There’s a certain glow about her: On GLOW’s two leading ladies

Minor spoilers ahead for Netflix’s GLOW.

Netflix’s GLOW, based on the 1980’s professional wrestling promotion The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, is a glitzy and earnestly campy new comedy-drama that had me at the emphatic declaration of lead character Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie): “I’m interested in real parts.”

There are way too many talented women in Hollywood playing canned-response secretaries and comatose housewives in soap operas, the out-of-work actress says. Where are all the characters who “won’t be bullied into submission”?

Enter the in-the-works GLOW, brainchild of former b-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), and the answer to Ruth’s dispirited prayers. It turns out GLOW is primarily casting “unconventional” women in challenging roles — this being shorthand for ethnically, racially, and physically diverse, an unparalleled feat for the mainstream entertainment industry at the time.

When Ruth shows up to audition, she’s initially baffled at the premise of women’s wrestling, but determinedly jumps headfirst into its world, stunts, spandex, stereotypes, and all.

While GLOW seems to initially set Ruth up to be the typical underdog we can’t help but root for, it very quickly turns the notion of “hero” on its head. Bye bye, “typical.” By the end of the first episode, we find out that Ruth’s actually capable of some pretty loathsome betrayals.

Netflix’s GLOW is ultimately a delight to watch no matter how you slice it — but Ruth, Debbie, and all the other colorful women of GLOW give this nostalgia-fueled delightfulness a whole lot of teeth.

Casting Alison Brie (known to many as Community’s resident sweetheart Annie Edison) as Ruth is nothing short of genius, given this reveal. She’s all blue eyes and apple pie, as one character points out. You look at her and your brain short-circuits at the idea of ever labeling her a “villain.” Brie infuses the role with a vulnerability too sincere and relatable to be dismissed as simply pathetic, as other characters do. She’s fiercely determined and almost cloyingly attention-starved… but does she radiate “villainy?” Nah. But jury’s still out on “hero,” too.

This is just one among the many areas in which GLOW shines: at eschewing archetypes altogether. They all seem too simplistic not only when considering Ruth, but most of the other characters as well.

Within the series, Sam props former soap opera star Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) up to be the light to Ruth’s dark: upon uncovering Ruth’s betrayals, Debbie throws her down right in the middle of the ring — a display that somehow convinces Sam he’s found GLOW’s bright hero.

But the series itself tells us, hey, not so fast. From the get-go, Debbie is a diva on set, banking on her star power to get her what she wants: a little less of Ruth, a little more of the spotlight. While her bursts of diva behavior can be attributed to her growing resentment for all things Ruth, they nonetheless help to paint her as a more dynamic character than the all-smiles, star-spangled southern belle figure that Sam assigns her. The figure we’re meant to see when we look at anyone who looks like Betty Gilpin.

Both Ruth and Debbie are neither totally unlikable nor totally easy to love, but that scarcely matters, especially when you realize they are precisely the characters Ruth’s been clamoring to play: they’re ladies who won’t be bullied into submission, and that’s why you root for them (or not). They’re not easy women, period. GLOW is here to show us why that might be a good thing.

With its lineup of tragic hairstyles, its “Billboard Hot 100 circa 1985” soundtrack, liberal use of smoke machines and neon lights, snappy dialogue, and bouts of crass physical comedy, Netflix’s GLOW is ultimately a delight to watch no matter how you slice it — but Ruth, Debbie, and all the other colorful women of GLOW give this nostalgia-fueled delightfulness a whole lot of teeth.


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