“This totally is a soap opera! I understand how to do that!”
This is Debby Egan (Betty Gilpin), one of the misfit heroines of Netflix’s enormously appealing new series GLOW, cracking the code of how to carry herself as a professional wrestler.
Debby’s revelation will be old news to wrestling fans of any vintage, who have always booed or cheered for the likes of Gorgeous George, Ric Flair, Hulk Hogan, The Rock, and John Cena even as they’ve understood that the rivalries, and the outcomes, are as scripted as in any soap. The appreciation can be in the technical gifts of the wrestlers — who are still flying around the ring, and still risking frequent injury — or it can be in the verve of the storytelling and the performances. When I still watched wrestling regularly in the ’80s and ’90s, I knew Hogan wasn’t nearly as skilled as, say, Tito Santana or Ricky Steamboat, but Hogan was by far the WWF’s top draw during his peak because he sold the hell out of his persona in and out of the ring, and I would always get a thrill watching him psych himself up after he seemed on the verge of being counted out while trapped in a submission hold. It was schtick, but it was great schtick.
It takes Debby a while to understand what it is she’s in for by signing on to the initial stage of a mid-’80s TV show called Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, but Netflix’s fictionalized take on GLOW (it debuts on Friday; I’ve seen all 10 episodes) gets it from the start. It is simultaneously an underdog sports story, a sweet “Let’s put on a show!” tale, and a very specific series of character sketches about the women who find a home inside the ring, and the man responsible for making this into a TV show.
And, yes, it’s also a soap opera.
Our main character is Ruth (Alison Brie), an actress who can’t get cast because of her unconventional looks(*). Lonely, miserable, and desperate for anything that lets her practice even some version of her craft, she goes to a cattle call audition for what will turn out to be GLOW, run by Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a chain-smoking, coke-snorting ’70s exploitation filmmaker — he brags that two of his films are taught in colleges, while another was banned in 49 states — on his own last chance, and financed by trust fund kid and diehard wrestling fan Bash (Chris Lowell).