'GLOW' Season 2: TV Review

Still strong, still fun.

The Netflix charmer grows in its second season, even if it hasn't yet found a way to take full advantage of its excellent cast of characters.

In its first season on Netflix, GLOW was one of the more welcome and surprising new series because it not only delivered the female-empowerment storylines that a campy Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling concept promised, but also it proved to have a surprisingly deep bench of good actresses. Even though it was headlined by Alison Brie, it was a series that really gave a platform to Betty Gilpin and proved yet again that Marc Maron is a force of nature.

Maron played Sam Sylvia, a horror-film director with possibly grander artistic ambitions who had fallen from grace, all the way down to the point where he agreed to produce a women's wrestling show for a nearly invisible channel. His grumpy, foul-mouthed and incessantly negative demeanor doesn’t quite trip up Sam's interest in getting the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling pilot made, which happens largely by fortunate accident, as Debbie (Gilpin), a former soap opera star who just had a baby, finds out that good friend Ruth (Brie) slept with her husband Mark (Rich Sommer), and goes to the GLOW gym where rehearsals are happening. The two characters have a brawl, and it's exactly the feisty action scene Sam is looking for, thus giving birth to a USA versus Soviet Union wrestling storyline, with Debbie as "Liberty Belle" and Ruth as "Zoya the Destroya."

GLOW had some growing pains after that, mostly of a structural nature. The Debbie versus Ruth storyline had to be the central focus because of the fallout from the affair, and that seemed to go on a bit too long, bringing in Debbie's collapsing marriage, Ruth's abortion and, because that wasn't enough, Sam discovering he had a daughter he didn't know about, Justine (Britt Baron). While those storylines were playing out, the really addictive aspect of GLOW was in the combination of other wrestlers. As the series grew, supporting actresses like Britney Young, as Carmen "Machu Picchu" Wade, began to illustrate the wealth of options available to the writers. But the structure was limiting the ability to tell their stories — on top of expanding the story of Sebastian "Bash" Howard (Chris Lowell), the presumed trust-fund kid and lifelong wrestling fan who was underwriting the whole thing (until it was revealed that he was on a strict allowance from his mother and funding wouldn't be so easy to find). 

Luckily for GLOW, there's just something about the series that made it immensely enjoyable even when it wasn't firing on all cylinders or reaching its fullest potential. That's a real achievement and a testament to how engaging the cast was even in limited minutes (hell, Bashir Salahuddin, one of only a smattering of male stars on the series, plays one of the least used characters, a supportive husband to one of the wrestlers, and is wonderful in every frame — there are a lot of untapped resources pretty much everywhere in this show).

If ambition — or too much story — was the main problem with GLOW, then some of that is getting fixed in the second season. Series creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch did the best they could last season making GLOW a female-positive, feel-good series — and a good deal of that success felt cumulative deep into the season, based on the aforementioned cast appeal, plus some progress in the storyline. By then, Brie's character was slightly more likable (Ruth's unrelenting need for validation sometimes played less like a determined, unsuccessful actress never giving up and more like a person best avoided at parties — and that was before factoring in the cheating-on-her-best-friend angle). Maron's Sam was also less one-note in his grumpiness and debauchery, with the writers letting in enough warmth to make him human but not suddenly polished, happy or sociable. 

Having watched seven of the 10 episodes of the second season, I still don't think there's enough time given to some of the supporting characters, but there's more familiarity and thus nuance to them when they are onscreen. And while the fictional show at the center of the series-within-a-series isn't progressive, and Sam's bang-it-out, give-the-people-what-they-want attitude led to racially insensitive wrestling personas, the show itself is written by a diverse and strongly female staff in firm control of what they are doing.

What GLOW still has to grapple with, however, is that despite its 31-35 minute running time, it's more drama than comedy (though it's funny, especially with Maron's knife-edge annoyance at life). That means it's heavily dependent on plot. That's the Netflix way, of course, hoping you'll binge through it. The first couple of episodes don't facilitate that impulse, but GLOW heats up shortly after — with an especially strong episode featuring Kia Stevens and her Tamme "The Welfare Queen" Dawson character driving up north to see her son at Stanford. There's also a #MeToo plotline that's not entirely surprising, a long and well-done scene with Sam connecting to his past artistic drive and his daughter at the same time, and a possibly intriguing direction for Bash.

Even after this second season, GLOW is unlikely to have fully utilized its cast, but it's a testament to them that what viewers do get is more than enough to keep watching and not giving up.

Cast: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Britney Young, Kia Stevens, Kate Nash, Sydelle Noel, Chris Lowell, Ellen Wong, Sunita Mani, Britt Baron, Gayle Rankin, Jackie Tohn, Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson, Marianna Palka, Rich Sommer, Bashir Salahuddin

Created by: Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch

June 29 (Netflix)