The Netflix dramedy, based on the real-life experiences of a ragtag team of lady wrestlers in the 1980s, can be viewed as a historical primer on the bad ol’ days of showbiz chauvinism, in which women competed for a spot in male-controlled fantasies.
“GLOW’s” awkward humor and its fringe of pathos easily won the first round, with a knowing wink for anyone who dares to assume that some of the worst harassment and prejudices it depicts are set safely in a big-haired, neon-splattered yesteryear. “GLOW” has a colorful way of making clear how these workplace dysfunctions are as current as they are nostalgic.
But let’s not heap too much social responsibility on the series, which resolutely retains its fun and doesn’t always need the hassle of having to be topical. How these women were treated circa 1985 and ’86 (and how they persevered) is relevant enough.
Season 2 — all 10 episodes of which are now available — seems a little redundant at the outset, picking up right where it left off and repeating its basic premise, which is chronicling the establishment and early successes (and failures) of the cheaply made “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” cable-TV show.
By the fourth episode, creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and their writers have come up with some hot-button story lines. In one episode, one of the women wrestlers berates another for jeopardizing the show by refusing to have sex with an unctuous network executive.
“I don’t like it when you’re in a clump, whisperin’,” grouses Sal Silva (Marc Maron), the coarse but compassionate director of his fledgling troupe of wrestlers, who do tend to huddle and conspire against him — particularly Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), an underemployed yet boundlessly helpful actress who in Season 1 invented the perfect “heel” role for herself as Zoya the Destroya, a Soviet wrestler out to trample her hyperpatriotic blond American nemesis, Liberty Belle (Betty Gilpin).
Sal can be a protective boss as well as a cold tormentor (Maron once again delivers a nuanced performance) as he struggles to make good on the network’s order for a season’s worth of episodes, funded on a shoestring by a canned-food scion, Bash Howard (Chris Lowell). As much as Sal resents Ruth’s energy, his dependence on her grows.
The Gorgeous Ladies themselves are still the true heart of this show and Season 2 takes some needed time to flesh out their characters — not only as the egregious stereotypes they’ve been assigned to play based on their looks, race or backgrounds, but also as the women they actually are.
In one particularly good episode, Tammé Dawson (Kia Stevens), who enters the ring as a heel named “Welfare Queen,” finally tells her son, who attends Stanford on a full scholarship, what she’s doing for a living. He comes to the show and watches as the crowd boos Welfare Queen, who brags about the luxury items she purchases through the scam of public assistance. The racism and minstrelsy are anything but subtle, yet Tammé’s son sees something else: His mother is a force to be reckoned with.
And it’s not just her. Under the tutelage of Carmen Wade (Britney Young), who plays the gentle Latina giant Machu Picchu, the characters in “GLOW” are beginning to master the physical moves, slams and flips that form the illusory ballet of professional wrestling. Just as their show is getting better and drawing an audience, the men in control threaten to yank it off the air.
When things look most futile for the GLOW enterprise, and with Sal despairing and detached, “GLOW” gives in to a wonderfully absurd commitment to ’80s verisimilitude, as the women take charge and create an episode of their cable show that is almost all backstory, giving their alter egos a chance to briefly break loose from their one-dimensional cages.
It’s great to see “GLOW” in that moment of full flower and fuzzy UHF-era cheapness, untethered to a viewer’s 21st-century judgments and social concerns, full of grit and determination. It’s a show that works on a few different levels, but it’s never better than when it goes to giddy workout montages and thrilling ringside action. In those glorious reveries, watching “GLOW” can be like discovering a newfound verse of “Girls Just Wanna Have Fun.”
GLOW (10 episodes) Season 2 is available Friday on Netflix.