Editor’s Note: The arts and entertainment department is adjusting its grading scale from a letter-grade system to a numeric score out of 5. This change is intended to increase accuracy and consistency between reviews.
Finding pleasure in watching two people tackle each other to the ground has seemingly little place in the so-called “golden era” of television. But “GLOW”— Netflix’s new drama-comedy — centers around just that. Well, at least for the first couple episodes or so. But to those who are tempted to abandon ship after the pilot because of this seemingly niche premise: beware, because “GLOW” quickly transcends its wrestling premise and finds its joyous rhythm in its ensemble of characters, a group of sundry outcasts, damaged and ready for a comeback.
Co-produced by Jenji Kohan of “Orange is the New Black” and co-created by previous “Orange” writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, “GLOW” details the fall and rise of a ragtag group of “actresses” who get knowingly commandeered to participate in a 80’s Saturday-morning wrestling program titled “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” or, of course, “GLOW.”
“GLOW,” in many ways, serves as a type of spiritual successor to “Orange is the New Black” and carries the mark of Kohan and her fellow writers. “GLOW” even has its own version of Piper Chapman in the form of Ruth Wilder — although this series only takes one episode to fully realize that Ruth is best served as a villain and almost immediately compares her to communist Russia.
The initial focus on Ruth, however, is what makes the beginning of the series such a slog, despite its valiant efforts to lay out the groundwork for the rest of the season. The first scene in the pilot, for example, is one that has embedded itself into most films about Hollywood, most recently in December’s “La La Land” — Ruth gives a heartbreakingly good audition to an indifferent casting director. The rest of the episode follows this cliched lead, giving into “tragically talented actress” tropes such as having to live in the San Fernando Valley (oh no!) or asking the exhausted set of unseen parents for money and sleeping with the wrong guy.
Yet as “GLOW” progresses, the strengths pummel the initial drawbacks, especially this season’s ability to deepen its characters and produce tonally diverse dialogues, oftentimes packing as much heartbreak as humor into a single quip. Later in the season, a character jokes — while on her way to getting an abortion — that Planned Parenthood is the only place in Soviet Russia without a wait. This one short, desperate joke says so much about the character, the marginalization she experiences, and the larger context of the world these women live in.
In the end, the show exists to revolt against that society. It exploits the hair-do, the glitter and the Pat Benatar-inspired mise en scène of the ‘80’s just as much as it criticizes the darker, Reaganite undercurrent of that era. For instance, one fighter, a fat Black woman named Tammé Dawson is half-heartedly deemed by the director as “The Welfare Queen,” a type of satirical response to the Republican party’s welfare reform policies.
Yet, despite her ordained title, Tammé is simply involved in the wrestling show to pay her son’s way through Stanford. Thus, the wrestling ring and the personas attached to it serve more as an antithesis than a metaphor for the lives of the characters. The women are forced to fight under the scrutiny of men, as objects of stereotype and institutionalized racism, while simultaneously getting through life and supporting each other outside of the ring, celebrating their comrades’ birthdays and watching B-list horror movies.
But what happens when these two identities collide? Social identification and self-identification? The final episode asks this question when one of the fighters is physically attacked by an audience member because of the stereotype she was forced to project. The “Gorgeous Ladies’ ” personas, and their true selves, can only stay out of the ring for so long and hopefully, a more ensemble-oriented, group-led season two will show us what happens when “how society views you” and how “you view yourself” put on the gloves, and begin to battle.