GLOW sees Netflix and Orange is the New Black (OITNB) creator Jenji Kohan delivering another comedy-drama tackling racial and gender stereotypes, this time in a period setting. Drawing inspiration from the 1980’s syndicated women’s pro wrestling circuit (the title standing for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), the series is a fictionalised depiction of its creation – seen through the eyes of two outsiders.
Best friends Ruth (Alison Brie, Community) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin, American Gods) are two struggling actresses, the former in the pilot having an affair with the latter’s husband. By chance, the two discover the blossoming but still sexist and racist world of female wrestling. When Debbie exposes Ruth’s transgression against her, attacking her at an audition – it sparks the attention of Sam Sylvia (a perfectly cast Marc Maron), a schlocky horror director now slumming it in TV. On the basis of the two’s fight, the filmmaker believes he can make them both stars of the ring.
Aside from the initial creaky set-up of having Ruth and Debbie by chance literally fight in the ring in front of Sam – one necessary to kick-start the events of the series but still a little frustrating – GLOW, at least in its first five eps, has almost no false steps.
Firstly, in terms of tone, GLOW comes out of the gate incredibly confident – walking a razor-sharp line between comedy and sadness. Maron’s Sylvia is a great example of this. Comparable to Silvio Orlando’s older, exploitative director character in The Caiman (but with more sleaze), Sam is a person who one can tell was cool, confident and talented in his youth. Yet, his reckless behaviour has left him alone and has put him to the point where he has to sell out to make a living. A moment where the girls watch one of Sylvia’s personal VHS copies of his older films – things he gleefully obsesses over – only to be interrupted by a dating profile the director recorded with the same tape is hilarious. Yet, its also tragic – particularly him ending his appeal for a romantic partner by lowering his guard: “Choose me. I’m lonely”, only to follow that up with “and my cock works great”.
Like OITNB, the series has meaty themes, the main one explored in the front-half of the season being the notion of stereotypes. Sylvia thinks he’s making satire when he and his producer, Bash (Chris Lowell), create broad wrestling personas like “Welfare Queen” or “Beirut the Mad Bomber”. However as Kia Stevens’ character notes, these portrayals will be taken at face value by many of those who will tune in.
Also, GLOW deals with the positives but negatives of pitting women against each other in a high-pressure environment. After moving the performers into a run-down motel in order to get a better feel for each-others’ characters – both petty rivalries (Kate Nash’s Rhonda and Ruth/Jackie Tohn’s Melanie and Sydelle Noel’s Cherry) and unexpected friendships (Cherry and Debbie/Gayle Rankin’s Shiela and Ruth) begin to emerge.
Other things to praise about the series is its incredibly diverse ensemble cast, its amazing period detail (an early scene taking place in an aerobics class really sets the mood), a well-chosen soundtrack (Scorpions’ “Rock Me Like a Hurricane”) and a note-perfect cast. In regards to the latter, Betty Gilpin is making a strong case for MVP of the entire series. Her scorned Debbie – which feels like an extension of her character on American Gods – is a blend of ugly anger and unquestionable strength, a division which evokes similarity to Carrie Coon’s stellar work on The Leftovers.
Halfway through, GLOW is proving to be an excellent series. If it can keep up this momentum – which according to reports, it does – the last five episodes could push the series into classic territory.
More to come on GLOW.
Stephen Porzio (twitter@porzfolio)