On paper, GLOW feels like it almost has to be an amazing show. It’s got a great cast, a great creative team, great trailers and its promise of ‘80s women’s wrestling is enough to make anyone craving nostalgia lean forward. Conceptually, it’s so poised to be a hit that you almost have to brace for an underwhelming impact. Marketing’s burned us all before, right?
Not this time. After all the well-crafted buzz and all the praise for how the show’s come together, GLOW actually delivers. This is the series we’ll be talking about all summer.
Ruth (Alison Brie) is a struggling actress barely scraping by in Los Angeles, tired of auditioning for secretaries and almost ready to give up on her dream of a meaty role. After she corners a casting director looking for any chance at something more substantial, she’s sent to a seedy-looking gym where a group of women ranging from music video girls to stunt doubles to just plain weirdos are waiting to hear about a new project. That’s when Sam (Marc Maron), a grumpy B-movie director who also seems to be at the end of his rope, tells them about “The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.”
Ruth takes the job, eager to prove she can be a convincing wrestler with a substantial character background. That’s when Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a semi-retired soap actress looking for a way back into showbusiness, joins the fray. Sam drafted Debbie because he need a name star for his show but her presence also sparks GLOW’s driving rivalry. As the women develop their act, the faceoff becomes about much more than acting supremacy.
While Debbie, Ruth and Sam (who has plenty of issues of his own) are unquestionably at the center of GLOW’s first season, the band of misfits that make up the show’s roster quickly blossom into a compelling ensemble. What begins as timid rehearsal in a rickety ring quickly evolves into a set of friendships, animosities and comic encounters. Then the women check into a crappy motel so they can live and train together almost constantly, and that’s when a good show becomes great.
Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (Nurse Jackie) and their writers structure the first season with deft and steady hands, growing the show outward even as it barrels forward toward GLOW’s TV debut. While Ruth and Debbie learn to work together and Sam fights his own battles as a director, the characters on the edges of their story become central to their own subplots. There’s Cherry (Sydelle Noel) the trainer who wants to be more than someone else’s double, Carmen (Britney Young) the gentle giant of a wrestling dynasty who struggles with stagefright, Justine (Britt Baron) the kid who worships Sam’s films, and Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin), who is…well, just watch and find out.
Just like a live wrestling show sets up its spots to make each superstar shine, GLOW gives each of these characters their moment. Sometimes it’s a big monologue, other times it’s a little detail (like when you learn one of the women has been living out of her car) but it always lands like a body on a matt: thumpingly. If you love the weird, complex sisterhood of Orange Is the New Black or the messy friendships of Broad City, you will love the GLOW dynamic.
The story is drawn as well as the characters; the series deftly uses its source material (the real '80s wrestling show GLOW) to inform the plot and how the characters approach what they’re doing. An example: Debbie is, unsurprisingly, under the impression that wrestling is just silly fake sports until she attends an actual show. As she watches two men flexing and arguing through a storyline in the ring, a light bulb goes off in her head. “This is a soap opera!” she shouts. Suddenly, she understands how the performance works, how she can structure her character and even how her own emotions can be poured into the ring. Ruth doesn’t have a single similar moment but she too learns to embrace the craft of what she’s doing, throwing herself (often literally) into a series of wacky personas until she finally discovers what whips a crowd into a frenzy. It’s amusing to watch if you’re a wrestling fan. Even if you’re not, it’s easy to see the depth at work here.
Just as their characters do, Brie and Gilpin play wrestlers with boundless enthusiasm. Both are best known for their work as supporting actresses (Brie in Mad Men and Community and Gilpin in Nurse Jackie), but this series may be the end of that. They’re both clearly cut out for center stage. While they’re busy making their case for Emmy nominations, the supporting cast also shines, particularly Young, Noel and Rankin. Then there’s Maron, who embodies the role he was born to play with instant hilarity.
All of this comes together for a show that rises to and even ultimately exceeds expectations. GLOW always looked like an entertaining show, but it’s been confirmed as among the most ambitious, funny and emotionally satisfying debuts of 2017. Come for the costumes, stay for the characters. This show could have been as simple as “Hey, remember this weird old '80s show?” and that probably still would have been pretty entertaining. With this creative team behind it, though, GLOW becomes the story of a group of compelling women finding strength they didn’t know they had in an unlikely place. GLOW is a strong contender for 2017’s best new series and if you take the journey with these women, by the end you’ll be cheering.
GLOW debuts Friday on Netflix