In 1986, a new show premiered that was unlike any ever seen on TV. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, or GLOW for short, was a glorious, bizarre product of its time, taking all of the camp, melodrama, and fantasy of the male-dominated wrestling scene and turning it into a showcase for dozens of charismatic, flamboyant women of all shapes and sizes. Hop on YouTube and you’ll find no shortage of vintage GLOW clips to peruse in all of its absurdity: rap interludes, silly direct-to-camera testimonies from the women dissing their opponents and boasting about their own prowess in the ring, badly acted skits. Per the ’80s, the hair was huge. Per the world of wrestling, the character types were pretty cut and dry—among them they were literally divided into the “good” girls and the “bad,” and went by stage monikers like “Americana,” “Spanish Red,” and “Tara the Southern Belle.” And yet the cultural impact of the show at that time was a decidedly more mixed bag: Despite the fact that GLOW courted the male gaze and trafficked in (borderline) offensive stereotypes, here were women reveling in their own boldness and athleticism.
So of course, some 30 years later, someone thought a fictionalized, behind-the-scenes look at GLOW would make for compelling, socio-political prestige TV. Those someones are Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the creators of Netflix’s new comedy-drama, and it turns out they were correct. (GLOW is also executive-produced by Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan.) This new interpretation of GLOW, inspired by the fascinating real-life men and women who brought the original to Reagan-era audiences, is packed with an excellent ensemble cast that includes Alison Brie and Marc Maron, sharp commentary on gender and racial stereotypes, and an awesomely ’80s soundtrack. It’s also just plain fun, aware of (and sometimes shamelessly indulgent in) the inherent silliness of wrestling, while never looking down on it.
At first glance, it would seem that GLOW will be filtered primarily through the eyes of Brie’s earnest go-getter Ruth, a broke actor living in L.A. and frustrated by her lack of options for full-dimensional, meaty roles as a woman. In the opening scene, she self-sabotages an audition by purposely reading the man’s part and then laments to her (female) agent that she wants to play “real” roles, not “the secretary telling the boss his wife is on Line 2.” Her instructor falls asleep during her performance as Maggie in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof in a scene study class, she has to call home to ask for more rent money, and to top it all off, her relationship with her friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin), who recently retired from her lucrative soap opera career to raise a newborn, becomes strained after a devastating revelation.* Soon, her agent calls her with a mysterious but promising opportunity: A TV casting call for “unconventional women” (read: not traditionally “hot” or Barbie-like) being held at a gym. This, of course, is revealed to be Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling—and desperate for work, Ruth sticks around to audition and makes the cut alongside almost a dozen other oddball women.
But by the second episode, when the newly formed crew comes together under the direction of the lonely, crotchety schlock filmmaker Sam Sylvia (a perfectly cast Marc Maron, a character based in part on real-life GLOW creator Matt Cimber), it becomes clear that Ruth is only the entry point to an off-kilter, raucous story in which wrestling meets low-budget Hollywood. Her misfit co-stars include Melrose (Jackie Tohn), a tough shit-talker who doesn’t take any of this seriously; Cherry (Sydelle Noel), a hard-working actor who shares history—both professional and personal—with Sam and leads the women in training and choreography; Carmen (Britney Young), the winsome daughter of a famous wrestler dad (who doesn’t support her dreams to follow in his footsteps because she’s a woman); and Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin), who awakens every day and performs a beauty ritual so that her appearance will live up to her name. By Episode 4, Sam has moved all of them into a crappy motel as they prepare to shoot the pilot, and as each of their characters expand to varying degrees—there are 13 GLOW cast members, after all—the season seeks to make the case for why these unconventional women deserve to have their stories told.
If you think this sounds a lot like Orange Is the New Black, you are not wrong—Kohan’s fingerprints are all over it. Once again, a classically attractive young white woman is the viewers’ Trojan horse, smuggling in a whole range of different character studies and subplots. But Hollywood, for all its pressures and racism and sexism, is not a maximum security prison, and the relative lightheartedness makes this a heck of a lot more fun to watch, even when the humor gets super bleak. (At one point, Sam has the women improvise a ridiculous fight in which one of them “kicks” the other one in the stomach and causes a miscarriage … knowing that Cherry herself has suffered a painful miscarriage in the past. The scene is both tragic and somehow strangely comical.) GLOW also—thankfully—eschews OITNB’s signature method of divulging backstory via flashback, which, while clever and useful at first, in more recent seasons has seemed unnecessary. Instead, the different characters’ storylines are dealt out gingerly and naturally in the real time of the show. Sam’s storied career making exploitation films—and his denial to see them as such—is frequently skewered in conversations. (“Your movies are hysterical,” young white dude bro Sebastian, who is producing GLOW, tells him admiringly. “They’re not comedies,” replies a disheartened Sam. His sample filmography includes Oedipussy and Blood Disco.) Debbie’s strained relationship with her husband, Mark (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer), and his lack of support for her career ambitions are revealed incrementally through their arguments as he tries to win her back. GLOW comes alive in these moments, and even when they don’t quite work or when they feel overly didactic, the show’s overall pleasures are hard to deny.
GLOW’s biggest satirical target is stereotypes, specifically challenging the ways they are reinforced. It’s unclear how deeply the real GLOW creator, Matt Cimber, considered the images of the women he was putting on screen. In a 2012 documentary about the series, the women interviewed, including Lynn Braxton, a black cast member who played the matriarchal Big Bad Mama onstage, don’t appear to have had much internal conflict over their characters, and one woman matter-of-factly states that Cimber “tried to offend as many people as he could.” This being 2017, the fictionalized interpretation of GLOW knows that it can’t be so ambiguous. And so as the ladies are given their wrestling alter egos and the sexist and racist ideas fly flippantly from the mouths of Sam, Sebastian, and the other white execs without any thought, the women don’t take their assignments on blindly. They find empowerment and purpose in their work (the full-on wrestling scenes are dynamic) but also question it: Tammé (real-life wrestler Kia Stevens), for instance, expresses concern to Sam that her Stanford-attending son might look down on her role as “Welfare Queen”; Indian American Arthie (Sunita Mani) is dismayed at being heckled as a “towelhead” by audience members during her performance as “Arab Bomber.”
Sam frequently insists to the women that he’s using these stereotypes to dispel them, but in a sport as dependent on cartoonish identities as wrestling, that’s nearly impossible to achieve. Through the lens of prestige TV, however, it is more possible, and Flahive, Mensch, and the rest of the endearing ensemble make it happen here, in all of its spandex-clad glory.
Update, 6:20 p.m.: This post originally included a spoiler from Episode 1 of GLOW. It has been updated to omit the big reveal.