“GLOW,” a new Netflix half-hour, is a finely wrought period piece of an especially ahistoric-seeming time and place: 1985, on the fringes of Hollywood, in a moment both entirely recognizable and light years away. Everything that thrived in the ‘80s seems to have been as artificial as possible: Spandex, synthesizers, shoulder pads, extra-strong hairspray. It’s a decade of neon and fluorescence; it’s an era that literally glows.
No wonder it was the Golden Age of professional wrestling — a muscle-bound flourish of theatricality that is more soap opera than sport. The essence of wrestling is its artifice; its grandiose gestures and over-the-top stunts are meant to be only barely believable.
“GLOW” takes this arena of artifice and turns it into a story of feminine coming-of-age with a bright, engaging energy that balances tones with masterful skill. The show admires the glitz of the ‘80s — or at least, the way pop culture purports to remember the ‘80s — but frames it, with appealing intimacy, in the softer ‘70s that preceded it and the hyper-aware ‘90s to follow. “GLOW” is a story about creating camp appeal out of a washed-out, banal, and even somewhat dingy reality — unemployment, failed dreams of stardom, a fleabag motel on the fringes of Hollywood, and the acrid taste of middle age. It makes the creation of something totally synthetic into a story of individual empowerment and collective fascination. Best of all, it does all that without either self-aggrandizing or lionizing its characters.
“GLOW” — Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling — was a real-life program that ran from 1986 to 1990 out of Las Vegas, as chronicled in the 2012 documentary “GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” Netflix’s “GLOW,” from executive producer Jenji Kohan and creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, tells a (very) fictionalized version of GLOW, starting with lead Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie, in a typically stunning turn) a wannabe serious actor who is petulant about her own lack of consequence.
A series of desperate turns leads her to a casting call headed by bitter layabout Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a former B-movie writer-director who has somehow ended up scraping together a prospective women’s wrestling show for cash. Ruth keeps failing to impress Sam — until her best friend, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), a former soap star who left the industry to have a baby, finds out that Ruth slept with her husband. Debbie storms into the makeshift gym, hands off her baby to a bystander, jumps into the ring, and slaps Ruth across the face. Sam sees stars: “GLOW” cuts to his imagination, where Debbie and Ruth are two glittering glamazons in a beautifully choreographed dance of jealousy. That moment is the seed of his production’s ultimate success: Debbie, the blonde All-American mom, is his “face,” the hero the crowd roots for. Gratingly earnest Ruth, all wheedling and hard work, is his “heel”: the crowd’s favorite person to hate.
It would be so easy, in a show with such capacity for glam, to emphasize sparkle over substance. “GLOW” doesn’t make that mistake. Brie, Gilpin, and Maron — in his strongest performance outside his own stand-up persona — make for textured, complex leads, with a tough resilience to their relationships that is neither superficial nor sexy. For those who don’t know Gilpin’s talents, “GLOW” is a chance to witness her obvious star quality; for those familiar with Brie as a primarily “cute” character, her turn as Ruth uncovers a needy, sour, and resentful quality that she still manages to make winning. “GLOW” makes the destabilizing but fascinating choice of centering her narrative over Debbie’s, but as the show evolves, it increasingly makes sense: “GLOW” is drawn to the discomfort of self-acceptance and it is a longer and stranger journey to go from a method actress reciting Strindberg to a vulgar, Russian-accented wrestling villain who spends most of her energy making sure the other person on stage with her looks prettier, better, and stronger.
As is to be expected from a project where Kohan is involved, much of “GLOW’s” success is owed to its ensemble — a delightful collection of idiosyncrasies and backstories that is each identically desperate for recognition. A pittance and a little free rein allows many of these young women the first chance they’ve gotten to explore their identities. Because it’s wrestling — because it’s self-consciously campy — nearly every character has to start by confronting the most obvious stereotype about herself. The one Asian-American character, a Cambodian immigrant, is styled into the (Chinese-ish?) “Fortune Cookie.” Jenny (Ellen Wong) throws herself into every element of the outlandish stereotype. Similarly, African-American Tamee (Kia Stevens), a mom who’s seen her son off to Stanford’s medical school, is “The Welfare Queen,” a food-stamp brandishing dame who name-drops Reagan in the ring. They’re incredibly uncomfortable stereotypes — the lone Indian-American girl, Arthie (Sunita Mani), plays “Beirut,” a “Lebanese” “terrorist” — and usually, the characters themselves aren’t sure if they’re reinforcing prejudice or interrogating it.
But they’re still fired up. And why not? Whatever they’re doing in the ring, they’re active, not passive; they’re taking on a persona, instead of waiting for one to be grafted onto them. There’s something raw and beautiful about the mess of eager enthusiasm manifest in the women of GLOW; they seem to all be coming from and heading towards different directions, but at this crossroads, they just want to be something bigger and badder than themselves, with all the guttural grunting and hairspray they can muster. The ensemble includes a surprising range of talents: Kate Nash, the British singer-songwriter; Marianna Palka, the documentarian and filmmaker; Jackie Tohn, the former “American Idol” contestant.
“GLOW” is feminine, but not precious; period, but not nostalgic. It’s an honest show that is satisfyingly, surprisingly intimate. And — refreshingly — it eschews building up its women as sexualized totems, in order to observe how those women might pursue that process themselves. It’s a smart move; “GLOW” is a smart show. It’s precisely weighty enough, without the bloat and spotty pacing that characterizes other streaming shows. There’s an interesting disorientation to the editing and pacing that keeps the audience on its toes, and the neon lights and bright lycra make for easy, fun viewing coupled with quality storytelling. Much like this era in women’s wrestling, it is glorious and weird and different, and goes by way too quickly. At least with Netflix’s “GLOW,” we can hope for more.