Professional wrestling traditionally has been a puzzle for other media. Even at a point when most ordinary people realized that wrestling was fake -- the self-evident athleticism involved notwithstanding, outcomes are predetermined by the promoter -- movies or TV episodes often worked from the premise that it all was real. That probably was because writers and producers were most interested in the dramatic (or comic) potential of the action in the ring. Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch's Netflix series takes a different approach, as any attempt at a longform series about wrestling must do. GLOW is more of a "let's put on a show!" concept in which the results of matches count less than the overall success of a TV pilot and the success stories of individual characters who spend most of their lives outside the ring. It's based loosely on the actual GLOW (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling) show that ran for four seasons in the late 1980s and a promotion that has never actually died. I've always had some interest in pro wrestling, though I've never been a full-on fan, and I remember the GLOW show as embarrassing to watch. To their credit, Flahive and Mensch don't exaggerate their characters' wrestling ability; by the standards of actual wrestling fans, even the climactic bout in the first-season finale was a mediocre affair. The creators don't really need to get over with wrestling fans, of course, but they do need to get their characters over and they do that pretty well. Our main characters are the aspiring and somewhat pretentious actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her friend, onetime soap star Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin). Ruth is just about desperate enough to try anything, include a new women's-wrestling promotion produced by schlock film director Sam Sylvia (Marc Marron's character is inspired by real-life GLOW director Matt Cimber). Debbie gets involved by accident when she tracks Ruth to the training facility after learning that her friend was sleeping with her husband. When she gets into the ring to attack Ruth, Sam recognizes Debbie's charismatic potential, while the real-life heat between the two women guarantees Ruth a place in the promotion after Sam had already fired her.
While the show takes time to establish many of the other aspiring wrestlers as personalities in their own right, beyond their cartoonish gimmicks, the frenmity of Ruth and Debbie is the first season's main event. Ruth proves a natural heel, i.e. a bad guy, but needs just the right babyface to get her Soviet villain character "Zoya the Destroyer" over. Everyone realizes that Debbie has to be the face, but it's not until she crushes on a babyface male wrestler that Debbie, whose marriage is failing, warms to the idea. While Ruth remains our nearest thing to a consistent point-of-view character, Debbie has the meatier storyline, increasingly torn between her ambition to perform and her needy, jealous husband. GLOW keeps us in suspense until almost the end over whether Debbie will stick with her fellow wrestlers, who are depending on her patriotic hero gimmick to get the whole promotion over, or stand by her man is dull domesticity.
As a Netflix series, GLOW can be edgier in many ways than a broadcast or basic-cable show. It can be more provocative in its presentation of gimmicks based on ethnic stereotypes, most notably when a black wrestler (real-life wrestling veteran Kia Stevens) takes on the character of Food Stamp-flaunting, Reagan-hating "Welfare Queen." In wrestling terms Welfare Queen is a tweener, sometimes playing the heel (as in the season finale) but definitely the face when she and another black wrestler fight a tag team in Klan robes. Somehow I doubt that the real GLOW could have gotten away with her gimmick (or the Klan wrestlers) on TV then or now, but in the meta-reality of GLOW it stands as a commentary on the perceived attitudes of the Reagan era. On another front, the alcoholic, drug-addicted Sam edges toward a relationship with a protege (Britt Baron) without realizing until almost too late that it also borders on incest. Over ten episodes the show does a decent job balancing the harsher material with the broader comedy so that it ends up fairly light fare. It's knowledgeable enough about the business to not make a wrestling fan squirm, yet not too obsessive about it to make the non-fan squirm. Overall, I think the writers make a good use of wrestling to highlight and exaggerate character traits and conflicts that might otherwise look all too ordinary. By wrestling's own standards, it got over enough with Netflix to get a second season, and who can argue with success? I see no reason to.