This is a recap of the entire first season of Netflix’s “GLOW.”
“GLOW,” the delightful Netflix comedy about an all-women’s pro-wrestling league in the 1980s, spent its entire first season inching toward opening night. It’s time for some color commentary on those 10 episodes.
In the red corner, it’s our antiheroine, Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an out-of-work actress in Los Angeles who can’t stop sabotaging herself. She reads men’s parts in auditions because they’re juicier. She pays for an acting class, but she has to make two meals out of one takeout taco. She sleeps with the husband of her beautiful best friend, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) — twice — and cringes as he marvels that she’s so “real.”
It’s Debbie who accidentally secures both women’s places in the league when she learns about the affair and then attacks Ruth in the middle of a callback. By the end of the season, Ruth has set aside her actorly self-seriousness and transformed into Zoya, a trash-talking Soviet who plays the villainous “heel” to Debbie’s all-American “face,” Liberty Belle.
“GLOW” is as warm as its title suggests, and its emotional center is the rift between these two characters. You don’t have to dig too deep to understand the unconscious motivations behind Ruth’s betrayal. A former soap star who retired to become a full-time wife and mother, Debbie has already had and given up the only thing Ruth wants: an acting career. Although Ruth nearly wrecks her chances of becoming a Gorgeous Lady of Wrestling by trying too hard to please GLOW’s cranky director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), her advantage over Debbie is her hunger for work. Each woman is fragile in her own way, and in between all the laughs the show offers, it’s painful to watch a friendship that initially feels so intimate devolve into a physical fight, then a (thematically appropriate) Cold War, and finally an uneasy truce.
Sam, another wounded veteran of the entertainment industry, is a director who made B-movies in the ’70s. He’s also a character we’ve seen before: the grumpy, jaded male coach who gets his groove back with some help from the irrepressible young women he was reluctant to mentor. But Maron deepens the role by exposing both the director’s self-loathing and his genuine desire to make great movies (even if most people find his films so bad, they’re funny). When he breaks up with the sexy, flighty Rhonda (Kate Nash), he’s shocked to learn that she actually liked him.
In a season that runs just over five hours, “GLOW” does a remarkable job of developing its many supporting characters. Carmen (Britney Young), the shy daughter of a wrestling legend who practically disowns her for joining the league, comes out of her shell and wins over her dad as the hulking hero Machu Picchu. A washed-up stuntwoman who has lots of history with Sam, Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) takes refuge from a disappointing career in a steamy, supportive marriage. Sheila (Gayle Rankin), an outcast who dresses in ripped-up fur and identifies as a “she-wolf,” retracts her claws after her co-stars throw her a roller-skating birthday party. The teenage Justine (Britt Baron) isn’t obsessed with Sam and his work because she has a crush on him, as he believes, but because she’s his daughter. Her story line might have come off as hacky if her secret hadn’t been so carefully revealed in Episode 9, a standout half-hour directed by Lynn Shelton (“Your Sister’s Sister”), one of indie film’s subtlest storytellers.
Although “GLOW” is lighter than “Orange Is the New Black,” Netflix’s other series for which Jenji Kohan acts as an executive producer (Kohan also created “Orange”), the show is serious about addressing wrestling’s history of racism. Bored by Sam’s high-concept script, GLOW’s slightly creepy, rich-kid benefactor, Bash (Chris Lowell), assigns new characters based on stereotypes. Jenny Chey (Ellen Wong) becomes a martial artist named Fortune Cookie, while Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani), a bookish Indian student, is cast as an Arab terrorist. There’s a tense scene in the finale in which Arthie steps into the ring and gets pelted with spit, beer and slurs, and the bigotry wrestling exploits suddenly hits home. A few minutes later, Tammé (Kia Stevens), a middle-aged black woman who’s been rechristened Welfare Queen, unexpectedly takes out Liberty Belle and wins the crown — and exacts symbolic revenge on Reagan-era America on behalf of black Americans and the poor. It’s just a shame that none of these three characters gets her own story line off the mat.
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