It’s never felt more obvious that GLOW’s creators, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, are feeling constrained by the wrestling-league format. For one thing, there’s very little wrestling at all until the fifth episode, when the performers decide (without consulting their befuddled producer, Bash—played by Chris Lowell) to switch roles at the last minute to liven things up. Rather, Season 3 offers the chance to see what happens when a TV show goes post-plot, taking all the codes and mores that govern dramatic writing and cutting them loose. When it works, it’s because the characters still have a chemistry that overrides their directionless narrative, and because the writing on GLOW is still consistently funny, even as the series heads into darker territory. (In addition to the spiraling AIDS crisis, the new season weaves in mentions of the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide.) At other times, it feels like GLOW is building itself around themes rather than stories: moms who work, workplace racism, homophobia, ambition.
In its first two seasons, GLOW followed the establishment of a low-budget, cable-TV wrestling league, spearheaded by a coke-addled, grouchy, inexplicably charismatic B-movie director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), and produced by Lowell’s trust-fund baby, Bash. But the most compelling story line in the show regarded the friendship between the pretentious, perennially unemployed actor Ruth and Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a pneumatic soap star turned stay-at-home mom who discovered in the first episode that Ruth had been sleeping with her husband. Sam, witnessing a furious showdown between the two, was inspired to cast Debbie as Liberty Belle—Zoya’s supposed archenemy—transmuting the real-life tension between the women into wrestling gold.
In the first season, Ruth tried her hardest to get Debbie to forgive her. In the second, Debbie leveraged her popularity in the ring to become a producer on GLOW, which widened the power imbalance between her and Ruth until Debbie—high on Sam’s cocaine and furious about the breakdown of her marriage—deliberately fractured Ruth’s leg during a bout. The resulting confrontation between the two women played out in a hospital room, and was one of the most thrilling onscreen depictions of the highs and lows of female friendship in recent memory. But in the third season, all hostilities between Ruth and Debbie seem to have been suspended, a welcome development that nevertheless contributes to the blandness afflicting the story. And Ruth’s chemistry with Sam, always a thrill to watch, is limited by the fact that a Vegas show doesn’t need a full-time director, relegating Maron’s lovable crank to the sidelines.
Even the new characters fail to add much dynamism to the proceedings. Geena Davis is resplendent as Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, the Vegas showgirl turned hotel owner and producer who booked GLOW for the Fan-Tan residency, but she, disappointingly, plays the role almost entirely straight. Kevin Cahoon gets more to work with as a Barbra Streisand impersonator who bonds with the enigmatic Sheila (Gayle Rankin), but his character suffers from a lack of context, appearing without explanation in the trope-ish role of a drag fairy godmother. Other GLOW supporting characters also feel underserved by story lines that seem to play on only their body type or ethnicity: Carmen is romantically frustrated; Jenny (Ellen Wong) struggles with the racist stereotypes she has to reinforce in the ring every day; Arthie (Sunita Mani) finds it hard to be open about her sexuality.