Part sports drama, part showbiz satire, part birth-of-the-modern-woman allegory — all heartbreaking glitter-blasted humanity — Netflix’s GLOW is unlike any show I’ve ever seen. I love it so much; it made me laugh, cry, think, and pump my fists in the air screaming, “YESYESYES!” It’s 1985 and Alison Brie is Ruth Wilder, a struggling Los Angeles actress we meet mid-audition, delivering swaggery TV-protagonist lines like “I will not be bullied into submission!” Audition finished, Ruth gushes to the casting agents, “There are not roles like this for women right now!” She’s right, actually. She was reading “the man’s part.” (The woman’s part, in totality: “Your wife is on line two.”)
Opportunity beckons, ridiculous yet empowering, like true camp always is. A fading B-movie director (Marc Maron) is casting a TV project called “GLOW,” an acronym for “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” Ruth takes to the kitschy beefcakery of pro wrestling like it’s an experimental art project. And the great thing about GLOW is how it takes that idea seriously, fictionalizing the real-life “Ladies” into an emotional-philosophical battleground for heightened emotions and Big Ideas.
The show examines stereotypes, hyperbolizes them, then deconstructs them. Real-life wrestler Kia Stevens plays a struggling actress named Tamee, who gets cast as “Welfare Queen,” the very name an echo of Reagan-era politics. Welfare Queen is supposed to be a villain – a “heel,” in wrestling nomenclature – but Tamee plays the role to such hilarious excess that the audience begins to root for her. Both audiences, really: The one onscreen, watching the wrestling, and us here, watching show. That sounds meta, and GLOW certainly thrills to show-within-a-show gamesmanship: The core drama of the first season is an emotional duel between Ruth and her actress friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin), and how a personal betrayal leads to their professional animosity inside the ring. In the process, GLOW dramatizes nothing less than the act of self-realization. Comical, hilarious self-realization – but liberating, too. “We’re empowered!” one lady wrestler tells her colleagues. “We’re the heroes!”
Also, there’s an episode set at a Malibu penthouse party with a patrolling robot packed full of cocaine. And there is a climactic dramatization of the Cold War personified via spandex-clad wrestlers. And there is a truly stunning joke about the Ku Klux Klan.
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The show’s a comedy, half-farcical in its physicality, but there’s a real generosity, too. Singer Kate Nash plays the wrestler Rhonda, who initially seems like the most amorally ambitious of the team; it’s not long before she starts sleeping with the director. Late in the season, she demos her GLOW theme song, an oddly yell-sung half-rap. She compares it to Rex Harrison; it sounds more like the well-intentioned, funny-by-accident hip-hop interlude on Blondie’s “Rapture.” (Or, for that matter, Taylor Swift’s ’80s-inflected “Shake it Off,” where Swift proves she can rap exactly as terribly as Debbie Harry.) But at a moment of crisis, Rhonda starts rapping – and her silly tune becomes a rallying cry, an expression of loud-proud-unapologetic sisterhood.
That scene sums up GLOW, which takes everything over-the-top about professional wrestling, pushes it to higher levels of absurdity and melodrama, and finds something deeply personal, explicitly political, and wonderfully brute-force awesome. (There’s a montage set to a song from the Transformers cartoon movie!) Another fine summation, from Maron’s half-befuddled, cynical-yet-engaged director: “This could either feel dinky, or it could feel epic. So let’s go big! Let’s make it visceral!”
Executive produced by Orange is the New Black creator Jenji Kohan, GLOW goes big. It’s a silly-smart masterpiece, with an ensemble cast entirely made up of breakout characters: a no-bull stuntwoman, a druggy club kid, a wrestling-family scioness. Some of the actresses are familiar (Mr. Robot‘s Sunita Mani and Scott Pilgrim‘s Ellen Wong get a fine showcase), and some should become more familiar immediately (as the wrestlers’ de facto leader, Sydelle Noel gives a fine audition for whichever superhero they reboot next). The attention GLOW pays to all 13 women warriors is the show’s most invigorating argument: There are roles like this for women right now. More, please! More!
GLOW hits Netflix on June 23.