Body slams, spandex and bad hair may give you a nostalgic ‘GLOW’
In the lovely, lively new Netflix comedy “GLOW,” which premieres Friday morning a minute after midnight, Alison Brie plays Ruth, a never-hired actress in 1985 Hollywood who stumbles into the world of professional wrestling.
“Every director says, ‘Bring me someone I don’t know, someone I haven’t seen, I want a girl who’s real,’” a casting director tells Ruth. “So I bring you in so they can see that they don’t actually want the thing they think they want.”
Then one day she answers a call for “unconventional women” and finds herself in a gym among actresses of all shapes, colors and dispositions, most of them outsiders in one way or another. Facing them is Sam (Marc Maron), a director of low-budget horror fare, who has been hired to make the world’s first women’s wrestling TV show.
“I like to push the envelope,” he says. “I like to jolt people into consciousness. Like my first feature credit, ‘Swamp Maidens of the Viet Cong.’” In the way of such stories — “The Bad News Bears,” “A League of Their Own,” he is an outsider too — down on his luck but ripe for reinvention.
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, with “Orange Is the New Black” creator Jenji Kohan as an executive producer and contributing writer, the series is, broadly speaking, the story of the creation of a cable TV pilot, “GLOW: Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling,” set back when cable and wrestling were truly subcultural. Like wrestling itself — the scripted kind, not to wreck any cherished illusions, reader — it is based in stories both about sports and show business. (“Are you hiring actors to play wrestlers, or are we wrestlers?” Ruth asks Sam. “Yes,” he replies.)
It’s a tale of conflict and cooperation, about teamwork disguised as rivalry, and rivalry subsumed in teamwork, of plucky outsiders fighting for respect and self-respect. And the story of women living in close proximity has something in common with “Orange Is the New Black”; the wrestlers all move into the same motel while they train, and though they are free to leave, one might say they are prisoners of their own need to stay.
Some characters get more screen time than others, but none are shallow; all get to tell you at least a little bit about who they are, without making too obvious a point of it. (The exposition creeps in on little cat feet.) Even a figure as ripe for mockery as Bash (Chris Lowell), the rich kid backing the project, is portrayed sympathetically and with depth. (“I am a patron of the arts, and wrestling is an art, despite my mother’s opinion, which is wrong.”)
As the focus of what is very much an ensemble — notably featuring Sydelle Noel, Britney Young and Gayle Rankin — Brie is not the first person you would expect to find in a show about wrestling. That, of course, is part of the point; her character wills herself into the role. Though Brie was a key member of the cast of “Community” and a memorable occasional presence in “Mad Men,” “GLOW” offers a welcome opportunity to watch her at length and in depth. She very much holds her ground. It’s an intelligent, felt performance, but also a funny and physical one; her one-woman depiction of a two-woman wrestling match is a bit of slapstick brilliance.
Maron, too, is very fine in a role that fits him like the old boots he wears — a little acid, a little angry, kinder than not; it’s not miles or even yards away from the version of himself he played on his IFC sitcom, “Maron.” And as Deb, Ruth’s more successful, estranged best friend and eventual wrestling rival, the excellent Betty Gilpin is the series’ locus of suppressed pain. Potentially soap-operatic — intentionally potentially so, I’d say — it’s a subtle performance with surprising turns.
“GLOW” was an actual ’80s wrestling show, the first to feature women. I have no idea how closely this fiction hews to the historical record, but the series is too well-made for it to matter one way or the other. There are ’80s references, to be sure: Steve Guttenberg, Fresca, the Angry Samoans, “Scarecrow and Mrs. King,” roller disco, Jane Fonda-style workouts. (Southern California viewers may appreciate local nods to Two Panda Deli, Aron’s Records, Poseur). There are some horrifying fashions and remarkable hairstyles.
But the story takes you into its own, fully realized world, including some scenic detours and set pieces not entirely essential to the story. (That is the luxury of the 10-episode series.) Christian Sprenger, whose naturalistic work I’ve admired on “Baskets” and “Atlanta,” has a gift for finding poetry in light and space — he has a respectful eye for things as they are. Indeed, an attitude of respect characterizes the entire series; you may finish the series with a better opinion of professional wrestling than when you went in.