Ladies’ fight: ‘GLOW’ is a little-known story worth telling

By Jim Sabataso
Correspondent

I’ve never been a fan of professional wrestling. It’s always struck me as a somewhat silly and low-brow form of entertainment. It’s precisely that attitude the new Netflix series “GLOW” attempts to subvert. Based on the real-life “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” syndicated TV show from the 1980s, it is a funny, delightful glimpse into the world of women’s wrestling.

Consequently, “GLOW” features a large cast of women — mostly made up of aspiring actors hoping a part on the show within the show will be their ticket to stardom. With about a dozen or so characters, creators and showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch face the daunting task of fleshing out each one of them. They mostly do a good job juggling stories.

Fortunately, Flahive and Mensch are no strangers to shows with large female casts. Between the two of them, they have written and produced for “Orange is the New Black,” “Weeds” and “Nurse Jackie.” Of those shows, the influence of “Orange” is the most evident. Both shows explore sisterhood, camaraderie and rivalry as the women slowly form bonds over the first season. It’s not surprising “Orange” creator Jenji Kohan serves as an executive producer on “GLOW” and even wrote one episode.

The bulk of the first season’s story is spent getting the show to air. We get lots of training montages, characters trying out different wrestling personas, and behind-the-scenes process as this unlikely project slowly comes together. Here, the audience sees how carefully choreographed and technical wrestling is. Yes, it’s fake, but it takes a lot of practice to make it look real.

The story is bolstered by a strong cast. It’s a shame, then, that some supporting characters get sidelined after their introductions, and only end up getting a couple story beats across the whole season. It’s especially frustrating considering some of those stories are more interesting than the show’s main conflict between its two stars.

One of those stars is Ruth, played by Alison Brie (“Community,” “BoJack Horseman”), a talented, overly earnest young actor who is so hungry for a break that she’s willing to take a chance on this crazy production. However, Ruth’s sunny disposition masks a darkness. She’s made some mistakes, regrets them terribly, and is not willing to let herself off the hook for them.

Debby (Betty Gilpin), a recently fired soap opera actor, also takes a chance on the show despite being forced to play opposite Ruth, her former best friend. Much of the season is spent watching these two work out their differences inside and outside the ring, as they channel their bad blood into their wrestling characters.

Comedian Marc Maron plays Sam, a washed-up B-movie director, who’s the main creative force behind “GLOW.” Maron does grizzled self-loathing as well as anyone. He berates the actors on set, but lets his guard down to several characters, giving us a glimpse of a good guy with a warm heart.

Brie and Maron have good chemistry onscreen. It’s a classic comedic pairing of the plucky young optimist and cynical, old crank. He acts like he can’t stand Ruth, but when she has a personal crisis toward the end of the season, Sam is there to support her without hesitation.

While “GLOW” is largely enjoyable, it has a tendency to overcome obstacles with unlikely, somewhat farcical schemes. Things tend to work out in ways that are too easy, tidy or just annoyingly cute. In one episode where Sam is trying to secure an reluctant advertiser, Ruth improvises a character that seals the deal. Everyone is impressed, despite how preposterous her performance reads to the audience. It’s a minor criticism, but such easy solutions to story obstacles lower the stakes and diminish narrative tension.

Still, there’s a lot to like about “GLOW.” Between the spot-on costume design — big shoulder pads, bigger hair — and the great soundtrack, the show nails the 1980s vibe. It also has enough solid emotional beats to elevate it above your typical 30-minute sitcom. And a second season seems likely, which is good news, since there is a lot more story to tell here, especially in the underused supporting cast.

CHECK IT OUT

“GLOW” is now streaming on Netflix.

Jim Sabataso

Jim Sabataso is a freelance writer living in Vermont.

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