Netflix’s ‘GLOW’ Is an Ensemble Comedy Triumph

glowGLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) opens on a close-up of Ruth Wilder’s (Alison Brie) face at an audition giving a rousing speech that makes her look like a shoo-in for the role. The punchline, of course, is that she’s actually been reading the man’s part. Her line? “Sorry to interrupt, but your wife is on line three.” It’s the perfect framing for a show that’s about to spend ten episodes upending that well known, tired gender dynamic. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive produced by Jenji Kohan for Netflix, GLOW is a fictionalized account of an actual ‘80s women’s wrestling TV show by the same name.

The Netflix series centers on Ruth, a failing actress living in Hollywood with only enough money to eat corn flakes for six straight meals. After she accosts a casting director in the post-audition bathroom, she gets a tip on an experimental show seeking unconventional women. While the notion of Alison Brie being “unconventional” just makes me laugh and laugh and laugh, her performance of Ruth as an actress with a drama nerd streak shines. Ruth has recently betrayed her best friend Debbie by sleeping with her husband, but Brie makes Ruth sympathetic and beautifully vulnerable, even if the other ladies have nicknamed her “homewrecker.” She and the gruff former horror film director Sam (Marc Maron) make an excellent albeit reluctant team. They may be what brings audiences in to watch GLOW, but it’s the ensemble they create with the rest of the cast that’ll keep you there. (Netflix also hosts a documentary about the rise and fall of the actual Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which serves as great background info, but isn’t nearly as compulsively watchable as the fictionalized world.)

Flahive and Mensch take more of an interest in the wrestlers’ relationships to each other than in the actual wrestling, which is what makes GLOW worth watching. Instead we’re privy to legacy wrestler Carmen’s (Britney Young) struggle to perform for an audience, and Cherry’s (Sydelle Noel) fight for stage time despite being a stuntwoman who’s literally training everyone else, and of course, Ruth’s head-to-head match as Zoya, the Soviet villain to her former best friend Debbie’s (Betty Gilpin) American hero, Liberty Bell.

The rise of the binge-watch has not only allowed streaming services to become networks in their own right, it’s also brought along the onset of plots that are slower burns. GLOW takes us through the entire production prep process leading up to the Gorgeous Ladies shooting the pilot of their show-within-a-show. And this progression allows GLOW to give most of the air time to the characters’ personal lives, showing us events that a network or cable channel might skip. Occasionally the storyline can feel telegraphed, but the characters have enough heart that you want to watch them get a win anyhow. And as they slowly get their bearings, it’s a real triumph to see all the performers becoming an ensemble and team.

With GLOW’s subject matter, the jokes could easily be played for cheap laughs, but this show plays the long game instead of selling out its characters. The vast majority of laughs are character-driven, getting mileage out of Ruth’s awkwardness and drama geekery — Sam takes to calling her “Strindberg” because of her try-hard need to feel like an artist. GLOW is also worth watching for Ruth’s various attempts at characters alone, like the Jewish Yentil and her over-the-top Soviet, Zoya. Add to that the other women’s outlandish wrestling personas, like Sheila the She-Wolf’s quiet goth and Debbie’s Southern, America-loving Liberty Bell, and even Rhonda’s sexy nerd, Britannica, and it’s a fantastic mix of camp and heart.

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But the majority of the women of color in the Gorgeous Ladies get assigned personas based on terrible racial stereotypes. Jenny (Ellen Wong), the lone Asian woman, gets the persona “Fortune Cookie,” an ‘80s Chinese martial arts stereotype, and Arthie (Sunita Mani) is pushed to play “Beirut,” a terrorist who carries a gun everywhere (likely based on one of the original GLOW members’ personas, Palestina). Jenny and Arthie tell Sam and producer Bash (Chris Lowell) that they’re Cambodian and Indian, respectively, but Bash isn’t interested in nuance (uh, or accuracy?) and neither is their wrestling audience. The actual 1980s GLOW similarly stereotyped its performers this way, separating them into “good” and “bad” girls. No doubt keeping somewhat true to the source material while actually punching up had to be a tough balancing act for a modern-day series to strike, but GLOW pushes beyond the wrestling personas to actually give the characters a voice and reactions to the racial prejudice. Tamme (actual WWE pro wrestler Kia Stevens, who’s best known under the names Awesome Kong and Kharma), whose son is heading off to Stanford, gets pushed into playing a welfare queen and comes right out and expresses her consternation with something so offensive: “What will my son think?” she asks Sam. Nonetheless, she and Cherry create a storyline where their characters are the heroes over white supremacists, and it’s supremely satisfying.

Overall, the show’s focus is friendship and there’s nary a love interest to be had, unless you count Debbie’s estranged husband Mark (Rich Sommer, joining Mad Men co-star Brie), who’s (once again) playing a bumbling jerkhole of a husband. Brie and Gilpin have fantastic chemistry as besties-turned-frenemies-turned-wrestling partners, but much like Orange Is the New Black, GLOW nicely uses the two of them to lead us into the stories of the rest of the team. Sydelle Noel’s performance as Cherry Bang — the de facto group leader — is a particular standout, played with toughness and vulnerability in equal measure. She doesn’t get many laugh lines, but her bored reactions to the other women’s childishness sells those bits alone. Young’s Carmen is another especially bright spot in a cast full of them, and Maron’s Sam feels like a role that was tailor-made him for him — both grumpy and scratchy, yet somehow still reluctantly lovable.

GLOW’s ragtag misfits have a certain Bad News Bears lovable ‘80s feel, but with a thoroughly contemporary sense of humor. The camp of the wrestling matches mixed with the heart of the Gorgeous Ladies’ developing camaraderie makes it a show you’ll want to see more of.

Erica Lies is a writer and comedian. Her work has appeared in Bitch, The Hairpin, and Paste Magazine, and her humor writing has run in McSweeney’s Internet Tendency and National Lampoon.

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