The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are used to being underestimated. As depicted in Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive’s series, the troupe of spandexed warriors was born in a dingy garage when women who couldn’t find a place elsewhere finally discovered support, comfort and even creative inspiration in one another. It tackled a setup familiar to most anyone who’s seen a sports movie — the scrappy underdogs clawing their way to success despite everyone’s doubts — through a distinctly feminine lens. With brash snarls and tender wit, “GLOW” reveals the power of women banding together in defiance of low expectations to make something spectacular out of nothing.
Still, over the course of the first season, some of the storylines and characters struggled to break out of their prescribed boxes. It took several episodes for disdainful director Sam (Marc Maron) and enthusiastic playboy Bash (Chris Lowell) to reveal signs of more depth. The characters whose wrestling personas encompassed questionable stereotypes — like Sunita Mani’s terrorist Beirut and Kia Stevens’ Welfare Queen — only got to mount glancing moments of protest before the show moved on. And in one of the show’s biggest self-inflicted hurdles, the pilot had its main character Ruth (Alison Brie) crater her friendship with Debbie (Betty Gilpin) by sleeping with her husband, but never provided a compelling reason why beyond the narrative need to tear them apart.
Eventually, “GLOW” settled into itself and the rhythms of its cast to explore more interesting dynamics than their basic loglines. The ensemble cast proved to be game and very funny, bringing a shot of bizarre delight to every one of their increasingly strange matchups. Brie and Gilpin became standouts, lending serious depth to each scene.
Season 2 — which picks up as GLOW starts drawing modest attention in the Wild West of basic cable — gets to cash in on all that progress to tell stories that are much more specific and grounded in the characters as they’ve evolved. Ruth and Debbie , still wary of each other, double down on their respective ambitions. Ruth tries her hand at directing when Sam drops the ball; Debbie makes a play to become a producer. And although both joined GLOW out of desperation, both have now fully accepted that they’re good at this, and want to become great. When they hit an obstacle — usually in the form of a man dismissing or outright objectifying them — they grit their teeth and figure out how to make their visions come true regardless.
Brie and Gilpin have always been the show’s greatest strengths, and that largely holds true in Season 2 as both stretch their characters into more singular shapes. As Debbie spirals into panic because her life might be crumbling around her, Gilpin’s portrayal of her as a biting yet bruised woman has never been better. And as Ruth becomes comfortable being part of a team — and even more surprising, having real friends — she relaxes into an assured confidence. Brie plays that shift with a welcome new breeziness, but one that still hints at the vulnerability pulsing just underneath.
So when Debbie and Ruth clash, their fights are fraught with layers of personal pain rather than that first tired “You slept with my husband” argument. The show finally knows what makes these two tick outside their rivalry, and with actors as talented as Brie and Gilpin continuing to embody them, that awareness makes a world of difference.
But for “GLOW” to get from good to great, it needed to flesh out other people besides Ruth and Debbie — and Season 2 delivers. Arthie’s attempts to destroy her offensive terrorist character go unnoticed, to her frustration. Cherry (Sydelle Noel), who left GLOW when she landed a leading role, is in the uncharacteristic position of stumbling when she has to act on top of doing flawless stunts. The show even gets to wink at a criticism of season one, when brassy new recruit Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) gripes that she can’t believe how straight this all-women’s wrestling league is.
One particularly good episode follows Tammé outside the ring when she goes to see her son at Stanford, where there are so few other black students that he keeps being mistaken for someone who looks nothing like him. When he learns his mom has been moonlighting as an exaggerated, cackling character called Welfare Queen, he tells her that she’s indulging a “minstrel act,” leaving her humiliated and devastated.
Even Bash and Sam — the series’ token male characters, rare for being handily outnumbered — get more depth in a way that doesn’t detract from the worthy leading ladies surrounding them. Bash, flailing as the show’s ratings start tanking, tries hard to ignore his heartbreak after his closest friend, Florian (Alex Rich), skips town — not to mention that Bash’s feelings for him are clearly more complicated than he cares to admit. And while Sam doesn’t become a perfect or even especially warm father to his newfound teenage daughter (Britt Baron), his attempt nonetheless brings out the best in Maron’s signature amiable growl.
While all these characters had their moments in Season 1, many of them good and fun, getting to know them in Season 2 is far more rewarding with the clichés of their origin stories firmly behind them. Like the rapidly improving show within the show, this sophomore season of “GLOW” finds its footing, throws in more jaw-dropping stunts and mines its potential to become just as spunky, tenacious and determined as its heroines.
Comedy series, 30 mins. All 10 episodes watched for review; debuts June 29 on Netflix.
CAST: Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, Marc Maron, Sydelle Noel, Chris Lowell, Kate Nash, Kia Stevens, Sunita Mani, Britt Baron, Britney Young, Kimmy Gatewood, Rebekka Johnson, Gayle Rankin, Marianna Palka, Jackie Tohn, Ellen Wong, Shakira Berrera, Bashir Salahuddin.
CREW: Executive producers: Liz Flahive, Carly Mensch, Tara Hermann, Jenji Kohan.