In 1986, a bold, bizarre, and provocative television show hit the television airwaves. Rarely has the name of a television show so summarily encapsulated the plot as with GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
GLOW was a uniquely 1980s fad, building on the burgeoning national success of the World Wrestling Federation, which had captured the public’s attention with its successful “Rock ‘n’ Wrestling Connection” co-promotion with MTV, itself a fledgling network garnering mainstream attention.
The GLOW formula was simple – hire actresses, models, and any other women who looked good in Spandex, give them a gimmick (The Farmer’s Daughter, Spanish Red, The Soviet Stunner Colonel Ninotchka), and have them roll around a ring, exchanging scissor holds and other suggestive moves. In addition to the matches, there were campy comedy skits taken straight from the Hee Haw playbook and the GLOW girls’ signature rap, a riff on the 1985 Chicago Bears’ “The Super Bowl Shuffle.”
GLOW proved to be a hit on syndicated TV, often airing on Fox affiliates, the same cutting edge network promoting such groundbreaking, anti-establishment fare as Married… with Children and The Simpsons. GLOW survived for four seasons before the fad ran out of steam, although there was subsequent attempts to resurrect the brand in later years.
Netflix has done the next best thing. On Friday, Netflix releases GLOW, a comedy series based on the original series starring Alison Brie and Marc Maron. Netflix provided The Interrobang with advance screeners of the 10 episode first season, and it looks like Netflix has another hit on its hands.
Brie plays Ruth Wilder, an actress struggling while banging her head against the glass ceiling in a desperate search for substantive female roles. Broke and desperate, Ruth show shows up at an open audition in a dingy warehouse. Maron, playing schlock movie director Sam Sylvia, has been tasked with hiring a bunch of aspiring actresses and creating a pro wrestling league in time for TV tapings.
“Like Hulk Hogan?” one woman asks.
“If one of you turns out to be the next Hulk Hogan, I hit the jackpot,” Sylvia quips.
In many ways, Maron is the heart of the series, basically playing his usual gruff and acerbic self. Brie is charming and playing the plucky Wilder, but ironically enough, her character isn’t quite fleshed out. When questioned by Sylvia why she made a devastatingly bad decision, she responds, “Why does anyone do anything?” Maybe it was meant to be a philosophical rhetorical question, but it comes across as lazy writing.
But that’s a minor quibble. After a bit of a slow start, GLOW picks up steam as the newly hired GLOW girls begin to develop their own personalities and relationships. The dynamic between Wilder and former soap opera star Debbie Eagan (played by Betty Gilpin) is at the crux of the season.
While GLOW captures some of the intentional campiness of the original show, it also treats both the GLOW girls and professional wrestling with respect. Though there is some coarse language and brief nudity, the show avoids the gratuitous sexualization that a show based on women’s wrestling could fall into. There is a strong backbone of feminism at play, showing women stepping out of their assigned gender roles – mothers, doting wives, subservient daughters – and asserting their individuality and their strength.
Of course, GLOW is a comedy first and foremost. Maron carries the comedic portion of the show as the cocaine-fueled curmudgeon at the helm of a project he barely understands (the producer hired him because he misinterpreted Sylvia’s B-movie as comedies). Sylvia may not be self-aware, but GLOW certainly is; the laughs come as part of the interactions of this motley crew of fame-seekers, not simply jokes about girls being unathletic or women’s wrestling being an absurd idea in and of itself.
Veteran stunt woman Shauna Duggins served as stunt coordinator along with pro wrestler Chavo Guerrero Jr. (whose uncle, Mando, trained the first batch of GLOW girls in 1986). In an interview with The Interrobang, Duggins said she and Guerrero spent weeks with the cast, teaching them to run the ropes and give and take bumps.
“Chavo would show the girls how to do a suplex, then he would suplex each of the 14 actresses, and then have them suplex him,” Duggins said. “We were training every day for four or five weeks before we started shooting. We wanted to get everything right. We had the girls going through lock-ups and exchanging a series of five moves of choreography. The writers would come out and watch and just be stunned at how quickly it came together.”
A wonderful tribute to the 1980s original, GLOW manages to be funny, authentic, and – at times – surprisingly poignant. Series creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have outdone themselves.
GLOW debuts Friday on Netflix.
Dan Murphy knows a thing or two about women’s wrestling. He co-authored the book “Sisterhood of the Squared Circle: The History and Rise of Women’s Wrestling,” which includes a chapter on the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Available now on Amazon.com.