In season 3, GLOW has lost the plot. Having cleared the second season hurdle without getting the plug pulled—a particularly hazardous stage for Netflix Originals—the latest season swaggers with a certain confidence and a healthy disdain for narrative expectations. It takes some nerve, after all, to start a premiere with a Challenger disaster gag for a cold open, and similar boldness for a season released in August to cap things off with a Christmas special finale.
Dedicating itself fully to an ensemble approach, the new season makes a point of giving every member of the team, including director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) and producer “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell), at least one moment in the spotlight. The focus switches so frequently both between episodes and within them that a viewer jumping into season three without context would probably be surprised to hear that struggling actress-turned-wrestler Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) was originally posited as the star.
GLOW has plenty of great characters to work with, so the appeal distributing screen time more evenly presents is evident, but there are just so many characters that in execution, not picking favorites leaves a lot of storylines feeling spread pretty thin. Two newcomers, showgirl turned casino entertainment director Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis) and earnest yet world-weary drag performer Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon) both present intriguing possibilities, but in a season already full to bursting there’s no time to develop either of them much further than stock tropes with the occasional glimmer of hidden depths lurking beneath the surface.
In terms of technical execution, GLOW has never looked better. There are certain shots and sequences scattered throughout the latest season that are veritable masterclasses in visual storytelling; a sequence of Ruth wearily removing her stage makeup in real-time as life in the dressing room behind her rushes by at hyper-speed is the sort of cinematic goodness I could happily watch on a loop. In moments like these, when GLOW follows that old adage of “show, don’t tell,” it’s some of the best stuff you’ll find anywhere. The problem is, for whatever reason, the show—particularly this season—seems to possess a strange aversion to such moments. Maybe it’s related to the “how many lines does Margot Robbie have?” school of thinking, but regardless, the end result is a show that often feels the need to talk about things at length even when the same points might be conveyed through action and images alone. On occasion, as mentioned, GLOW does diverge from this pattern, and the result is many of the season’s best moments. It’s just a shame that such instances are the exception and not the rule.
There might not be a standard through-line in the sense of a season arc, but the subplots are many and bountiful — too bountiful. While there are a handful of clunkers—an undercooked gambling addiction subplot that feels more arbitrarily assigned than genuine to the character in question, a detour on the subject of historical and personal traumas with commendable intentions but prosaic execution — the overwhelming issue is the sheer multitude. Subplots multiply like tribbles throughout the season, and by the end, there’s too damn many to afford any of them the care and attention they deserve.
Ruth, who has found professional success but not happiness, might not be the star of the show anymore, but her season-long struggle with ennui turns her into something of a proxy for the show as a whole. For a show entitled Glamorous Ladies of Wrestling, GLOW has never really been about wrestling, and with its newfound confidence, the third season evidences this more blatantly than ever before. However, in being blatant about where its interests do not lie, the series lays bare a question for which it doesn’t seem to have much of an answer: namely, what is GLOW about, exactly?
The show has a lot going for it — lovable characters, a fascinating world to explore, plenty of incredible talents both in front of the camera and behind it — and yet there’s a way in which the new season feels lost. After meandering through nine episodes, the finale crams in setup for a fourth season like a kid who procrastinated on studying for a test until the morning of. It gets the job done, but there’s little finesse involved. Don’t get me wrong, the season it sets up looks hugely promising — it just feels like a total swerve.
Regardless of whether or not what happened in Vegas stays in Vegas as far as GLOW is concerned, the ladies’ residency at the Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino ultimately feels like one great big interlude. Sure, a few people learn a few lessons and some important conversations are had, but overall there’s a way in which season three feels utterly void of progress. With the somewhat unexpected but very welcome exception in the form of “she-wolf” Shiela (Gayle Rankin), who finally gets rounded out into an actual person as opposed to a comedy bit, the characters seem to be in a strange sort of stasis — in their relationships, in their internal struggles, in their evolution as people.
I suppose it fits, in a way; the live Vegas residency means the women wrestle out the same storyline night after night, a stark contrast to the constantly progressing narrative of their televised matches. But while on occasion the show makes meaningful parallels here, overwhelmingly this odd stasis feels more a byproduct of storytellers wanting to hold onto all their cards for later than anything else.
All things considered, season three of GLOW feels a little bit like getting lost in the woods with some good friends you haven’t seen in a while. In the beginning, it’s so nice to be catching up that the fact you’re wandering aimlessly doesn’t really matter because the company is good. But by five, six hours in, when you’ve somehow managed to pass the same tree four times without finding the goddamn trail, the allure has faded. And when you finally make it back to the parking lot and part ways, you’re not overly sorry to see the “adventure” come to an end. Hopefully next time someone will remember to bring a compass.
Header Image Source: Ali Goldstein/Netflix