Only in the 80’s could you wake up on Saturday mornings and get a dose of one of the campiest, most glitter filled hours of sports entertainment, known to starry eyed kids like me as G.L.O.W.. The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling were like John Waters meets Troma and team up with the WWF to bring you an all girls cast of villains and heroes. It was politically incorrect, covered in glitter, surrounded by neon and captured the hearts of kids and frat boys across the country. Here was this amazing group of females, done up in all kinds of costumes and crazy outfits, playing characters and playing a contact sport with a heavy emphasis on entertainment… hmmmmm… sounds familiar.
The very first episode of Netflix’s new series GLOW, a fictionalized telling of the birth of the original series, had me hooked as it immediately reminded me of what it was like when I first joined roller derby. The experience was so relatable to what I had gone through and also what I had seen in an earlier documentary and eventual reality series on the mother league of the modern roller derby revival, T.X.R.D.. Yes, apparently bad ass women and acronyms go hand in hand. Netflix’s new series, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, both writers for another hit series, Orange Is The New Black, does a great job of capturing how it feels and looks to see a group of women from various backgrounds who are considered “unconventional” (they literally say this in the show), come together and become empowered.
The skills they honed writing for an ensemble like OITNB shows especially in the sense that while Ruth Wilder, played by Alison Brie, is clearly the central and driving character behind the general plot, much like OITNB, as the series progresses we get slow build up and character development. The complexities and the dimensions of the characters open up across the 10 episode series slowly as to treat them like complex people whose whole story and essence can’t be summed up with just one episode’s focus on them. In other words, the show has layers. As it goes on they are peeled back and it slowly reveals more depth to the personalities being portrayed and even as the first season wraps up, we find ourselves just learning more about some and still wondering what’s the story with others.
What I liked best about this series is that it captured the essence of the original show. Through the campy skits and cheesy raps, you always picked up on the sisterhood that was there. No matter how well they sold the whole Good Girl/Bad Girl dynamic, even to the extreme of fining the ladies if they were caught fraternizing, you could see how much fun they were having and I think maybe that’s one of the reasons why a show that was riddled with over the top stereotypes and filmed at The Riviera on The Strip in Vegas, appealed to kids: it was fun. This new series, even with its interlaced drama, ’cause lets face it, what would a wrestling show be without soap opera like drama, maintains that original spirit of fun but manages to find its rhythm as a solid dramedy.
As I said, the story centers around Ruth, a struggling “serious actress” who finds herself broke, unemployed, and sleeping with her best friend’s husband. After being referred to an open call, she finds herself auditioning for an all ladies wrestling show set to be televised on cable tv. Marc Maron plays Sam Sylvia, the coked out director who’s only in it to try and get his own movie made and treats the girls with as much respect as he treats himself. After getting cut on the first day of callbacks, Ruth, determined and desperate to get the job, spends the night getting ready to go in and blow everyone away with a Hulk Hogan like performance only to be interrupted by said best friend, Debbie Eagen, played by Betty Gilpin, who comes in furious and ready to fight. Its then that Maron’s character starts to give a damn as he is hit with an epiphany of what the the show can be and sets off to cast Debbie, a one time soap star, as his new leading lady.
In addition to Kia “Awesome Kong” Stephens, several real pro wrestlers make cameo appearances, including Carlito (above), Brodus Clay / Tyrus, Johnny Mundo / Nitro / Morrison, Joey Ryan, Alex Riley, and Ring of Honor mainstays Frankie Kazarian and Christopher Daniels.
The affair Ruth has with Debbie’s husband turns out to be a huge turning point for both characters. This change and the effects it has on them as well as their friendship act as a great driving plot for the first season. Alison Brie delivers a great performance as the unlikeable lead character who you somehow love and hate all at once. Gilpin’s Debbie on the other hand goes from spouting diatribe about finding a man to take care of you and spending your days as a mother to realizing she needed to find herself and even more so dealing with the realization that she had been lost or at least putting herself on the back burner. Both of these women are such relatable characters, as anyone who has ever played a contact sport will tell you how life changing it can be to push your body beyond what you ever thought it capable of doing.
Then there is the character receiving a ton of buzz, Sheila aka The She Wolf. Relative newcomer and UK native, Gayle Rankin, brings to life the outsider who creeps you out but you can’t help but love as she finds her tribe. A blonde haired beauty who feels more comfortable portraying herself as in her spirit animal form and takes on a daily routine of slowly transforming to feel like she is truly presenting as her real self is a standout character in this piece as she is a subtle nod to a very current social issue we face with identity in general. Finding a place where you can be accepted and celebrated for being yourself no matter how far outside the mainstream it may be is a theme that resonates with many of us, some more deeper than others.
Several other standout characters like Cherry Bang, the stuntwoman who wants her chance to act and reluctantly turns into the girls’ trainer is also another newcomer, Sydelle Noel. An actress I expect we will see more of after this show, her presence is commanding and she can often steal a scene with her facial expressions alone. The English singer songwriter, Kate Nash gives us a great performance as Britannica, The Smartest Girl In The World although not smart enough to stay out of the sheets with the director. Much like the original show, the girls find themselves playing exaggerated stereotypes and we end up with questionable characters like The Welfare Queen (real life wrestler Kia Stephens AKA Awesome Kong/Kharma) and The Mad Bomber, but just like original series it’s all meant to get a reaction and you cheering for the good guys and booing the bad girls.
Set in the 80’s, the show delivers a killer soundtrack that instead of going the usual route of mainstream pop and new wave, it features a variety of the sounds that helped define the decade. From pop to punk, soul to disco, artists like Billy Joel, Roxette, Journey, Thompson Twins, Patty Smyth and Patti Labelle, all help this show find a steady rhythm that kept each episode well paced. Much like the show Stranger Things, the details in recreating the era are impeccable and really help build the shows “universe,” so to speak. In the same way that Stranger Things embodied so much of the essence of that time period’s sci fi and horror thrillers, with nods to Spielbergian kid-led adventure squad movies, GLOW captures the soul of a wrestling obsession that valued the entertainment aspect just as much if not more than the athleticism. From the Jazzercise-esque class at the gym to the dingy motel the girls eventually move into for their own version of wrestling camp, the period is brought to life in such detail that you can almost smell the burning flourescent of the animated, neon opening. That opening, unlike other Netflix series, changes every episode with no set theme song beyond the pilot’s full rendition of Smyth’s The Warrior.
Just 10 episodes long, the first season lays a great foundation for future episodes. Well written, directed, and paced, I burned through it in two sittings and when I came to the inevitable end I immediately wanted more. That may have led to a youtube adventure with literal laugh out loud and WTF moments watching the pilot for the series. I was also fun to watch after the first season and prompted me to also revisit the 2012 documentary and inspiration behind the Netflix series, GLOW: the Story of The Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. While I read somewhere that there not everybody was happy about the revival and that it was ruffling some GLOW alum feathers, as a fan, Id say they got it right. They paid homage to a brief and magical moment in time in a way that was respectful, fun, and just as entertaining as the original show. With just the right amount of cheese, it manages to be its own thing while not destroying my childhood memories.
I’m foXXXy contin, underground socialite,
A creator and a skater and I like to write,
Watching this show gave me the feels,
They did a great job at keeping it real,
From production to the writing and stellar soundtrack, Netflix for the win with another 80’s throwback!