Have people finally figured out how to make television and movies?
It’s a weird, broad question. Much has been made about the Golden Age of Television, ushered in by The Sopranos, The Wire, Breaking Bad, and Mad Men. Plenty of digital ink has been spilled on the rise of streaming services and Netflix’s see-what-sticks model. Even when you look to the silver screen, currently dominated by the Marvel machine, you’ll see movie after movie, competently cranked out to 90% on Rotten Tomatoes even as critics and audiences battle superhero fatigue. Hell, even DC is finally figuring it out with the recent success of Wonder Woman. Outside of the Transformers franchise, competence is at an all-time high.
Which got me to thinking about which shows made such a clear, distinctive impact of voice. James Mangold’s depression-fest Logan was widely celebrated as the western it truly was. Aziz Ansari’s heartfelt love letter to Woody Allen-era Italian cinema Master of None was one of my favorite things to watch. Edgar Wright’s cult hero status as a genre mashup king is currently being cemented with Baby Driver. Jordan Peele made waves with Get Out.
All of this is to say I had some ambivalences about a show I ultimately enjoyed.
Netflix’s new original GLOW (Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch)—if you can’t figure out from the trailers—is a deeply fictional recreation of the deeply nonfictional Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
The formula is a crowdpleaser. A ragtag team of misfits and rebels come together. They don’t like each other. They learn to like each other. Together they find success. Simple as that.
My real criticism lies with the strict adherence to that structure—which is a cliché for a reason—it just works. But our headliner Alison Brie is shackled early on with Ruth Wilder, from the assembly kit of flawed, unlikeable prestige TV characters. She cheats with her best friend Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) husband, she’s gratingly theater kid Type A, and you can see the selfish self-destructive tendencies from a mile away. This from Brie, who played similarly Type A Annie Edison on Community with a sunny warmth and innocent brio while still being hilariously, neurotically raunchy.
GLOW does a great job of centering half the show’s emotional heart around the Ruth-Debbie relationship later on (the other half on Ruth-Sam), but the show almost lost me early on, in the same way Orange is the New Black did and Parks and Recreation nearly did too. Having a massive ensemble of unlikeable character passive aggressively bicker and undercut each other is not how I want to spend my time. Why is Melrose (Jackie Tohn) spraying ketchup to reenact the miscarriage of costar Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) when that whole thread is later dropped?
Of course, the essence of drama is conflict. The question is whether the ragtag band of misfits can come together without being such shitty company first. It’s the same conundrum of rom coms. We know the couple must break up before they can get back together, but is this avoidable? There are ways to make your characters flawed without being raging assholes later. The audience only have so much room left for a good will investment Ruth after her affair. The show would be better off spending time upping the early Q-rating of its characters, especially with such a large ensemble. Occasionally it does. Britney Young’s Carmen is simultaneously a physical presence as a wrestler’s daughter and a perfect distillation of warmth. Arthie’s (Sunita Mani) obvious kindness is saddled immediately with an Arab terrorist stereotype on a Hindi background. In order for us to care about so many characters, GLOW only has the luxury of a few quick sketches early on before it can start filling in the blanks. The show doesn’t need a villain or a heel early on. It needs a hero, a face.
The show begins to truly pick up in the third episode when it starts to show real camaraderie at a coked up Malibu house party hosted by Chris Lowell’s smarmy is-he-or-isn’t-he-an-asshole? Bash in an incredible turn. The showrunners tune down Melrose’s shit-stirring cruelty. Ruth begins that transformation from unlikeable to pitifully awkwardly tolerable to awkwardly brave. It’s a good redemptive arc. All of the characters are given their three-dimensional ups and downs. For a wrestling show, there is no cardboard cutout heel, which has grown appreciably unsurprising. Like I said—competence.
There remain a few after school special moments. Carmen wants to be a woman wrestler in the face of her dad’s complaints. But he raises an interesting point of contention that the show directly addresses but quickly drops. That women’s wrestling is largely considered a niche sideshow or a point of objectification.
Many of the others feel trapped in the stereotypes of their characters, an all-too real part of the real life version of GLOW. Jenny (Ellen Wong) as a rice paddy sword-slinging karate artist, Arthie as Beirut the Terrorist, Tammé (Kia Stevens) as the Welfare Queen. Cherry as Junk Chain. Actually, they all sort of sound like the names of Michael Bay’s Transformers.
There’s certainly nothing wrong with openly addressing these issues, but GLOW lacks the deft hand of Master of None’s “Thanksgiving” or the less-is-more bravado of “New York, I Love You.” It becomes an act of telling not showing. When shaggy dog director Sam (Marc Maron) defends his stereotypes as a reaction against them, you can feel the cheapness of it. A poorly disguised Michael Scott, who delivered cutting remarks and invoked sympathy-tempered revulsion without the emotional cue cards.
Tammé: I have some concerns about my character.
Sam: Welfare Queen.
Tammé: It’s offensive.
Sam: That’s the genius of it. It’s commentary on an existing stereotype. It’s sort of a fuck-you to the Republican Party and their welfare reform and race-baiting shit.
Tammé: Yeah, but would other people know that?
Despite the cinderblock subtlety of the show’s racial and misogynist internal debates in its early episodes, it was a good question. I wondered if I was complicit in watching the show, which traffics in plenty of stereotypes. After all, I laughed pretty hard at a hysterically awkward wrestling match between Tammé, Cherry, and some Klansmen. “Look, it’s not racist if the black girls came up with the idea, right?” As I watched it became a fascinating meta-question. Was it wrong to laugh? I certainly did. I wasn’t sure. I also had to look away at parts. Your mileage may vary.
The show also does an incredible job of portraying a visit to an abortion clinic later. It depicts the scene without demonizing or lionizing, without much comment. It’s simply there as a piece of undisguised reality for the audience to draw their own conclusions.
It’s a stylistic choice, but it at least it runs better without the baggage of entrenched political dogma. You connect the dots though. The women celebrate their ownership of their own bodies in a way that the screen rarely allows them to.
As the bonds solidify and the big match approaches, GLOW delivers its best work on the back half. The show learns to hold onto its jokes better, waiting and waiting through the emotional stuff to hit you at the end. Most importantly, the characters each get their moment, the ensemble treated generously and humanly in all its foibles and permed glory. Only a slight hiccup in the finale comes from the show’s wrestling-motivated urge to shoehorn in a surprise ending. It does so with the best of intentions but without the proper buildup.
It seems silly for me to criticize the show for taking a narrative chance at the end when that’s what I asked it to do. After all, the show is at its best with these attempts at big, flying takedowns: the KKK scene, its Stranger Things-specific retro era, the whole entire concept. But I suppose that’s the duality of it. I suppose I’m complicit.