May 3, 2017
Binge or No? Netflix's GLOW
When I was a kid, my mother was a huge fan of soap operas. In the days before DVRs, and before Netflix made binge-watching a “thing,” she would record an entire week’s worth of her favorite soap, Days of Our Lives, while she worked so that she could spend her Saturdays catching up with all her fictional best friends and lovers and their increasingly wacky lives.
As a result, my father would often chide my mother, a career woman with a Master’s degree, for her deep-abiding love for this evil twin-having, devil-possessed, amnesia-abusing, secret love child-coveting art form. Whenever he did so, my mother would wryly reply that my father’s ability to watch countless hours of WWF wrestling was pretty much precisely the same thing as her Days of Our Lives addiction. Wrestling, she claimed, was really just a soap opera geared toward men. This argument undoubtedly horrified my father, who would inevitably respond by turning up the volume on his wrestling match full blast, as if to say that no series so LOUD AND OBNOXIOUS could possibly be equivalent to a “ladies’ television show.”
But deep down, I think he knew that my mother had a point.
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This exact same epiphany is experienced by GLOW’s co-female lead Debbie Eagen, a former soap star who must now try her hand at a role where your ability to “pretty cry” is not nearly as important as the depth with which you can realistically portray the pain of having someone twice your size sit on your face.
Based on an actual TV series of the same name that took to the airwaves for four seasons from 1986 through 1990 (many of the wrestling personas portrayed here are based on characters from the original series), Netflix’s GLOW is a ten-episode half-hour comedy set piece about the (maybe) origins of women’s wrestling.
Leading this large and diverse cast of mostly female actresses is Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a grown-up theater geek and out-of-work actress who’s desperate to find an on-screen role where her character does more than bring a powerful male lead coffee or tell him that his wife is on line two.
This is, perhaps, one of the most interesting things about GLOW the comedy series: the way in which it argues that women’s wrestling, as an art form, was actually pretty progressive for its time period, particularly in the way in which it championed strong females both as the heroes and the villains of its stories. Not such a big accomplishment, you say? Think about what a huge deal everyone made over the Wonder Woman movie actually featuring a female superhero and how long that film took to make it to the big screen. And this is 2017, over thirty years after women’s wrestling premiered on TV!
In GLOW, Ruth is able to take on the role of her dreams, that of a female lead villain who’s strong, tough, takes no prisoners, and would sooner pour scalding hot coffee on a man’s head than serve it to him black with two sugars.
I mean, sure, women’s wrestling had its downsides too. Most of the “characters” on the show were thinly drawn and often aggressively offensive racial and socio-cultural stereotypes: The Terrorist, the Welfare Queen, the Evil Communist, and an Asian character named “Fortune Cookie”. Not to mention how the female wrestlers were often hooted at, degraded, and objectified by men as they rolled around with one another in skimpy outfits.
Yet, arguably all those same downsides applied to men’s wrestling as well. So there’s an odd sense of equal opportunity here when it comes to poor taste.
Speaking of objectification, those men out there looking to revel in hot bodacious babes engaging in Sapphic aggressive dances with one another might be a bit disappointed with Netflix’s GLOW. With one or two exceptions, this is not a particularly glammed up bunch of ladies. ’80s fashions (which are showcased in all their neon-tinted, big-hair glory here) do nobody any favors, appearance-wise, at least by modern-day beauty standards.
Even Alison Brie, who in real life is quite beautiful, has her looks noticeably, and purposefully, toned down here. Her character Ruth wears little to no makeup throughout most of the series and often prefers shapeless, oversized outfits to more form-fitting attire.
In terms of characters, Brie’s Ruth, Betty Gilpin’s Debbie, and Marc Maron’s schlocky but occasionally paternal showrunner Sam take center stage here during most of the episodes. The rest of the cast serves largely as comedic support, their roles limited mainly to the stereotypical characters they play on the wrestling mat.
As a fan of Jenji Kohan’s other Netflix Series Orange is the New Black, I found myself wanting to see more of these characters and to learn what brought them to this unique job opportunity, possibly through the use of OITNB-inspired flashbacks. There are no such flashbacks in GLOW.
Just as OINTB’s season 1 story was largely about Piper and her complicated love-hate relationship with Alex, so too was GLOW’s season 1 story predominately about Ruth and her friendship turned antagonistic relationship with Debbie. (I’d tell you why it turns antagonistic, but I’m afraid that would be a bit of a spoiler.) Perhaps if the show gets picked up for a second season, GLOW, like OITNB, will branch out and feature more of the back-stories of its intriguing and diverse ensemble cast.
As for the series itself, though it takes a little while to find its footing and humorous tone, GLOW is sudsy good fun, with just the right amount of ’80s camp and a pro-feminist message thrown in for good measure. At a mere five-hour run time, GLOW is easy and painless to breeze through. The live-taping of the wrestling show featured in the final episode serves for an exciting, entertaining, and colorful capstone to the series. And you will undoubtedly find yourself missing GLOW a bit when its over.
So, in the end, my mom was right: wrestling, and shows inspired by wrestling, are a bit like soap operas. Both are guilty pleasures for sure. But if you look closely, you might just find a little bit of substance underneath those suds.
Verdict: Binge it!