Television

The TV Club, 2018

Entry 9: GLOW and Killing Eve challenged pat ideas about who’s good and who’s bad.

GLOW, Killing Eve
Photo illustration by Slate. Photos by Netflix and BBC America.

Wait,

How did you know I wanted so desperately to talk about GLOW? I liked the first season of the show, a period dramedy about a ragtag group of women who star in a female wrestling showcase, but I loved the second season. This is, in some ways, a very misleading thing to say, but it reminded me of Friday Night Lights in the sense that it’s lovable and addictive but also just fundamentally nice—which, in this context, really is a compliment. GLOW has none of FNL’s gritty realism or trembling hand-held camerawork, and it’s way more of a comedy—i.e., this comparison is not one Netflix’s algorithm would make!—but both shows pull off the same magic trick, where a humanist spirit, rather than villains or tragedy, keeps the show buoyant and riveting.

GLOW is built around a lot of clever doubling. There are the women and their wrestling alter egos, who are invariably racist, xenophobic, and sexist caricatures, allowing the show to address and skewer all of these things through a scrim of play and pile drivers. And then there’s the show itself, which has elements of romance, workplace comedy, sports movie, and ensemble drama, all genres that usually rely on lots of men, but in the context of GLOW … don’t. The spoiled friendship between the series two female leads, Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin), works like a romance would on another series; the two of them figuring out their way back to one another, if they can, if they want to, if they should, is the underlying emotional throughline.

As the series began, buxom blonde Debbie was betrayed by her brunette best friend, Ruth, who had slept with her husband. It’s the setup of a classic good girl-bad girl faceoff, very Betty and Veronica, and this part of their dynamic plays out in the ring, where everyone is reduced to their most simplistic, most saleable self. Debbie is cast as Liberty Belle, the star of the show and a jingoistic avatar of white American femininity, who faces off against perceived enemies of the people—not just Ruth’s Russian Communist, Zoya the Destroyer, but also “The Welfare Queen,” played by a black woman (the actress Kia Stevens) whose out-of-the-ring character is, of course, nothing of the sort.

Out of the ring, Debbie is also nothing like her golden-warrior persona. She’s a newly single mother, recently divorced, who is not just lonely and sad but also furious and angry. While Ruth is constantly trying to make things up to Debbie and always looking out for the other women—she’s the group’s actual leader, their director—Debbie is often high on her own supply, imperious and haughty. Debbie can be awful—she breaks Ruth’s leg, for goodness’ sake!—but even when doing these awful things, she’s understandable and sympathetic, thanks both to the writing and to Gilpin’s incredible performance. The point of GLOW isn’t that the good girl is actually the bad girl and the bad girl the good girl. It’s that there are no bad girls and no good girls; everyone’s all mixed up. Debbie’s a rejoinder to all the simplistic versions—both gentle and harsh—of the wronged woman that have ever been written.

All to say: You can tell GLOW was created by women. And you can tell this about Killing Eve too, which was created by Fleabag’s Phoebe Waller-Bridge. Waller-Bridge completely revitalized what I had heretofore considered a total dead end: the psycho-killer show. One way that Waller-Bridge did that was to make her psycho killer incredibly fun—a potentially icky move that worked for me because it felt so mindful, instead of mindless.

Killing Eve is about a contract killer, Villanelle (Jodie Comer, who should be a movie star, if that’s not a self-hating thing for a TV critic to say), a beautiful, genuinely funny, irrepressible, conscienceless weirdo who enthusiastically waxes people to pop music. Because of her youth, charm, looks, and gender, she is constantly misjudged by everyone as a nonthreat—everyone except the brainy, funny, grounded woman tracking her, Sandra Oh’s Eve Polastri. But the people misjudging Villanelle don’t just include the characters in the show: They include us, in the audience, having such a good time watching her flounce around; expecting, perhaps, some explanation for her behavior; hoping, perhaps, that she can be redeemed. We can’t see her clearly either. There’s a moment midseason when Eve’s male partner tracks Villanelle to a nightclub, and she looks at him from across the crowded room and smiles, and he realizes he has tragically misjudged the situation—that it is he, not she, who is the powerless prey. It was such a frightening and powerful reversal, because it wasn’t just the poor investigator whose perspective needed immediate adjustment; it was ours, too.

There are all sorts of directions we could go in now! We should continue shouting out shows we love—or hate! (Though no one ever wants to be as negative as I wish they would be.) We could get more granular, considering not just shows but memorable performances, scenes, episodes. (It’s interesting to me, Todd and Sonia, that you both mentioned specific episodes of Superstore and The Good Place. I think TV really is and should be an episodic medium, but it is impossible for me to remember episodes of anything at this point, give or take a “Teddy Perkins.” Which someone should tackle, if they feel up to it!) Todd, I stopped watching The Terror after the first couple of episodes. I can see, as you say, that it is about the crazy, self-defeating strictures of masculinity and yet … I just didn’t want to watch a show about a bunch of grimy men trapped on the ice for months, with no female characters at all. Tara, I, like Sonia, am also very interested to hear more about The Good Fight, but I am also interested—dry though it may be—in how you guys think a streaming service like CBS All Access can possibly continue.

This reminds me that we could go much bigger and leave fiction behind altogether—to talk about reality TV, The Great British Bake Off, Netflix’s food-show arms race, or its weird obsession with having a late-night show. Or we could get really serious and talk the year’s #MeToo revelations and reverberations, which didn’t just fundamentally alter shows like House of Cards, but entire networks. CBS, long the only stable network with its bevy of retrograde sitcoms, was being run, all that time, by a sexual predator. Disgusting and disheartening revelations like these did inspire some tremendous work this year, like in BoJack and Nanette. And they also inspired a number of women to speak up and out, not just about sexual misconduct in the workplace but payment disparity. Which is all to say, please remember that 2018 was also the year of Ellen Pompeo, who is starring in the umpteenth season of Grey’s Anatomy, but who kicked off 2018 by being outspoken, honest, funny and righteous and kept it up all year, showing an admirable willingness to make all the right people uncomfortable in all of the right ways. She’s a national treasure.

Are any of you still watching Grey’s?

Willa

Read the previous entry. Read the next entry.