In the third episode of GLOW, a new 10-part series debuting on Netflix Friday, a male producer and a male director brainstorm possible characters for their women’s wrestling circuit. As in the real-life Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling—which featured characters named Palestina, Jailbait, and Big Bad Mama—the various identities rely heavily on stereotypes. Jenny (Ellen Wong) becomes Fortune Cookie. Tammé (Kia Stevens) is Welfare Queen. Arthie (Sunita Mani) is Beirut. “It’s not a judgment,” GLOW’s coked-up producer, Sebastian (Chris Lowell) explains. “It’s just what I and the entire world see with our eyes.”
GLOW, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and executive produced by Orange Is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan, arrives in a heady fog of hairspray and ’80s nostalgia, but it pulls no punches in its treatment of the entertainment industry. In the show’s very first scene, Ruth (Alison Brie), an actress, delivers a monologue in an audition and raves about the role, commenting on how few roles like this there are for women. “You’re reading the man’s part,” the casting agent replies. Which is how Ruth ends up in a gym with 50 or so other “unconventional” women, auditioning for a new kind of “family-friendly” entertainment. On the one hand, she can see how patently absurd it all is. On the other, it’s still the only job going where she can actually dig into a strong female character.
Ruth has more than a little of OITNB’s Piper to her—she’s pretentious, earnest, and painfully self-centered, and there’s a reveal in the first episode that might put viewers off entirely if Brie weren’t so endearing in the role. After one failed audition, she goes home, immerses herself in WWE, and practices wrestling personas at home wearing a makeshift cape and cut-off rubber gloves (“I’m Pre-Menstrual Syndrome!,” she bellows). But it’s an actual fight with her friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) that persuades the director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) to cast both of them—Debbie as Liberty Bell, an all-American superhero, and Ruth as her Russian nemesis. “Relax,” Sam tells Ruth. “The devil gets the best lines.”
Flahive and Mensch’s ensemble cast is terrific. Gayle Rankin plays Sheila the She-Wolf, a monosyllabic goth whose outfits Ruth tries to identify with by explaining that she once went to school dressed as Anne of Green Gables every day for a year. Sydelle Noel is Cherry, an out-of-work actress who becomes the girls’ primary trainer and caretaker. The British singer-songwriter Kate Nash plays Rhonda, a daffy and lovable type whose character, Britannica, is a Nobel-prize winning scientist in spandex. And Britney Young is Carmen, the neglected 25-year-old scion of a professional wrestling family. The show has fun with the fact that the characters are literally grappling with female stereotypes in the ring while proving how much more complex and interesting the real women are.
Maron, as the unkempt and past-his-prime Sylvia, is so charming that he steals virtually every scene he’s in. A frustrated former B-movie director based on Matt Cimber, Sylvia is a chain-smoking, drug-snorting, womanizing wreck who’s also surprisingly protective of the team he’s assembled. (“Don’t take that!” he snaps at “Beirut” when Sebastian offers her “terrorist” persona a gun to wield.) And Gilpin (Nurse Jackie) is stellar as Debbie, a bombshell former soap star dealing with a cheating husband and an infant son who bites her while he’s breastfeeding. Just like Ruth, she seems to find something in the ring that’s unexpectedly satisfying, even if it’s just a momentary chance to be a star-spangled superhero.
GLOW has plenty of ’80s accoutrements—some nostalgia-inducing (a synth-heavy soundtrack, leotards for every occasion, neon eyeshadow, Steve Guttenberg) and some not (a home pregnancy test that resembles an AP chemistry exam). Each episode runs around 30 minutes, which allows the show to both delve into individual stories and spin a larger arc, with few of the pacing issues of Netflix’s longer shows. Mostly, though, it’s just a blast to watch women having so much fun. GLOW fully owns its campiness and its showy aesthetics, but it’s smart and subversive underneath the glitter.