GLOW glows, effervescent with comedic energy and dreamy desperation. Inspired by the true-life tale of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have crafted a complicated story of female roleplay. In its first season, struggling actress Ruth (Alison Brie) and onetime soap star Debbie (Betty Gilpin) fronted a misfit gang of performers, complex women joyously self-actualizing into chaos cartoons. It was an aspirational parody, my favorite comedy last year and my favorite drama.
In season 2, small success breeds large problems. When “the premier cable channel of the San Fernando Valley” picks up their series, the wrestlers experience the first throes of early cable fame. Thrill to the period-piece re-creations from the UHF era: Twerpy-serious PSAs, big-haired music videos, a title sequence shot without permits in the mall (the mall!). Ruth herself films that title sequence as a larky team-building getaway. “You think we really captured the nexus of girl-on-girl violence and consumer culture in America?” she asks, sounding like an arty goof or a critic who really loves GLOW.
That random act of artistry makes her, well, a director—a lady director, at that, with femaleness and everything—which threatens Sam (Marc Maron), the cult filmmaker-turned-showrunner. As power dynamics shift, Debbie’s got her own plans. In the ring, she’s Liberty Belle, the star-spangled star of the show-within-the-show. But what she really wants is to produce, get invited into the room where it happens. Meanwhile, there’s a timely subplot about a room where it shouldn’t happen. A network executive visits. “Mr. Grant always takes meetings in his room”—sounds like a horror movie or a recent headline, right?
The bantery ensemble comedy and doing-our-own-stunts stage farce leads to darker, more raw emotional places. Debbie’s divorce initiates a two-stage meltdown—first melancholy, then rage—leading Gilpin to deliver one tour de force sequence after another. Her tight control parries ably with Brie’s gung-ho gusto: You’re never sure if you’re watching these onetime friends make peace or go thermonuclear. Meanwhile, Maron remains a wounded delight, a middle-aged man getting over his own auteur theory.
And one episode sends Tammé (Kia Stevens) on a visit to her college-aged son, a smart young African-American man with some thoughts about Mom’s double life as “Welfare Queen.” Majestically bemused Sydelle Noel returns as Cherry Bang, the best-named character in TV history, currently struggling in new acting role as a tough Police Woman, Justine (Britt Baron) struggles with high school, and producer Bash (sweet Chris Lowell) struggles through an emotional journey that involves the perfect use of Bronski Beat’s “Smalltown Boy.”
It’s a big ensemble, and some arcs develop further than others. But if this season feels less cohesive than the first year, it’s only because GLOW‘s creators are experimenting, testing this show’s limits. (There aren’t many, turns out.) In the premiere, an exasperated Sam asks: “You ever work around this many women?” Not enough of us have, but thanks to GLOW, we can imagine it pretty well. A-