At first glance, Netflix's best new original show doesn't look anything like the streaming service's tentpole dramedy about women, Orange Is The New Black.
For one, GLOW is set in '80s Los Angeles, with most of the action going down in a wrestling ring. (Think leotards and leg warmers instead of orange jumpsuits; dreams of fame instead of freedom.) But what makes GLOW essential viewing is the same reason OITNB wins awards and hooks viewers: an ensemble of archetype-busting female characters written with all the grit, nuance, authenticity, and humor that women on TV deserve but rarely get. (OITNB creator Jenji Kohan executive-produces GLOW, and the shows share a handful of female talents behind the camera.) As star Alison Brie put it in a recent interview with The Independent, "This is a show about 14 women with amazing roles of their own."
Brie plays Ruth, a fledgling actress who, desperate for work, scores a job on a novel female wrestling series called GLOW (the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), directed by Sam Sylvia, a coke-snorting has-been director played by Marc Maron. It's actually based on the true story of the 1980s female wrestling league featuring nonprofessional female wrestlers in dramatised weekly throw-downs.
It's funny, it's original, and surprisingly timely — given its derision of the sexist, stereotype-happy forces in Hollywood that, unfortunately, still linger today. In an ironic echo of her character's journey, Brie says the role is the most fulfilling job she's ever had: "Similar to Ruth, I feel like I get to show some different side of myself."
But maybe most importantly, GLOW is A+ binge-watching. (Bonus: With 10 30-35ish minute episodes, it won't eat up your whole weekend.) So, without further ado, it's time to meet the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. Here we glow (sorry).
Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is fed the fuck up. She's sick of auditioning to play "secretaries telling powerful men their wives are on line 2," not getting callbacks, struggling to pay her gas bill, and eating Cinnamon Toast Crunch for every meal. Ruth's bestie, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) — a former soap star who left the biz to have a baby with her husband — has depressing career advice her her friend: Quit and start a family already. (Ruth's love life is as unpromising her career; she's sleeping with a married guy.)
A casting director suggests porn, before sending Ruth to open auditions for an experimental project. ("They're looking for unconventional women, and I thought of you.") Ruth and a wide assortment of out-of-work ladies (Hollywood rejects, stunt doubles, randos) show up to the gym where Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) is auditioning women for his new project, GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. He's casting a squad of 12 women to wrestle on TV. His only requirements: "One. Can you move and can you follow basic directions? And two. Do I like your face, or do I not like your face?" In other words: You gotta know how to do a cunt punch, and look pretty doing it.
At the next round of auditions, Ruth devises a plan to avoid being cut by Sam — she’ll use her dramatic acting chops to stand out from the competition. Sam is not a fan of her theatrical flair and he cuts Ruth. Ruth's day only gets shittier when she's jumped by a group of preteens who steal her purse — and, inexplicably, splatter her taco dinner all over the pavement. #RUDE.
Ruth hasn't given up on GLOW just yet, though. That night, Ruth does some character work of her own. She fashions a flashy costume, watches Hulk Hogan for inspiration, and comes up with some moves of her own. The next day, she shows them off to an unimpressed Sam. Right in the middle of her performance, Debbie bursts in — baby on her hip and spitting angry at her "fucking cunt" of a so-called friend. Remember that married guy Ruth was sleeping with? Yeah, that's Deb's husband Mark (Rich Sommer).
The girls throw down in the ring, turning Ruth's solo audition into a real-life girl-on-girl wrestling match. Sam's mouth is practically watering as he watches, and he gets a flash of inspiration: this is his show. He daydreams about Ruth and Debbie in character with sexy costumes, big hair, and colorful makeup, duking it out in a stylised spar that makes the crowd roar. Ruth the homewrecker vs. Debbie the All-American golden girl; the director has found his vision for GLOW — as well as a heroic muse in Deb, and a villain in Ruth.
Sam’s greatest line: "Do people think you’re pretty? Because like I’m looking at ya — one second I think, ‘Fuck yeah, she’s hot.’ And then the next second I’m like, ‘I don’t know. Is she really?’ You just have one of those faces that kinda changes."
At the next day of callbacks, Ruth tries to play off her fight with Debbie as a planned part of her audition. The women aren't buying it, and the "homewrecker" label is sticking. Sam, for his part, is pissed that his new star Debbie isn't there but at home with her baby in Pasadena. He drives there to convince Debbie to do the show, telling her she is his new star, that the show needs her. ("You're like Grace Kelly on steroids!") Unhappy with her cheating husband and stay-at-home-mom life, she agrees. One stipulation: Ruth's gotta go.
Sam treats Debbie differently than all the other women, stroking her ego while obliterating all the other women's with his frequent misogynistic remarks. Whether it's the copious amounts of coke or just his asshole nature, Sam is an insensitive, sexist dick 90% of the time. (For example, he has no qualms brutally objectifying the women to their faces, calling Carmen, played by Britney Young, "the big one," and telling Ruth he can't decide if she's attractive or not.)
Meanwhile, Sam has made Cherry (Sydelle Noel), a no-bullshit stunt double he's worked with before, his second-in-command and trainer to the women. (Another example of Sam's charming ways: he asks how Cherry's been since her "womb goof," i.e. abortion.) Not all the women are happy with Cherry being above them, though, and things get messy fast. Bratty valley girl Mel Rose (Jackie Tohn) get into it, and Cherry puts her in a sleeper hold. In retaliation, Mel pretends she has a miscarriage while practicing, using the old ketchup as fake blood trick. Cherry is not amused.
When Sam and Debbie get back to the gym, Sam uses Mel's little miscarriage stunt as unlikely story inspiration for a hilarious dramatic scene exercise with Mel playing a "fertile harvest goddess" and Ruth playing the homewrecker ("She has nothing. No man, no love, no friends. Her hair is brown, the colour of shit.") It's written all over Ruth's face how uncomfortable she is being forced into this homewrecker role; it doesn't jibe with her people-pleasing theater kid nature.
But at least Ruth's not getting fired from the gig, like Deb requested. Sam knows that the dynamic of hate between the ex-BFFs will make for juicy TV. "You're chum! You're blood in the water!" he tells Ruth. "Debbie's the hero, and you're the villain. Everybody's going to hate you!" She starts crying ("I don't want everyone to hate me!") so Sam gives Ruth what seems to be his version of a pep talk. "Oh, Christ. Crying, caring, the desperation. That's what makes you unbearable. Look, I don't like you Strindberg," he says, nicknaming her after a playwright from her theater résumé. And then Sam says something shockingly wise: "Take that in, hold onto it. Try not giving a fuck. There's a lot of power in that." He adds, "And relax. The devil gets all the best lines."
Sam’s greatest line: "You know, I haven't talked to you since the, uh, whole womb goof... I was trying to come up with a tactful euphemism."
Meet Sebastian, a.k.a. Bash (Josh Lowell), the young hotshot producer behind GLOW. He's the money behind the creative gamble, so he has a say — but his vision clashes with Sam's. Hard. What is Sam's vision, exactly? It turns out that his prickly misogynistic exterior is just a taste of the deep hatred of women inside the man (at least part of which stems from the beautiful ex-wife we briefly meet).
Sam has written a complex script envisioning his ladies battling it out in a post-apocalyptic future where women have literally ruined the world. It's good (sexpots and virgins) vs. evil (crazed feminists and lesbian mutants), with heroes named The Leather Virgin and a big baddie called Cuntar. (Sam gets pissed off when the women keep pronouncing it Coon-tar.) Sample line: "The over-madams have lied to you. Men are real. We can restore the world to the way it was before the war... and women's lib." It’s the funniest satire of feminist-haters ever (except Sam is dead serious).
But Bash has a more commercial-friendly vision where the plot is basically like it is porn: simple, corny, and secondary to the action. Only here, the action is "tit-grabbing" and "cunt punching" instead of sex. To get everyone on board with his plan, Bash decides to dazzle the women — and Sam — with a big party at his Malibu mansion, complete with a drug dispensing robot, costume closet, and butler named Florian. Over drinks and blow, they end up making a deal: Bash will produce any movie Sam wants to next, if he does GLOW Bash's way.
The next step involves developing everybody's wrestling personas. In the interest of simplifying things, Bash assigns stereotypes to everyone: the sexy party girl (Mel), the Black “welfare queen," the Arab terrorist (she's Indian), the desperate homewrecker (our girl Ruth), the "Oriental" (she's Cambodian), "Machu Pichu" (she's Latina). In an amusing montage later, the women audition their new characters to Sam and Bash.
Sam's greatest line: "A man's true ball is the mind."
After a drug-filled weekend trip to Palm Springs, Sam and Bash appear to be on the same wavelength. They’ve had a flash of inspiration: Make the women live together in a local hotel. “Like Olympic Village?” one girl says hopefully. “Sure, or rehab. Probably more like rehab,” Sam replies. The only girl who gets to opt out is Debbie, who has a baby (and because Sam wants to keep her happy). She actually ends up moving into the hotel too, though, to get away from her estranged husband.
The girls are doubled up, and Ruth is sharing with Sheila the she-wolf (Gayle Rankin). Sheila is the only woman who’s in character 24/7, but she doesn’t see it that way. As she explains to Ruth, it’s not just a costume; it’s an identity. She and Ruth go through a rather bumpy adjustment period living together — things come to a head when Sheila puts a dead squirrel in Ruth’s bed — but they finally reach an understanding to give each other their space.
Practice is coming along, but there are some snags. There’s a slight hiccup when Carmen’s wrestler family, including her WWE-famous dad Goliath, storms into the gym. He’s pissed his daughter is trying to wrestle, because he wants her to find a man ASAP. Sam defends Carmen, and gets himself decked in the face. And Tamee (Kia Stevens), who plays the Welfare Queen in the ring, is worried about the message her character will send to her Stanford-attending son. Sneaky Sam insists the character is incisive social commentary on an existing stereotype. Ha.
Later, while the girls are watching one of Sam’s early shlock-horror films he gave them for artistic inspiration, they realize he accidentally taped over part of it with what appears to be an on-camera dating audition, kind of like a 1980s Bumble profile — a really skeevy one. (“I’m lonely and my cock works great.”) There is uncomfortable laughter and a collective WTF.
Sam’s greatest line: On not offering to help Debbie with her stroller, “That’s why I didn’t want to ask, I didn’t want to offend you. ‘I am woman, hear me roar!’ Right?”
Sam and Bash may be on the same page now, but they still have to convince a network executive, Glen, that GLOW is going to be amazing — and find a sponsor to pay for the airtime. Glen has a lead on a local patio company that might be interested. But when Sam and Bash meet the owner, he says thinks the raunchy show will taint his family business’ image. Luckily for them, Ruth puts on a clever little skit (taking on a funny new Russian character) to promote the business — and therefore save the deal.
The women are getting stir-crazy living at the hotel and having a strict curfew. The only distractions they have are crappy TVs, prank calling each other, and ordering pizza to talk to the sexy delivery boy. A few of them escape when Carmen decides to show Mel and Debbie — who’s been struggling to master the moves and dragging her feet in practice — what a real wrestling match actually looks like.
Somewhere between the free-flowing booze, the energy of the crowd, and the sweaty, shirtless men, something clicks for Debbie: she actually likes wrestling. She also likes the hot backstage hookup she has with one of the wrestlers — her first since separating from her husband. Debbie has a turning point and calls to tell Sam, “I’m all in.”
Sam’s greatest line: “Hot and family friendly, Glen. Porn you can watch with your kids! Finally.”
Sam wants to bring the focus back to the fiery dynamic that got him pumped up in the first place: Ruth vs. Debbie. So, he calls both women into an early morning session at the gym. Debbie is not happy, despite Sam’s assurances: “You are a bright shining star. She is a dirty, nasty, stepped-in-dog shit-heel.”
And Sam’s got another trick up his sleeve to up the rivalry between the pair: GLOW is about to get political, ladies and gents. Really! Sam’s idea is to pit the women against each other not just personally, but patriotically, too. This is during the Cold War, after all, and it’s U.S.A. vs. Russia. What better way to get the crowds riled up than by tapping into the tensions of the geopolitical battle on every American’s mind?
You can guess who’s who by now. Debbie’s heroic All-American athlete character, Liberty Bell, fits into this new narrative perfectly. And remember that Russian accent Ruth was toying with? That’s morphed into full-blown character assuming the role of the villain: a tough-as-nails “Soviet scur” named Zoya the Destroyer.
Debbie is not having it. She tells Sam she wants him to hire a different enemy — literally, anyone but the traitor who fucked her husband. Ruth, on the other hand, is diving head first into her new role, speaking almost exclusively in her thick Russian accent and enlisting the help of the Russian hotel manager to work on the authenticity bit. (Brie is so, so good in these comic scenes.) They try out different girls opposite Debbie, but nobody else has that spark with her quite like Ruth — that genuine hate. Finally, Debbie acquiesces, and she and Ruth start to throw down while spitting hysterical commie and capitalist insults at each other (more stereotypes, go figure). Sam’s epic storyline is moving ahead at at full-speed.
Sam’s greatest line: “Babies are boring! I mean, they don’t party. They haven’t traveled. They have no sense of irony.”
Ruth and Debbie still hate each other, but they agree on one thing: game day is approaching, and their routine needs pizzazz, panache. Cherry’s training just isn’t doing it. So they enlist the help of Carmen’s wrestling family, the Lumber-Jacksons, to teach them some real moves. They start practicing around the clock, and...it works. They actually get pretty good. Even better, when they’re physically fighting, they’re not arguing or insulting each other. It’s oddly therapeutic for their friendship, and they even share a few laughs.
Meanwhile, Cherry stages a kind of coup in her group to quietly alter the problematic storyline Sam wrote. (Sam is too busy sleeping with British model Rhonda, played by Kate Nash, to notice.) Cherry is not cool with the racial implications of two Black characters (her rapper and Tamee’s Welfare Queen) fighting the two little old white ladies (Ethel and Edna). So, she rewrites the narrative to be more “empowering.” We’ll find out exactly what that means in a minute...
It’s the day of the first official GLOW match. There are no cameras yet, and only a meager audience (“Freaks, some children, a homeless guy,” per Sam.) But they have found a ref in Cherry’s husband. Round one, Machu Pichu (Carmen) vs. The Viking, ends abruptly when Carmen collapses before even entering the ring. (It looks like wrestling may not be in her blood after all.)
Next up is Cherry’s two-on-two. The white pair runs out wearing… KKK outfits? Damn, Cherry. It’s ridiculous and great, and the crowd is going insane. Sam’s commentary as the announcer throughout is hilarious: “Not looking good for the white supremacists!” The fight is choreographed so that she and Tamee win, effectively kicking the KKK’s ass in a big, symbolic middle finger to racist scum.
The third and final match is the one everyone’s here to see: Liberty Bell (Debbie) vs. Zoya the Destroyer (Ruth). Ruth’s opening line: “You capitalist pig! I will neuter all your pet dogs and fill your swimming pools with borscht!” The fight is wild — hardcore and well-choreographed. Like, it looks pretty real.
And then Mark rolls in. He throws Debbie off and she walks out of the match. In the locker room, the cheating husband yells at Debbie for joining a women’s wrestling league on the down low. Really, dude? After YOU cheated, you’re going to berate your estranged wife for having her own awesome life? Eff off, dude.
Sam’s greatest line: “Well, this is definitely not a match for children. Or maybe it is! Maybe you’re really never too young to know about this country’s racial history.”
Things are looking somber and serious for many members of GLOW, and wrestling has nothing to do with it. Everyone’s problems outside the ring are coming to a head. Sam and Rhonda split after he realizes their strained relationship is creating tension in the group and undermining his own authority. (Justine, played by Brit Baron, seems to be having an especially hard time with it.) Sam has found the perfect venue, but they might not be able to pay for it; Bash’s parents froze his accounts, meaning the production has run out of money before it even goes on air. Mark is still an asshole, but he’s an asshole in therapy, making an effort to save a marriage that seems to have died a long time ago. He remembers Debbie not touching him or asking how his day was for 42 days straight.
The biggest problem, though, is that Ruth hasn’t gotten her period (the rest of the ladies seem to have synced up their cycles). She takes a pregnancy test, which were MUCH more time-consuming in those days. Yep, she’s pregnant — presumably with her best friend’s husband’s baby. Ugh. Ruth tucks her shock away to join the women at a roller rink for a party, which they’re throwing for a reluctant and antisocial Sheila’s birthday.
The next day, Sam drives her to the abortion clinic. He’s surprisingly sweet — maybe the most since we’ve seen him — pretending to be Ruth’s husband to save her from feeling judged by other people in the waiting room.
Sam’s greatest line: To Rhonda, “What do you mean, I don’t like you? I just had period sex with you.”
The network is ready to get GLOW on air. They just have a couple notes for Sam: the colorful language and the KKK have to go. An extremely intoxicated Bash, after going MIA for a week, crashes the meeting and almost wrecks it for them. After the meeting, Bash fesses up to Sam: there’s no money left after Mom and Dad froze his accounts. The girls are upset, but they have a few ideas on how to come up with the $9,000 they still need for the venue. Girls, grab your bikinis. It’s car wash time!
The carwash only nets $300, but Bash has a brilliant idea to get everyone out of this mess: bring the women to his parents’ fancy schmancy fundraiser. (He has to pretend the women are ex drug-addicts who got clean through WAD, Wrestling Against Drugs, but whatever!) At the party, Debbie and Ruth bond over champagne, the sad prospect that the show they’ve been working so hard on may have been for nothing, and their battered friendship. Debbie tells her, “Sometimes I’m so sad you took away the option of us ever being able to have a normal fucking conversation.”
It’s time to work the crowd. Bash has the women get up to speak to about their stories of addiction, which they fabricate on the spot by talking about much wrestling has come to mean with them. They’re not completely lying though; they’re just substituting the word crack for the other problems they’re actually having in their lives. In Ruth’s case, her rock bottom was betraying her best friend because she was so unhappy. The sob stories work, and the checkbooks come out. And Bash’s mom, moved by Ruth’s story, offers to host the first match in a ballroom at a hotel they own.
Minor plot twist. In a bedroom upstairs at the party, a wasted Sam — depressed about his show and movie falling apart — makes a move on Justine. She pushes him off because she’s not interested in him sexually… she’s actually his daughter from a one-night stand. Wow, definitely did not see that one coming.
Sam’s greatest line: Seeing Mark for the first time: “[I was expecting] someone less like a giant Cabbage Patch Kid.
It’s the day of the show, and everybody’s ready to go. Everyone except for Sam, actually, who rolls in the morning of, reeking of bourbon after a three-day bender. He’s losing it over the Justine revelation, and apparently, he didn’t the message about the free ballroom venue. There’s another snag at the last minute: with Sam MIA and her relationship in the balance, Debbie bails because she’s getting back together with Mark. (Why she can’t follow through and do the big show and then fix her marriage is beyond me.)
But the show must go one, and Bash is announcing in Sam’s absence. The ladies handed out $10 bills to people to get the seats filled, Ruth is keeping things running smoothly backstage, and everyone’s costumes and makeup look awesome. What could possibly go wrong?
Things get ugly in the first few minutes. The crowd gets real racist on Arthie (Sunita Mani), who is playing a terrorist against Rhonda’s sexy nerd. They shout epithets, spit, and throw bottles. The next couple of rounds go more smoothly.
Debbie and Mark are in the audience, and Sam is, understandably, pissed that his headliner backed out to sit on the sidelines and watch. WTF, Deb? On the plus side for Sam, he’s started to mend fences with Justine.
Time for the final match. With Debbie out of commission, Ruth had to rework the story. Now it’s her Soviet villain and fellow commie Fortune Cookie, from China, vs. grannies Ethel and Edna. It’s not nearly as compelling as the grand America vs. Russia throwdown. They beat the grannies, and then turn on each other. Ruth/Zoya wins, and is about to be crowned the winner.
Then, someone in the crowd volunteers to fight the reigning champ. Who else could it be but Deb/Liberty Bell, who was evidently wearing her star-spangled leotard under her clothes the whole time. Sneaky Debbie! And sneaky Ruth, who was in on it the whole time! The crowd is in love. And because America has to win, Debbie conquers Ruth and takes the crown.
But GLOW has one last curveball. Welfare Queen (Tamee) bursts onto the floor and challenges Liberty Bell. She takes the crown. This time, it was Sam being the sneaky one. He was getting revenge on Ruth and Debbie for faking him out so good.
And there we have it: GLOW season 1 has come to a close already. We’ll miss you, Alison Brie, Marc Maron, and the Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling. Now who’s ready for round two?
Sam’s greatest line: To Justine, “Look, I’m sorry I tried to fuck you, okay? If you told me you were my daughter, I would never have done that.”