Netflix's GLOW is a campy delight from its catchy title sequence to its neon credits. Out on Friday, the half-hour comedy about the founding of TV's Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling comes to us courtesy of Liz Flahive and Orange is the New Black's Carly Mensch, with Jenji Kohan as an executive producer. Based on a real all-women wrestling show that started in 1986, the result is an ensemble comedy with tons of '80s nostalgia and griminess. This is a world before Instagram. There are no succulents, the light is unflattering, and everyone looks greasy. If the effect is sometimes unexpectedly sexy in that aerobics and roller-rink way (with hair that's more hair-sprayed than washed), it also feels a little desperate and real. What glamor there is here is sweaty.
Alison Brie plays Ruth Wilder, an earnest actress failing in L.A. The pilot makes the point that there are no good roles for women with cheesy After-School Special didacticism, but the show thankfully veers away from anything resembling a lesson. When Ruth ends up as part of washed-up director Sam Sylvia's quest to put together some kind of women's show (he's played by Marc Maron, who was made for this part), she finds a very particular and unexpected niche: She's going to play the "heel." It's hilarious to watch Brie play the bad guy, delightful to watch her figure out her character and ultimate identity, and hilarious to watch her bring her thespian training to bear on a stereotype whose monstrosity pales in comparison to the characters the women of color are forced to play.
Opposite Brie is the extraordinary Betty Gilpin (who stole the few scenes she was in on American Gods). A retired soap actress and new mother, we see her in all her American Barbie glory, but we also see lactating in her aerobics class. She's joined by the women's coach Cherry (Sydelle Noel) and fellow wrestlers-in-training Arthie (Sunita Mani, who is forced to occupy a succession of appalling tropes), Carmen (played by the luminous Britney Young), and Kia Stevens, whose character — to give you a sense of how uncomfortable all this gets — is "Welfare Queen."
No one is exactly elevated by this. If, like me, you secretly dreaded that GLOW would the Moving Story of How a Downtrodden Talent Got Muscly and Kicked Everyone's Ass, you'll be relieved to find that it's something else entirely. For one thing, Ruth is a terrible actress but a great ham. For another, she quickly loses whatever moral high ground she earned. No one is noble on GLOW; the scrappiness on which the ensemble builds doesn't leave much room for principle.
The show does make space for very specific forms of community and loneliness. The locker-room talk isn't always hilarious, but it is intimate — the fact that the wrestlers are living together at an awful motel as they train means there's a lot of intelligent observation going on from all sides. What goes unsaid has not necessarily gone unnoticed.
There's a very sweet dimension to the show, then: Crushes are noticed. So is heartbreak. The show manages to work in a period-appropriate register when it comes to underdog romance and '80s youth. There's even a Patrick Swayze lookalike! (Also a birthday party at a roller rink, a Reaganite fundraiser, and a truly sublime Back to the Future reference). Bash Howard, the rich kid acting as producer, is played by Chris Lowell, and he looks so much like '80s-era Rob Lowe that you might do a double take. That said, the show never quite lets the handsome dudes glow in their full '80s splendor either. Everyone in this show is being cut and snipped down to size.
GLOW, in other words, doesn't take much of anything seriously. Difficult moments are met with tough-minded pragmatism; this show is light on its feet. It's about humiliating yourself. It's about Karate Kid-like persistence. An incredible comedic set-piece in which Brie play-fights herself in the ring kind of captures what the show is about: channeling your self-loathing and putting it out there over and over again until everyone gives up and laughs.
Because GLOW is — in the best possible way — about losers, it benefits from a refreshing absence of drama. That obviously clashes with the show's entire premise. Wrestling is all drama all the time. It's grudges and drama, catharsis and revenge. GLOW calls that out for what it is: violent soap opera. But the themes that define wrestling and make it satisfy — the insistence on shaping expectations and delivering satisfaction, the clash of good and evil, the contest of egos — almost perfectly oppose the intense collaboration happening behind the scenes.
On the outside, GLOW is about women beating each other, literally and figuratively. But secretly, it's about making the other person look good.