TL;DR – An oddly compelling, yet still really raw look at creating a women’s wrestling TV show in the 1980s
Score – 4 out of 5 stars
Wow, this came out of nowhere, the first I knew anything about was an odd email alert from Netflix, and even from that all you could tell was that this was something vaguely 80s related. Indeed, I didn’t even know that GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) was actually a real thing until I started doing some research for this review. So I came into GLOW with very little idea of what I was getting myself into, and now that I have finished it, well I can honestly say that this has left a lasting impression.
Setting the scene here is probably more important than usual, because GLOW is very much a period piece, and I am sorry for anyone out who just felt super old thinking that the 80s are old enough to be a period piece. Besides the artefacts of the 80s, this is an amazing time to set something like this because it is this moment of huge transition in the USA. You have the big moves of counterculture born out of the anti-Vietnam War movements of the 70s, which is now crashing into the emergence of the Regan conservatism. So you have this generation of young women trying to reach into the world and get a better life only to get smashed down because of who they are. Within all this, we have Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) who is trying to make it as an actor, and doing everything right but she just can’t get the part, which is because she is the person casting agents bring in to show the director that this is not who you want to cast. But after accosting a casting agent in the toilet Ruth gets her big break when she is told about an experimental project looking for unusual women to play parts. When Ruth arrives she finds that it is not in any way what she thought, for the experimental project is GLOW: Glamorous Ladies of Wrestling. Now you probably have a good idea already if this is a concept that intrigues you or not, but from this point onwards a fair warning that we will be talking about the season as a whole, so there will be some [SPOILERS] going forward.
So let’s begin with the cast, because this is one of the areas where the show shines. Now for a show with such a large cast, and only ten half an hour episodes, it is a real testament as to how well they were able to create so many unique characters that all have clear motivations. You have Carmen (Britney Young) trying to prove she is just as capable as her brothers in her father’s eyes, but even here, her father’s concerns are based in reality, even if they are wrong. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) works harder than anyone to succeed but not only is she a woman but she is an African-American woman in an era where there are not even blacksploitation films of the 70s. To know that no matter how hard you work, you will never be considered for even the superficial roles that existed for women at the time is heart-breaking to watch, it’s also incredibly infuriating. Even those characters that are originally presented as one note reveal a depth that you didn’t expect, like Sheila (Gayle Rankin), in a single sequence we watch as she puts on each aspect of her life, I have not seen a scene like this and as powerful as this since maybe How To Get Away With Murder. Every character has a complicated story, like Sam (Marc Maron) who is desperate to fund his passion projects but no one will really hire him, so he has to make this TV series even though he thinks it is beneath him, but he is still putting his all in, in-between drug filled moments of chaos. Or Bash (Chris Lowell) who is desperate to get out underneath his mother’s oppressive grip and do something that he is really passionate about, though not very successful at. Now, this is not even bringing you the twin forces of GLOW, Ruth and Betty (Betty Gilpin) who are inseparable friends all their lives, that is until halfway through the first episode when Ruth betrays her trust in the most personal way possible. The rapport between Alison and Betty is amazing to watch, you feel their friendship, you feel the anger, then the pain and awkwardness, and all of it is earned. You might tune in for the time period or the themes but it is the characters that will compel you to watch each and every episode.
Now let’s take a moment to look at that time period, now I’m not an expert on the 80s since at best I was a toddler during that time. However, watching the historical documents of the time, it really does feel like they have nailed the time period in both aesthetics and in tone. The outfits, by goodness those outfits all of them feel as if they are right out of a wardrobe of someone living in 1980s California. This is important because for many people watching they lived through that time period and the quickest way of turning someone off is by getting all those little details wrong. This is supported by a wonderful soundtrack that harks but to some of the greatest hits of the time. These songs usually bookend an episode, and you’ll be singing along to The Look, Rock You Like A Hurricane and many more. These songs are not just about getting you into the time period, they help define the episodes, and because this is Netflix, they help push you to watch just one more episode, then maybe one more after that, Netflix is almost the Civilization of the TV world.
Indeed it is quite surprising that Netflix would go back to this time period so soon after the juggernaut that was Stranger Things, but when you get down to it they are existing in very separate worlds. While Stranger Things is a homage to the pop-culture of the 80s, GLOW is looking at the political and social movements of the time. However, GlOW looks at these issues in a very clever way that does not present it in a formulaic way like ‘here is our episode on women’s rights’, instead it is always there in the subtext of the scenes. There is this constant tug at the heart of GLOW are the women being empowered or exploited, and all throughout you can find constant examples to back up either position, indeed I think many a thesis will be writing on this very topic. But this dichotomy is important not just because it is consistent with the time, and may I say, still very relevant today, but it provides one of the central motivators for the characters. Indeed this is important, because GLOW deals with some very mature themes, there are sex scenes, all sorts of drugs, there is also a scene in an abortion clinic which may be a first on American TV as far as I know, and GLOW does not shy away from the awkward and sometimes messy parts of life, trust me no matter how messy pregnancy tests are today, be glad you didn’t need to deal with the chemistry sets of the 80s.
Now while I really liked GLOW, there were a couple of things that didn’t quite work as well as they could have. Now I for one don’t care about violence, language, sex etc as long as it is there because of the context and not because you are trying to be salacious. For the most part, I think everything they showed was either contextually fitting or worked because of the setting and time. However, in the first episode, there is a sex scene that is quite explicit, but also didn’t feel necessary to tell the story, it felt like it was more there to shock that anything else. As well as this, because of the shorter runtime quite often they only had time to give small nods to larger issues like racism towards Arab people or lack of knowledge of different cultures, and I really feel that because they get brought up a bit later in the season, that there should have been set up a bit more. Also, some of the big reveals were very easy to see coming, like the man Ruth sleeps with was clearly Debbie’s husband right from the start so that family photo was more meh then oh no.
Now one of the great things about GLOW is that we actually get to see some resolution with that fantastic final episode. It is quite interesting because here in Australia we had a similar show on ABC called The Warriors about rookies joining an AFL team. While it covered a lot of similar themes, but from an indigenous perspective, the one thing we never got to see was an actual game of AFL, sure we had a lot of training but the final episode cut with them running onto the field for the first time. Not with GLOW, the entire final episode is their first big live show battle and it is amazing, everything was leading up to this and it did not disappoint.
In the end, do I recommend GLOW, yes I do, it is a fascinating look at some very real issues that still exist in society today. As well as this, the acting is top notch, as is the production, and the story. This being said, it may be very confronting for you in places, and because of that, it won’t be for everyone. However, the best guide for any show for me, is do I want to see more of this? and the answer is you bet ya I do.
Trailer – Click Here to View – Language Warning (all trailers have heavy spoilers)
Directed by – Phil Abraham, Kate Dennis, Sian Heder, Melanie Mayron, Jesse Peretz, Claire Scanlon, Tristram Shapeero, Lynn Shelton & Wendey Stanzler
Created by – Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch
Written by – Liz Flahive, Nick Jones, Jenji Kohan, Carly Mensch, Sascha Rothchild & Rachel Shukert
Based on – Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling
Starring – Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Jackie Tohn, Kate Nash, Britt Baron, Sunita Mani, Kia Stevens, Gayle Rankin, Ellen Wong, Marianna Palka, Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson, Marc Maron, Chris Lowell, Rich Sommer & Alex Rich