I’ve been watching a lot of dreck on Netflix lately. Well, this is the kind of show that all the dreck pays for. GLOW is the latest prestige television series for Netflix Originals starring the hilarious Alison Brie. It’s created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch who worked on other female-centric dramedies Nurse Jackie, Orange is the New Black and Weeds. I will be reviewing the entire first season.
We start off with a brilliant 80s style animated opening credits with neon women doing headlocks, body slams and lots of hairspray which is scored to Scandal’s “The Warrior.” (Although the song will change every episode, sadly because I thought “The Warrior” nails the theme and spirit of the show.) I’m a sucker for 80s nostalgia so I’m already hooked. This is just the latest in a current trend of 80s themed entertainments like Stranger Things and the theatrical CHIPS and Baywatch movies.
I remember watching the old Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling series that came on right after Superstars of Wrestling. The behind the scenes story is probably more interesting than the actual show. It was the brainchild of a dude named David McLane who thought there was an audience for women’s wrestling on a weekly basis. All of the characters were based on racist or sexist stereotypes like Colonel Ninotchka (Evil Russian), Mount Fuji (Heroic larger than life Samoan) Spanish Red (Evil Latina Spitfire) as well as wrestling cheerleaders, wrestling farmer’s daughters, and my personal favorites, Hollywood and Vine, wrestling hookers.The Gorgeous Ladies were mostly non-wrestlers, non-actors, and non-rappers (despite having each of the girls horribly rapping their own entrance themes.) They were put through six weeks of wrestling training when your average pro wrestler gets years of training before he or she appears in a televised wrestling match. Which is why the wrestling was terrible and the minimal writing of the interstitial Hee-Haw-style comedy bits made them beyond horrible. Seriously, they were barely jokes; more like bad puns from a kids joke book, but delivered by a model wearing a leotard and too much glitter doing a ridiculous accent. Even as a child, I remember suffering through the “comedy” to get more women bashing each other in the head. I also remember several American Gladiators-style physical competitions, like a race up and down escalators which were used to set up storylines like the Evil Ladies cheating and the Heroes demanding a wrestling match to settle their scores. And despite the sheer cheesiness of it all, pre-teen Me thought it was an entertaining show.
All of that is the backdrop for this series, which is a fictionalized version of GLOW. This is probably a good idea. Based on the pilot, I’d say that the show has a bigger emphasis on comedy than the serious drama and pathos that Nurse Jackie or later seasons of Weeds did. So it’s more of a Comedrama than a Dramedy.
We open with Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress who delivers an impressive monologue for a casting call. Then the casting director reminds her she’s reading the male part and in fact her audition is for the male lead’s secretary. “(The lead) is a great part.” says Ruth. “Damn right, that’s why we gave it to Steve Guttenberg.” Ah, the 1980s, when Steve Guttenberg was a bonified movie star and women’s roles sucked, like in Back to the Future II where Marty’s girlfriend spends the entire movie passed out in an alley. Good thing women’s parts have improved in the ensuing 30 years… Ha, I get what you’re insinuating, GLOW writers. Actually, 2017 has been a pretty good year for actresses with strong TV series that Flahive and Mensch helped create, other streaming shows like Love, I Love Dick, Catastrophe, Transparent, and the current box office champ, Wonder Woman.
So back to the show, where there’s a great scene of aerobicizing. You can’t throw a Jane Fonda work-out tape at an 80s movie without hitting a spandex clad aerobicizer. We meet Ruth’s best friend Debbie, who is a former soap opera star. Ruth gets to be a hero when she loans her sweater to the lactating Debbie. We learn that Ruth is rarely heroic, and so this is a nice bit of writing to garner Ruth more viewer sympathy for when she’s shown to be not so sympathetic.
Ruth goes to a casting call for GLOW where we meet the McClane stand-in Sam Sylvia played by the irascible Marc Maron. Maron iis hilarious as the burned-out, can’t give a crap Sam. His comedic timing is terrific. Ruth asks, “I’m sorry, are you hiring actors to play wrestlers, or are we the wrestlers?” Sam replies “Yes.” There is a wonderful sequence where we’re introduced to the wrestler wannabes and Sam has a dismissive putdown for each of them. He tells Ruth, “Do people think you’re pretty? …I don’t know, is she? You’ve got one of those faces that changes.” And he introduces his wrestling trainer Salty “The Sack” Johnson with the sterling intro, “You’ve heard of him, right? He’s the two-time champion of, uh, some stuff.” Salty is played by pro wrestler John Morrison AKA Johnny Nitro AKA Johnny Mundo. Sadly “The Sack” isn’t a recurring character because Morrison adds authenticity to the role and I could see him being an earnest wrestler foil for the cynical, all-B.S. Sam.
So far this is great. There is a twist, which I won’t reveal, but let’s just say it leads to Ruth and Debbie fighting for real in the squared circle, giving Sam Sylvia visions of World Wrestling Superstardom as we cue credits. The closing fantasy wrestling match is pretty good as it imitates the crappy GLOW-style wrestling but ten times better. Like what McClane always hoped it would become. Brie and Betty Gilpin as Debbie are game for the physicality of wrestling (although the harder moves are done by stunt doubles) and the pilot leaves me fully sold on Brie and Betty’s continuing wrestling adventures.
My only qualm with the show is the suggestion that GLOW wrestling is some sort of women’s empowerment. It’s presented as the last best shot at a paycheck and stardom for all of the wrestlers. Sure, they get to play strong women and show that the can give and take ass-whuppings just like male wrestlers. But GLOW was pretty trashy and exploitative. They never trained them to wrestle properly. The wrestlers were mostly portrayed as sex objects with plenty of butt and crotch camera angles. And after Season 2, the producers replaced most of the wrestlers with Vegas showgirls, who were even WORSE at wrestling. Maybe the show gets darker and explores the steamier back-stage scheming. Man, I hope they do, because that would be juicy. But to suggest that GLOW was more honorable than a cynical cash grab is putting a nostalgic perfume on some unsavory slice of exploitation. I don’t doubt that the women involved looked at it as a springboard to fame and fortune, but that sets up the series to have a super-bummer of an ending.
BOTTOM LINE: “Pilot” is a great episode. It does a great job of introducing the characters, lays out some dramatic complications for the present and for further down the road. It’s funny and utilizes all of Brie’s skills as an actress. I can’t wait until we learn everyone’s wrestling alter egos and get to know the Gorgeous Ladies better. I’m interested to see how they will deal with the double and triple layers of wrestling unrealities. Since wrestling matches are predetermined, there’s no drama and the show has already cheated by featuring a shoot match in the very first episode. (Shoot matches for the non-kayfabe is a wrestling match or angle that turns real, but they are exceedingly rare in Pro Wrestling. Kayfabe is a term for… never mind, I’ll tell you later. There is an entire season of GLOW to break out wrestling terms.) I love the machinations and mechanics of wrestling more than actual wrestling matches, so I’m excited to see where this series goes from here. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling lasted for four seasons, so hopefully this show gets some time to play out because Netflix has another potential winner.