Creators: Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch
Starring: Alison Brie, Marc Maron
Length: 10 x 35m Episodes
Rating: 15 most episodes, 18 some episodes
(N.B. This review contains spoilers)
Take one diverse group of women, the creative force behind Orange Is the New Black and the 80s. While these elements were framed within the bizarre world of female wrestling, far from the most obvious of concepts, GLOW had promise; it was ripe for the exploration of a whole host of characters and the challenges faced by their time. The trailers suggested a dynamic show, with a main character Ruth who was going to fight her way (quite literally) to being taken seriously as an actress. All the components were in place, making it even more of a let down when the show stumbles to reach its stride.
There are undeniable issues with GLOW. We’re introduced to a core of female characters, a range of women from Sheila who dresses as a wolf, to Carmen who has family ties to wrestling, to Cherry, a professional stunt woman who has to train this motley crew. A potentially important note to make about the show is it’s diversity, and the largely female cast. However, don’t expect any detailed exploration into the issues of sex or race. There may be a large cast of characters but their backstories are mainly superficial, as are their arcs. It’s great and all having this big and diverse cast, until of course your main characters end up being two white women. It’s a shame because when other characters are given something more substantial it does work, this is a talented cast, it’s entertaining to see these misfits interact. But it’s generally Ruth and the director Sam who get the the funnier or heartfelt moments, and any narrative meat.
GLOW tries with it’s casting to be representative, but it doesn’t capitalise on the range of actors available, or the range of issues to confront. The only “social commentary” present is through the wrestling skits, where a character will play up their relevant stereotype – but with little emotional pay off, or pause, and mainly to demonstrate the subversive and liberal views of the director Sam. They dip their toe into social issues, the character becoming miffed at the director making them play out obvious stereotypes, but again
there’s little other substance. And these characters end up with little else to do in the show. GLOW didn’t need to beat the race or gender drum to death, but the show seemed determined to ignore what underpinned the experiences of these characters: not being taken seriously due to their race or gender. The audience is denied seeing any majorly gratifying triumph over these boundaries, or any attempt to openly confront them by the narrative. Yes, there’s comments about female wrestling appealing to men, but this isn’t encountered with any gusto. Don’t base your show in these kinds of issues if you’re not going to actually get to grips with them.
To be fair to GLOW the theatrical skits and the process of each character coming up with their wrestling persona was probably the best part of the show. It certainly gave some life and vibrancy to the programme, and the eventual Ruth vs Debbie, Soviet Union vs America match was an effective way to represent their personal conflict and the wider context of the Cold War. And amongst the misdirected attempts at social commentary, there is heart. Perhaps a change in format would have benefited the show. The episodes are short, coming in at around 35 minutes, and often, especially in the middle, slow in pace. I’ve wondered if making the show more compact, a movie, or a mini series with less episodes at a longer length, could have helped some of the problems. There would’ve been more depth to less themes, the show could’ve streamlined it’s storylines and focused on making them great, rather than mediocre.
On a related note, while the added theatrics of costume and story to the wrestling skits was entertaining, there is an underlying lack of good wrestling, something I was surprised that I noticed or was bothered by. GLOW does a good job at portraying the cutting of corners in this industry and reliance on the theatrics over technique. Yet, after seeing scene after scene of these women trying to prepare for their first broadcast/performance, I wanted some pay off, for all those training montages to lead to some improvement. In fact it got to the point where you have to doubt the real life ability of the show runners to direct fight choreography. One or two acts being basic would’ve sufficed, and conveyed the comedic and amateur spin they may have been going for, but when even the main showdown between Debbie and Ruth is overly edited and stylised to the point where it appears they are trying to compensate for a lack of technique, it’s just another area the show didn’t quite deliver on.
GLOW also has tonal problems. Trapped between a yearning to be comedic and quirky and presenting “serious drama”, it instead ends up with inconsistent comedy and stagnant drama. Perhaps these issues are due to expectation. Not to overdo the comparison, but Orange Is the New Black managed to walk this line well. The humour gave release to the tension, the contrast between them showing a balanced, and more entertaining, view of life in prison. GLOW attempts to follow this model, but achieves the opposite effect. The attempted comedic tone undermines any pause for reflection, and the drama makes the bizarre moments even more out of place. You can’t take the comedy or the drama seriously. Compare the endings of episode 7 and 8. In one you have the cast singing – and I hope this is the case- a purposely cringey song. While in the other you have one of the characters deciding and reflecting on having an abortion.
At some point I must have enjoyed GLOW enough to commit to writing a review of the show. The potential it held was enticing, but alas, I was wrong. The show isn’t awful, but it underuses its cast and its setting. There’s no substance. The fact it’s taken me this long to hobble together a review speaks for itself. I was promised fun. I was promised Orange Is the New Black on steroids. I got Orange Is the New Black on laxatives. It’s not “unfair” to compare GLOW to other successful shows. Orange is the New Black is not a rare oasis in a desert of otherwise poor television. Fleabag was great too, funny with a slab of social commentary, the exact formula GLOW aims for. These shows are the benchmark now, not the exception. GLOW suffers because of these comparisons but should we really celebrate shows solely based on their promise, rather than their quality? As Debbie exclaims at one point, “where’s the panache?”