“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).
(*) This is still a TV show, though, so “unconventional” means casting a beautiful Community alum, thickening her eyebrows, and toning her makeup way down. Even the writers understand this is silly, and most of the references to Ruth’s appearance vanish within a couple of episodes.
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, GLOW structurally follows the model of executive producer Jenji Kohan’s other Netflix show, Orange Is the New Black, by starting in tightly focused on Ruth and her friendship with Debby (a soap actress taking time off after having a baby — and a long, frustrating stint where her character was in a coma), then expanding outward as we get to know the other woman who have hung their hopes and dreams on Sam and Bash’s ridiculous project, including, among others, Cherry (Sydelle Noel), a stuntwoman looking to show she can act as well as she can fall; Carmen (Britney Young), whose legendary wrestler father doesn’t want her joining the family business; Justine (Britt Baron), a teenager who obsesses over Sam’s movies; Melrose (Jackie Tohn), a party girl just eager to be noticed; and Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin), who refuses to break character even when sharing a room with Ruth, and who is thrilled to find a part of the world where she’s not treated as a freak.
Because the show-within-the-show is just an idea when we jump in, we get to watch everything, and everyone, be built from the ground up, as the women learn both wrestling moves and how to craft their characters — the latter a surprisingly difficult challenge for Ruth the Method actress, who needs a good chunk of the season to figure out her ring persona. This is itself a familiar part of the process — from heroes who started out as villains to wrestlers who kept changing their gimmick until they found the right one (like effete snob Hunter Hearst Helmsley becoming leather-clad bad boy Triple-H) — and when Ruth finally lands on her idea, Brie’s enthusiasm for it is so big and pure, I’d have been perfectly happy if Ruth had pulled a Sheila the She Wolf and insisted on talking that way for the rest of the season.
The technical details are interesting — there’s a delightful, totally ’80s montage (scored to a song by Stan Bush that is somehow not “The Touch”) of Ruth and one of the other women gradually working out all the choreography for their first big match — but Flahive, Mensch, and the rest of the creative team never lose sight of the people who have all stumbled into the ring for different reasons, giving them struggles and unexpected successes along the way. It’s a comedy that’s only occasionally funny, but perpetually fun, and one of Netflix’s easiest and most satisfying binges in quite some time.
GLOW is particularly smart in the way it depicts the evolving friendships between the women, who have cliques and rivalries and yet come to recognize that they all have to succeed for Bash’s idea to work, and in the way wrestling seems to unlock something different in each of them. Thinking about doing this so soon after having given birth, and over the objections of her husband Mark (Rich Sommer, in a mini-Mad Men reunion with Brie), Debby observes, “It’s like I’m back in my body. It doesn’t belong to Randy, or Mark. I’m, like, using it, for me. And I feel like a goddamn superhero.”
The show also deftly sidesteps some narrative minefields in depicting the complicated professional relationship between Ruth and Sam. He initially has no patience for her, and she only contempt for him, but rather than head down some creepy and forced romantic path together, they spend a lot of the season just learning to respect the other’s talent, each making a job neither of them particularly wanted much better and more bearable as a result. Brie’s energy and conviction makes the whole enterprise work, in the same way she adapted wholeheartedly to whatever crazy idea Community had for her that week. And Maron in turn adds just enough casual, weary sleaze — pitching GLOW to a local TV exec, he calls wrestling, “Porn you can watch with your kids” — to leaven the sweeter moments before they become too syrupy.
GLOW takes its time teaching its characters, and its audience, the tricks of the wrestling trade. Even the more innately gifted wrestlers like Carmen and Cherry aren’t exactly trying out the DDT or the People’s Elbow by the end of the season. But that’s okay, because it gets the far more entertaining part of the field — the soap opera, and the over-the-top commitment everyone makes to it — right. It’s an absolute pleasure.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org