Netflix’s Look At Wrestling, Comedy, and (gasp) Leaning In
I’m actually old enough to remember the original GLOW. It was a late-night fixture on the syndicated TV that came to my house as an adolescent. At that point, I was young enough and naive to think that the women who cavorted and monologued around that stage were actually real athletes, as opposed to the performers that all professional wrestlers are. And I probably never gave a second thought to the women behind the performers. But then, probably none of us did.
I should also say going in that I’ve never been a huge fan of Genji Kohan and the kind of antiheroines that she generally tends to put on television. I openly disliked Weeds (and as a result of my disdain, I avoided for a long time watching Breaking Bad, which at the time, I thought was a ripoff of the show) And despite all of things the series has in its favor, I’ve never been able to get into Orange is the New Black. I know that the first season was probably the weakest, but that’s not necessarily an argument in its favor. So all of that has generally inclined me to delay watching what is currently one of Netflix’s biggest phenomena, GLOW. And now, having seen three episodes of its first season, its becoming clear what a huge blunder I’ve made.
GLOW initially centers around two very different 1980s aspiring actresses, Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), who is so desperate to find any kind of female role that she’s on the verge of doing porn, and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) who had a recurring role on a soap opera, but was put in a coma and has since become a mother. The two of them have been friends for years, a friendship that is torpedoed the minute Debbie learns that Ruth slept with her husband.
Ruth auditions for a part on something called “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’, run by a producer-writer named Sam Sylvia.(Marc Maron). He has only the vaguest ideas of what he’s doing, and its clear, right from the get-go that this may be his last shot. He has creative impulses that straddle the line between high camp and genius, and its clear that Sam himself doesn’t know where that line ends. Ruth is desperate for a job, and its clear from moment one that Sam thinks she’s just pretentious. At the same time, he is willing to throw anybody under the bus to get his ‘vision’, even though pretty clear from listening to him that his vision is just money away from Ed Wood. (He also has a cocaine addiction, but he’s in 80s Hollywood. That’s practically a given. When he tries to present his idea for his backer (Chris Lowell), its clear from what he sees that he never had any intention of going along with what was is his mind, a simple concept. He may have just seen all this as a means to getting another script made. But some of the women are on to him, particularly Cherry, who worked with him (and slept with him) on a previous project, and knows first hand how much he wants to sabotage himself.
GLOW is a very daring show, and also a very entertaining one. It takes the wrestling seriously, and its also really looks pretty honestly at just how hard it was for a woman to find a role in the 1980s. (The opening scene for the series is already a classic. Ruth reads for a part, tells the producers how glad she is that someone is writing a role for strong female characters, then gets told she just read the male role.) It makes it points about gender inequality far subtler than some other series, and often funnier, too. It may be a stretch to say that the women of GLOW were trailblazers for the strong female roles that dominate the TV landscape, but given how barren the landscape was back then, an argument could definitely be made.
All the performers are good in their roles, but the revelation here is Maron. I’ve been watching him as a stand-up and podcaster since the early days of Comedy Central, and frankly didn’t think he was capable of playing somebody who wasn’t, well, Marc Maron. But he’s truly incredible in his work as the this drugged out, B-Movie producer, who clearly does have moments of inspiration. His original concept for the series is unspeakable (Ruth is playing a character whose name couldn’t pass the censors now, much less then), and it’s clear, at this point, he doesn’t have much respect for a lot of the women he works with. But every so often, like in the Pilot, where he sees what his show could be capable of, you see the genius he could have been, and maybe can be. If Maron doesn’t get an Emmy nod for Best Supporting Actor, the voters deserve to be body slammed.
I’m not yet convinced that GLOW is, like so many have, one of the best series on TV. I’m not even convinced yet its one of the best shows on Netflix. But it clearly it has a vision and scope that a lot of series lack, and its a lot more fun. If nothing else, it reveals that even though wrestling was not a sport, it was definitely dangerous, and that these women deserve recognition as athletes and performers. I hope I can get through this before Season 2 premieres in a matter of weeks.
My score: 4.25 stars.