Good tv title sequences must grab your attention and sum up a show’s theme, and GLOW is a perfect example. The shiny disco Day-Glo neon titles scream “80s nostalgia here we come!” It’s all there, running throughout the series – the music, the outfits, the big hair. And a central scene in episode 1 takes place in an aerobics class which makes me, and everyone else of a certain age, think of Flashdance. We’ll be seeing a lot more women in leotards before this series is done. GLOW is the new Netflix comedy-drama from Orange Is The New Black executive producer Jenji Kohan, and the theme of strong unconventional women and their struggles is familiar to both.
We start out with aspiring actress Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and her fight against sexism in Hollywood. She’s delivering the audition of her life when her misunderstanding is revealed – “You’re reading the man’s part”. The women’s part is a secretary and she gets one line. Ruth is very determined, badgering the casting director (also a tough woman) who eventually offers her a crumb of sympathy – an open casting call for “unconventional women”.
This is a strange gig far from Hollywood Boulevard out in a nondescript warehouse somewhere in LA which turns out to be a boxing gym. The director is looking for “unconventional women” – all sizes, shapes, races and personalities turn out. Sitting on bleachers the cast look like an enormous OITNB casting call just without their orange jumpsuits.
Sam Silvia (Marc Maron) is the director. His style is extremely… direct. He explains his expectations including the killer line “Did I say cunt punches?”. His abrasive attitude and a very real fear of getting hurt prompts a mass walk-out to which he shrugs and says to the remaining women “Well, you made the first cut”. Happily we’re in the company of loads of weirdos and misfits. I especially like the strange slightly feral-looking gothic girl who, instead of a head-shot, provides a screwed up picture of a wolf. Sam is looking for a squad of 12 athletic women for cable tv show – the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.
Ruth is the ‘real’ actress in the mix, failed but determine,d and still inspired by her theater group despite years living on the poverty line in LA. Alison Bree is ready to make fun of herself and some themes from Community cross over. The director picks apart her ‘hotness’ or lack of in excruciating detail, and she’s got just the right amount of silliness required for this role. When she’s dressing up and playing wrestler in her bedroom to get inspiration it feels like Troy and Abed could turn up at any moment.
Ruth’s best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) is the successful one, or so Ruth thinks as she inevitably compares herself to this woman who has actually had a part on a daytime soap opera. It seems they have a really close relationship, despite Debbie moving away and having children. How nice, to see a happy supportive relationship on tv! These girls are rude, frank, and care for each other deeply. Because we all know women can’t ever be friends! Oh dear. Turns out, Ruth is shagging Debbie’s weird fat-faced husband. Of course. So this will be a secret that haunts Ruth all series long. But no; in this way the writers surprised me. Matters come to a head very quickly and with quite some violence in the boxing ring. Because of Debbie’s former fame Sam gets very excited at her accidental audition. He imagines it as a shiny televised match – spandex, sequins and back-combed hair in a pink boxing ring. If he can get her interested too, perhaps the show will be a hit?
“Is this real?” asks one character. “Who cares?” is the reply. Themes of reality and ‘realness’ abound which is exactly the conversation everyone has about wrestling. On the one hand it’s all fake but the athleticism, the moves, and the injuries are very real. The real lives and problems of the female cast are magnified in the ring and used for story lines; so far, Ruth’s affair and Cherry’s miscarriage (played with steely grace by Sydelle Noel). How much will the women be expected to take? And realness makes me think of naturalness – Brie and Gilpin are especially good together. The scene in the gym changing room isn’t played for titillation, despite Brie being quiet the sexy idol – remember Sexy Santa?
As in the ring, so far, back story is not required. We learn very little about the main characters in the first episode, but that sort of early exposition often gets in the way of the story, so this is welcome. The 30 minute format (like Z:The Beginning of Everything) is also welcome. But the pacing is a little off, as it actually feels much longer. It’s not as snappy as I was expecting and therefore not so moreish. Maybe the rest of the series will be better fleshed out as we begin to see the stories of the 12 women, plus their friends and families, played out concurrently.
GLOW is out on Netflix now