“Are you hiring actors to play wrestlers or are we the wrestlers?”
GLOW (an acronym for the professional wrestling promotion within the show, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) dropped it’s pilot and full season on Netflix sometime in the wee hours today, beginning the arduous task of defining a show about a show (about wrestling) that is ultimately about women, belonging, and pain. Got it? Don’t worry, you will. The credits are purple and pink animations on a black screen as Scandal’s “The Warrior” plays unironically and I was immediately hooked.
The bright neon and big bangs of the 1980s have been popular with television crowds as of late, with Netflix’s own darling Stranger Things delivering heavy nostalgia with a touch of nerd lore government conspiracy type horror, but GLOW faced a challenge far beyond even that. It had to face the insurmountable task of delivering a perfect pilot in the binge era, while also overcoming a Netflix fanbase that maybe doesn’t know what the heck the deal with pro wrestling is anyway…
You should know there was a real G.L.O.W that ran from 1986 until 1992 but none of the real life women or their personas are lifted directly from history. The creators, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, did hire women from the promotion as consultants on the show but have heavily fictionalized this world, giving freedom to explore this group of women without any disrespect to the challenges real women faced in those circumstances. You don’t need to be a wrestling fan to mainline the show, though there are plenty of jewels for wrestling fans, without being a wink or insulting anyone’s intelligence. This is day one. Our protagonist, Ruth, doesn’t know anything about wrestling either. Ruth is painfully well portrayed by Alison Brie, a down on her luck actor who opens the show with a solid if not overwrought audition monologue only to be told that she’d been reading the part of the male role instead of that of the woman (there’s a delicious twist to this that I won’t spoil).
But the show does not hand us a struggling, girl next door who could simply be a ghostly echo of Brie’s overachieving Annie Edison (NBC’s and then Yahoo’s Community) and ask us to rest on tropes. Ruth is both irresponsible and fatedly unfortunate and is styled surprisingly androgynously throughout this first episode. Everyone around her makes a point of how “real” she is, and she, being the actual real person, just doesn’t want to hear it. She, in fact, does not seem to have enough energy or give-a-shit to be genuine. She does nothing to change who she is or her pitiful circumstances, even snapping at her dear friend, Debbie, a beautiful woman with a sweet face, and a new mother who tries to offer advice, rest, and free dinner. Ruth is just going through the motions of monologue classes, auditions, begging her parents for money wires, and you know, sleeping with other people’s husbands. Yeah, that’s a whole thing. Ruth is who we have and the pilot doesn’t apologize to us or ask us to do anything in particular with that.
Once Ruth makes her way to an audition for “unconventional women, whatever the hell that means,” per a message on her answering machine from a merciful casting agent/producer, GLOW goes a step further in defining a world: the world of women, in sports, but in general. Sam Sylvia (comedian, podcaster, and friend to wrestling, Marc Maron) is almost a Greek theatre representative of Man. He’s a father figure, a hot mess, a pervert, an oppressor, a tortured genius, a hack, and a big brother, all rolled into one, but at no moment does he lack the heart to allow you to stop feeling for him.
He is running this show, perhaps into the ground, but if these women want to wrestle (or to be heard, or to have a hobby, or to get attention, or to escape their home lives) they have no choice but to contend with him. And during the tryouts and training the show quickly let’s us know that we’re about to see an ensemble, as one by one women with their own sort of charm approach Sam, different bodies, different faces, different looks, different races. It isn’t a statement, it’s just a reflection of reality, and so wrestling in the 1980s becomes a canvas of hope for modern audiences desperate for representation.
The sequences are filled with montages and music, a lean against the familiarity of the 80s in form and function that is much more effective than explaining wrestling (anyone who has ever told a storyteller, “show me, don’t tell me”, will be delighted) to viewers who may be unaffiliated, or who may outright think wrestling is stupid. Ruth never quite drops the actor in herself, getting cut after she tries to drag Les Mis into the ring (no, seriously, you have to see this), and returning after an all night hype up on Hogan and Flair, to Tennessee Williams her way back into a spot. I’m not going to try to explain the majesty of those scenes, it would be a disservice.
And then brilliantly, in Ruth’s only moment of victory in the near hour we’ve spent with her, as she is surrounded by a sea of women who weren’t told to go home, who did follow instructions, who thought taking the bump (that’s wrestling talk, not drug talk) was enough, the consequences for her actions (the Chekhov’s gun that is someone else’s husband, if I dare to use my half a degree in Theatre) come in hot. And this is where the show really shines. It is glamorous, visceral, emotional, and unbelievable all at once.
Sam Sylvia steps forward to imagine the world of wrestling wrapping around real life tumult and making it bigger, bolder, and brighter. The crowd he has imagined goes wild as Ruth suffers in real-time. From this point all you have to do is wait the four seconds for autoplay to continue…
Follow GLOW on Twitter @GlowNetflix