Glow Season 1 available June 23 on Netflix.
Professional wrestling is not the most obvious setting for a story of female empowerment, but the ensemble dramedy GLOW finds plenty of material in its fictionalized version of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The real-life wrestling promotion aimed to capitalize on the success of the World Wrestling Federation, adding the titillation of scantily clad women to the over-the-top style of pro wrestling, and it aired in syndication from 1986-1990 (broadcast from Las Vegas, although the fictional show takes place in LA). Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch combine the cheesy, low-budget charm of ’80s-era professional wrestling with strong character development and a talented cast, who play women hired to join a sport most of them know nothing about.
Alison Brie leads the cast as frustrated actress Ruth Wilder, who sees GLOW as an opportunity to play the kind of prominent female part that doesn’t exist in mainstream movies and TV. Her fellow wrestlers are a mix of aspiring performers and other misfits, who seize the opportunity to create powerful female characters, even if they have to embody the crude stereotypes that dominated pro wrestling for decades. Crotchety B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) attempts to bring artistic vision to the sleazy production, financed by a coked-up trust-funder (Chris Lowell, providing much of the comedy) who mainly wants to see sexy catfights.
The tension that arises from clashing creative viewpoints (including the performers, all of whom have their own ideas about their characters and storylines) is more interesting than the interpersonal drama, especially a few overly soap-operatic elements. But it’s balanced well with the comedy, and none of the serious moments feel oppressive or heavy-handed. Brie is excellent, but the show’s a true ensemble, and the creators make time for character development for almost the entire wrestling troupe. With episode run times around 30 minutes, that sometimes makes it tough to balance so many characters, but the show never becomes as unwieldy as executive producer Jenji Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black.
After going a bit overboard on the ’80s signifiers in the first episode, the show dials things back in subsequent episodes, but it’s still full of gloriously terrible fashions and endearingly trashy pop culture. A later episode even features a training montage set to a Stan Bush song. In a setting that could easily descend into self-parody, though, GLOW remains grounded and authentic, treating its characters and their profession with more respect than most people afforded their real-life counterparts. When the training and scripting and interpersonal dynamics finally come together in the ring, it’s as satisfying as any genuine (fake) wrestling match.