Monday, August 7, 2017

Television Signal - Catching Up: GLOW

We watched a lot of television this year, and in our reduced content mode, we haven't talked about the usual favorites - so just assume we enjoyed both Fargo and The Americans.*

Way back in high school I recall coming home one afternoon and somewhere between TaleSpin and The KareBear rolling into the driveway/ me starting homework, I was flipping channels when I stumbled upon an edition of Family Feud in which the new-ish World Championship Wrestling league was squaring off against a league I'd never heard of - G.L.O.W., or, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

As colorful as the fellows from the WCW were, I was shocked to find out that there was an all-women's wrestling league and I had never heard of it.

I was never *that* into wrestling.  As a very young kid I was part of the wave that saw Hulk Hogan and JYD and Jake "The Snake" Roberts rise to stardom on Saturday broadcasts, but I'd moved on fairly quickly, watching WWF only occasionally.  But when I was 14, for some reason Steanso, his pal Lee and myself jumped in Lee's car and drove downtown and watched the show - and, man, live - wrestling is @#$%ing bonkers.  Don't let anyone tell you otherwise.  The next year we also attended a taping of an episode or two of regular WWF and NBC's Saturday Night's "Main Event", which was neat just because we saw all the flagship wrestlers of the era.  Yeah, I've seen Hulk Hogan from the 13th row.

But... that was kind of it.

Needless to say, by age 15 or so, the notion of lady wrestlers held some appeal.  And, as I watched what turned out to be a week's worth of episodes, the ladies of GLOW seemed way (waaaaaaay) crazier (and, honestly, smarter) than their male counterparts over the the WCW.

But I don't think GLOW ever aired anywhere I lived, either when I'd just previously lived in Austin, or when I moved to Houston between 9th and 10th grades.  Texas, especially before, say, 10 years ago, was a place where you find strip clubs the size of a warehouse, but there was also a church on every corner - the net result that TV stations probably decided it wasn't worth the letters and complaints from folks getting the vapors from witnessing ladies in high cut leotards jumping off turnstyles.  Believe me, I would have watched the living hell out of that show.  (edit:  Steven has written in to tell me he recalls seeing GLOW air in Houston circa 1987.  I was living in Austin at the time.)

Consequently, I've always had a deep-seeded curiosity about GLOW, but was unable to turn up much the few times I thought to Google it.

Of course, when Netflix announced it was putting out a show about GLOW featuring no less than Alison Brie, heck, yeah, I was in.

By this point you've either checked out the Netflix-based GLOW series or you haven't.  It's utterly binge-able, delivered in sit-com-sized 30 minute chunks.  Quick pacing, tight narrative and a mix of broad and nuanced characterization make for an interesting mix.  Starring the aforementioned Brie, Betty Gilpin (Nurse Jackie, American Gods), Marc Maron (generally being Mark Maron), Sydelle Noel (new to me, man), and with a sort of cameo appearance by Elizabeth Perkins.  But the show is also from the crew of the popular Netflix series (which I've never seen), Orange is the New Black.

A heavily fictionalized version of events, there are analogs to real people, but they're playing fictional characters, and the whole thing is kept in LA rather than Vegas.

For a younger crowd, it may seem like something kitschy to set the show during the 1980's, but the confluence of events occurring in entertainment during this era was real enough to spring the original GLOW into existence.  With no internet, landing syndicated TV distribution to UHF channels or getting onto the basic cable spectrum was how you made it.  But the constant of showbiz, of storytellers, of failed-stars and wanna-be's and people who fall ass-backward into these jobs is a story as old as (probably) Magic Lantern shows, but certainly since someone decided to make money off putting on a show.

Entertainment Weekly probably categorizes the show as a "dramedy", meaning the characters have arcs and storylines that aren't entirely just comedic fodder.  If the audience was expecting a slapsticky Will Ferrell-esque comedy using ladies' wrestling as a framework, then the show runs maybe a bit deeper, with absolutely believable characters (even some who seem like cartoons have an inner life that begs exploration).

Brie plays a curious role - an actress who actually likely does have some talent, but who can't quite make her personality fit how the Hollywood game is supposed to work.  But she's also talented in that "best actress from Waukesha, Wisconsin" way where she knows how this is supposed to work, and she believes in her craft (probably more than she should), but that's not really useful when you're supposed to be playing Secretary #3 on a nighttime soap.  In many, many ways, her pretensions as an actor are grating - and not necessarily made "adorable".  I hesitate to use the word "brave" regarding Brie's performance (she's not exactly jumping into churning seas to save an orphan), but I appreciate that she embraced the character - making for a memorable mess of a character that you pull for.

Of course, the character also sleeps with her best friend's husband, maybe trying to catch some of the spark of what her beautiful, former-actress pal has whose now retreated to the suburbs to raise her child.

The show rides these fine lines of soap-drama/ drama/ and can whip turn the moments into comedy both dark and light, thanks in no small part to Marc Maron - playing the back-side of middle-aged  director for the show, a guy who fancies himself an outsider director and has made some cult-y sci-fi films.  He also does a lot of blow and likes to sleep with his actresses.  And manages to deliver maybe one of the most breathtakingly dark jokes I'm deeply impressed made it to air.

But it's also bordering on an ensemble show.  All of the characters have their own arcs, their own business, and it's a well-imagined cohort.  I just don't have time or the wherewithal to write up each of them.

The show is also terrifically frank about the giddy low-ball thinking that goes into wrestling.  Ethnicity, stereotypes, broad ideas, etc... all up for grabs as the characters define themselves.  Some are obvious - seeing Gilpin put on a Southern accent and the Stars and Stripes as "Liberty Belle" makes total sense.  It's the convicted actor played by Brie that has to search, her arc about finding her character or course a parallel for herself as she finally discovers her role as a Soviet-era Russian provocateur.  In the best way possible.

While I may no longer play the sportsballs or practice McTaeKwonDo, I have been fascinated with the conversations occurring around the show, that Brie and Gilpin have taken part in, about what it's like to suddenly get physical and appreciate your body and what it can do.  Wrestling may be semi-scripted, it may not *really* be Soviet wrestlers here to destroy America one match at a time, but that doesn't mean you don't have to jump from turnbuckles and land on people or that slamming someone onto the mat is a simple procedure.  It's deeply physical for the performer athletes.  And whether the real GLOW was intended as a spectacle that put women into spandex to leap about or not, the reality of doing these things is a bit different, just as the actors who took on the roles for our version of GLOW learned.  And that's kind of a fascinating thing.  Boys grow up being more than allowed to jump off sofas onto one another, learn wrestling, etc... and never have concerns about whether there's a value judgement on performing any of these feats (in the right context).  Girls... not so much.  Even women's basketball is less of a contact sport.  Really, if you've watched volleyball, the no-contact aspect of the game leaves the athletes free to perform on a monster-level, and from a layman's perspective its hard to see any difference between men's and women's version of the sport, except the cut of the shorts.

I can't imagine being 30 and realizing what it's like to toss someone around for the first time.  What the show doesn't do is spend an inordinate amount of time on this - but it doesn't shy away from the fact that most of the folks who responded to the casting call had no idea how to do *any* of this.  If, like in the wake of 2009's Whip It, we suddenly get an influx of women wrestling, who are any of us to think this is a bad idea?

If you're a fan of The Bad News Bears mode of storytelling, of scrappy underdogs trying to pull something off despite set-backs, their own foibles and maybe a general lack of competence starting at the top - GLOW may be for you.  It's a winning formula, especially against the backdrop of 1980's Hollywood, where fame and fortune or just a modicum of respect seem always just out of reach.

The show is decidedly TV-14, and for good reason.  The subject matter may be about making family friendly entertainment, but we all bring our lives and baggage into whatever we're doing.  And GLOW doesn't avoid any of that messiness, all while seeming kind of positive and like anything is possible.  That television figured out how to do the long-format storytelling thing at long last is going to change not just how we think of storytelling (as if deeply serialized book series and comics hadn't been doing this forever), it's also challenging how we thing of genre and audience.  GLOW may not be cutting edge in what it's trying to do, but I think if this had been 15 years ago, this would have been a mass-market movie that spent as much time mocking the wrestlers as trying to get you to root for them.

All this said, there is a documentary from 2012, GLOW: The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, that I'm recommending people seek out (it's on Amazon streaming).  Clearly the show-runners saw this doc and started here, just as they started from a book for Orange is the New Black.  And that's okay.  It's just a bit jaw-dropping to see the entire story play out in a 2-hour doc and leave you wanting more at the end.  Thus, the show, I suppose.

*I do not understand people who have viewed and do not like The Americans.

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