There is no writer/producer working today that is able to navigate deftly between drama and comedy quite like Jenji Kohan. I’ve written about two of her most famous shows here before (Weeds and Orange is the New Black) and I remain a fan of both. This piece on her Weeds anti-hero Nancy Botwin is the most read article on this site, something I find both gratifying and honestly kind of perplexing. Kohan’s strength lies in shows with complex women that the audience finds themselves rooting for, not because they are good people necessarily, but because its their flaws that make them so endearing in the first place. For GLOW Kohan serves as an Executive Producer to co-show runners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, both veterans of Kohan’s other series. Flahive and Mensch, along with their writers and directors, are able to deftly shift between comedy and pathos playing taboo subjects for laughs and staging audacious scenarios that somehow never veer into crassness.
GLOW tells the fictional story of the real life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling tv show from 1985. Looking to capitalize on the runaway success of the World Wrestling Federation, schlock movie director Sam Sylvia (Mark Maron) puts out a casting call for “unconventional women” that draws a motley crew of actresses, models, stunt women, and assorted misfits to film a pilot for the women’s version of the WWF.
Ruth Wilder, played by a fearless Alison Brie, is an aspiring actress that has been auditioning for months without any luck. Her “try hard” style is a turn off to casting directors and she is down to her last $50 when she gets the casting call for GLOW. Quickly she finds herself drawn in to the physicality of wrestling and immediately grabs on to the showmanship and theatricality of it all. Like with Orange we are soon introduced to the other women in GLOW, each of which is taking their chance on the outlandish idea for their own reasons.
Along side Ruth is her former best friend Debbie Egan (Betty Gilpin), the most famous of the GLOW recruits. Debbie previously found some minor fame on a soap opera and she reluctantly joins the cast for reasons I don’t want to spoil here. The relationship of Ruth and Debbie is the primary rivalry on the show but GLOW sports a diverse cast of women and uses them well for a wide range of subplots. Of particular note is Sydelle Noel as Cherry Bang, a stunt woman that ends up training the women in how to fight, and Britney Young as Carmen Wade, a legacy wrestler trying to prove she too can make it in a sport where her father and brothers have all found fame. With a cast this large it is inevitable that some characters will be given short shrift but all of the women are given at least a couple of moments to make an impression throughout the season and there are no weak links in the line up.
Leading the production is the director, Sam. He is a sardonic self-sabotaging bastard yet played by Mark Maron you can’t help but like the guy even while cringing at the words coming out of his mouth. As a veteran of the movie business Sam sees GLOW as just another gig and he butts heads continuously against the “we can do anything!” theater kid enthusiasm of Ruth. For her part, Alison Brie is a revelation and I hope the Emmy voters remember her next year. Brie plays Ruth as a girl-next-door type that is unafraid to make herself look like a fool if she thinks its what the story needs and Brie throws herself in to the role with wholehearted gusto with smashing results.
Over the 10 episodes of season 1 we see the woman grow from neophytes to seasoned performers. Early on the silliness of pro wrestling is addressed and rather than discarded, GLOW embraces it. Even the iconography, opening titles, and music is over the top and sells an image and experience that the reality doesn’t quite meet. But that’s all part of the fun. Yes, the matches are scripted. Yes, the story lines are played out like a soap opera. But those wrestling moves are still real and it requires skill and talent to sell it to the audience.
Even as we watch the characters practice the moves growing their skills it is still a thrill to watch the matches. Every hit, headlock, and clothesline looks like it really hurts and we are right there with the audience enthralled even as we know no one is really being hurt. It’s like watching a magic trick from an expert magician; even if you know how the trick works it doesn’t make the execution any less thrilling and you find yourself marveling at how seamless and exciting the whole thing is. You find yourself sucked in to the world no matter how hard you may resist. The genius of the series is that the characters are initially skeptical as well and they grow to embrace the idea right along with the audience.
GLOW season 1 ends with the promise of a bigger stage to come. The show has been renewed for season 2 expected for some time in 2018. At only 30 minutes per episode you can binge the whole season in a Saturday afternoon and I highly recommend you do so. GLOW is smart, funny, exciting, and one of the very best shows I’ve watched this year.
Netflix comedy/drama. Ten 30 min episodes. Rated M