There are certain expectations that come with a TV show based on the retro women’s wrestling league, GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling). At the same time, there’s the lingering question of “What exactly is this show going to be about besides wrestling?” Enter Orange is the New Black gurus Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann. Along with show co-creators Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie, Homeland) and Carly Mensch (Weeds, Nurse Jackie), the team created a carefully orchestrated dramedy that transcends the world of badass, big-haired wrestling and taps into socially relevant topics and a portrayal of female relationships that’s honest and mature as much as it’s satirical and hilarious. And the fact that it is all set in a very ’80s world of opaque hosiery, side ponytails, and blue eye shadow makes it all the better.
In the first episode, we are immediately introduced to Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an aspiring actress who is “serious about her craft” — maybe a bit too much. The first scene has her in a mint-green skirt suit trying out for a role in front of what we expect to be big-time executives. As she finishes her passionate monologue, the female casting director points out to her that she was reading the wrong part. She was reading the male lines. After realizing her blunder, she resets and reads for the less nuanced female part which consists of the single line: “Your wife is on line 2.”
Frustrated with the path of her career, she learns of a new opportunity that calls for women with “unconventional” looks. She shows up to the casting call and it is certainly a ragtag group of females, some professional actors, some not. The director of the project, Sam (Marc Maron), a harmless but kind of sketchy looking guy, informs the group that they are forming a wrestling league for women called GLOW and if they’re interested in acting via WWF-style wrestling, then this gig is for them. Being the optimistic go-getter she is, Ruth stays and thus begins her — and our journey into the amazing world of GLOW.
Children of the ’80s are well aware of the cult phenomenon known Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Keep in mind, this was at a time when Hulk Hogan was building his legion of Hulkamaniacs and Wrestlemania was hitting its stride. On the surface, GLOW was the woman’s answer to the WWF, giving females the opportunity to do the same thing, but with more flair and panache. Much like their male counterpart, GLOW had eccentric wrestling characters like Big Bad Mama, Cinnamon, Babe the Farmer’s Daughter, and my personal favorite, Mount Fuji. Sure, it was glorious campy entertainment, but behind it all there was a bigger message of inclusion and female empowerment – and through its fun-loving ’80s veneer, that’s the kind of picture Netflix’s GLOW sets to paint.
The show lays the entire season’s narrative foundation through the relationship between Ruth and her BFF Debbie (the wonderful Betty Gilpin). Both are actresses, but Debbie decided to settled down with a husband and family in the Pasadena suburbs after a stint on a popular soap opera. But when they have a falling out, they become frenemies. One thing leads to another and Sam convinces Debbie to join GLOW as the show’s All-American leading woman. She reluctantly joins, but when she finds out that she and Ruth would be playing rivals on the show it makes for an interesting dynamic between the two — and for the season’s run.
From Ruth and Debbie’s relationship branches more storylines including that of no-nonsesnse, second-in-command Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) and her past with Sam as well as Carmen Wade (Britney Young), a woman whose dad is a wrestling legend that would rather her be more of a housewife and less of a wrestler. The show fills typical roles of an ensemble comedy, but manages to tweak them so that they aren’t tropes. Gayle Rankin plays the “weirdo” Sheila the She Wolf while Jackie Tohn steps into the role of the obnoxious privileged white girl. Needless to say, there is plenty of story to be had beyond one season. That said, many may consider GLOW, a version of Orange is the New Black except set in a wrestling ring rather than a prison.
The similarities are between GLOW and Orange is the New Black are very apparent: a diverse group of women with different stories, forced to work together. However, in OITNB, the women have to work through their differences to prove their worth, while in GLOW, the women use their differences to their advantage to prove their worth. Kohan and her team were well-aware that this show would parallel OITNB and finessed GLOW to differentiate it — something that the show had a problem with in the first couple of episodes. It had trouble finding its tone and footing. There were moments when the show’s identity was uncertain, but all it took was some tossing around the ring and by episode 10, you’ll be dying for more.
Ruth is strong as the show’s leader and is much more tolerable than the insufferable Piper on OITNB. As Brie’s debut as a series lead, she holds her own and carries the show for 10 episodes and Gilpin is standing right alongside with her. The two could have easily made this a prime time soap opera of catfights, cattiness, and melodrama, but they managed to stay away from that and take a different direction. Despite the shades of satire, there is an air of maturity to their rivalry and reflects on how two women in the same situation would handle it in real life.
With the exception of a handful of tertiary characters, Maron’s Sam is the only male character that plays a big part of the ladies’ lives and he surprisingly fits in splendidly. A sleazy Hollywood director with a heart of gold, the writers wrote his character with a very specific thoughtfulness. He pretty much knows his place in this story and he does do say some offensive things about women — but it’s not because he’s misogynist. It’s because he just hates everyone — not that that’s an excuse. Maron gives Sam a certain sense of humanity that makes him self-aware and with each episode, he grows to be less of an a**hole because he actually cares about these women and how they’re represented.
But this is not Sam’s story. It’s a series for women by women and allows them to figure things out without the help of a man. The fact that it’s a story about female empowerment is a given. Team GLOW adds nuance and panache to it and doesn’t body slam you with the predictable marks of female empowerment. Set in Reagan-era America, the series uses the wrestling world as social commentary that is still relevant today under today’s administration. Racial identity is played into the characters of Arthie (Sunita Mani) and Jenny (Ellen Wong) as their wrestling personas are stereotypes in the form of a radical terrorist and a sword-wielding, rice hat-wearing Asian. It also takes a stab at socio-economic stereotypes with real-life wrestler Kia Stevens in the role of Tamme — who takes on the persona of Welfare Queen. Some of may be too on the nose, but that’s exactly what GLOW was in the ’80s — a social commentary with strong, fearless women leading the charge. GLOW is wildly meta and clever in its execution as it uses nostalgia and interesting stories to convey feminism and cultural identity rather than give you a lecture.
GLOW is entertaining, different, and for children of the ’80s, it’s not the show you would expect — especially from fans of the original series. I wanted camp and absurdity, but instead, I was served clever satire and biting social commentary — which will definitely have more longevity. The brilliant minds behind GLOW could have easily made a duplication of OITNB to appease audiences, but they took more risks with their storytelling and created something unexpected and fresh when it comes to comedies. When it comes down to it, Orange is the New Black and GLOW share two things: 1.) a different take on the typical female narrative and 2.) a unique portrayal of intersectionality — and there’s always room on entertainment for both.
Season 1, Episodes 1-10 (S01E01-10)
GLOW premieres June 23rd on Netflix
Read our reviews of more of your favorite shows here.
Dino watches too much TV, enjoys reality singing competitions and laughs inappropriately during dramatic films. He’s a fan of comedy, podcasts, and comedy podcasts. He’s a reformed comic book geek and thinks “The Goonies” is the best movie of all time. When he isn’t stuffing his face with a burrito, he’s thinking about his next trip to Disneyland.
Follow Dino on Twitter: @dinoray
Keep up with all of Dino’s reviews and stories here.
Dino-Ray Ramos | Staff Writer