Review: 'GLOW' Styles And Profiles Through A Bodyslammin' First Season

It's strange to be reviewing Netflix's binge-worthy GLOW series mere hours after the first women's Money in the Bank ladder match, a match WWE has kept exclusive for its male superstars since its creation. The landscape for women is vastly different now than it was in the '80s, when GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling had its brief moment in the sun.  Women are now headlining PPVs, main eventing the weekly TV shows, and playing characters that are no longer an embarrassment to the gender. The difficulty for GLOW is to marry up these two disparate eras, and to find the self-respect and sisterhood that exists within both, while staying true to the realities of sports entertainment.

A co-creation by Nurse Jackie's Liz Flahive  and Carly Mensch, the show's biggest influence is clearly exec-producer Jenji Kohan, creator of Netflix's Orange is the New Black. From the very beginning the format feels exactly the same. There's a focus on complicated, often combative women forced into a situation that isn't particularly ideal. They face sexism and prejudice at every turn, often by less capable men who hold the power to ruin their lives, or in this case their newfound careers. It's a formula that works surprisingly well for the world of professional wrestling. Yes, guys, this is a show about women and their issues outside of the squared circle, but the attention to detail about the world of wrestling will hit you hard like a steel chair to the head.

Set in 1985, with all of the giant hairdos, spandex, and power ballads that come with it, GLOW mostly focuses on struggling actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie). Not a particularly good actress anyway, she agitates a casting director to give her a shot at anything, pestering her way into an audition with Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron, better here than he's been in anything), a B-movie director (one of his "hits" was titled Oedipussy) hired to put together a female wrestling program. He doesn't necessarily want to use her because she's too serious of an actress and he wants women who can fit stereotypes (in the initial episodes he derides Ruth for being plain or flat out ugly) that wrestling fans can understand. But she needs the work, and hangs around enough that Sam just lets her figure out who her character should be.

What GLOW understands more than anything is the process  that goes into making a wrestling show work. It's not just about putting two people in a ring and having them throw fake punches at one another. Wrestling is a production; it's about creating characters that people can connect with. The action in the ring is the payoff for having built storylines the fans care about. Much of GLOW's initial episodes are about the cast finding their voice long before they learn how to do body slams. And there are complications there, because many of the roles are downright humiliating or offensive. For instance, real-life wrestler Kia Stevens (known as Awesome Kong when she dominated in TNA), plays Tamme, a large African-American woman, as a Reagan-era stereotype with food stamps in her ring gear and everything. Others settle, some begrudgingly and some enthusiastically, into the kind of racist stereotypes that dominated wrestling in the '80s and in some ways still to this day. Jenny (Ellen Wong), an Asian wrestler, has her culture misrepresented in degrading ways , and Arthie (Sunita Mani) becomes a Muslim terrorist at a time when the TWA Flight 847 hostage crisis was taking place. It proves...controversial. One who is always battling against Sam's discriminatory tendencies is Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), a tough, black former stuntwoman who has been the victim of Hollywood's racism her entire career. All she wants is the same opportunity afforded to others, and leaps at every chance to prove herself the best, even if it rubs the other girls the wrong way.

While some of the women are trying to fit into roles designed for them by men, others are trying to become comfortable in their own skins. Debbie (Betty Gilpin, who saved the last couple seasons of Nurse Jackie) is a former friend of Ruth's and is convinced to join the group just to capitalize on their mutual dislike. Having just had a baby, Debbie is trying to become comfortable with her physical limitations, but also to feel sexy again because sex is a big part of what sells in wrestling. One of the show's breakouts is Britney Young as Carmen, who has the physicality, look, and family wrestling pedigree to be a star, if only she can overcome her public shyness. Wrestling fans will want to note that her brothers are played by current superstars Carlito and Tyrus aka Brodus Clay, two of many such cameos littered through the series. Johnny Mundo, Brooke Hogan (!!!), Alex Riley, and more make appearances that lend a bit more authenticity, but also show how much respect there is for those who really live in this world.  After a slow start in which too much backstory is piled on, it's like the light switch goes on around episode three, and from then on it's all stylin' and proflin'. It's at that time we're introduced to rich kid producer Sebastian "Bash" Howard (Veronica Mars' Chris Lowell), who begins to steer Sam away from his auteur tendencies, and to instead get down to what really works in wrestling. "Wrestling isn't about backstory, it's about type."

Carrying GLOW through a slow start and the occasional lack of focus is the performance by Alison Brie. It's good to see her play someone who isn't a perfect little princess, and she really has to walk a delicate balance with Ruth who could easily be intolerable. My fear was that she would be coming another spoiled, whiny white woman like Piper in Orange is the New Black. Piper is the worst character on that show, I could care less if she gets shivved at some point. But Ruth is perfect in her imperfection. She's like this show's Ric Flair. You can hate her one minute when she says something totally self-absorbed, but adore her when she helps the other women become comfortable with their roles. Sure, she's mostly doing it so she has a job but so what? That only makes her more real. And she continues to evolve in ways that are poignant and hysterical as she tries to find a persona for herself.

It can't go without saying that ALL of these ladies deserve major props for their commitment to the athleticism of professional wrestling. The in-ring work starts off simple and flawed, which makes sense, but by the end they are pulling off some serious maneuvers. But it's also realistic. They aren't doing tornado DDTs and F5s; they're still amateurs learning the ropes on a rapid curve. I suspect there will be some who want more action, but I think the finale more than makes up for it. Not only are there plenty of suplexes and body slams for the pro wrestling mark, but it leaves you wanting to tune in for the next season to see what happens.

It takes a while, but GLOW ultimately gets what every wrestling promoter knows intimately: "The money is in the chase."  GLOW doesn't give you everything you want; it gives you just enough to keep you coming back for more, and we definitely need to see more of the gorgeous ladies of wrestling.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5