When you first dive into Starz’s latest drama, the small town indie wrestling drama Heels starring Stephen Amell, you’re probably going to get some Friday Night Lights vibes. The show takes a lot of cues from that Jason Katims smash hit. There’s the lived-in feel of Duffy, Georgia, where Amell’s Jack Spade runs the Duffy Wrestling League; the entertaining ensemble of wrestlers, all trying to find their spot in the DWL while hoping for things bigger and better outside of their hometown; the web of secrets and various relationship threads that are amplified by living somewhere where everyone knows who you are; even the score is clearly inspired by Explosions In The Sky. Heels isn’t nearly as assured as the show it shares a wavelength with, but across the four episodes screened for review, it certainly builds itself into a compelling portrait of small town wrestling and relationships.
The series premiere drops us right into the heart of a DWL show. Every week a rowdy crowd piles into “The Dome,” a grimy warehouse that looks like it’s on its last legs, to give themselves over to the fantastical fiction of pro wrestling. It doesn’t matter that they know Jack and his younger brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) from around town, what matters is that they see a heel and a face (a bad guy and a good guy) and they all believe in the power of this kind of storytelling.
The premiere is a little shaky because, like so many pilots these days, it spends too much time trying to convey every little bit of information about these characters and this town rather than just letting the plot and action do the talking. It’s a rather plodding first hour, though not without its moments. We’re introduced to Jack, who’s desperately trying to keep DWL, which he inherited from his father, from going under. His younger brother Ace is a rising star, putting butts in seats, but he’s also egotistical and a typical “loose cannon,” which means he’s difficult to control. Plus, DWL has some competition now in FWD, a promotion whose ECW-esque blood and violence runs contrary to the family-friendly show the Spades pride themselves on.
Not only is The Dome falling apart, with smoke machines breaking and ceilings in need of repairs, but Jack’s home life is in a state of constant strain. Finances are tight, wrestling doesn’t pay the bills, and Jack’s wife Staci (Alison Luff) is desperately trying to support her husband’s vision while also imagining a life for herself outside of raising kids and going to wrestling shows. The Spades’ marriage isn’t quite the central relationship in the show because there’s a lot going on with the whole ensemble, but it’s great to see Heels treat Staci and Jack like a living and breathing married couple. The problems they face are certainly well-worn tropes when it comes to dramas set in a small town, but the show refuses to go down the road of endless bickering and stubbornness. Jack and Staci discuss their problems, their hopes and dreams, and they support each other while disagreeing with each other. That relationship grounds a lot of the more melodramatic moments that pop up in the early episodes, acting as a nice anchor so that the other storylines can more freely play up the comedy or the pro wrestling ridiculousness.
Even though the pilot doesn’t fully pull you in, together, the first four episodes do a great job of filling in everyone’s stories while complicating and challenging the rather stereotypical characters introduced in the first episode. Heels finds its legs by engaging fruitfully with backstory and motivation and the way the past influences the present. We quickly learn that Jack and Ace’s father died by suicide less than a year ago, but the full impact of his death on the family, the business, and the town is still being understood four episodes in. Similar attention is paid to the rest of the characters, no matter how small—from Bobby, a new wrestler who’s traveled from Texas in the hopes of getting his shot in DWL, to Crystal, Ace’s valet who’s itching to show that she can wrestle and not just be a piece of arm candy. We might have certain assumptions about them, or the show might be presenting them in a way that’s rather one-dimensional, but over time Heels peels back layer after layer to give us something more substantial. These character revelations and its emotional beats aren’t always subtle, but for the most part, they do feel honest and come from a place that’s organic.
But while there’s plenty of drama, Heels might work best as a workplace comedy. DWL’s cast of wrestlers, and the people portraying them, have a wonderful chemistry that brings every scene in the shady Dome to life, and there’s even a wonderfully hilarious cameo from a former superstar of the industry (and potential new AEW signing?) that’ll leave you wanting to spend a lot more time in this particular locker room. Heels doesn’t always expertly portray the world of professional wrestling, but it does a wonderful job of capturing what makes it so special. In its own way, the series operates a lot like professional wrestling. From a distance you can see the stereotypical characters, the good vs. evil dichotomy, and larger-than-life drama. But give it time, and dig a little deeper, and soon you’ll find yourself emotionally invested in a bunch of misfit weirdos throwing fake punches while dressed in spandex.