Women’s wrestling might not seem like the most natural of subjects for producers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch to (pardon the expression) tackle. The two writers, who’ve been friends for years dating back to their time on “Nurse Jackie,” were looking for another project to team up on. “We knew we wanted it to be female-focused, we wanted it to be a comedy, but we had no other insight beyond that,” says Flahive.
And then they came across a documentary about the women of “G.L.O.W.” (Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling), talking about their time making the show which aired back in the late ’80s. “We had never heard of ‘G.L.O.W,’ we had never watched it in the ’80s, we had never watched wrestling,” says Flahive. “We were so moved by the way that these women were talking about how this crazy experience transformed them and changed their lives, how it took them down these paths they would have never have walked down if not for this totally weird opportunity that they all came together.”
Intrigued, they started watching old episodes and found themselves hooked. “There was something about seeing how they used their bodies in this way that was really exciting to us,” says Mensch, “and I think we both have a history of writing for strong but flawed, weird women.”
They recruited Jenji Kohan, whom Mensch had worked with on “Orange is the New Black” to help them shape the project. Their pitch was a notably brief email: “Do you want to work on a show with us about women wrestling in the ’80s?”
Her even shorter reply came five minutes later: “Yes!”
All they kept from the original show was the name and the time period. “It felt like such a rich time in terms of sexual politics and the conservative swing,” says Flahive.
In the series, which bows on June 23 on Netflix, a group of women are drawn to a casting call for a potential women’s wrestling show being assembled by a struggling director (Marc Maron). They’re all there for their own reasons — but as the series unfolds, it’s clear they’re all there to challenge stereotypes and conventions. “GLOW” becomes a meta conversation as the women debate whether they’re being exploited or empowered. That’s a conversation the showrunners had themselves.
“I think in our dream world the debate between is it empowering and is it exploitative is always going to live at the heart of the show,” says Mensch. “I think we hope to never fully leave the question of, ‘is this slightly exploitative?'” As the actresses — and the characters— learned how to wrestle, they formed a bond, report the producers. “I think that then percolates into the show,” says Mensch. “You can see them owning both the ring and their bodies in really awesome ways.”
Key to the success of the show — as in Kohan’s “Orange is the New Black” — is the diverse ensemble cast, led by Alison Brie. Brie (“Community”) plays Ruth, an out-of-work actress who can’t land a job, and settles for the wrestling gig because she has few other options. “I think it’s important that we follow someone into the world that’s not a wrestler,” says Mensch. “She’s a struggling actress, which I think is always easier for an audience member to identify with — someone who’s a novice in the same thing you’re a novice in.”
Flahive credits casting director Jennifer Euston, who’s worked on both projects for her ability to find “unique weirdos.”
“We knew we wanted a lot of different body types on this show. We knew that we wanted people you’ve never seen before,” says Flahive. “I think we also needed actors who were also very game, really up to learn how to wrestle.”
Those wrestling lessons may have taken their toll on the cast, but they were crucial to the storytelling. “I feel like the thing that we really learned, is that it might look like that there are two women in the ring beating the crap out of each other, but in fact, it’s great teamwork,” says Flahive. “You have to care-take your partner, and you have to make them look good. You have to sell their story.”
As part of the show, all the women get wrestling names. Flahive jokes hers would be “The Insomniac”: “Just a woman walking around the ring, not able to sleep,” she says. “Awake at the wrong times, and falling asleep when she should be body slamming somebody.”
As for Mensch, she refuses to answer: “Anything that suggests I could possibly be a wrestler would be tossed,” she says with a laugh.