One of the GLOW pilot’s funniest moments happens early on, in a line that’s not an obvious punchline but has a clear purpose: “Getting pregnant and written off that show—best decision I ever made.” It’s funny because it’s sad; it’s not even really presented as a joke the same way Ruth’s (Alison Brie) opening audition or the G.L.O.W. tryouts are. Yet it’s one of the earliest signs of the type of world in which GLOW exists. We know it’s the fluorescent, spandex-clad 1980s, but that sadness—that chicken salad out of chicken shit mentality without even batting an eyelash at the actual meaning—is what GLOW begins with. The sadness is more immediately apparent with Ruth, especially as she intentionally recites Steve Guttenberg’s lines in her audition or turns a simple “hair mare” wrestling maneuver into wrestling Les Mis or gets accosted by street youths. But the way Debbie (Betty Gilpin) fools herself into calling such a bad situation a blessing is the perfect showcase of the mental gymnastics these characters have had to go through to be accepted, if they’ve even reached a point of acceptance in any form at all. It’s that lack of true acceptance and a little bit of betrayal which bring all the ladies together at the “unconventional” GLOW.
Netflix’s GLOW is a heavily fictionalized—“inspired by” the original series, instead of a biographical stroll down memory lane—take on the real G.L.O.W. (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) professional wrestling show from 1986 to 1992. The characters are all based on the spirit of G.L.O.W., but there’s no Babe the Farmer’s Daughter (Ursula Hayden, GLOW Consultant) or Matilda the Hun in sight. Instead, creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have built their own G.L.O.W. Girls from the ground up.
What better way to tell a story about jealousy, betrayal, and self-worth than in a setting where backstabbing, politicking, and manipulation are the norm, despite the collaborative process. For non-wrestling fans, there tends to be a general understanding that the very concept of pro wrestling boils down to an adrenalized soap opera. If Soapdish taught us anything, it’s that a soap opera (or any TV series) can have just as much drama behind the scenes as it does in front the camera. So for GLOW to have Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) book his show around Ruth and Debbie’s real life conflict—as the last few moments of the pilot set up—that’s just smart business that can lead to even better wrestling storytelling.
Professional wrestling’s an absolutely overwhelming world, and as niche as G.L.O.W. was, GLOW understands that it was no exception to that vastness. These women weren’t in WWF, thousands of Hulkamaniacs screaming at them; they were strangers in a strange land, who somehow made it work. The strange land part is possibly how a lot of the audience for this show will feel, right there with these characters. However, from a wrestling fan perspective, what impressed me most about this pilot was just how accessible it was to an audience who knows absolutely nothing about professional wrestling... without insulting the audience of hardcore wrestling fans. It’s basically “Wrestling 101,” without also being an “Idiot’s Guide To Wrestling.” The characters here (except for Carmen, part of a wrestling legacy) are on the outside looking in, and as the show invites them in, it does the same for its audience, no matter the knowledge level. The carny nature of pro wrestling has often made that type of accessibility difficult, but GLOW starts off fairly quickly with a nice sense of balance.
Plus, GLOW shows that it knows its own world well by providing a true ‘80s style montage in the auditions for the G.L.O.W. Girls, introducing a cast of characters you instantly want to spend more time with. That actually highlights one of the weaker points of the pilot, because if anything, the episode feels like it could be longer. That’s a rarity for a Netflix show, but it’s a good problem for GLOW to have here. Without spoiling much, episode two truly feels like the second half of this pilot (instead of just a typical “pilot junior”); by itself, this episode isn’t as whole as it could be. Because while this episode does relatively well by both Ruth and Debbie—who, despite the ensemble, are obviously the centerpiece—in the case of the latter, she mostly exists here in the realm of what she means to Ruth. What she means to Ruth as a friend, as a career goal and rival, as the wife to the man she slept with. GLOW (and G.L.O.W. ) clicks when it officially pits these two against each other, causing art to imitate their awkwardly fought life, but it can’t sustain itself if Debbie doesn’t become anything other than an extension of Ruth. Her ambushing Ruth at the end of the episode obviously opens the door to that, but right now, there’s unevenness in their dynamic in Ruth’s favor. That could be a problem in the long run.
Ruth may be the audience’s entryway into this world, but you see, for Ruth, her life’s a joke, she’s broke, and her love life’s D.O.A. It’s like she’s always stuck in second gear; it hasn’t been her day, her week, her month, or even her year. Would that Debbie could be there for her (like she’s been there before), but Ruth ruins that by sleeping with the woman’s husband. We quickly learn from Mark (Rich Sommer), as he brings up the speech that made him pursue her (about deserving things that the “shiny people” always get), that she feels entitled. She calls her parents’ answering machine, telling them she needs money instead of asking, and only remembers at the last minute to inform them of the relatively good news about her career. And her reaction to Debbie’s anger over the affair is, “It just happened,” an absolute lack of responsibility in the official dissolution of her best and possibly only friendship. She’s struggling, and she doesn’t have it all… but GLOW realizes that does not instantly make her a sympathetic character. It would honestly feel disingenuous and somewhat clichéd if GLOW went out of its way to make Ruth come across as the definitive hero of this story despite all of this. It’s also an expected choice, given the outsider’s perspective about this entire story and concept, but it’s a more interesting choice to outright designate her in a villainous role. But because of said role, Debbie needs to be more than just “someone in Ruth’s life.”
Ruth sees herself as an “Artist,” and where she eventually sees G.L.O.W. as an outlet for her craft, Sam sees dollar signs, like any wrestling promoter would. He sees a sold out crowd popping like crazy for his two marquee stars. The idealism and creativity and athleticism of wrestling is great—and in Sam’s defense, his ability to see so vividly involves that—but Sam’s obviously on the other side of that world. Sam’s side provides an image that can sells his show and even sells this show, as it’s exactly what you expect when you read the words “Alison Brie wrestling series.” So give the audience what they want. GLOW does that with this pilot; the set up is there, as are all the tools to move forward. Does the episode reinvent the wheel when it comes to wrestling or even TV? No. But it shows an understanding of storytelling—in terms of both forms of entertainment—and glimmers of something special. It also does so with a surprising amount of earnestness, considering the source material and subject matter. You could say the same about the original G.L.O.W. series.
- If you’re reading this review, I’m sure you already know I’m a big professional wrestling fan, so I’m really happy to be covering GLOW. I’m also working to make these reviews just as accessible to non-wrestling fans as the show is, so if anyone has any questions or needs further explanation about a pro wrestling aspect of the show, feel free to ask me in the comments. Pro wrestling is for everyone!
- Speaking of, as great of a movie as The Wrestler is, I always found its presentation to be that of an absolutely foreign world to non-wrestling fans and one that didn’t care to invite them into it. It wanted that audience to be a fly on the wall, engaged but not in the way typical of an actual, engaged wrestling audience. GLOW, on the other hand, feels like it wants that type of engagement.
- Hell’s Bells, Trudy! And that’s what I have to say about the tainted Mad Men reunion between Alison Brie and Rich Sommer. Well, that and the fact that Ruth does everything she can to shut Mark up as he tries to make their sex a deeply intense, romantic thing (constantly calling her “real”). Debbie’s not wrong when she says Ruth can’t love anyone, is she?
- I want to see Ruth’s “clowning workshops” so badly, though I don’t know if they’d be more embarrassing than her confrontation with the Los Angeles Death Squad… “Pert Plus-looking bitch” is such an insult of the time.
- “Mouse, don’t go!” Yes, I know with The A.V. Club demographic I probably should’ve gone with “Knives, don’t go,” but I can’t help my initial reaction to Ellen Wong’s Jenny as she considers bailing on G.L.O.W. With Ellen Wong on GLOW, Lindsey Gort popping up in the latest Lucifer season, and Katie Findlay rocking the final season of Man Seeking Woman, this has been a good TV season to really miss The Carrie Diaries.
- The moment Ruth turns on WWF and starts creating her own characters, that’s when she finally gets it. She may not get it completely, but the divide between wrestling and being “too good” for it or seeing it as “a sport...with costumes” is gone. It’s the childish enthusiasm a lot of people have when they first see wrestling—because they tend to be children—and if you’re looking for any sense of innocence in the Ruth character, there it is.
- The music cues in this episode are pretty choice, as there is of course the perfect, completely ‘80s opening credits set to Scandal’s “The Warrior.” But Journey’s “Separate Ways (Worlds Apart)” for Sam’s GLOW vision is the cue that’s absolutely inspired.
- However, I absolutely love the an early directorial choice in the form of the silhouettes of the women in aerobics class (during the locker room scene). Through glass bricks, of course. Glass bricks are one of the most ‘80s things no one ever talks about when it comes to the ‘80s, even though they’re definitely featured in some of my earliest childhood memories.
- Shout out to professional wrestler John Hennigan (aka Johnny Mundo/John Morrison) as Salty “The Sack” Johnson, but also shout out to Chavo Guerrero (who served as the actual wrestling trainer for this show), as the gym where the ladies train is named after him. And of course, Kia Stevens (aka Awesome Kong/Kharma) is part of the G.L.O.W. Girls as Tamme.