The female wrestling saga was a brazenly unique blend of retro-pop ridiculata and sharp human comedy.

By Darren Franich
October 06, 2020 at 10:35 AM EDT


The first season of GLOW is just perfect: Funny, sad, sparkly as high camp, grimy as a pay-by-the-hour motel, full of unexpected twists and romantic turns. The lady-wrestling dramedy was already a tart satire in riot-spoof clothes when it debuted in 2017. Set in the showbiz boondocks of 1985, it was a feminist fireworks display, all spandexed stuntwork and personalities shiny enough for trading cards.

Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch were loosely adapting the true-life story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and they fictionalized the ‘80s cult sensation into a hidden world of outer zip-code Hollywood. A struggling Method performer, a glamorous soap star gone domestic, a B-movie director demoted to TV obscurity, a rich dolt with a Malibu robot full of cocaine, a Black stuntwoman left jobless by white-dude steroid action cinema, a club kid looking for a thrill, a med student with drama aspirations, a woman who never took off her wolf costume because it was not a costume because she was in fact a wolf: They created a new women’s world in a ratty Valley gym, transforming themselves into brazenly ridiculous characters. Their wrestling invited the male gaze — and let them see themselves in a whole new way. GLOW embedded itself in disreputable pop culture landscapes — amateur wrestling, cable decades before prestige ruined everything, Vegas between the gangsters and the megastar residencies, the very concept of women doing sexily violent things for cheap thrills — and combined all the joyous possibilities of yesteryear’s carefree junk with sharp performances and revisionist storytelling.

That first season wrapped with one of the all-time great finales, a Let's-Put-On-A-Show heart-pounder with all the championship catharsis of a team-of-misfits sports movie. In season 2, GLOW dreamed its own cancellation. The series-within-a-series was banished to the 2 a.m. death slot. A hoped-for revival was scotched by the network's egomaniac dweebs. Season 3 doomed everyone to Vegas, a playful detour that will have to stand as a closing statement. The fourth and final season promised a conclusive transformation, but COVID-19 shut down production, and now Netflix has shut down GLOW.

It’s a tragedy. GLOW essentially starred 15 women in double (sometimes triple) roles. Everyone played one person playing another person. Ruth (Alison Brie) was the performer with incredible talent and zero prospects; the show began with her latest failed audition. Her best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) already had two kinds of success: time served on a glossy network soap opera, and bringing up a baby in pre-desperate housewifery. Answering a casting call into the ring, they became “Zoya the Destroya” and “Liberty Belle,” dueling notions of Cold War strife with the volume raised to 11. Their fellow wrestlers struggled within their outrageous caricatures. Tammé (Kia Stevens) worried over what her Stanford-educated son would think of her role as the money-grubbing “Welfare Queen.” Jenny (Ellen Wong) became “Fortune Cookie” and Arthie (Sunita Mani) became “Beirut the Mad Bomber,” personalities that played big for an audience raised on stereotypes. Carmen (Britney Young) was the wrestling-world scion, and she had to worry this whole shoddy enterprise was wrecking her chance at a legit career. There was also Reggie (Marianna Palka), who was a Viking, and Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), who freaking ruled.

Flahive and Mensch were imagining another '80s, cheerful yet sorrowful, a macro-aggressive moment of of bright vibrant colors that couldn't quite hide the gray tones. There were executives with casting couches in their bungalows, arsonist homophobes, American women just one immigrant generation away from the Holocaust and the Khmer Rouge. Also: mom jeans, shoulder pads, Ruth’s Ellen Ripley curls, “punk” as a non-commercial aesthetic teen rebels could still believe in, leotards as faintly Sirk-ian athleisure. GLOW’s evocation of the era never felt like an affected look, or an Instagram filter. For some characters, the ‘80s were just the graveyard of the ‘60s. That was true for Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) and for Sandy Devereaux St. Clair (Geena Davis), a Corman-y director and a casino impresario who missed their respective dirty towns’ bad old days. For most of the other characters, all the superfun go-go artifice had a vanquishing effect, leaving no room for their race, their gender, or their sexual orientation.

This was essential counter-programming, I think, especially as our own timeline keeps megaphoning ‘80s nostalgia into a terrible new mode of remember-when American conservatism. The Friday before Netflix announced the cancellation of GLOW, the network released a first look at the fourth season of Stranger Things, increasingly the expensively-soundtrack'd Happy Days of nerd culture. Ronald Reagan himself would’ve approved of all the plucky small-town American kiddos joining together to repel invaders from a dark world of darkness (when they're not straight-up Red Dawn-ing the Russians). Netflix claims GLOW was cancelled due to financial concerns, which is a real laugh in the year of big-budget dreck like Space ForceAltered Carbon, and Ratched. (Friday brings The Haunting of Bly Manor, a horror anthology set in the cosplay '80s with one of the most boring season premieres I've ever seen.)

Maybe GLOW just didn't fill any obvious niche for the streaming service anymore. Gilpin earned Emmy nominations for her breakout performance, but the show was too weird to ever be an awards darling. It was very funny without ever being the sort of quippy banter-fest that gets all the attention lately. I called it "feminist" back in paragraph one, yet there was a tricky not-quite-triumphalist approach to its characters' empowerment. They loved working together, and didn't know if their fans loved them for the right reasons. Ruth practically got sexually assaulted by the network president — and Debbie flat-out suggested she should have given in for the cause. These women were modest nobodies grasping for Z-level stardom, not quite the predominant world-conquering tone in a Mrs. America year. Was GLOW too silly for the serious audience and too serious for the silly audience? Executive producer Jenji Kohan actually lost two Netflix projects on Monday, since the service declined to renew her Teenage Bounty Hunters. (Tough market for anyone not producing a megabudget space opera, I guess.)

Seasons 2 and 3 took their leisurely time unfurling subplots for its huge ensemble cast. There were unexpected grace notes for Kate Nash’s British goof and Chris Lowell's closeted gadfly, and lots of wonderful attention given to Cherry’s relationship with her genial hubby, Keith (Bashir Salahuddin). I didn't groove so much onto the will-they-or-won’t-they plotline with Ruth and Sam, much as I adored Maron’s rumpled melancholy as a counterculture god in ruins. The romance between Arthie and Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) needed more attention, insofar as "interracial lesbian coworker love circa 1986" could've easily been a whole arty sitcom unto itself. GLOW became more about mood than plot, and viewers seem way too focused on plot lately [Shakes fist at straw men]. The standout sequence in season 3 was about, like, existential boredom: A long, time-lapse close-up on Ruth removing her stage makeup as long Vegas months pass.

That was one great setpiece for Brie, who came to GLOW with three TV masterpieces under her belt. Make this four after Community, Mad Men, and BoJack Horseman. Brie has the kind of wide-eyed energy you can only describe as plucky, but she let you see how Ruth’s last-chance fall into wrestling glory was an act of constant frantic magical thinking. It was a full-bodied performance — the ensemble did their own stunts in the ring — and she found the perfect scene partner in Gilpin. Debbie came off like a monument to brash blonde confidence, but the implosion of her personal life revealed deep reserves of pain and strength. Gilpin turned every scene into a master class of controlled-chaos emotionality. You could never quite tell whether Ruth or Debbie was the heart of the show, which is a roundabout way of saying GLOW had two hearts beating pure fire. Every scene with the two of them could reset the whole narrative gameboard: They could be friends or enemies, soulmates or opposing representatives of the never-ending conflict between Art and Commerce.

GLOW really was working its way up to some kind of epic tale about womanhood and Hollywood, using the story's natural excess as a spotlight on unstable elements of American culture. I always remember a wonderful quote Gilpin told my colleague Sara Vilkomerson, referencing another female-forward saga that debuted a couple months earlier. "I think that the cast of The Handmaid’s Tale and the cast of GLOW as two groups of women that live in all of us," she explained. "Like, hey: I’ve got a team of Sylvia Plath cannibals and I’ve also got a team of feminist Muppet clowns, and this whole time I’ve just been pretending to be Marcia Brady zoning out at brunch." The long GLOW lasted, the more it seemed to encompass all those variables — Plath, Marcia, Muppets, aspiration, fantasy, empowerment, hijinks, wounded pride.

Credit: Netflix

All those elements are present in what is, apparently, the very last sequence. Season 3 ends with one final Debbie-Ruth conversation. The time is Christmas, the place is an airport in Vegas. It's one closing bit of dialogue between two women who love each other and can't stand each other, who have lived through the indignities of a business built against them and now arrive in their mid-30s seeking very different versions of something more. Watching it again last night — knowing it's the dying glow — I realize it is actually the single best scene the series ever produced. (There is even more retroactive poignance, since the episode was directed by the late Lynn Shelton.) Debbie has a secret she has to tell Ruth. She's going to be running her own TV network; she’s bringing all the ladies with her.

"I’m going to build us an Eden," she promises, "where we run the show." God, I want to see that so badly. But you only know Paradise when it's lost.

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Inspired by the real-life 'Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling' series from the 1980s, this Netflix dramedy revolves around a crew of Hollywood misfits turned female wrestlers in L.A. who take their show to Las Vegas in season 3.

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