To make me click “Play” instead of just investing a checkmark, a Netflix original needs to appeal to me on multiple levels. Despite its deluge of weaponized options, the sly, only seemingly slight pro wrestling comedy Glow, whose second season dropped this past Friday, is the first Netflix original since Marvel’s Jessica Jones debuted to pull me into an arrangement anything like the appointment viewing I still maintain offline (albeit with the help of a DVR that runs at 80-95% capacity at all times, like one of those massive coal furnaces on the Titanic). For what it’s worth, Jessica Jones’ second season still sits wrapped beneath the tree while I’m already writing about Glow approximately twelve hours after cracking the seal. A bright, brisk, occasionally bawdy “Let’s put on a show!” narrative loosely based on the mid-’80s piece of syndicated fluff G.L.O.W. – Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, and here packed into five crackling hours’ worth of entertainment, the first season of Glow was the most pleasant televised surprise I’ve received in the past several years. As a longtime fan of leads Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men, Sleeping With Other People) and Marc Maron (WTF with Marc Maron, incomparable standup) as well as an intermittent viewer of the original product as a little boy, I already expected the show to be quality. That season one was still all that good knocked me off my axis a little. Season two has been a marked improvement so far.
“Glow” – “Perverts are People, Too” – Season 2, Ep. 5 (Netflix) SPOILERS!
I pause to comment on Glow at the season two midpoint, which I believe is fortuitous timing. When we left our intrepid band at the end of season one, they were in the process of pulling off the near-impossible: an all-female professional wrestling product created from whole cloth, comprised of nineteen untrained nobodies and a has-been soap actress, under the irascible stewardship of mercenary D-movie auteur Sam Sylvia (Maron), was on the air, even if it was only local syndication, warts and all, even if said warts here outnumbered the “all” by a factor of ten. The movie version would’ve ended right there. The kids showed pluck and resolve and overcame the odds. Cue the triumphant action freeze-frame, slow fade to black, and obligatory end title theme song by Survivor! As to what might’ve happened tomorrow? At the moment, I just wasn’t terribly concerned. I was so content with Glow season one as a self-contained entity that it caught me a little off-guard when I heard the welcome news of its official renewal, though I do remember thinking, “Good, that show could use a bigger palette, or canvas, or both.” It would be up to smarter people than me to figure out the logistics. Whereas season one was mostly preoccupied with assembling the spandex-clad motley crew and convincing them to embrace an uncomfortable new collective identity as wrestlers, season two has thus far seen them struggling personally to exercise some degree of ownership in their lives and fledgling careers, even if fleeting or purely ceremonial.
“Perverts are People, Too” begins in the aftermath of the Glow promotion’s most recent, and, by definition, biggest event yet, a modestly hyped (they even rented a billboard behind the DMV!) main event bout between vacuous, ostensibly All-American, white Southern caricature “Liberty Belle” (Debbie, played by Betty Gilpin) and gleefully shiftless, brutally offensive African-American stereotype “Welfare Queen” (Tamme, played by Kia Stevens).* Anyway, as the early and mid-card talent file out of the converted warehouse in which they tape the weekly show, they’re flummoxed to discover flesh and blood fans awaiting. One particularly devoted male admirer, we and she immediately notice, dresses like feral wolf-girl Sheila, right down to the matching eye black and wolf pelt codpiece. Later, the girls trade stories while lounging around the pool, with brainy Aussie “Britannica” offering up a sample fan letter that contains both a shout out to philosopher Emmanuel Kant and an unsolicited penis pic (“An intellectual sexual predator? You are so lucky!”) while Tamme muses, “This is the most fan mail I’ve ever gotten, and all I had to do was completely degrade myself in public.” The wrestlers lament their seeming inability to capitalize on even a tiny taste of fame before seizing on the idea of running paid autograph booths after the show. Meanwhile, the producer triumvirate of director Sam, star Debbie, and play-by-play commentator/trust fund washout Bash (Chris Lowell) squirm under pressure from the executives above them, who want roadmaps for future storylines and casually announce the departure of the show’s single biggest sponsor, but are all smiles otherwise.
*No point in overly dwelling on the obnoxious provocation that was part and parcel of the wrestling business in the overheated cartoon landscape of the 1980s – Remember The Iron Shiek? Nikolai Volkoff? Akeem the African Dream? Iraqi sympathizer Sgt. Slaughter? Exactly. Part of what I love about modern shows like “Glow” and “The Americans”, which are so disparate in tone and tenor otherwise, is that they refuse to sugarcoat the decade’s failings beneath layers of gooey, sparkly nostalgia. “G.L.O.W.” is repeatedly referred to here as a kid’s show, and, like WWF circa-1985, its original incarnation certainly never presented either heroes or villains in terms that children should have had excess trouble parsing. A “Welfare Queen”, on the other hand, seems like a highly specific and hurtful editorial fantasy sprung to life, one of which I have no memory from my limited experience watching “G.L.O.W.” on Saturday mornings. Because we get to know both the minds behind the character and the woman behind the portrayal, we hold our nose and mostly forgive the off-putting specifics, and maybe have a spot of fun with it, even if, as with Tamme’s son in the excellent lead-up episode “Mother of All Matches”, we’re probably holding in anger as a ward against further destruction. Wrestling fandom has evolved in some circles away from a full-throated embrace of such embarrassing characterizations, but don’t fool yourself that the fans have necessarily evolved as well. We’re all still front row in the carnival tent.
In the course of cultivating some 37,000+ original properties, give or take, Netflix has not coincidentally developed a crack in-house support staff. Glow owes more than a sliver of its success to network trailblazer Orange is the New Black, for whom executive producer Jenji Kohan served as creator and guiding light. The comparisons between the two are so obvious that they border on insulting. Groups of vibrant, disparate women struggle for respect and agency against the inherent constraints imposed by their respective lots in life – economic and societal subservience to the presiding patriarchy in one case, literal prison in the other. Orange is generally more dramatic while Glow is more comedic, though neither has any compunction about broadening or narrowing its scope as situations dictate. Top-billed among the first rate ensemble, Brie’s Ruth Wilder begins as the Piper Chapman of Glow, a principled thespian idealistic to the point of naivete, legitimately torn between stubborn dreams of being a serious actress and the surprising number of artistic outlets through which she might apply her talents as a small time pro wrestler. Though her quick-thinking heel improvisation arguably salvaged the show after a victorious Liberty Belle laid on the heroic invective so thick against Welfare Queen that it accidentally turned the audience against her, season two has seen Ruth largely marginalized and looking for ways to assert her worth to and within a team it still sometimes seems that she alone values. We learn the name of all powerful network boss Tom Grant just in time to become concerned, as Ruth’s impromptu dinner meeting with him soon takes the first of several wrong turns.
“I had a meeting with Tom Grant. It was a dinner, but then it was not a dinner. And Glen was there, until Glen was…not there. And he said he wanted to talk about my career, which he did. But, he also wanted to wrestle, literally and figuratively.”
For an actress with something of a history in broad comedy, we often have to be reminded that Brie has acting chops to spare. We intuit that Ruth is in over her head way before she does herself, and that knowledge works as a queasy sort of counterweight as Brie walks us through every agonizing step of Ruth’s own realization. The restaurant maitre’d, a fawning station rep she already knew and trusted (or at least could identify from a lineup), and, finally, Tom Grant himself, work to strip away layers of pretense and implied security from the situation until Ruth finds herself at a crossroads. So confident in his upper hand is Grant that he leaves the room to “start a bath” and a rattled Ruth takes the opportunity to slip away. Brie has a multi-layered acting challenge in this sequence, in that she has to first embody the charming Angelino transplant who doggedly waited tables for a decade while waiting for a big break that turned out to be a water-treading exercise in a little-watched DIY clown car rally on local cable. She has to project outward deference to the suits and gratitude for a job that, despite growing to appreciate, she knows is beneath her. She has to work through a subtle but volatile melange of disappointment and alarm as the dinner meeting is gradually revealed as a sham. All that in three minutes; it’s a turning point for both the character and the show.
“I guess I’m not that kind of person.”
“What, an actress?!”
Which makes the climactic later interaction between Debbie and Ruth all the more surprising, and heartbreaking. When Sam is figuratively pulling his hair out in advance of a meeting with the network bigwigs earlier in the episode, obsessing over the receptionist’s lack of courtesy as a bad omen, Debbie chimes in, cheerfully, “Bad news isn’t a meeting. Bad news is a phone call.” By the time she encounters Ruth in an otherwise deserted gym the following morning, the fabled phone call has already happened, with “Glow” summarily banished to a timeslot in the dead of night that all but ensures neither kids nor anyone else will be watching. Both women have an insider’s idea of the factors contributing to this dramatic demotion, but as Ruth haltingly recalls her evening, Debbie is anything but sympathetic. So much in the larger culture has righteously changed in the past year alone, and the attendant – for lack of a better word – conditioning that has emerged as a weird byproduct of all the cathartic calls for justice and constructive dialogue makes Debbie’s belligerent reaction read as perhaps even more jarring than it would’ve had we been watching in, say, the Obama administration. To Debbie, who, let’s remember, shares deep-seated interpersonal baggage and has overreacted to her own impending divorce at almost every turn this season, Ruth is weak and selfish, and responsible for it all. “That’s how this business works,” she rails to her shaken frenemy. “Men try shit and you have to pretend to like it until you don’t have to anymore. You don’t make it any better by flouncing out like some Victorian school marm every time some sleazeball puts his hand on your knee. You’re taking twenty other people down with you!”
In both this charged scene and its no less potent predecessor, all the fun bits and grounded character work of season two so far – the girls bonding while shooting a wacky title sequence at a local mall; “The Biddies” staging a minor creative coup in which they successfully change gimmicks from doddering senior citizens to badass, post-apocalyptic punks; the tender, reciprocal devotion of Tamme and her son in the wake of the “Welfare Queen” live debacle; Debbie’s spontaneous “everything must go” home furniture fire sale; Sam’s tentative attempts to connect with the rebellious teenage daughter he only recently met; Bash’s outre, rapidly congealing backstory – are subjugated for the moment to more stark and existential concerns. This is excellent plotting and better writing, enlivening already standout performances. I look forward to having my expectations around where the season goes from here mercilessly tweaked to outstanding if unexpected dramatic return. Glow might seem like a trifle from afar, and, indeed, regularly allows itself the welcome freedom to be frivolous. It’s a half-hour behind the scenes docu-peak at a product that, even for the time, was so hilariously broad that it flirted with classification as instant kitsch. “Perverts are People, Too” – which ends not with Debbie and Ruth’s confrontation but at the inaugural fan meet and greet that rolls on, hopefully, despite it and without them – pulls back the sequined curtain wide to reveal the people behind the characters. As a follower of pro wrestling for more or less my entire life – including a weird summer spent intermittently watching the original G.L.O.W. as a member of its target audience – I can report with confidence that, no matter what gets concocted for the camera, the real people are always more interesting.