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Long before I ever dreamed of actually working in professional wrestling, which I ended up doing for almost ten years, I was a fan. In 1986, for the first time in my life, I watched women hook it up in the squared circle and put themselves out there to entertain the masses. I’d see Wendy Richter, The Fabulous Moolah, Baby Doll, and a few others, but never had I seen a show exclusively featuring females. At that time, I was around eight years old, and I have an admission for you.
Some of these ladies scared me with their performances.
My parents really didn’t care for the content, which seemed questionable to them, and if ever wrestling was “trash,” it was here. Even the man behind it, David McLane, seemed to be an extremely shady and seedy individual. He may not have been, but he came across like a dirtbag. But, I loved pro wrestling in all forms, so even though some of the women’s acting frightened me at such a young age, I continued to watch. I didn’t watch in the way I watched Jim Crockett and the National Wrestling Alliance, nor did I consume it like I did Vince McMahon’s World Wrestling Federation.
But the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling still left a lasting impact.
Last week in Austin at the ATX Television Festival, I had a chance to sit down with GLOW creator Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie, Homeland), as well as the two most recognizable stars, Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin. The first thing I said to them was I was stunned this show was actually a thing that was legitimately going to happen. They all laughed, and then I made sure to mention I was happy it existed, but it seemed like an idea so far out of left field.
Who would have thought in one calendar year we’d see two wrestling-ish 30 for 30 documentaries on ESPN, and Netflix would release a ten episode first season about a relatively obscure women’s wrestling promotion that ran from 1986-1990.
Yet, that’s precisely the universe we find ourselves in, and after watching the entire season in preparation for the interview, I can safely say it’s a better world with GLOW than without.
This is a great show.
GLOW is classified as a comedy, but it’s a comedy in the same way Flahive’s (and Gilpin’s, as she was an actress on the show) Nurse Jackie was a comedy. Every year, when Edie Falco was nominated for an Emmy in the comedy category, we all rolled our eyes. While there was laughter to be found, that show was not a comedy. GLOW has many funny moments, but to label it a comedy does it a disservice, or it would if the definition of comedy hasn’t changed so much.
Orange is the New Black is also deemed a comedy show, which again is woefully incomplete. Unsurprisingly, Jenji Kohan, who developed Orange, as well as Showtime’s Weeds, is an executive producer on GLOW. Comedy used to mean canned laughter, perhaps on a laugh track, plus families, situations, and living rooms.
Today, the idea has expanded. BoJack Horseman is more a drama than a comedy, but it still fits in the space somehow. Is FX’s Atlanta a pure comedy? Many times it’s hilarious, but sometimes it’s difficult. Rick & Morty? Sure, but it also deals with extreme nihilism, death, and despair. Aziz Ansari’s Master of None is unquestionably one of television’s best shows, as are the three I just mentioned, and none of them is concerned with consistent belly laughs.
Thus, we have GLOW, a show about young women (and a few men) trying to succeed in Los Angeles in the mid-1980s. Brie plays Ruth Wilder, an actress looking for her first big break, and in a very apropos scene to open the first episode, she reads at an audition and praises the writer and director for writing such a deep character for a female. She then finds out she read the male lines, and instead she just has one. She’s competing for the role of a secretary.
Whether you buy into the feminist agenda of 2017 or not is irrelevant to the reality of 1986, where this depiction felt both accurate and honest. But, GLOW isn’t really about female empowerment, though it can be found within each episode. I asked Flahive what the show’s purpose is, citing examples I’ve written about in the past including The Walking Dead being about people, not zombies, and David Simon’s The Wire being about institutional failure, corruption of authority, and many more things more important than Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, and Marlo’s heroin.
Her response to me was telling. She said there was no agenda here, that if viewers want to see it as a story of women, that’s perfectly fine. If they simply want to be entertained, that’s great. Alison Brie added similar thoughts, stating that GLOW can be whatever you want it to be. I never once felt compelled to assign any point of view to the proceedings, but I imagine merely reading this paragraph leaves many of you sighing in relief.
We have so many shows attempting to push this cause or this idea today, and while there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, how about we just watch an awesome show together and just ENJOY the shit out of it?
Remember how you felt last year while watching Stranger Things? Get ready to have similar thoughts when you finish up with GLOW. It’s an easy binge. Ten episodes, none longer than 35 minutes, which includes credits, and a story you want to continue progressing with until the end. You can do the whole thing in about six hours. That’s nothing, especially for those of us that have no issue killing one summer Saturday night, staying up late, and just knocking out a season.
How is professional wrestling treated on GLOW? The short answer is it’s treated with a semblance of respect. Chavo Guerrero Jr. trained the women for just over a month before they began shooting, and as Brie told me last week, it’s true to the original show, as his uncle Mando trained the actual cast of GLOW in 1986. Brie said she fought for this part, wanted it desperately, and Betty Gilpin said virtually the same thing. The chemistry between these two, which becomes antagonistic early, is immediate.
Once Ruth and Debbie (Gilpin) have their falling out, which I’ll leave for you to discover yourself, that’s when GLOW breaks out its hooks. It then never lets go.
One of the final lines in the season left me ready to applaud, because it’s Pro Wrestling 101. Flahive said her team did their research, and that’s clearly obvious when Marc Maron’s Sam Sylvia says, “The money’s in the chase.” I’ve said that very line over 50 times on radio, and have written it twice that many times. When it’s revealed WHY he says it, it will make more sense, but although some of the actual on-screen wrestling training is a little laughable, the understanding of what GLOW was attempting to be certainly was not.
In addition to Chavo, whose name appears on the gym where the women practice throughout the series, John Hennigan (John Morrison), Kevin Kiley (Alex Riley), Carlos Colon Jr. (Carlito, who even carries his trademark apple in one scene), and George Murdoch (Brodus Clay, Tyrus) all play minor roles on the series in a training and inspiration capacity. So, wrestling does have an actual place on the finished product, and isn’t just a backdrop.
But, if you hate the industry or think it’s low rent, there’s still plenty of reasons to watch GLOW.
One of the reasons I’ve always enjoyed Orange is the New Black are the backstories and flashbacks Jenji Kohan has frequently utilized to flesh out her characters and tie them together. It always reminded me of Lost. In fact, that show used the strategy better than any since Carlton Cuse and Damon Lindelof put a tattoo on Jack Shephard. I’m kidding.
GLOW doesn’t employ flashbacks or dream sequences, but we see each woman’s story unfold in real time. We spend enough time in the ring, but we also learn about Ruth’s determination and an unwanted guest, Debbie’s marriage, Sheila’s eccentricity, Cherry Bang’s struggle to break out as an actress, Carmen’s nerves, and Justine’s big secret. Never does Liz Flahive barrage her audience with too much content, but never does she skimp on the drama and the comedy either.
This is a show that gets very emotional at times, but balances it with absurdity and hilarity in such a way that even the heaviest moments are endearing.
Particularly impressive is Marc Maron’s performance as director Sam Sylvia. As good as Gilpin and Brie are together (and they’re fantastic), when Alison and Marc share the screen, that’s when GLOW is at its best. Luckily, those two spend quite a bit of time working with one another.
I asked the three women about Maron’s performance, and they all lit up and beamed with smiles. Flahive said he sent in the “perfect tape,” and that any worries they had that he would show up and phone it in ended within minutes of his arrival on set. He was completely committed to the character, to the show, and to the rest of the cast. Sylvia straddles the line between being a half-decent guy and a scum-bucket, but he finds a way to avoid playing either to 100% at any time. You can always sense both in Sam Sylvia, which makes him compelling and extremely valuable.
IFC’s Maron is a solid show, but this is the best acting work he’s ever done, and it’s by a wide margin. Sam Sylvia is one of 2017’s most entertaining characters, whether he’s snorting a line of cocaine, cursing Marty McFly, or trying to clean up a spilled cup of coffee.
Maron isn’t the only male of note for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, as Chris Lowell steps up to play the role of superfan and trust fund kid, Sebastian “Bash” Howard. Lowell is excellent, and he needs to be, because Bash is supremely important to the series. He has money and is the financial backer behind the show, but we find out quickly it’s not his own money. He’s the representation of David McClaine on the series.
Bash is nowhere near as creepy as McLane often appeared to be with the real GLOW series or on the Women of Wrestling show he attempted at the turn of the century. But, he’s immature, overly excited, and prone to make idiotic mistakes. He’s also devoted to GLOW, and he’s not fake. That’s astonishing, because when you meet him, you assume he’s going to be the classic television trope of the executive that gets in the way and has plans to tear the current thing down to build a better thing.
That’s not the case here.
Also, he isn’t opposed to putting on glittery eyeshadow.
So there’s that.
GLOW‘s ten episodes fly by, and they’ll leave you salivating for more. The music is exquisite, to the extent I’m hoping somebody with way too much time on their hands puts out a list of each song used in the show, so I can make a playlist or buy them individually. We do get some of the big hits of the era, but there’s also some of the less popular stuff that you’ll know but not be able to place.
The show is shot with a filter that gives it an aged look. It feels like you’re watching the original Fame, or maybe you just stumbled onto Flashdance, but the camerawork is effective to set the era. Also, some of the stories actually play out as you would expect them to if this series released 30 years ago. There are simple resolutions to smaller issues, with larger problems carrying through past the finish line.
Whether you’re a huge wrestling fan or not, GLOW is a wonderful addition to Peak TV in 2017. Quite frankly, it’s better than I expected. I assumed it would be pretty good, but had no idea it would be THIS good. There’s something for everybody, with serious and light, drama and comedy, reality and absurdity. The acting is solid, with Brie, Gilpin, and Maron standing out, and the entire experience leaves you smiling, refreshed, and ready for Season 2. The opening year is the prelude and basically serves as the origin story for GLOW, with the season finale featuring the actual taping of the first episode.
There’s so much left to explore in this world and with these people. This will not be a one-off. It might not be a three-off. It’s going to become the most talked about non-Game of Thrones thing on television this summer, and whether it’s you and your girlfriends at the bar or you and your family at the beach, GLOW will come up in discussions.
Strong enough to watch more than once, with characters that stick with you long after Episode 10 concludes, Liz Flahive has put a hammerlock on Netflix with a series that leaves you ready to be pinned to the mat for the 1-2-3. Prepare to cheer and boo for Liberty Belle, Machu Picchu, The Welfare Queen, Beirut, and tons more.
Brie’s star power is already on the rise and she’s involved in multiple big-time projects releasing this year, but expect Betty Gilpin to become a “name,” and expect to be wowed by Marc Maron, among others.
No politics, no pulpits, and no bullshit.
GLOW is just great TV.
I’m @JMartOutkick and you can reach me at firstname.lastname@example.org. There’s zero truth to the rumor I was either Hollywood OR Vine.