Practice makes perfect. What began as a hodgepodge group of wannabe actresses turned campy wrestlers in the 1980s with its spirited, but uneven and sluggish, first season, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s Netflix series “GLOW” has markedly improved over the years to become a real contender. With attention to craft, characters, and streamlined storytelling, “GLOW” has really perfected many of its maneuvers, resulting in a winning series.
Returning to the ring with greater confidence, the second season of “GLOW” saw the big-teased-haired, glitter-clad series start to effectively flex. At first, “GLOW” awkwardly focused a little too much on the male, more-defined wrestling manager character of Marc Maron; weird optics there. Season 2 began to rightfully turn the spotlight on where it was meant to be: in the dynamic, female-led cast, complete with relevant socio-political commentary on the sexism inherent in the entertainment industry.
Faced with a lose-lose match against the men who pull the strings, Season 2 still ended on a high note as aspirational actress Ruth (Alison Brie), calculated and earnest newfound producer/star Debbie (Betty Gilpin), the rest of the ladies, their smarmy director/producer Sam (Maron), and insecure lead producer Bash (Chris Lowell) headed to Las Vegas to bring “The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” to Sin City. In its third season, “GLOW” continues to build on its first two bouts, hitting the mat with more developed verve. But it’s the show’s choice to capture the women outside of the squared circle that makes this latest season it’s most exciting and the best so far.
The new season of “GLOW” slides into the ring with the same energy, humor, and thoughtful writing the past two offerings had eluded to, but also earnestly pushing things to create an uneven mesh between the scrutiny of the entertainment industry and punctuating each comedic moment of the female-led ensemble. In Vegas, the ladies are totally let loose from their matches and, to the show’s credit, that makes the season all the better. Instead of relying on formulaic montages dedicated to the women getting in shape to cool ’80s pop music (getting a bit tired), trying on costumes and personas, there’s more depth and contour as the show explores the characters outside of the campy display of the wrestling show. Gobsmacked with a first episode that raises the stakes and keeps the standards high, “GLOW” no longer uses the ‘80s like a shallow convenient fallback prop. The glitter and neon aren’t a canvas for the characters to wrestle around; the spaces they occupy feel lived-in.
All the characters are adjusting to their new roles. Debbie struggles to “have it all” as a producer, star and mother. Ruth and Sam are at odds over the “will-they-won’t-they” stance of their relationship—not to mention Ruth’s own existential crisis of not moving forward in her acting career. And Bash, having married Rhonda (Kate Nash) at the end of Season 2, struggles to be honest with himself about his conflicted sexuality in the middle of the AIDS crisis. Outside of the main characters, the latest seasons threads the needle of this sparkle-clad, latex costume more thoroughly. Instead of offering entire episodes to characters, the balance between examining these social and professional constraints is also mimicked in how the show carries its storylines. Rhonda and Bash’s union gets as much attention as Latinx hip-hop dancer Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) and brainiac Arthie (Sunita Mani), and the marriage between Keith (Bashir Salahuddin), the series’ show-within-a-show referee, and Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) as they endure the decision-making around starting their own family. All told, every character headlines a match worth watching.
Following a national tragedy at the start of the season, trauma and complacency become the rivals the characters have to square off against. Not only do the creatives— including star Alison Brie’s first foray into directing— continue to build on the momentum of the previous seasons, but they also flesh out the series to be more consistent episode-to-episode. Instead of sincerely fitting the season’s thesis of reconciling with complacency and addressing frustrations into one episode, the notions are stretched out weaving between comedy and a few inventive wrestling matches. There’s more emotional catharsis this season too, particularly one episode that sees the women sharing their anxieties and frustrations of the sexism and trauma they’ve endured all their lives. The season is a great showcase of the whole casts’ talent, which is considerable. But there are some who stand out of the pack.
Gilpin, who began as the series’ secret weapon, is now front and center as the first line of defense. At the risk of hyperbole, there’s a reason Gilpin’s been the sole “GLOW” actor to receive an Emmy nomination thus far. And in this round, Gilpin is in the best performing shape of her life. Brie and Maron, on the other hand, are dealt with the task of navigating their respective characters’ relationship. There’s no doubt that the pair have chemistry, and to the show’s credit, they call the might-be couple to the mat early on by confronting their age gap and their contradicting personal values. Their interactions are enough for a reckoning should the fourth season move forward.
There’s also the season’s latest addition, Oscar winner Geena Davis as Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, managing the hotel and casino where the women are living and performing. Frankly, there’s not enough of Davis, but when she is incorporated into scenes, like observing the show or delivering a eulogy, the legend delivers. And there’s one episode in the latter half of the season where, truly, fans’ jaws will drop to the floor in awe of her charms and powers.
“GLOW” has always been a dynamic show since its first season dropped in 2017. But with each new installment, the series gets more comfortable in its spandex and tights. It keeps honing its moves; refining the stories, taking its social texture seriously with added nuance, but maintaining its gusto throughout. While the show was slated with Brie as its headliner, it’s clear Gilpin is taking the production by storm in seasons to come. This isn’t a tough match to call; “GLOW” claims the title, crown, and match without straining a muscle or smudging its glitter-clad makeup.[B+]
The third season of “GLOW” hits Netflix on August 9.