In 1939, the film Babes in Arms showed the struggle of what it meant to put on a show with limited funds but plenty of heart. It's an endearing format that has gone on to reflect the underdog genre, and feels especially prescient when discussing GLOW, or the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The first season of this new Netflix series is essentially the same plot, but with more girl on girl action, a sleazy manager, and plenty of 80's pastiche. From creator Jenji Kohan (Weeds, Orange is the New Black), the series is a brisk comedy that manages to transcend the limited appeal of female wrestling by being a contemporary Babes in Arms instead. It isn't so much about putting on the show, which is glorious in its absurdity, but it's about what it takes to make a show that you could be proud of, even in the face of adversity.
The struggles of GLOW feel apparent immediately. Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is struggling to get auditions as an actress. She discovers that she's only being called as an example of who not to hire. Before the first episode ends, there's already a sense of how judgmental the world of the 1980's was for women. It was a tough world where each career move had to be done strategically. Along with the hopelessness, Ruth has an affair with her friend Debbie Eagan's (Betty Gilpin) husband (Rich Sommer). The struggle is not only on a professional level, but a personal one. In a last ditch effort, Ruth settles for a gig with GLOW, which is lead by the sleazy, drug addled Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), whose B-Movie career makes his views of entertainment a little delusional.
Despite being somewhat of a novelty premise, the show has what all Kohan shows have: a strong central cast. Over the course of the 10 episodes, there is an understanding into how wrestling is created. It isn't just two people stepping into a ring and pushing each other. There's almost a method acting approach to everything. Motivation needs to be understood. Look needs to grab attention. The identity needs to be broad and engaging on a juvenile level. Even the physicality needs to look painful enough to almost be real. GLOW describes wrestling as an art form that requires excessive work to look convincing. There will be stumbles along the way, but those who take it seriously, like Ruth, will find the thrill of the hard work.
The series predominantly focuses around the struggles of Debbie, Ruth, and Sam. Speaking as Debbie is in the middle of a possible divorce with her husband, she is the least committed to the gig, despite being a popular soap opera actress who could draw the crowd. Her animosity towards Ruth causes heavy contention as to whether she will actually do the show. Sam meanwhile needs the spectacle and doesn't mince words on how he feels about making the women fit his ideals. He will make the show work. He will get it on TV. His concern perfectly mixes with a sense of carelessness towards how everyone gets their performances to work. It just needs to work.
The world of GLOW is glittered in 80's music, neon fonts, and leotards. The characters have an excellent progression in showing their ability to connect. They start off as strangers at an audition, but soon discover a sisterhood-like bond that allows the punishing schedule to be fun. Even as Brie manages to give a giddy and fun performance that sees her playing a Russian bad guy in the ring, she shows her skills for business and her desire to take the job seriously. She may be a real actress, but she isn't afraid to commit. She is seen constantly literally throwing herself into the performance, often performing complex wrestling moves without a partner. It's an incredible feat, and one that makes Brie's post-Community career a lot more promising. It helps that her chemistry with Gilpin is endearing even at its most hostile.
Still, much like the 1930's film, there's something about seeing the process that makes the final show all the more satisfying. Having seen the actresses practice and suffer together, the show manages to find the heart behind the cheese. Everyone who cheers in the crowd doesn't know how painful it was to get to that modicum of success, with the cameras rolling for their potential TV series on a third rate network. Suddenly, it is easier to respect female wrestlers because they aren't seen solely as silly archetypes. They are given back story and intimate moments that show why this career means a lot to them. GLOW is a streamlined series full of great performances and a sense of fun that makes even the most wrestling adverse likely to get some fun out of the series. Kohan has done it again. One can only hope that it has the longevity of Orange is the New Black and continues to get more and more interesting as time continues.
Overall Rating: 4 out of 5