Netflix's 'GLOW' Review: Smart Writing, Filthy Jokes, Big Heart
Warning: Light spoilers for the full season below.
I hesitate to call Netflix’s new series GLOW “one of the year’s best surprises.” That’s generally a supremely condescending way to talk about a show, even if it’s the type of pullquote that networks love to use. Plus, most of what it offers (pro wrestling, the 1980s, Alison Brie) is 100 percent in my wheelhouse. On paper, I should like it! It’s not surprising that it’s good, but it is surprising that it’s THIS good.
Part of what makes it so good is that it never overstays its welcome: Were this a series of bloated, 58-minute episodes, I doubt I would have watched it as voraciously as did. Part of that’s a pure function of time, but it’s also primarily a function of compassion. My general reaction when I see Netflix shows with episode running times of 35 minutes and under?
I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again: Almost no show justifies episode lengths that approach if not outright exceed a full hour. GLOW consistently pushes its story (as opposed to its plot) forward, and the overall effect is a wide-ranging tapestry of female friendship, social inequality, and thwarted ambition that manages to insert enough hope to push through the pain.
Literally nothing I’ve just described sounds like the type of entertainment that the women and men behind this lightly fictionalized version of the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling offer their sometimes bored, sometimes ravenous, more-often-than-not problematic in-show audience. But like most great shows, GLOW isn’t actually about the thing it’s ostensibly about. It’s a bait-and-switch designed for you to click on it when confronted with the other 8 billion new original shows that Netflix managed to put out since last Tuesday. None of those concepts in the previous paragraph translate easily via a one-sentence description or a hashtag. The show tricks you into watching it, and then quite quickly makes you care about a group of people you didn’t know existed just half an hour before.
The pilot for the show sets up the central conceit and conflict with great efficiency, with Alison Brie’s Ruth and Betty Gilpin’s Debbie split apart at the very moment their lives become more entangled than ever. This isn’t anything original in terms of construction, but there’s literally no correlation between “originality of story” and “quality of execution.” Tropes work for a reason, and it’s all about the details that makes or breaks a particular iteration of a set-up you might have seen a hundred times around. Indeed, if you broke down both individual and season-long arcs, you’ll see they slot into what one might call “typical” executions. But who cares when the execution of a move off the top rope set to a killer Pat Benatar songs brings you to tears?
Both Brie and Gilpin are excellent throughout, each in her own way finding ways to convey fear behind a façade of strength. Brie gets the initially showier (and cringier) part, but Gilpin soon matches if not outright surpasses her as Debbie gets further caught in the crosshairs between the machinations of Marc Maron’s director Sam Sylvia conflicting with her own thwarted ambitions. GLOW puts these two into nearly-suffocating conflict before slowly breaking down the walls between them, culminating in a training montage nearly two-thirds of the way through the season that transforms from a parody about training montages into a genuinely thrilling training montage.
Rounding out the cast is roughly another dozen female wrestlers, most of whom get at least semi-substantial chance to shine. That matters when the show opts to spend a large majority of an episode depicting a rollerskating-centric birthday party for one of them late in the season. What would feel like episodic padding on another show is a surprising but logical outcome of the bonding that has gradually emerged throughout their time together. If the show didn’t spend time fleshing out Sheila, Carmen, Arthie, and the others, then none of the emotion of the party would land. GLOW celebrate the time, sweat, and tears that these women put into making the audience buy into the illusion they are selling, and thus we root for them to succeed.
To be sure, not everything about GLOW is perfect. While it doesn’t glamorize professional wrestling, it’s not always clear that it’s not indulging its less-savory aspects. While it’s amusing to see Chris Lowell’s spoiled producer Sebastian “Bash” Howard exclaim in-character horror over the food stamps that Tammé “The Welfare Queen” Dawson busts out as a mid-fight weapon, GLOW doesn’t always do enough to distance itself from the stereotypes it depicts. I’m not saying the show is FOR any of them, but there’s some tonal whiplash between its clear empathy for the women and the sometimes-indifferent approach to the characters they play in order to generate heat.
It’s a slippery slope, and one that the show navigates with varying degrees of success. An mid-season match involving two women dressed as members of the KKK actually wins the listless crowd over in an ultimately empowering way, but a later match in which wrestlers are actually hurt by projectiles hurled by a racist crowdmember gets a cursory moment of contemplation before moving onto the next match. The idea of image standing in for detailed backstory is something Bash intuitively understands, and it undeniably bridges the gap between performer and audience, but at what cost? That’s a fascinating question, and one the show occasionally grapples with (pun intended), but never truly gets a firm handle on.
Luckily, the show remains strong with the Ruth/Debbie conflict, particularly as the latter’s husband Mark (Mad Men’s Rich Sommer, put on this Earth to play The MRA That Stole Christmas) tries to weasel his way back into her life. The show wisely gives Debbie reasons to understand, if not overtly forgive, Ruth for the inciting incident that severed their friendship. A late-season speech by Brie would normally pave the way for a climatic reconnection between the two outside of the ring. Instead, GLOW gives them one inside the ring, which is still cathartic even if bittersweet. Brie’s wide eyes, brimming with tears, are a special effect unto themselves. For her part, Gilpin has an amazing way of realizing she’s opened herself up only to close down emotional ranks in a millisecond. The two are scripted to stage a war between two countries, but that is in some ways more easily solved that the fractured state between these two women.
Many of my Pajiba colleagues will be weighing in on this show over the next days and weeks, and I’m very much looking forward to what they have to say about the show. There’s a lot to unpack, and I only scratched the surface in order to get the conversation started. I watched it in two five-episode sessions, and honestly could have watched another ten immediately after. There are dozens, if not hundreds of small, miraculous moments throughout its short running time that will keep you engaged for nearly its entire running time. (If the Sheila/Bash material doesn’t make you smile, then you’re dead to me. Also, if you haven’t seen Chris Lowell in Enlisted because you didn’t watch Enlisted which I’m sure you didn’t because no one watched Enlisted except for like 15 of us … well you’re not dead to me, but I’m side-eyeing you super hard.)
In short, GLOW is a winning show well worth your attention this summer. Smart writing, filthy jokes, big hearts, and earned pathos abound both inside and outside of the squared circle. Give this one a try as soon as you can.
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