It’s easy to see why Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s pitch for GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling) turned Netflix’s head. A fictionalised account of the creation of an actual female wrestling cable TV franchise in the mid-’80s by the writers of Nurse Betty and Orange Is The New Black, it suggests a piquant, sadly still relevant tale of women-in-a-man’s-world shenanigans, all wrapped up in an attractive, nostalgic package of wrestling hoopla, gaudy style and electro pop. The finished bout, though always enjoyable, only partly delivers on the promise of the premise.
An entertaining romp into a world where big hair meets body slams.
At the heart of the set-up is Alison Brie’s Ruth Wilder, a serious-minded actress who brings some thespian aspirations to GLOW, a cheapo cable TV wrestling show she is forced to take to pay the bills. Brie is always likeable but, as she flits between the sensible surrogate for the audience and a kooky comic presence (her Yentl shtick at a Russian party particularly misses the mark), we never get a handle on Ruth. The show sets itself as being Ruth’s ‘journey’ to discover who she is — it plays out in her inability to land on a wrestling identity — yet any self-realisation gets subsumed in the story of getting GLOW to the screen. Perhaps the most satisfying arc belongs to Betty Gilpin’s ex-soap star Debbie, a kind of “Grace Kelly on steroids” who has to rebuild her life after her best friend sleeps with her husband, finding solace and strength in wrestling as a way of taking control of her body and life.
With the supporting cast of wrestlers ranking around a dozen, the writing never finds the correct hierarchy to let every character register and develop. Most successful are Britney Young’s Carmen Wade, who has to battle the shadow of her male wrestling family dynasty, and Sydelle Noel’s Cherry, a stunt double for Pam Grier looking for some on-camera action, who becomes the group’s “black Nurse Ratched”. But other promising characters — Jackie Tohn’s party girl Melrose, Gayle Rankin’s feral Sheila The She Wolf, Kate Nash’s Brit Rhonda (obviously she gets to do some speak-singing) — shine brightly for moments then fizzle. Others don’t even get enough screentime to begin shining.
The significant male in the mix is GLOW’s producer Sam Sylvia, an exploitation filmmaker director (credits include ‘Oedipussy’, ‘Gina Machina’) who is directing the wrestling show in return for finance for his magnum opus, Mothers And Others. Played with attack by comedian/podcaster Marc Maron, Sam comes on like a sleaze merchant yet has hidden depths — he gets an affecting plot strand involving fan/stalker Justine (Britt Baron) — and a progressive agenda: he uses the personas of the wrestlers (Welfare Queen, Fortune Cookie, Beirut) to comment on gender, racial and American pigeon-holes, women literally wrestling with stereotypes. This is the show’s best idea, delivering on some of the political/feminist ideas that are only hinted at elsewhere.
Without being as blunt as The Wedding Singer, GLOW has fun with the time that taste forgot (check out the convoluted pregnancy test), going deep with Ric Flair, Dream Academy and Moonraker-pigeon references. It skirts with OITNB’s edge — it’s unashamedly swear-y, pushes the envelope of taste in an extended skit around miscarriages or “womb goofs” — but tempers it with more mainstream pleasures. As it develops, the show becomes a mechanical but watchable ‘let’s-put-on-the-show-right-here’ story as the women learn the (literally pink) ropes. Predictable, certainly, but it taps out with a winning energy, some killer lines, strong performances and a gentle but persuasive reminder that women today are still fighting similar battles to those they were engaged in 30 years ago. Overstuffed with characters with more story than laughs, GLOW still delivers an entertaining romp into a world where big hair meets body slams. Maybe Season 2 can find some killer finishing moves.