No show is quite as determined to start things off on the right foot as GLOW—from the solid pilot in 2017 to the exceptional reintroduction to these gorgeous ladies of wrestling in 2018, the series keeps upping its premiere game. The third season opens with an episode that taps into the show’s familiar pathos-driven humor while setting up the even darker tone of the new episodes. Friends turned enemies turned friendly collaborators Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) engage in their face-heel shtick to promote their new Las Vegas-based show as their fellow wrestlers, including Carmen (Britney Young), Jenny (Ellen Wong), and Sheila (Gayle Rankin), watch from their hotel rooms. We don’t want to give too much away, so suffice it to say that the Challenger space shuttle explosion isn’t the only disaster in the cold open.
In under four minutes, GLOW drops us right back into the action while also hinting at the growing pains this increasingly tight-knit ensemble will face in their new, Strip-adjacent digs. The trajectory of “Up, Up, Up” parallels the episode’s title, following that glorious bit of cringe comedy with the arrival of Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis), the entertainment director of the Fan Tan. Sandy’s gleaming yet hard-as-lacquered-nails exterior makes her the perfect addition to a show as self-aware as GLOW—a former showgirl, she also understands the importance of making a good first impression, as well as how to keep an audience coming back for more. But though the commentary becomes even more meta as the season goes on, Sandy’s storyline is never fully developed, nor is it properly folded into the larger, ongoing narrative, that of a group of women wrestlers who have weathered injuries and rivalries together but who still have different, occasionally conflicting, motivations for stepping—or rather, sliding—into the ring.
This isn’t exactly a new problem for GLOW, which has struggled to pay adequate attention to all of its characters in the past. But that says more about the size and talent of the cast, which includes Marc Maron as cantankerous director Sam Sylvia, than anything else. Whatever shenanigans or disappointments the women got into in seasons one and two, you could rely on the actors to make it compelling—and though they are nudged apart as frequently as they’re brought together, the cast is even more cohesive this time around. Gilpin continues to give a performance worthy of an Emmy nomination, but she also gets stiff competition from Brie, who’s become almost protective of Ruth’s easily shattered illusions of grandeur. So you can’t blame co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch—who are also in the writers room along with Sascha Rothchild, Marquita J. Robinson, and Rachel Shukert—for their ever-shifting spotlight, which mostly tracks Ruth and Debbie’s up-and-down relationship but also seeks out Carmen and Sheila, who really come into their own this season, as well as the commanding Cherry (Sydelle Noel), who once more gets the G.L.O.W. members into fighting shape.
GLOW’s creators and writers continue to struggle to get a handle on their sprawling ensemble—a midseason episode finds multiple pairings of G.L.O.W. ladies wandering in the desert, and it’s hard not to look at that as a metaphor for storylines that peter out. The energy flags from time to time which, combined with the more prominently featured meditations on loneliness and squandered potential, makes season three less of a romp than its predecessors. The new season is a bit of a curiosity overall—where many Netflix series either lose steam or snap into place in their back half; here, it’s much more difficult to declare the first five episodes stronger, as there standout episodes in the both halves, as well as more standard entries sprinkled throughout. The fifth episode makes the series’ exploration of the permeability of roles captivatingly literal, but is followed by an expedition into the wilderness that feels more obligatory than revelatory.
Despite that unevenness, GLOW continues to be one of the best shows about show business, offering an illuminating depiction of the personal and financial costs and finding compelling subjects in everyone from Tammé to Carmen to Yolanda (Shakira Barrera). GLOW and G.L.O.W. have been on parallel paths, both powered by passionate people and facing uncertain futures. Along with verisimilitude, the move to Las Vegas offers the ideal setting for this examination, its boom-and-bust cycle speeding in tandem with the show-within-a-show’s resets. Season three makes some of the most overt references to these similarities, as well as the determination that both creative teams have shown in seeing their visions through. This, too, is nothing new for the series; season one’s story of finding yourself mirrored the tale behind the scenes. Season two saw the G.L.O.W. ladies finding their groove as the show really took off, but the third season warns of the dangers of complacency and falling into a rut.
That’s not really a concern for GLOW, which finds even more to say about the confines of the patriarchy, the rejection and acceptance of labels, and the real demands of passion projects. But the show remains just as in step with its more intimate developments: Bash (Chris Lowell) and Rhonda’s (Kate Nash) sham wedding leads to a real marriage and real marital troubles, while Yolanda and Arthie (Sunita Mani) reevaluate their relationship. Debbie’s fear of being a bad mother hasn’t just vanished in the desert air, nor have Ruth’s insecurities about her talents, and the show continues to parse through their dynamic. These are all familiar elements of the show and they continue to be compelling; but the weariness the characters experience, as earned as it might be within the story, begins to seep through to the audience. This more somber tone suits the third season, but when combined with fitful pacing and unresolved storylines, it saps some of the vitality from the series.
Binge reviews by LaToya Ferguson will run daily beginning August 9.