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No business like GLOW business

  • ‘GLOW’ is a deceptively insightful drama about friendship and freaks
  • This season presents its characters with problems outside the ring

A still from season 3 of ‘GLOW’, set in and around the casinos of Las Vegas.
A still from season 3 of ‘GLOW’, set in and around the casinos of Las Vegas.

How fine is the line between a good audition and an okay one? In the Netflix series GLOW, Alison Brie plays Ruth Wilder, an ambitious actor who may have found her metier as a professional wrestling villain—an outlandish Russian caricature in Communist-coloured spandex—yet her Strindberg-worshipping heart beats for the movies. The series began with her at an audition, accidentally reading out the male part because the female role was so ornamental, but by now, with the third season, she’s come into her own, and has been asked to read for a part by the director himself. She’s ready. She’s got this.

Or does she? Ruth reads the lines well enough—as a spirited, sassy teacher with a past—but Brie tamps her performance with that self-doubt of old, and even we as audiences are uncertain how good she was. She read fine but did she stand out? Was she memorable? Would you or I have cast her? It’s hard to be conclusive, as Brie makes the vacillation part of Ruth herself. Earlier, when running lines from a Sam Shepard play, she is commended for the self-doubt she brings to the words, and she’s stunned. “I wasn’t acting yet."

Based loosely on the adventures of a real-life wrestling promotion called the “Gorgeous Ladies Of Wrestling", GLOW— created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch—is a deceptively insightful drama about friendship and freaks, as bold as it is bittersweet. The series has now moved to Las Vegas, where the wrestlers are camped for the season and the ladies put on their show to tired gamblers and hardened drinkers. Vegas of the 1980s is a nutty wonderland, a land where former showgirls are hardened entertainment managers, and waiters proudly traffic in magic.

You would have to be lucky to land a gig in Vegas—where the challenges are few and the money keeps coming in—but you would be luckier still to keep the artistry alive for the same reasons. You are, in fact, being paid specifically to keep the status quo shiny—there might as well be big neon letters saying “Do Not Evolve". The one-time scrappy underdogs of GLOW now have free casino chips, room service and time they don’t know what to do with.

As a result, this season spends very little time inside the ring. The action inside the pink-roped squared circle has been mastered, and we don’t need to see as many high-impact flying axe-handles because we know this crew can handle that (plus, it’s only fair: Opening night should be for paying customers only).

What we do get to see is a catastrophe. GLOW opens with a wrestling promo where the heroic all-American Liberty Belle cheers on the launch of the space shuttle Challenger while her counterpart Zoya, the evil Russian, rains scorn on this American achievement. “I spit on your Challenger," she says in her comical accent, moments before they watch the shuttle explode on live television. It is a horrible coincidence but the show, they are told, must go on. Zoya must continue to perform as the Soviet scourge, tag-teaming with a Chinese girl dressed as a fortune cookie.

After two seasons documenting the struggles of women who sleep in cars and are desperate for work, GLOW now gives its talented ensemble the challenge of choice. From motherhood to sexuality, from self-discovery to turning a blind eye, these women are all now faced with reins they can take themselves. The entire cast is great, but my stand-outs would be the storylines involving Sydelle Noel’s Cherry Bang, Ellen Wong’s Fortune Cookie, and Sunita Mani, whose Arthie is poised to be a bright brown rainbow icon.

The man directing the women, Sam Sylvia, finds himself with little to do as the show runs on auto-pilot, so he ends up looking inward. Played by Marc Maron—who accurately describes his tennis outfit as a costume for “John McEnroe’s grandfather"—this former film-maker has gradually let go of his insecurities and is trying to write, but finds himself awed by his daughter’s work. Maron is sensational as his chest swells with pride and a cardiac arrest. All that, and he’s in love. Who knew Maron, that most irascible of comedians, could turn into a true romantic worth rooting for?

The strongest choices belong to the women at the head of the show, the good American and the vile Russian. Betty Gilpin, playing former soap actor Debbie Eagan—“Liberty Belle" in the ring—realizes that production is where real charge is taken and that she’s better at calling the shots than taking direction. She’s a deeply no-nonsense woman who finds empowerment by empowering her colleagues, and Gilpin is superb as the heroine actively deciding not to be ushered quietly into the wings. “I’m going to build us an Eden," she says, every syllable pure electricity.

Brie has fun with the Russian character, but the broad stereotyping and the thickly accented jokes come easy. It’s the restless indecision Ruth has to wrestle with that defines her struggle, a lack of commitment which bleeds out into her character’s acting attempts, perhaps marking out that line between an okay audition and a memorable one. She’s game for it all—from being a brittle girl on the sidewalk to coming up with ideas while being spanked inside the ring—and Brie truly owns this messy character.

In Martin Scorsese’s Casino, Robert De Niro describes hustlers in Vegas as those who “cruise from casino to casino, looking for weak dealers the way lions look for weak antelope". This season, the women of GLOW learnt to hustle—and I can’t wait to see where they go next. This has become one of my favourite Netflix original shows, and while it may be anachronistically ahead of its time (when dealing with issues like white privilege, for instance), it all comes together well, like a wrestling finishing move you just didn’t see coming.

Nothing freezes time like the inside of a casino. Where there are no clocks, where the great Geena Davis is clad gloriously in diamanté, and where you are always one roll away from a beginning or an end. What better place for a make-believe show? Or a show that reminds us how much we make-believe?

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.

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