creative opportunity to play with the show’s core elements. Keep us interested.
The season starts off with a banger of a cold open, showing Debbie and Ruth (in character as corn-fed heroine Liberty Belle and her mouthy Soviet foil Zoya the Destroya, respectively) film a local Vegas TV promo live-commenting on the 1986 Space Shuttle Challenger launch. As their enthusiasm turns to horror watching the disaster unfold, the moment becomes a microcosm for life working and living on the Strip. With every comedy bit calibrated for maximum laughter and each wrestling routine calculated for maximum tension, their show G.L.O.W. quickly goes on autopilot. The women soon realize their hotel, the fictional Fan-Tan resort, is a gilded cage, and that glitzy casinos just mask sleazy pawn shops and seedy sexual tourism.
Where are they now? Acid-tongued Debbie (Betty Gilpin, national treasure) is a newly minted producer fighting for respect from her partners and coping with the guilt of living far away from her infant son. Melancholic Ruth (Alison Brie) contends with her long-distance relationship with tepid bonbon Russ (Victor Quinaz) and growing chemistry with serrated hound dog Sam (Marc Maron), but can’t shake the professional ennui that has congealed inside of her.
Meanwhile, producer Bash (Chris Lowell, master of nervous dandy energy) and Rhonda must learn to navigate married life in earnest following their impulsive green-card wedding in the previous finale. Elsewhere, trainer/performer Cherry (Sydelle Noel) questions the physical sacrifices of motherhood, while wrestler Arthie (Sunita Mani) finds her footing within the LGBTQ community. GLOW is perhaps TV’s best examination of how female ambition and existentialism intersect.
With a sprawling cast, GLOW has never been adept at offering a balanced vision of its wrestling ensemble, but season three sees deeper development and more significant screen time for Rhonda, a burgeoning businesswoman, and Sheila (Gayle Rankin), who sheds her She-Wolf persona for a more authentic relationship with acting. (Rankin, a disarming talent, will have you scrambling to find tickets to Strindberg’s classic drama Miss Julie.) Another season, another missed opportunity to get to know wrestling scion Carmen (Britney Young), brawny athlete Reggie (Marianna Palka) and wise-cracking potheads Stacey and Dawn (Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekka Johnson, respectively).
New characters, however, include soft-spoken Tex (Toby Huss), a twangy older businessman who charms Debbie, and pragmatic hotel manager Sandy (Geena Davis), a former showgirl nostalgic for Las Vegas’ 1950s heyday. (“No one loves the ghost of Christmas future,” Sam spits when Debbie confesses her unease being around the aging bombshell.) My favorite of the new crew, however, is Kevin Cahoon’s warm and witty Bobby, a drag queen singer who befriends GLOW‘s girls, even while he watches their fortunes rise and his own fall due to anti-queer sentiment.
In fact, the specter of homophobia looms throughout GLOW‘s third season, first sparked a year ago in a plotline revolving around the mysterious disappearance and death from AIDS of Bash’s BFF/Man Friday, Florian (Alex Rich). While GLOW often feels anachronistically woke in its determination to intellectualize the racial stereotyping inherent to its characters’ wrestling personas — inadvertently forcing some supporting characters of color to only exist within spheres of identity — the show’s attention to closeted sexuality remains one of its strongest threads. Accordingly, toward the end of the season, a groundbreaking erotic moment featuring same-sex passion ignites the screen.
Beyond its character contortions, GLOW‘s imaginative spark remains in the arena. As the women quickly become habituated to their perfected performances, they must learn how to keep things fresh — for themselves, for their Vegas audiences, and, well, for us. (The show proffers some visually innovative sequences to home in on the pain of tedium. In one funny scene, G.L.O.W.‘s cast limp through a half-hearted rehearsal, the women dully throwing each other around and parroting scripted insults.)
Last season, we were treated to a hilarious episode presented in the style of a cheesy G.L.O.W. TV spot, and this season, we see the women battle in mud and reenact a wrestling version of A Christmas Carol, among other novelties. The wildest and most entertaining episode, however, follows the women as they trade personas for fun, carving their own signature panaches into each other’s hero and villain roles. This camaraderie, playfulness and theatricality highlight the most winning feature of the series: women having fun together and being good at their jobs at the same time. What a rare TV delicacy.
Cast: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Kate Nash, Chris Lowell, Gayle Rankin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel, Kia Stevens, Sunita Mani, Shakira Barrera, Britney Young, Ellen Wong, Jackie Tohn, Kevin Cahoon, Toby Huss, Geena Davis, Britt Baron, Bashir Salahuddin, Victor Quinaz, Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson, Marianna Palka
Executive producers: Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, Jenji Kohan, Tara Hermann, Mark A. Burley, Sascha Rothchild
Premieres: Friday (Netflix)