Netflix's 'Glow' Explores Female Identity & '80s Nostalgia
Generally speaking, pilots are my least favorite episodes of any given TV show—even with great shows like Six Feet Under, which remains one of my favorites of all time, I cringe any time I think about those fake ads in the pilot. They're often weighed down by the clunky-but-necessary nuts and bolts of setting up the show to come, through world-establishing exposition and surface-level character introductions. With very few exceptions (ahem, The Walking Dead), things can only get better after the pilot when the creators get a chance to stretch out and really explore their universe.
Glow, the charming comedy that just hit Netflix, suffers a bit from pilot-itis as well; I found that it took until about episode three for me to be fully invested in this world. But there is something remarkable in the pilot worth highlighting, because the very first scenes do such a great job of laying out the thesis statement for what's to come.
It starts with a scene from the trailer, with Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) auditioning for a role in full '80s-regalia. She reads the man's part in the scene (which results in the the funniest beat of the pilot) because, as she later explains to a casting director while mildly accosting her in the bathroom, the woman's part was garbage: "What I'm interested in are real parts, not secretaries telling powerful men their wives are on line two."
The scene perfectly encapsulates the show, which goes on to explore female identity and empowerment through the prism of wrestling (and soap operas, by extension, since as the ladies quickly learn, wrestling really is just soap operas with extra spandex). Ruth, a struggling actress who straddles the line between plucky and irritating to everyone she meets, auditions for a project seeking "unconventional women" after that bathroom confrontation. She ends up joining the new all-female wrestling TV program "G.L.O.W.," aka the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling, overseen by a coke-addled, pretentious blowhard played to a tee by Marc Maron (who wavers between slimy and deeply self-aware without ever getting too cutesy).
Glow is equal parts Bad News Bears underdog sports drama, glam '80s time piece, and proto-feminist text—in particular, the show deftly (and often hilariously) embraces, critiques, and challenges female stereotypes again and again through the personas of the wrestlers—all without fetishizing its actresses. That includes Arthie (Sunita Mani), an Indian woman who gets saddled with terrorist character "Beirut;" Jenny (Ellen Wong), a Cambodian woman who turns into "Fortune Cookie;" and real-life wrestler Kia Stevens, whose character Tammé turns into the villainous "Welfare Queen" (and who worries about what her son at Stanford will think of her heel turn). Don't be mistaken though: the creators and writers know exactly what they're doing playing with these offensive cliches.
Created by Liz Flahive (Nurse Jackie) and Carly Mensch (Weeds) and executive produced by Jenji Kohan, the show follows in the footsteps of shows like Kohan's Orange Is The New Black, with a spectacular supporting cast filled with a mix of unfamiliar and "hey! that person!" faces. I didn't recognize actress Gayle Rankin from anything prior, but her character "Sheila The She Wolf," who doesn't break character even off-stage, quietly blew me away—she is complicated, vulnerable and lovably odd all at once. Almost all the supporting characters deserve special praise, from Britney Young as the insecure Carmen Wade (whose wrestler dad initially disapproves of his daughter getting into the biz), to singer Kate Nash as Rhonda (who comes up with the official theme song) to my favorite scene-stealing tag-team, Stacey & Dawn (Kimmy Gatewood & Rebekka Johnson), whose every appearance as their wrestling personas made me laugh out loud (and I won't spoil that here).
The more time spent with the support cast the better, but there's no doubt that Brie is the deserved star of the show, though it takes her the longest out of everyone to figure out her character (note: episode seven is a tour de force for Brie and people who love bad Russian accents). Ruth is a try-hard theater nerd who invests all her being in the project, even though almost everyone hates her behind-the-scenes initially because of her betrayal of her best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin, who is popping up everywhere these days, from Masters Of Sex to American Gods). Although there are some leaps in logic to get both of them onboard with "G.L.O.W." (after their initial confrontation, would both of them really stick with the production?), it's worth it for the complex female friendship that follows.
Ultimately, the best thing I can say about Glow is that it is a breath of fresh air in a TV landscape where the best comedies are primarily interested in ripping out your soul and making you feel something, even if it's at the expense of the laughs (Transparent, Atlanta, Catastrophe, Fleabag, Louie, etc). It's not necessarily as good as any of those shows right now—though it definitely has the potential to get there—but it is a fun, easy bingewatch that doesn't overstay its welcome (10 episodes is the perfect amount to avoid the Netflix bloat), and still has emotional beats worth investing in.