“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.