Netflix’s new comedy about the campy world of 1980s female wrestling, stars Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a struggling actor in Los Angeles who, stuck auditioning for thankless roles like “receptionist,” answers an open call for “unconventional women.” The job is for a wrestling league-meets-TV show called GLOW whose 13-woman ensemble includes a professional stuntwoman, a pair of crank-calling hairdressers, a medical student, and an outsider who considers herself part wolf. At the helm is Sam Silvia (Marc Maron), a B-movie director and purveyor of socially conscious, gory schlock à la Troma who’s hoping to cash in on women’s wrestling in order to finance his next film.
GLOW is loosely based on the ’80s wrestling league and TV program of the same name (a.k.a. Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), a kitschy, all-female counterpart to the testosterone-fueled WWF. A fictionalized retelling of the source material’s origins, the series traces the wrestling promotion’s journey from casting to pilot. One of the challenges of producing a smart, heartfelt series about wrestling is that the sport is often dismissed as gimmicky and theatrical—characteristics that seem to counter intelligence and emotional poignancy. But co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch approach GLOW and its subject matter with the same earnest enthusiasm as many of the show’s wresters. In the fifth episode, Carmen (Britney Young), who comes from a family of wrestlers, insists that while wrestling may be an exaggerated spectacle, calling it “stupid” is dismissive of the fans who hold an unflinching, nonjudgmental reverence for the sport.
As much as GLOW is a series about wrestling, it’s also, more broadly, an examination of the entertainment industry and how a decadent, cocaine-riddled era produced a cult hit that simultaneously celebrated and mocked the excesses, stereotypes, and questionable fashion trends of its time. Just as GLOW treats its subject with a mixture of humor and respect, the series demonstrates a genuine affection for the kitschy aesthetics that one might find in the Valley in 1985: There’s no shortage of thong leotards and neon everything, from the fashion legwarmers and cascading Madonna-style necklaces to the giant, gloriously coiffed hair.
GLOW also captures the deplorable decadence of the Reagan era, using drugs to expose and mock the ironies of the time. At a ritzy party in Malibu, a roving robot dispenses cocaine, condoms, and joints to the partygoers. Later, the GLOW team crashes an upper-crust “Just Say No” fundraiser, where the haughty hosts are wary to include actual crack addicts in the event. Meanwhile, a character sneaks upstairs to snort a line of coke off of a particularly sardonic visual gag: a framed picture of the Reagans.
While GLOW may reference the events and pop culture of the mid-’80s, the show’s feminist-forward format is decidedly modern. Executive-produced by Jenji Kohan, GLOW in many ways shares some of the same DNA of Kohan’s Orange Is the New Black. Both shows are female-fronted, diverse, ensemble-driven comedies that feel comfortable veering into dramatic territory. But even more so than Orange Is the New Black, GLOW struggles with its sheer number of characters; in having to introduce so many wrestlers in only 10 episodes, some of them feel underdeveloped. In an episode that focuses on Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin), for example, we’re left wondering how, exactly, Sheila caught the wolf bug. Other characters have yet to break out beyond the confines of their stereotypes, like party girl Melrose (Jackie Tohn): Aside from her limo and a predilection for music-video acting opportunities, we hardly know anything about this alleged wild child. And we don’t learn much about characters like Arthie (Sunita Mani), the diligent student, or Reggie (Marianna Palka), the former athlete, outside of the neat boxes they fit into.
Still, GLOW remains an entertaining watch because of its earnest adherence to the conventions of the underdog sports drama, a genre that traffics in satisfyingly predictable upsets, curmudgeonly yet caring coaches (or in this case, directors), and high-energy training montages. The trajectory of the characters might be predictable, but that doesn’t make their well-executed flips and body slams any less gratifying. Much like the sport it’s depicting, the series isn’t afraid to be campy or flirt with melodrama; in GLOW, the emotions are encouraged to be as big as the hair and as plentiful as the coke.