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Review: 'GLOW' showcases campy '80s ladies wrestling at its best

Alison Brie plays Ruth Wilder, a woman struggling to make it in the acting business, in GLOW.
Alison Brie plays Ruth Wilder, a woman struggling to make it in the acting business, in GLOW.
Published Jun. 21, 2017

Like Tears for Fears croons in the 1985 classic, something happens in GLOW and then you're head over heels for this new Netflix series.

Maybe it's the big hair and neon leotards. Maybe it's the exaggerated yet hilarious authenticity of these Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Maybe it's just about watching a bunch of talented women throw down in the wrestling ring.

Anyway you swing this TV gem, GLOW is a stunning prestige-level dramedy that will please both diehard fans and those who don't know what a heel or diving crossbody is.

GLOW was a real-life wrestling program that ran from 1986 to 1990 in Las Vegas and was recently chronicled in the 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. The new Netflix series from Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black) and creators Carly Mensch (OITNB) and Liz Flahive (Homeland) fictionalizes the program, but keeps all the campy '80s goodness.

Alison Brie (Community, Mad Men) is Ruth Wilder, a trying-to-get-her-big-break actor struggling to get a role that's not a secretary in 1985 Hollywood. Her best friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin; Nurse Jackie, American Gods) is a former soap opera star written out of her cast after having a baby.

They're both looking for something more. And after the ultimate violation of best friend rules, Debbie is looking for a way to release her anger.

In comes Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a B-movie director who scrapes together the idea for a women's wrestling show. He wrangles together about a dozen women — with little acting experience and no idea what they're getting into — in hopes of crafting a hit.

Because it's TV and because it's wrestling, things don't go quite so well for Sam's show. But seeing Sam and this group of women fail and find themselves in wrestling is what makes this show stand out from anything else on television right now.

Like OITNB, GLOW's shine comes from its ensemble of characters. With only 10 half-hour-ish episodes, GLOW still manages to incorporate intimate backstories for many of its characters. And because it's wrestling, once the women have the moves down they have to create a character to play in the ring, which means confronting their cruelest stereotypes.

Jenny Wong, the one Asian-American character, comically plays "Fortune Cookie." Real life wrestler Kia Stevens is the "Welfare Queen," and Sydelle Noel is "Junk Chain." Then there's Arthie (Sunita Mani), who plays "Beirut," a gun-toting "Lebanese" "terrorist."

It's ludicrous and sometimes uncomfortable. The women don't really know if they're parodying the stereotypes or enforcing them, but they're still fired up about showing off their moves in these comically absurd roles.

GLOW swells with comedic camp and playful commentary on current events during the '80s. There are nods to Nancy Reagan's War on Drugs, the blockbuster opening of Back to the Future and even a bathroom stall tagged with "f*** Nixon" on the inside.

But there's still so much heart. One of the most touching moments comes when Carmen (Britney Young) as "Machu Picchu" makes it into the ring and sees her father in the crowd cheering her on. That moment of acceptance and support from the dad of a wrestling family had me cheering from the couch, also. She totally dominated Welfare Queen, by the way.

GLOW is a smart show. It fits nicely alongside other feminist series, prestige comedies and acclaimed dramas. It's weirdly wonderful, held together by ultra-sticky hairspray, Quiet Riot's Come On Feel the Noise and superb storytelling.

The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling are ready to rumble and make a fan of wrestling out of everyone.

Contact Chelsea Tatham at Follow @chelseatatham.