The first season of Netflix’s new series GLOW has a subtly revolutionary trajectory.
On paper, the story of GLOW matches up to all the usual tropes of similar sports or competition narratives – those of The Mighty Ducks, Dodgeball, Glee or Pitch Perfect. GLOW is the tale of an unlikely bunch of misfits who come together under the single cause of developing and starring in a women’s wrestling TV show, and learn things about themselves as a result. But you’d be doing the show a disservice to reduce it merely to its overarching plot.
Up front, the opening episode is far less colourful and noticeably dourer than other debuts, setting up GLOW’s more tempered approach that’s a far cry from the cheery neon marketing. The campy 80s vibe of women’s wrestling is nowhere in sight until the closing minutes, as the show sets it up not just as an eventual product of the characters’ rehearsing, but also as a tonal promise that says “stick around and this is what you’ll be rewarded with.” And if the viewer chooses to stick with the series, it’s exactly what is eventually delivered.
However GLOW chooses to initially hone in on a protagonist who is equal parts sympathetic and aggravating. Alison Brie’s Ruth is at an all-time low point when she is first introduced, a struggling actress who is unable to get work in a pool of shitty roles for women. But Ruth is also out of touch, awkward and self-entitled, and is sleeping with her best Debbie’s husband out of resentment for Debbie’s relative soap opera success, qualities it’s harder to get on board with.
Ruth accepts a vague casting call for women, which turns out to be for a new television series called Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or GLOW for short. She flunks the audition but shows up to the first rehearsal unannounced to make another attempt, where she is unexpectedly followed and confronted by a furious Debbie. Seeing Debbie attack Ruth, director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) has an epiphany about what the show can be in a vision of the two wrestling in the ring. It’s the sole teaser for the show’s potential in a pilot that’s more about a pre-GLOW existence than the show itself, a move that could likely turn many potential viewers off.
Orange is the New Black, purposefully linked to GLOW by Jenji Kohan’s status as the newer show’s executive producer, had a similar pilot that looked closely at the circumstances that brought Piper Chapman to Litchfield, and both are poor representations of what either series would evolve into. OITNB has become an entirely ensemble show as of its fifth season, and I wouldn’t be surprised to see GLOW take a similar direction. By its first season finale, many of the fourteen wrestlers have had subplots of their own, even if the core of the show remains the Ruth/Debbie relationship.
The development of the fictionalised GLOW and Sam Sylvia’s attempts to convince Debbie to compete opposite Ruth in the ring provide a backbone to this excellently paced first season in which every episode perfectly advances plotlines and characters. The seventh episode ‘Live Studio Audience’ and the finale ‘Money’s in the Chase’ mark major milestones in the fictional GLOW’s development and are without a doubt the best two episodes, striking a perfect balance between the camp comedy of the wrestling storylines and how they intersect with the women playing the ridiculous characters in them.
And the cast are phenomenal. Alison Brie and Marc Maron may be the big names, but the decision to cast newcomers across the board pays off, and there isn’t a single weak link among them. It helps that the wrestling personas are insightful and hilarious, allowing a subtle caricatured exploration of all kinds of real-life themes that affect these characters lives from racism to self-identity. Britney Young, Sydelle Noel and Gayle Rankin standout especially, benefiting from the most prominent plotlines across the board.
The show excels in finding a balance for all its disparate elements and in seamlessly blending comedy into drama, a feat it accomplishes far better than OITNB and other similar shows ever could. A large part of this is in thanks to the time stamp of roughly 25-35 minutes. If there’s been a recurring problem with Netflix it is that episodes often clock in 10-15 minutes too long, and GLOW is the first show to consistently avoid doing this. There’s enough to leave the viewer wanting more rather than overly saturated, and it makes each episode tighter. Having ten episodes rather than thirteen also works to its advantage.
All of this is important in providing the perfect circumstances for GLOW to work its seemingly endless charm. It has a charming cast and a charming concept, backed up by strong writing and execution. Each character is more than a stereotype, with a depth and focus that makes them feel like real people rather than just pieces in a puzzle. By the end Ruth hasn’t necessarily changed or become a better person, and neither have Debbie or Sam, but they’re beginning to make better choices.
And that’s where some of the innovation of GLOW manifests itself. In the final episode, Debbie has left the group to try and make things work with her husband, but ultimately decides to return to the ring in her “Liberty Belle” persona where she bests Ruth’s “Zoya the Destroyer” and wins the crown. This alone would be a satisfying if familiar ending, but GLOW twists everything around by having “The Welfare Queen” unexpectedly snatch the crown. It’s a very self-aware parallel to a final exchange between Ruth and Debbie that establishes the brokenness of their friendship, and that everything cannot be magically fixed overnight.
This is a show with a view to growth. Its opening episode establishes this to great personal risk, and the season as a whole demands to be viewed as an opening act rather than conclusive product. In an era where many shows deliver lacklustre second seasons (especially on Netflix), this is a wise and welcome choice. GLOW is thoroughly deserving of a second season, and I can only pray that the disparity between marketing and product, as well as its choice to not put its best assets up front, doesn’t prevent it from happening.
The first episodes of GLOW present familiar tropes but by the end these are utterly subverted. This isn’t just a show about women being sexualised, it’s a show about women who defy sex and sexualisation in entertainment. It’s not a classic underdog sports narrative, it’s a learning experience that improves with each and every moment. It’s a show that embraces all the strange hilarity of women’s wrestling at the same time as appreciating its poignancy. And it DESERVES a second season.
I’m already missing spending time with the charming characters of the wonderful GLOW.
Score: $9000 out of the ballroom at the Hayworth Hotel.