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Heels episode one review: Sibling rivalry creates a good premiere

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The latest pro wrestling TV drama adds layers to a story old as time. And it does so really well.

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There’s the predetermined wrestling we see on television every week, and then there’s the behind-the-scenes business that, at times, is a lot more interesting than what’s fed to us weekly. Kevin Nash famously said the only thing real in this business is the money and the miles.

Heels successfully keeps Nash’s theory a guiding light, focusing on how politics and relationships inform what happens in the ring behind the scenes. And in the typical style of this thing of ours, Heels is soap opera at its finest. The show contains all of the emotional highs and lows we get from wrestling when it’s working at its apex, toeing that line between comedy and drama pretty damn effortlessly for a compelling hour of television.

At its heart, Michael Waldron’s creation is about sibling rivalry, as the first episode is all about two brothers in a small Georgia town fighting over who gets to be the big man on campus. Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) and younger brother Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig) do not get along. Jack runs DWL, is its top bad guy, and is its World Heavyweight Champion. There are so many conflicts of interest in that sentence it’s hard to know where to start, and none of them are lost on Ace. “Kayfabe” puts us squarely in the wrestling boots of Jack Spade as he tries to keep the Duffy Wrestling League afloat, live up to his father’s legacy, be a good husband, a good dad, and everything in between.

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Amell is great at showing the weariness on Jack’s face as he always looks like a cat with the weight of two worlds on his shoulders. How does one work as the sole proprietor of a wrestling federation with a minimal budget and a daytime job that doesn’t pay much? The brown stuff really hits the fan when Jack feels attacked on two fronts: a rival promotion run by someone who “thinks he’s Vince McMahon” and a big-time “up north” company who wants to snatch his biggest star, Ace.

What unfolds is a philosophical debate: who has actual ownership of a character? Is It the wrestler who performs or the promoter who creates? Is Dwayne Johnson the reason The Rock became a supernova, or is it McMahon? The question has more weight when it’s two family members on polar opposite sides of the discussion. Ace is DWL’s biggest good guy and walks around town like he owns it. Ludwig plays Ace like a member of a band who lives for his guitar solos. He feels he’s untouchable because the people love him, even when he goes into business for himself. These are all no-nos for big brother John, especially when little brother’s success pushes his own insecurities to the forefront.

Heels weaves in this real-life narrative with the wrestling as the episode builds to a championship match between the two. Their disagreements about the outcome only intensify once it’s clear Ace is destined for greener pastures. This results in a shocking conclusion that will undoubtedly create a domino effect for the rest of the season.

Oh, that’s right, this is a wrestling site, so we have to get to the actual wrestling. DWL has a small stable of guys who, narratively, explain what happens inside the ring. They train, rehearse, and explain things to a rookie—and the audience—so he doesn’t hurt anyone. It’s an eclectic group, which includes former Pittsburgh Steelers legend James Harrison. Why mention Harrison? Besides the fact I was shocked to see him, I’m obligated to mention any Steelers-related news because Sean will kill me if I don’t.

There’s potential with the wrestlers in DWL to tell more stories, as they’re all interesting in their own right. “Kayfabe” doesn’t do a lot with them but creating likable supporting characters is always an excellent first step.

A running beef between Jack and Ace is if their championship bout is the beginning of a story or its end. Heels makes its choice clear as crystal when the closing credits roll, setting up the rest of its season with its lead characters in very different positions than they were when the episode started. Like any good or excellent wrestling story, Heels will live or die based on how it follows a dope opening promo that has the crowd wanting more.