Ruth Wilder is a struggling actress who longs to put her traditional approach to good use. But when the only job in town is an audition to star in a new women’s wrestling show, Ruth is determined to get the part.
Based on the production of the real-life 1980s TV series Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, GLOW is a Netflix comedy-drama about a group of women who are brought together to produce a women’s wrestling show. Like so many Netflix series, it both has a small but dedicated following, and was cut short before its time – thanks to Covid-19, filming on the fourth season was cancelled. Many people were disappointed by this, but after watching season three, I couldn’t help feeling that maybe the show had run its course already.
Don’t get me wrong – when I started on GLOW, I very much enjoyed it. Season one is a strong debut, introducing not only Alison Brie as the naïve and earnest actress Ruth Wilder, but also Carrie Gilpin her erstwhile best friend, Debbie Eagan. Debbie was once a big soap star, but ever since having a baby, her career has foundered. To add insult to injury, her husband is having an affair – with none other than Ruth. With both women looking for a place on the GLOW wrestling show, the tension between them threatens to derail production.
Of course, Ruth and Debbie aren’t the only characters bringing the drama to GLOW. There’s an entire cast of aspiring wrestlers, including self-identified “she-wolf” Sheila; tough trainer Cherry; Carmen, daughter of a professional wrestler, and the selfishly vicious Melrose. All of these personalities are corralled by Sam Sylvia, a washed-up director with a reputation for alcoholism and sleeping around.
Thanks to this eclectic mix, GLOW is never short on character drama. And in season one, I was very much game for it. You can’t help but root for Ruth, a woman who fights hard for her role without ever compromising her idealism. And Debbie is sympathetic in her own, as a new mother who struggles to define herself as a career woman and an individual in a world that just wants her to stay at home and be a housewife. Inevitably some of the supporting cast are pretty one-dimensional and barely memorable, but there are some decent character arcs among their number as well.
Alongside this, you also have the wrestling content, as the ladies of GLOW figure out their characters, costumes and signature moves. I’m not a fan of wrestling, but even so this brightly-coloured, over-the-top action is key to the show’s charm.
Unfortunately, for all that GLOW season one is a thoroughly entertaining watch, it just doesn’t keep it up in subsequent seasons. In order to explain why, I’ll need to delve into some pretty big spoilers. If you’re not up for reading those, feel free to stop here. For everyone else, do read on.
Now, to be fair, season two isn’t bad. The show continues to develop plotlines both in and out of the ring, as the GLOW TV series gains both fans and detractors alike. However, to the observant viewer, the cracks are beginning to show. This a series that thrives on being over-the-top, and that means always having to outdo itself with ever greater plot twists. The trouble is that these are always landed in such a way as to make slightly unbelievable – more than once I expected a major revelation to be followed up with “haha, got you – it was just a joke, of course”.
Season two starts off in this vein with one of TV’s most overused go-to reveals – the “child you never you had” trope. Justine, the youngest of the GLOW wrestlers, admits to Sam that she isn’t actually here to pursue a career in women’s wrestling – she’s the daughter he never knew he had. And no, this isn’t some sort of scam or long game – she genuinely is his daughter.
Well, fair enough, you say – every TV series gets to pull something like this. But GLOW isn’t done yet. Towards the end of the season, British wrestler Rhonda reveals that her visa has expired, and that she faces deportation. A plan is hatched for her to marry her wrestling persona’s biggest fan – on air, no less. This already feels on pretty shaky ground, but fortunately Rhonda is spared from marrying some random guy when GLOW’s rich producer, Bash, steps up and proposes to her instead. Not because he secretly loves her, mind, but more to do with the fact that marrying a woman is a great way to hide that you’re actually gay.
I’m sure there are times and places where this storyline could create a lot of dramatic tension, but it turns out that GLOW isn’t one of them. Bash and Rhonda’s lack of chemistry never really feels like it’s being played for dramatic effect – instead, it just feels like the natural result of them being pretty shallow and uninteresting characters.
Anyway, let’s move onto season three. At the end of season two, the GLOW TV series is cancelled, but the show is given a new lease of life – as a live show in Las Vegas. Amidst the sleaze and glamour of 1980s Vegas, each of the wrestlers explores what exactly they want from their lives and careers.
One thing that is notably missing from season three is the very thing the show is meant to be about – the wrestling. Perhaps the writers ran out of time and energy for this aspect of GLOW, as much is made onscreen of the fact that even the characters are bored of having to do the exact same show every night. In fact, one of the better episodes of the season sees everyone swap characters, with entertaining results.
Elsewhere, however, the show doubles down on being pure soap opera. Even minor characters get drawn into this, including one particularly melodramatic scene during a camping trip. The scene is effectively an exchange of the form “how dare you be racist to me – I have family who died in the Holocaust”, to which the response is “well, I had family who died in the Killing Fields of Cambodia”. Obviously these are both tragic real-life events, but the way this backstory is just casually thrown out in a random dialogue exchange essentially robs it of all impact and meaning.
Another victim of season three’s storytelling is Sheila the She-Wolf, a wrestler who self-identifies as a wolf, and is never seen without her wig and furry pelt. Even though the deeper reasons behind this are never explored, clearly being a wolf is important to Sheila, and is indeed a key part of her character for two seasons. In season three, however, all it takes is some harsh teasing from a drag queen to kick off an arc in which Sheila gives up her wolf costume for good. Again, in other circumstances this could have been handled as a poignant story of someone growing and changing, but here it just feels shallow and abrupt. Given that I rather liked Sheila as a character, I wanted more from this pivotal moment in her life.
So far, though, we’ve only discussed supporting characters – what of our leads? To be honest, I don’t have much to say about Debbie’s season three arc, but I would like to spend some time talking about Ruth.
As the various season three storylines see other characters get on with their lives, Ruth starts to worry that she is the only one not moving forwards. After all, her original ambition wasn’t to play “Zoya the Destroyer” every night in a Vegas wrestling show – she had her sights set on an acting career.
With that in mind, Ruth eagerly accepts the chance to audition for Sam and Justine’s new movie, believing that the part is essentially hers. But when Sam breaks the news that Justine actually preferred another actress, Ruth is devastated, believing this to be a massive blow to her career.
Let’s think back to the Ruth of season one – someone so determined to be on GLOW that she kept showing up even after Sam told her not to bother. That was a Ruth who fought tooth and nail for what she wanted, outright ignoring anyone who told her not to. Going to a single audition in a year and giving up when it didn’t go well feels like a far cry from the Ruth of the early days. Season one Ruth would have auditioned for anything and everything that came her way, using rejection as the fuel to spur her on. Perhaps at some point she would have tired of the process, but that would have been some way down the line. As things stood, her efforts felt so half-hearted that her anger and disappointment felt completely disproportionate.
As if that wasn’t enough, season three also decides to head in a direction no one really wanted – an attempt at a Sam/Ruth romance. In order to explain why this feels so creepy and wrong, we first have to delve a little more into the character of Sam himself.
Portrayed by Marc Maron, Sam is exactly the character you think he is – a middle-aged director with a controversial filmography who is simultaneously less talented and much sleazier than he thinks is. Of course, such characters are always portrayed as having a heart of gold (however small), and indeed, over the course of the first two seasons Sam proved himself to be a solid friend and confidante to Ruth whenever she found herself in a difficult spot.
And that’s really where the relationship should have stayed. I would have gone so far as to accept that Sam loved Ruth, and maybe even that she loved him back, as long as it stayed on the platonic side of things. Both the age difference, and the fact that Sam is Ruth’s boss, really soured me on the show even attempting any kind of physical intimacy between them. Yes, ultimately they don’t end up sleeping together, but it was a close run thing. And we know that nothing good would have come of it – there would have been more hard feelings than happily-ever-afters.
Even though there was meant to be another season of GLOW – and indeed there are hints as to what the new story threads would have been – season three does feel like enough of an ending to me. By the final episode, everyone seems to be gearing up to leave GLOW behind and get on with their lives, and I actually don’t feel any need to accompany them on those journeys. Three seasons was more than enough for me.
After a single season of GLOW, I was enjoying the show as much as any of its other fans. Unfortunately, it just couldn’t keep up the momentum over the remainder of its run. An overuse of melodramatic TV plot twists and the shift away from the actual wrestling content meant that for me, it was a series that ended on a whimper rather than a bang.