Campy camaraderie, or the complexity of the human condition? The return of Netflix’s GLOW is a half nelson to the heart, writes Janet Lalla-Hamblin
Characters we want to spend time with are compelling. This is the best I can make of why Netflix’s GLOW is so watchable. I have re-re-watched scenes, read others’ articles, and listened to interviews, but I still find it difficult to fully articulate what makes GLOW work as well as it does.
GLOW follows a group of women making a wrestling show for TV in the 80s: ‘Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling’. The drama’s second season was released this June, and maintains the strengths of its first: joyful, campy fun in its wrestling and a confident hand over its characters. The show has many artistic strengths, including witty dialogue and a tightly woven plot. And great costumes both in and out of the wrestling ring. But more than this, the show is atmospheric, not only in terms of its 80s style, but also in its baseline sensation of joy and camaraderie.
The show’s premise is its cast of wrestlers, a large and diverse group of women, who bonded in the first season as they trained together and strove to create a pilot episode of in-show ‘GLOW’ for their local network. Throughout the second season, this bond is unbreakable. Despite some bickering, the introduction of a new member, and [spoiler] one wrestler causing another serious injury, there is never a worry in the air that the group might choose, of their own accord, to break apart and stop making the show.
This lack of worry is how GLOW’s feminism exists in more than having a large female cast perform empowering wrestling moves in fabulous Lycra: in GLOW’s world, a large group of women can exist as a tight-knit and hard-working ensemble without tearing itself apart. The central story is about making sure the wrestling show remains on the air, and none of the wrestlers are ever villainised, because none of them are written to act against this.
All truly antagonistic obstacles come from the outside, and this means that, for the viewer (and the characters), spending time with the GLOW girls means spending time feeling safe and happy, comfortable in the knowledge that you are with a group of people wholly committed to a shared cause, and each other.
Still, this commitment to each other can take unlikely forms. A prominent aspect of season two is the unhappy enmity between main characters Debbie (Betty Gilpin) and Ruth (Alison Brie). Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband while the two women were best friends and now Debbie is getting a divorce. Debbie is understandably not coping with her upheaval, and this manifests as constant rage, which again and again flares out in Ruth’s direction.
While what is depicted here is, from one point of view, one woman being antagonistic towards another who has also done wrong in the past, my observation that neither of these protagonists are villainised still stands true. The camera is non-judgemental of Debbie’s anger and poor decisions. Even when those actions cause harm, this character keeps hold of her complex humanity instead of being painted as a bad guy.
One might say this non-judgement is a matter of plot relevance – that is, Debbie is antagonistic, but not to the wrestling group as a whole, so it would be incoherent, storytelling-wise, to paint her as the show’s villain. But what should be noted is what it means for the story’s values for Debbie to keep her humanity. When the writers show forgiveness and understanding towards Debbie as a character, they are skilfully consolidating the value that understanding has within the story.
I see a link between the warm and welcoming feel of GLOW, and the value it places upon forgiveness. I have made the point that one can feel safe and comfortable in the company of the GLOW wrestlers, and I believe a big part of this is how, in GLOW, even harmful mistakes don’t necessarily mean you will be judged and ostracised. One likes to spend time with these characters because as long as we are committed to the wrestling, no-one will make us feel unwanted. Acceptance is compelling.