I never would have thought a series that revolves around characters and gimmicks of a low-budget 1980s syndicated women’s professional wrestling circuit would be a hit. Sure enough, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (or GLOW) created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch has garnered rave reviews and gathered a cult following since it premiered on Netflix in the summer of 2017. With incredibly accurate 1980s period detail, a superb ensemble cast and great writing, GLOW is back for its third season and it wastes no time dealing with tragedy.
The Cold Opening
The season three premiere, “Up, Up, Up,” starts with a tragedy, and not just any tragedy but one of the worst tragedies in U.S. history. As the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling prepare for their Las Vegas show debut, Ruth as the Russian heel “Zoya the Destroya,” and Debbie, as her nemesis Liberty Belle make an appearance on a local news program to provide live commentary during the 1986 Challenger space shuttle launch. As the all-American Liberty Belle brags about the success of the U.S. space program, Zoya arrogantly continues to poke fun of NASA and the United States up until the Challenger shuttle is engulfed in a cloud of fire just 73 seconds after liftoff, killing all seven crew members and changing NASA’s space program forever. The cold open is a dark way to kick off the season but it perfectly sets the tone with its trademark sense of humor juxtaposed against the horrific event. As season three sets to explore the heartache and trauma bubbling under the surface of the 1980s women’s wrestling league, the opening is the perfect way to being a new season of GLOW: it’s awkward, theatrical, full of raw emotion and reminds us that no matter what, the show must go on.
In the third season of GLOW, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling adjust to their new casino-based lives in Las Vegas. They’re no longer starring in an ongoing serialized wrestling promotion; instead, the ladies take to the stage several nights a week at the fictitious Fan-Tan Casino where they perform in front of a live audience, often improvising both in necessity and in boredom from the usual routine. But no matter how hard they try to shake things up, the nightly attraction is just that— a routine. The season makes so many unexpected pivots as the cast of GLOW struggle with their careers and insecurities. Feeling trapped in a never-ending loop, the ladies (and men) are forced to either live a superficial life in the most superficial place on Earth and succumb to boredom— or carve a new path and find happiness in something (or someone) new. Turns out, Las Vegas makes for a refreshing change of pace as it provides new opportunities and perhaps a step up for their careers.
There’s no Drama like Wrestling
The first two seasons of GLOW struck a balance in focusing heavily on its characters while also spotlighting the spectacle of wrestling but season three really lets the wrestling fall by the wayside and puts the ladies front and center as we watch them endure and overcome various personal challenges in their lives. There are still some over-the-top matches but aside from the first and final episode (which happens to feature a surprisingly moving Christmas-themed wrestling bout), there is very little actual wrestling to be found here. Perhaps GLOW’s creators are running out of ideas for the show’s wrestling-league format but whatever the case, it makes for a far more gripping season. This new, approach allows the creators to flesh out numerous subplots and gives their cast even more opportunity to deliver a great performance this time around.
The most compelling storyline of GLOW has always revolved around struggling actor Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a former soap star who discovered that her best friend was sleeping with her husband. While there isn’t much (if any) friction between the two this time around, season three never forgets that their relationship is the heart and soul of the series, most notably in the closing minutes of the final episode. Ruth is still a mess — and season three sees her wrestling with her feelings for Sam (Marc Maron) while desperately trying to hold on to her crumbling relationship with her boyfriend Russell (Victor Quinaz). Sam who was once a grouchy, sexist, coke-addled, washed-up movie director is now sober and is working hard to crank out a screenplay in hopes of pursuing his life-long goal. Meanwhile, Ruth continues to cling on to her dream of one day becoming a Hollywood actress. As Ruth and Sam confront the attraction blossoming between them, their egos are damaged as Ruth discovers that Sheila (Gayle Rankin) is a better actress than she ever will be and Sam learns his daughter Justine (Britt Baron) beat him to the punch and wrote a script far better than he is capable of writing. Part of what elevates this new chapter is how it shows the brutal truth that more often than not, just because you are passionate about something doesn’t mean you have the talent to succeed.
As for Debbie, the 300-mile weekly trips between L.A. and Vegas takes a toll on her as she realizes that no matter how hard she tries to juggle her personal and professional life, she will miss out on key moments of her son Randy’s life. Early on, when Debbie is told over the phone that her son took his first steps, she breaks down in tears knowing she missed a big moment in her son’s growth. It’s a brief scene but director Mark A. Burley makes it a memorable one – keeping the camera tight on her as we watch Debbie crumble inside. Season three brings out the finest performance yet from the Emmy-nominated actress.; one highlight sees her tell off a judgmental flight attendant for making a disparaging remark and another highlights her fierce attitude during a frustrating exchange with Bash who decides to save his voice and not speak to anyone for the remainder of the day.
The series has always thrived as an ensemble piece but while Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin, and Marc Maron have always had more of the spotlight, this season allows more time for other members of the cast to shine. It doesn’t always work since many of the characters get lost in the shuffle due to the sheer size of the ensemble, but we do get to see a lot more from Arthie Premkumar (Sunita Mani), Sheila (Gayle Rankin), Bash Howard’s (Chris Lowell), Cherry (Sydelle Noel) and Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel).
After taking a ballet class with her colleagues in order to whip into shape, Cherry must confront the realities of pregnancy and the toll it could take on her body. Having already suffered a miscarriage once, she breaks the news to her husband Keith (Bashir Salahuddin) that she doesn’t want to try and have another baby which puts a strain on their marriage. Coupled with Debby’s burdens, season three sets aside some time to examine the trials and tribulations of motherhood and the hardship it places upon women, especially in the ‘80s. Alison Brie has said in interviews that GLOW is a show about women’s bodies and the third season works as a keen observation of the sacrifices many female athletes have to make in order to succeed at what they do best. While Cherry is worried about physically falling apart, Tammé (Kia Stevens) a.k.a. “Welfare Queen” is forced to overcome various physical ailments that face the aging wrestler. Predictable as it is, her subplot keeps us pinned to the mat with the strength of its compassion and the overpowering force of her performance. As with previous seasons, GLOW shows the tough choices and compromises these working women must make in order to get by.
Past seasons of GLOW have touched on sensitive issues and season three is no different— with characters dealing with their sexuality and/or confronting racism, ethnic stereotypes, sexism, misogyny, homophobia, class discrepancy, eating disorders, and so much more. Arthie has trouble navigating her first romantic relationship with another woman, Yolanda Rives (Shakira Barrera), who isn’t happy that she struggles to fully embrace her sexual identity. And she’s not alone as another side-plot sees Bash Howard’s ongoing struggle with his own sexuality. The shadow of homophobia looms large as Bash is still mourning the mysterious death of his friend who we assume possibly died from AIDS in season two. He’s now married and supposedly happy only his marriage takes a strange turn after a spontaneous threesome has him interested more in the other man than his wife sandwiched between them. The brightest new addition to GLOW this season is Kevin Cahoon’s Bobby Barnes, a gifted cabaret singer at the Fan-Tan Casino who performs in drag every night, only usually to empty rooms. Thanks to him, however, Gayle Rankin’s Sheila the She-Wolf steals the spotlight in every scene she is in. Under his guidance, the aging drag queen helps Sheila discover some hidden talents while giving her a full-body makeover. This all leads to an underground A.I.D.s fundraiser which sets up the most heartbreaking scene of this season, as GLOW wrestles with the insidious homophobia that plagued ’80s culture.
This season doesn’t shy away from racism either. There’s a touching scene in which Melrose (Jackie Tohn) discusses her trauma of living with Holocaust survivors while Jenny (Ellen Wong) shares the tragic story of her family’s near-death escape from the Cambodian Killing Fields. And as with previous seasons, GLOW once again shines a light on the offensive costumes and stereotypical wrestling personas found in the ring.
The third season of GLOW is nowhere near as good as its predecessors, but it remains a complex show nonetheless, calling attention to culturally relevant issues while maintaining a dark sense of humor. As hard as it tries to give everyone in the cast a story, there just isn’t enough time and so a good number of important story beats fall flat. Yet despite its flaws and odd tonal shifts, GLOW is still one of the best shows of 2019.
I’d be remiss if I ended without mentioning the inclusion of Geena Davis who arrives in a formidable guest role this year as Sandy Devereaux St. Clair, the former showgirl turned hotel owner and Fan-Tan’s entertainment director. The Oscar winner fits in perfectly among all the already talented cast and we can only hope we’ll see more of her in season four.
After a full season in Sin City, GLOW is heading home to Los Angeles, or so we think?
- Ricky D