Necessity may be the mother of invention, but desperation was the father of women's wrestling in the 1980s.
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, GLOW is a fictionalized version of how the real-life Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling came into existence in the mid-1980s. It's largely seen through the eyes of aspiring actress Ruth Wilder, portrayed by Alison Brie, in a brilliant, extremely well-nuanced performance.
The series introduces a dozen women who, for the most part, have no experience or even much knowledge about wrestling. Ruth is typical in this regard; she's the epitome of a struggling dramatic artist. She still has high regard for her profession, but she keeps butting up against the glass ceiling imposed upon women, who are relegated to supporting or bit roles in stories that revolve relentlessly around men. Ruth is not willing to settle; in fact, she reminded me of the intransigent actor played by Dustin Hoffman in Sydney Pollack's Tootsie (1982), a tenacious person whose artistic integrity clashed with the willingness of others to compromise.
Her integrity doesn't help her land any jobs, though, and her low standard of living reflects that. She is more than willing to audition, and that leads her to a mass call for a new kind of television show. The audition is run by Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a director of wonderfully trashy-sounding b-movies.
Loosely inspired by Matt Cimber, perhaps best known for the Pia Zadora-starring Butterfly (1982), Sam is autocratic and, I'm sorry to say, a typical middle-aged male of the mid-1980s. He treats women as objects or pets rather than people; he allows them to speak, roll over and wrestle on command. As the series progresses, Sam is slowly affected by what he sees.
Meanwhile, Ruth finds herself cast as a villain, all because she wrecks her close friendship with Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), who, in turn, accepts Sam's invitation to join GLOW. Debbie is an actress who retired to have a baby and enjoy a domestic life, but that's been ruined and so now she is ready to become a wrestler.
Throughout the series, the other women wrestlers are developed into fuller-fledged characters, led by Cherry (Sydelle Noel), who becomes trainer for the women, and Carmen (Britney Young), who comes from a family of professional wrestlers. There are limitations to the characterizations, naturally; the episodes run from 29-37 minutes, and the creators avoid trying to stuff too much into each one.
Frankly, I've never been drawn to watch professional wrestling, but GLOW balances things nicely. We get a proportional look at the challenges of making a living as an actress in Los Angeles as well as training sequences, but the predominant themes focus on the women as they deal with changing circumstances.
Can they maintain (or develop) their individual identities? Does putting on costumes and enacting carefully-choreographed routines hold out any hope for creative or personal fulfillment?
As a Los Angeles native who was still there in the early 1980s, the series looks very authentic to its period, location and attitudes. But that's a bonus; the core of the show is built around the wonderful women who climbed into the ring.
GLOW is currently streaming on Netflix.