Heels review: A wrestling family's grudge match makes for good drama
In the world of professional wrestling, "kayfabe" — the act of buying into a story that you and everyone involved knows is fictional — is everything. In the slow-burn new drama Heels (premiering Aug. 15 on Starz), two brothers in an indie wrestling league grapple with the dangers of living the lies they perform in the ring — and the ones they tell themselves. What happens to kayfabe when you're the only one left believing?
By day, Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) is a lawn mower salesman in fictional Duffy, Ga. All other moments, he's working to keep the Duffy Wrestling League — his family's promotion — afloat after the unexpected death of his father, Tom (a buff David James Elliott). Jack pulls double duty in the DWL, performing as a "heel" (wrestling parlance for villain) and cranking out story lines for his players. Jack's brother, Ace (Vikings' Alexander Ludwig), is the league's popular "face," a golden-haired pretty boy who loves being loved by the crowd. But when a key match leads to disappointment, Ace embraces his inner heel with fatalistic resignation.
Much like Starz's shrewd stripper drama P-Valley, Heels finds its raison d'être in the stories of the people behind the onstage personas. Allen Maldonado (You're the Worst) is perfectly cast as Rooster, a charismatic wrestling veteran who's unable to hide his resentment about the limitations placed on Black performers: "That championship belt? It only really stands out against a white backdrop." His colleague Apocalypse (former NFL linebacker James Harrison), a recovering addict, thinks Rooster's got it all wrong: Every chance they get in the ring is a gift. Character actor treasure Chris Bauer (The Wire, True Blood) is Wild Bill Hancock, a hard-drinking human cautionary tale. Bill made it out of the DWL to the majors — and all he got for his trouble was an addiction to oxy and the misery of watching pro wrestling "be destroyed by a ruthless lust for money." Showrunner Mike O'Malley is a hoot as a rival promoter hell-bent on putting Jack out of business with his bloody, sensationalistic Florida Wrestling Dystopia league.
Heels was created by Michael Waldron (Loki), and though it airs on cable, it suffers from streamer bloat; the four episodes made available for review could use a tighter edit. Pro wrestling isn't as male-dominated as it once was, but it's still awash in testosterone, and Heels' female characters feel somewhat derivative. Jack's wife, Staci (Alison Luff ), frets about finances and chides her husband for all the money he spends on the DWL. His business partner Willie (Mary McCormack) is a tough-talking broad who keeps Jack and his crew in line. Ace and Jack's mama (Alice Barrett) is a stern religious scold, and Ace's ringside "valet" (read: arm candy) is a pretty blonde named Crystal (Kelli Berglund) who has some good ideas for the league, if only the folks in charge would take her seriously. (Dear TV: May we please have a drama set in the South where at least one female character is fulfilled?) This is not a knock on the actresses; McCormack and Luff are particularly appealing in their roles and deserve more.
Ace is part bully, part brokenhearted man-child, and Ludwig embodies both facets of his character beautifully. The actor never loses sight of Ace's pain, whether he's humiliating a local shop clerk out of spite or tenderly soothing his nephew (Roxton Garcia). After spending eight years playing a stoic, square-jawed hero on Arrow, here Amell finally gets to be a bit of a bastard, without the redemptive possibility of saving the world. Jack is a hardworking guy, a family man, a great heel in the ring — but his determination to turn the DWL into a top promotion drives him to acts of emotional brutality. Amell is a wrestling aficionado in real life, and Heels captures the humor and scrappy showmanship of sports entertainment. One wrestler's grand entrance involves a fierce-looking dead possum that flies into the arena strapped to a drone. It's a genuinely hilarious moment, and one of the many reasons Heels has a good shot at drawing a crowd. Grade: B+