When watching “Glow,” you can’t help but think of its sister show “Orange is the New Black.” In addition to sharing the same streaming platform, “Glow” draws several parallels to “OITNB,” with its diverse female ensemble cast and its illustration of the challenges of being a woman in a male-dominated system. (It’s also no coincidence that “OITNB” creator Jenji Kohan executive produces “Glow” and wrote one of the episodes).
But while both shows share similar themes and socially conscious undertones, comparing the two feels a bit too on-the-nose, especially since “Glow,” though not as nuanced as “OITNB,” offers something entirely different and refreshing. Created by Liz Flahive (“Adult Beginners”) and Carly Mensch (“Nurse Jackie”), “Glow” treats its audience to a delightful, entertaining and visually glossy depiction of the female wrestling world, along with the intricacies of female friendship and gender dynamics. The Netflix series was based on an actual syndicated female wrestling circuit from the ‘80s, but thanks to some sharp dialogue and inventive characters, “Glow” works well as a fictionalized origin story, breathing new life into its defunct source material.
The show begins with its antihero protagonist Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie, “The Littlest Hours”), a struggling Los Angeles actress who, after failing an audition and reaching near debt, joins the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an emerging TV show that involves a group of “unconventional women” acting and wrestling one another. Despite derision and doubt from her fellow G.L.O.W.-mates and the show’s scuzzy director Sam Sylvia (a perfectly cast Marc Maron, “Easy”), Ruth persists against the odds, even if it’s mostly out of desperation.
Things become more complicated when Sam places Ruth’s best friend-turned-rival Debbie Egan (Betty Gilpin, “True Story”) on G.L.O.W., making for a predictable albeit intriguing and heartfelt dual character arc. The central focus on their relationship is perhaps the most engaging and genuine part about “Glow.” The troubled connection they work through feels similar to something like the volatile relationship between “Orange is the New Black”’s Piper and Alex, “Riverdale”’s Veronica and Betty and “Insecure”’s Issa and Molly. Without spoiling the truth behind their deeply troubled friendship, “Glow” deftly uses literal and figurative fighting ground for Ruth and Debbie to resolve their issues, with their opposite wrestling personas building and simultaneously relieving tension between the two.
Despite its glee and gusto, “Glow” is not as incredibly unprecedented as it may seem. The plot is fairly conventional, the jokes are raunchy but not gut-busting and for the most part, it’s more enjoyable than thought-provoking. However, “Glow” does have the potential to reach heights of critical grandeur, especially with its stellar cinematography, charming costume design, makeup and killer New Wave soundtrack. Most period shows and films try too hard to evoke the time period in which they take place through obvious pop culture references. Luckily, “Glow”’s authentic portrayal of the ‘80s evokes the decade’s social and aesthetic atmosphere well enough that it’s neither too simplistic nor over-the-top.
In addition to “Glow”’s artfulness, the show continues to break ground for better and more fleshed out representation of women on television. Brie makes for a compelling lead, seeing that her previous supporting roles on NBC’s “Community” and AMC’s “Mad Men” have propelled her to finally playing a main character perfectly suited for her. Similarly, Gilpin brings the funk and humor as Debbie, playing off Brie’s energy with a subdued yet dynamic performance. In addition to Brie and Gilpin, Sydelle Noel (“Everybody Hates Chris”) and Britney Young (“Those Who Can’t”) give enthralling, breakout performances as Cherry Bang and Carmen Wade, respectively. The two each offer both comic relief and genuine poignancy, even if their roles as supporting characters aren’t as amplified as much as Brie and Gilpin’s.
“Glow” itself triumphs as a show primarily because of its female cast and how its characters deal with the complexities of being sexualized and stereotyped as wrestlers for the sake of entertainment. The execution of “Glow”’s subversiveness sometimes comes off a bit shaky. At times, it just seems like the characters are willfully embracing the very stereotypes that suppress them into one-dimensional people. But “Glow” is smart enough to recognize the effect the male gaze has on these women, and how their reclaiming of regressive symbols of femininity can be liberating and empowering.
The first few episodes are a tad lukewarm, plot and humor-wise — the pilot feels like it could be longer, and the two episodes following it ebb and flow between intelligent and meandering. But much like “Orange is the New Black,” “Glow” truly shines when it gets to the emotional core behind each of its character and the kind of personas they’re trying to build as wrestlers and as women.