Comparisons between Starz’s new wrestling series Heels and Friday Night Lights are inescapable. The musical scores are very similar, they both ooze an alt-country vibe, and they’re both about dusty, dead-end Southern town where a sport is the main attraction. Here it’s wrestling, but as with FNL and football, knowledge and/or interest in wrestling are unnecessary. I have less than no interest in the sport, and yet this wrestling drama is my favorite new show since Ted Lasso and should be the show that pushes Starz into the next level of the streaming wars.
Heels stars Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig as brothers Jack and Ace Spade, respectively. Jack inherited his father’s wrestling promotion, for which he writes the scripts and plays the main heel (or villain) while Ace is the hero and the main draw, although Ace himself is kind of a talented, womanizing f**k-up (think Tim Riggins). Ace, however, is on his way up in the wrestling world, but when he’s given an opportunity to rise to the big leagues of wrestling, his own brother — afraid of losing the star of his show —throws a wrench into his plans in such a way as to turn the family members into nemeses both in and out of the ring.
Jack is less interested in promoting himself. He wants to transform the Duffy Wrestling League, to which his father devoted his life, into a legitimate business with reach outside of Duffy. To do so, not only does he need Ace but he has to juggle the various personalities and ambitions of his wrestlers, including Crystal (Kelli Berglund), Ace’s valet and sometimes love interest (the Tyra); Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonado), a talented wrestler who wants his own shot at the belt but feels underappreciated (the Smash); Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker), the hero with the heart of gold but not a lot going on upstairs (the Matt Saracen); and Diego Cottonmouth (Robby Ramos) and Apocalypse (James Harrison Jr.), who are basically team players used as necessary to move the plot (the Landry Clarke and Luke Cafferty).
Mary McCormack plays Willie, who runs the whole operation and is essentially the Mac McGill to Amell’s Coach Taylor, while Chris Bauer — who steals every goddamn scene he’s in — is Wild Bill Hancock, the star wrestler who made it to the big leagues but has had to return to Duffy for reasons that I won’t spoil (let’s just call him the Buddy Garrity). Alison Luff plays Staci Spade, the Tami Taylor of Heels, the no-nonsense glue that holds everything together, and — as with FNL — the best character in a cast full of standouts.
There’s a much harder edge here than in Friday Night Lights (and considerably more nudity) and the characters are more dysfunctional and face more adult challenges, but it possesses the same heart. At its root, it’s also an underdog story, not about a sports team but an entire league, a small business trying to survive against long odds. The wrestling itself serves an important function, too, because the storylines in the ring are informed by and inform the storylines outside of the ring, which allows Heels to build in a couple of layers of drama.
It sounds crazy that a wrestling drama on Starz could be as good as this is until you also consider that it comes from Michael Waldron, who is the hottest screenwriter on the planet right now. He went from Rick and Morty to writing Loki to being hired to write Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness and, more recently, the screenplay for Kevin Feige’s Star Wars film. What’s special about Waldron is that it’s clear he knows how to tell a great character-driven story no matter the genre, and with Heels, he manages to take whatever it is that people love about wrestling and make it universal. It is magnificent, and one of those evocative shows that manage to stick with you long after the credits have rolled. And yes, it is also absolutely a show for which it is worth subscribing to another streaming service.
‘Heels’ premieres on Sunday, August 15th on Starz.
Header Image Source: Starz