In a world of on-demand series and binge-watching I often feel like a TV dinosaur as, unlike many of my peers, I haven’t yet succumbed to the joy of Netflix. Although I had the streaming service for six months I struggled to be enticed by any of their original TV shows, often finding them dull or needlessly controversial. The only exception to this rule was Stranger Things which lured me in with a blend of childhood innocence and 1980’s nostalgia that separated it from the pack. Now Netflix has charmed me again with GLOW which completely different from Stranger Things aside from the fact that both are set in the eighties.
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, both of whom wrote for the brilliant Nurse Jackie, GLOW is set in 1985 and focuses on the creation of the very real Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion. The initial focus of the series is Ruth (Alison Brie); a struggling actress who has no money and only one real friend in L.A. that being former soap actress Debbie (Betty Gilpin). Ruth is presented as headstrong and belligerent so therefore finds it hard getting an acting job that is until she turns up to an audition at a gym where the director is looking for unconventional women. Ruth and her colleagues are soon shocked to learn that they’re not auditioning for a traditional part but rather are going to be part of the cast of the GLOW promotion.
Auditioning alongside Ruth are a motley crew of women including Carmen (Britney Young); the youngest daughter in a famous wrestling family, Sherry (Sydelle Noel); a notorious stunt woman and Sheila (Gale Rankin); a monosyllabic Goth who has an affinity with wolves. Overseeing the chaos is B-Movie director Sam Silvia (Marc Meron) who has never found the success he feel’s he deserves and copes with his despair by snorting copious amounts of cocaine.
Sam’s vision is first realised when he sees Debbie appear in the gym at the end of episode one to confront Ruth about the two-night stand she conducted with Debbie’s husband. The very real fight Ruth and Debbie have is brilliantly shot as a dream sequence in Sam’s head where he comes to the realisation that the latter could be the star of GLOW. Although Debbie is convinced to join GLOW’s cast, she refuses to work with Ruth even though the pair’s conflict would provide a brilliant central feud to the fledgling promotion.
Although I enjoyed the first two episodes of GLOW, it was the third instalment where the ball really started rolling thanks to the introduction of producer Bash Howard (Chris Lowell). Heir to a canned food industry, Bash is a wrestling-obsessed trust-fund kid who is using most of his inheritance to get GLOW off the ground. Whilst Sam’s vision for GLOW involves a post-apocalyptic wasteland where Ruth portrays the villainous Kuntar; Bash’s ideas are much more simplistic. Bash wants the characters in GLOW to be simple stereotypes so medical student Arthie (Sunita Mani) becomes Beirut, the Mad Bomber whilst Cambodian Jenny (Ellen Wong) portrays Fortune Cookie. Whilst the rest of her family portray bad guys, Carmen is convinced by Bash to play the fan-friendly Machu Pichu and star-of-the-show Debbie is transformed into the All-American girl Liberty Belle.
While the characters they portray between the ropes are cliched stereotypes, the characters that Mensch and Flahive have created to populate the series are anything but. Ruth is portrayed as flawed, insecure character but is developed into a sympathetic protagonist to whom we can all relate. The fact that Ruth is the only member of the cast not to be given an identity by the end of episode three is an interesting story as she has the hardest personality to pin down. This struggle for identity is something I think most of us can relate to and it’s only after a performance to win over a sponsor that Ruth is transformed into the Soviet heel Zoya the Destroyer.
Although there are fourteen women on the GLOW roster, I felt like I got to know all of them by the end of the series and I feel that’s a testament to both the show’s writing and performers. Whilst training for their first episode, the girls are moved into a motel and this allows new friendships to blossom and alliances to grow. I personally enjoyed Sheila’s story as she gradually lets the other girls into her wolf-shaped world and bonds with Ruth when both share a room together. There’s also an interesting subplot for the youngest member of the group; Sam’s number one fan Justine (Britt Baron) who starts a relationship with the local pizza delivery boy thanks to some intervention from Arthie. One of my favourite recurring friendships on the show was between Bash and Carmen who bond over family expectations and a lifelong love of professional wrestling. Similarly, Ruth and Sam share a believable bond as both frustrated creatives who both feel that nobody appreciates their efforts.
As a massive wresting fan I was worried that GLOW would ridicule that world and present wrestling in a negative light however it did just the opposite. Over ten episodes it explored why people flocked to wrestling shows and why it has such a big impact on people’s lives. One of my favourite set pieces saw Carmen take sceptical Debbie to a wrestling show only for her to realise that it’s like one big sweaty soap opera. It’s only after being at the show that Debbie appreciates the storytelling aspect of wrestling and gets over her differences with Ruth so that Liberty Belle can tangle with Zoya the Destroyer in the main event. I got further enjoyment by spotting the wrestling cameos including Carlito and Brodus Clay as Carmen’s brothers, Alex Riley super-face ‘Steel Horse’ and Joey Ryan as his nemesis Mr. Monopoly. However, I’m slightly disappointed that I didn’t recognise former TNA Knockouts Champion Kia ‘Awesome Kong’ Stevens as GLOW regular Tammé Dawson aka The Welfare Queen.
Stevens was in fact one of my favourite parts of an incredibly strong ensemble cast who had fantastic chemistry with one another which aided with the storytelling. Alison Brie makes for an amazing lead, coupling Ruth’s many flaws with an innate likeability which makes it hard not to sympathise with her even when she’s portraying her Soviet alter ego. Marc Maron is equally brilliant as the outwardly sleazy Sam who is gradually revealed to have heart of gold especially during a bonding moment with Ruth in episode eight. Meanwhile, Betty Gilpin succeeded in making haughty Debbie likeable especially seeing as she was the one character who thought she was better than the occasionally campy world of GLOW.
That campiness is beautifully realised by the show’s directors who present a brilliant contrast between the dank world of the gym and the rundown Dusty Spur motel with the outlandish characters and storylines that occur on GLOW. Flahive and Mensch are similarly excellent at introducing elements of eighties nostalgia without this aspect ever feeling overpowering. References to movies and current affairs of the times are all contextual whilst the series’ fantastic soundtrack enhances several pivotal scenes. The writing meanwhile is superb combining perfect dramatic character development with numerous comedic moments and I found that each instalment had at least one segment that had me laughing out loud. If I had one criticism of GLOW that it would be its use of casual nudity which I found to be out of place and disappeared entirely later in the series. It may make me sound likea prude, but the nudity and sex in GLOW really didn’t enhance the plot, instead feeling like it was being used to lure a certain sort of viewer into the show.
As you can probably tell I adored GLOW and managed to binge on all ten episodes in less than a day, a task which I found to be incredibly simple. Although it helps to have a little context about the original GLOW promotion, and there is an excellent documentary about it, it’s just as easy to go into this series blind. Combining sympathetic characters with an easy-to-follow story and believable character development; GLOW is a show that’s likeable as the ladies who inhabit the ring and has turned this Netflix sceptic into a complete convert.