GLOW, the new series from streaming giant Netflix which releases its first season on Friday, June 23, is a great show. It’s sitting at 96% on Rotten Tomatoes as I type this, which isn’t surprising considering the people involved behind and in front of the cameras.
Creators and showrunners Liz Flahive (Homeland, Nurse Jackie) and Carly Mensch (Nurse Jackie, Orange Is The New Black, Weeds) have put together a (mostly female) cast and crew for this dramatic comedy inspired by the short-lived 1980s women’s wrestling show, and they deliver ten episodes worthy of all the praise they’re getting. The series is charming and funny and heartfelt, with a positive feminist message which neither feels forced or ignorant of societal realities.
Leads Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron all nail their roles as Hollywood types who, for different reasons, latch onto wrestling as a lifeline. The rest of the main ensemble of wrestlers and others attached to the promotion are well cast and each add something unique to the proceedings.
But Cageside isn’t a TV blog per se and I’m certainly not a professional critic, so aside from my wholehearted recommendation, let’s get into the stuff we’re all here for... pro wrestling.
Now, obviously, you’re not going to fire up your Roku or Apple TV and punch up GLOW strictly for in-ring action. There aren’t five star classics in these five-plus hours of television... there’s not even a start-to-finish match. But that doesn’t mean the Netflix series doesn’t employ a lot of the same devices and touch on many of the themes that make wrestling must-see for us.
All the best characters and angles have an element of reality to them
In a completely fictional show, of course, there’s no “reality” (that we know of...). But without giving too much away, GLOW does a great job of turning up the tension in its wrestling stories by building them out of conflict between the performers (as depicted by actors - there are layers on layers here, y’all).
Trailers tease an issue between Brie’s Ruth and Gilpin’s Debbie, and I won’t give away what that is, but suffice it to say it’s the kind of thing with which the dirt sheets would run wild. Or, given the 80s setting, historians would dissect endlessly as they speculate on how it played into their feud.
While soap actress-trying-to-be-Hulk Hogan Debbie and struggling-to-find-a-heel-gimmick Ruth are the headliners, it’s far from the only place GLOW creates interest in its wrestling stars using the performers’ characters. It’s impossible to not root for Britney Young’s Machu Picchu after learning more about the dreams of second generation wrestler Carmen. There’s real heat between Sydelle Noel’s Cherry, a stunt woman woman trying to get the show to run professionally, and Jackie Tohn’s party girl Melrose.
There are more examples, but you get the idea. GLOW takes full advantage of having control over both the shoot and kayfabe personas of its wrestlers in a way a real wrestling promoter could only dream, and uses that luxury to great effect creating compelling drama.
Workrate vs. presentation, and other great wrestling debates
It’s not exactly a Roman Reigns situation, and we don’t get far enough along with the in-show GLOW as a proper promotion by the end of season one to dive into fan issues with who’s getting a push, but throughout these first ten episodes, we see some of the women take more to the athletic aspects of wrestling while others embrace the show business side. Management, in the form of Maron’s director Sam Sylvia and Chris Lowell’s “money mark” producer Sebastian Howard, tabs stars based on look - and race - without regard for much else.
And those aren’t the only, or the most meaningful, internet arguments you’ll see played out across GLOW’s fictional Los Angeles sets. Naturally, issues of gender roles and agency for women are pervasive, but the show doesn’t shy away from calling wrestling out for using ethnic stereotypes. Sure, it’s set thirty years in the past, but that makes it even more uncomfortable when you can see the echoes of Sunita Mani’s Arthie being asked to play a character called “Beirut” in the present day. I guess we should be glad we don’t get things as blatant as Kia Stevens’ “Welfare Queen” gimmick any more, but we’re not too far removed from Cryme Tyme, either.
Perhaps it’s because there’s strain between image and skill, culture and cliché, everywhere. But that makes wrestling more interesting, and incorporating it does the same for GLOW.
It’s sports AND entertainment
Vince McMahon is fond of telling us he’s not in the wrestling business, so it’s fair GLOW isn’t completely in that business, either. And for a dramedy about sports entertainment, it makes sense the show leans on Hollywood’s classic storytelling template for both forms.
One of my favorite things about GLOW is that it’s a classic underdog sports story while also being a “show must go on” theater tale.
Can this band of misfits look past their differences and come together as a team? Will circumstances outside their control cause this production which means so much to the players to fall apart?
In melding these two tropes, GLOW casts the in-show version of itself as the ultimate babyface, and makes it easy for viewers to cheer the cast and crew of GLOW on to (fingers crossed) victory.
There are lots of actual wrestlers in this thing
I really don’t want to give too much away here, as seeing people we’re familiar with from WWE, TNA, Ring of Honor, Lucha Underground and other companies pop up was a lot of fun for me on first viewing... but there are a lot of pro wrestlers with roles of various sizes sprinkled throughout GLOW.
One that isn’t giving anything away is Stevens, aka Awesome Kong/Kharma. While she’s a member of the full-time cast, her part isn’t as big as some of the other regulars, but she makes the most of it. Seeing her display intelligence and vulnerability rather than the menace we wrestling fans are used to is a real treat.
Beyond Kia, I’ll just say that there’s a person currently contracted to Impact who made me smile every time they showed up. There’s also a former FCW champ you’ll never look at the same way again.
And what there is of the actual scripted fighting is pretty good, too.
As you can see in the above behind-the-scenes featurette, in addition to all the pros floating around the cast, Chavo Guerrero, Jr. was on staff as the wrestling coordinator. It shows.
GLOW may not change anyone’s mind about whether or not pro wrestling is for them - it leans heavily on the “it’s just like a soap opera!” argument to explain the form’s appeal - but it could garner some respect for what the men and women who damage their bodies in the ring do night-in and night-out.
Even limited by what they could teach non-athletes in the course of production and the desire to accurately depict a more limited 80s style of wrestling, GLOW manages to convey the effort that goes in to executing even basic moves, the level of coordination required between opponents and how much even a perfectly landed spot can still hurt.
Setting the how-it’s-done stuff aside, though, you could splice together a decent legitimate wrestling show out of season one, complete with matches, swerves, betrayals, victories and defeats, and everyone from Chavo and stunt coordinator Shauna Duggins to Brie and Gilpin to Flahive and Mensch deserve props for that.
There are lots of reasons to binge GLOW as soon as your busy schedule of wrestling watching allows. It’s well written and well acted. It’s smart and funny and touching without pulling punches or being saccharine.
In addition to that, it represents for this wacky, problematic art form we all love. And it’s for that reason, I, a wrestling blogger, say to you...
Netflix’s GLOW isn’t just a great show about wrestling, it’s a great wrestling show.