The beginning moments of Liz Flahive/Carly Mensch’s GLOW speak volumes about the series to come. Those first moments are a perfect start to a show, immediately saying everything about period, setting, and the lighthearted satirical lens the series will apply to both. Alison Brie’s character, Ruth, stands in an office with a view overlooking Los Angeles, sporting intimidating shoulder pads as she delivers an impassioned, brassy second wave feminist monologue about corporate empowerment. “This is about my company and my name and I will not be bullied into submission.”
She’s then interrupted, and the camera gives us a second perspective: she’s being filmed by a woman in a dress so ’80s it almost just looks Amish, and a casting director, who duly corrects her, says, “You were reading the man’s part.” Recovering from her mistake, and explaining that she thought Mel was short for Melanie (perhaps a sly nod to the film this scene most evokes, Working Girl), Ruth offers to read the woman’s part. Brie here proves how on point her comic timing is. Delivering the following with a perfectly deflated version of the thespian over-enthusiasm we just saw, she gives a sad little double-knock on the desk, and meekly intones, “Sorry to interrupt, your wife is on Line 2.” End of scene.
The scene expertly not only gives us a setting and an era, but hits at both the sexism — and the limits of reactions to it — at the time. Shoulder pads, those Thatcherite fashion statements that defined an era of women’s fashion, denoted how within mainstream feminism, masculinity was still seen as capital. (The discursive tune has changed since, but the social residue runs thick). They showed how the push was for women to literally sport angular addenda to their silhouettes in order to finally have an active place within, and to perpetuate, the all-encompassing reality series of capitalism. What’s smart about the meta-ness of GLOW is that it then dives into a story of another very specific way a select group of women would shape themselves to hyperbolize stereotypes and social expectations within literal, physical televised competitions. The Los Angeles backdrop in the window in that first scene stresses this relationship: this is the city where perceptions are taken from society, sculpted to reflect it, then taken back by society in perpetual imitation of itself.
Just after Ruth’s audition, the casting director has another suggestion for her: she sends her on a mysterious audition for less “conventional” women. And it turns out the audition is for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling — a popular syndicated show that actually existed in the mid-’80s. The crowd at the audition is multiethnic, from economically diverse backgrounds, and of vastly variant sizes — essentially the antithesis of your usual Hollywood casting session. But it turns out each person will be asked to play up their perceived differences: the men in charge of this venture have decided on crafting characters that are mildly sexualized, racialized/gendered caricatures, theorizing that these will be the thing that most appeals to your average American viewer who wants to watch women beating each other up.
What’s fascinating is seeing these characters testing the limits to which they can either subvert, or find ownership through, these preordained, white male fantasy-driven types. Kia Stevens’ Tamee, a somewhat robust black woman, is asked to embody a “welfare queen,” and has some very legitimate questions about camp, parody, and the perpetuation of stereotypes. Arthie, an Indian American woman portrayed by Sunita Mani, is asked to play a terrorist named “Beirut;” Ellen Wong’s Jenny is given lines about pandas, and named “Fortune Cookie.” Because she’s widely disliked, Brie’s Ruth is at first given the role of the villain “Kuntar” — which Sam-the-director, played by a hilariously gross, yet buried-big-hearted Mark Maron — emphasizes is not pronounced “Koontar,” but rather “Cuntar.” But then Sam decides he doesn’t know what to do with her — she so urgently wants to be someone that she becomes nondescript — and she’s characterless for a minute. It’s a fact that leads her to have to figure out what exactly she might want to project in the world.
Unfortunately, much of the first episode (and a good deal of the second) doesn’t live up to the promise of that opening corporate audition scene. After that, these two episodes can get rather too on-the-nose in their explorations of how television breaks down and then reifies type. This process is so embedded in the series’ themes that it doesn’t need to be explained in as much through dialogue as it is. For instance, when Ruth complains to a casting director about the dearth of roles for women, the dialogue sounds more didactically aligned with the show’s thesis than it needs to be. By contrast, the brilliance of that first scene was its tragicomic demonstration of this exact fact without a character needing to blatantly state it.
The first couple of episodes of this fictional series also suffer from their emulation of the structure of a reality TV show. We’re introduced to these characters, who’ll be spending a good deal of time competing. But before we get to know them, and before they get to know each other, and to appreciate and/or bemoan one another’s company, we get a litany of introductions, presented one-by-one via characters’ auditions for the show-within-a-show. The bits are neither funny nor interesting enough to sustain our interest; they simply drag, which is all the more palpable in a 30-minute-per-episode series.
At this point, before other characters start becoming more fully developed, the series feels like it may also suffer from a bit of early-OITNB syndrome, wherein a Type-A white character serves as a perceived audience surrogate into a more diverse world. But Brie’s performance of thespian self-importance gets funnier and funnier, and deeper and deeper. It turns out she’s no surrogate; she’s a really interesting character, and one whose theater-nerd’s precision of speech and performed enthusiasm betray the social tendencies of a person who’s always used “personality” as an elaborate mask without deeper self-examination. And those one-by-one auditioned introductions finally give way to compelling character dynamics. Britney Young’s character Carmen, for example, comes from a wrestling family, and her dealings with that legacy are one of the more interesting plot-points; Cherry Bang, played by Sydelle Noel, has a long working relationship with Sam, and their somewhat embittered familiarity and care is likewise great.
It’s in the third episode — which largely takes place at a party that’s an ’80s Los Angeles fantasy-nightmare, complete with a drug robot, a sexy butler, and a trust fund child producer alluding to ways the party can become an orgy — where the series figures out how to let loose. From here, it gets better and better. Here, with all of the characters present and finally interacting in a social setting, the former stiffness of a FUN, EMPOWERING exploration-of-an-exploration of Hollywood-made fantasy is effortlessly shed, and it becomes a show about the people who are about to engage in those processes, rather than, simply, the processes themselves. These characters will navigate ’80s notions of type, while, themselves, showing more and more depth, ensuring their distance from personas that can be summed up by half-sentence descriptions in a casting call.
Oh right, and then there’s some wrestling.