The New Season of ‘GLOW’ Rejects the Show’s Premise
In a much-lauded scene halfway through the 3rd season of GLOW, Alison Brie‘s character, a frustrated actress named Ruth Wilder, sits in front of a mirror removing her makeup after a show. As 80s music plays, the scene behind her shifts rapidly, in time-lapse, as she mopily takes off her fake eyebrows. When the dust clears, we realize that five months have passed, and Ruth, heaven forfend, is still a professional wrestler. This, GLOW wants us to believe, is a minor tragedy.
And that would be fine if GLOW weren’t a show about wrestling. When it first appeared, GLOW felt fresh and radical. It was, in one sense, a by-the-numbers underdog story about unlikely heroes rising in the ring to become mid-1980s TV wrestling stars. But in Ruth, a struggling actress, and her best frenemy Debbie Eagan, a former soap-opera star now enmeshed in new motherhood and a bad divorce, the show also presented complex retro feminist heroes. Marc Maron was hilarious as the show’s director, a Roger Corman-like figure fallen on rough times. Betty Gilpin, as Debbie, was the show’s revelatory, Emmy-winning breakout star. The diverse supporting cast was fun and likable. Most of all, the wrestling scenes were awesome.
After two seasons of straight-up wrestling comedy intercut with light personal drama, the show shifted gears and took the “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling” to Las Vegas, where they perform their now-canceled show nightly at the Fan-Tan, a midrange off-strip casino. The show takes full advantage of the Vegas setting, or at least the hotel setting. There are plenty of scenes at the craps table and the buffet. But it barely concerns itself at all with wrestling, its essential premise that brought it so many fans.
The Subplots We Didn’t Want
GLOW has always mixed intimacy with bodyslams. Debbie’s divorce and struggle with early motherhood is an ongoing concern. Ruth’s abortion episode was painful and sweet and intimate. It does a nice job of charting the journey of the show’s producer, a millionaire playboy named Bash Howard who struggles with being gay and ends up getting caught in a green-card marriage with one of the Gorgeous Ladies. The wrestling was a major backdrop, but it wasn’t the WWF.
But imagine if, say, Mad Men decided in its third season to just blow off all the advertising stuff and concentrate solely on Don Draper’s messed-up identity problems and Peggy’s bad boyfriends. Or if Breaking Bad suddenly stopped being about meth. It simply wouldn’t work. Yet that’s what GLOW basically does in Season 3.
The best thing about the show is that the characters all have in-ring personas who double as extra characters. Zoya The Destroyer and Liberty Belle are legendary. Only two episodes prominently feature wrestling in Season 3, and they’re the best ones. In one, the wrestlers, including Ruth and Debbie, hilariously switch roles. In the season finale, they perform an awesome in-ring version of ‘A Christmas Carol’. Both had me howling with laughter.
Instead of more of that, we have to deal with a bunch of weird subplots. The ongoing Bash saga makes some sense, as does Debbie’s journey toward mogulhood. Both of those tangentially relate to the show’s central premise. But a lesbian love-affair plot line between two of the least charismatic cast members falls completely flat, with writing as awkward as anything you’d see on DeGrassi. Those scenes go on and on, and had me checking baseball scores on my phone. Meanwhile, the delightful Carmen (otherwise known as ‘Macchu Picchu’) struggles with wanting to be a real wrestler, and she barely gets any scenes at all.
In addition, the show decides to introduce a drag performer named Bobby Barnes, who does Liza Minnelli and Barbra Streisand impersonations at great length. Bobby becomes the mentor of Sheila, one of the most interesting cast members, and transforms her from a fascinating “She-Wolf” into a boring actress who delivers dramatic monologues at AIDS fundraisers. There’s a kind of theater-dork fantasy camp thing going on with the GLOW writer’s staff. Instead of pile-drivers, we must endure torch songs and glitter-bombs, which just don’t make sense in the context of the show. If you want Broadway tribute TV, Fosse/Verdon does it much better, and if you want fabulous drag numbers, let me direct you to a little thing called Pose.
Most embarrassingly, the show trots out Geena Davis toward the end of the season in full aging showgirl regalia, forcing her to sing off-key. Fortunately for us, a fire stops her show. Unfortunately for the characters, it’s an act of homophobic arson. No one but the most evil among us will argue that homophobic arson is a good thing. But why, I must ask again, does it exist in a show about female wrestling, where only the most annoying characters are gay?
Writers’ Room Summer Camp
With two-thirds of the season in the bag, GLOW resorts to that hoariest of comedy clichés, The Camping Trip Where Things Are Revealed. Though Gilpin and Brie have a nicely-written scene in the desert, the rest of the episode plays out like some sort of hideous pine-cone ceremony on the last night of summer. The extremely distressing character “Melrose” decides to throw a seder in the woods, forcing the other lady wrestlers to recite the plagues of Egypt. Then Melrose breaks down sobbing because most of her family died in the Holocaust. Another character breaks down sobbing because most of her family died in The Killing Fields. And then the entire GLOW crew gets in a big huggy circle and breaks down sobbing together. Again, this is all part of a comedy show about wrestling.
Maron’s character is so bored with the wrestling that he decides to bail on Vegas entirely. In what’s basically a separate show, his college-aged daughter Justine writes a screenplay that’s so brilliant, a Hollywood studio decides to produce it, and Maron’s character gets to direct. GLOW’s writing staff is totally convinced that its provincial Hollywood concerns have some sort of universal appeal, so much so that they attempt to sell us on the idea that an unknown teenager could sell a mainstream script without ever even sniffing The Black List. It’s dumb, unrealistic, and, again, not even remotely related to wrestling.
By season’s end, GLOW has discarded the entire Vegas plotline like yesterday’s software. Debbie seizes control of her producer’s destiny in the ultimate #timesup move, more than 30 years ahead of her time. It’s a fairly exciting prospect, but I have to wonder if we’re ever going to see her, or anyone in the cast, wrestle. If they can’t be bothered–again, given that this is a show about wrestling–then why should we?