SUBSTANCE & SPANDEX (GLOW EPISODES 1 & 2 RECAP)
Some TV shows are inexorably tied to summertime, best enjoyed with a refreshing beverage, bare feet kicked up on the couch, and the AC on full blast. GLOW, a fictional take on the 80’s women’s wrestling show, is the ideal summertime show--campy and hilarious, full of leotards and 80’s music, but with smart writing that takes on topics like gender and race to add substance amongst spandex.
I’m super excited the second season is now up on Netflix. Last summer, I immediately fell in love with GLOW. The elements of performance mixed with athletics and the team camaraderie brought back memories of my early years playing roller derby in Chicago with the Windy City Rollers. Much like Ruth, I was an unlikely candidate for a full contact sport--I wasn’t a high school or college athlete and I got my bachelor’s degree in theater. But if there’s one thing that athletes and pretentious theater nerds have in common, it’s unwavering commitment, and this is why the Ruth of season 1 ended up being one of my favorite characters despite her many flaws. I am very much looking forward to seeing her journey continue in Season 2. So…...are you ready to rumble?? Let’s get this recap started!
Episode 1: Viking Funeral
When we last saw Ruth (a.k.a. Zoya the Destroya) and the rest of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, they had just finished successfully shooting their pilot episode. After a short break in which the show-within-a-show has been picked up by a local network KDTV, the cast of GLOW has returned to set to resuming shooting a full season. Director Sam Sylvia is pricklier than usual after he learns he was almost replaced during the break for his lack of TV directing experience. Ruth and Debbie’s friendship remains tense and tentative, still healing from the betrayal of Ruth’s affair with Debbie’s husband (seriously, does Rich Sommer ever get to play any character that isn’t a total jagoff? Dude was also The Worst in Mad Men and Love). When the women are called back to the set for a prep day, they are presented with two big surprises: 1) Cherry has been replaced with Yolanda, whom Sam recruited while getting a lapdance, and 2) they are expected to sign exploitative contracts tailored for “desperate actresses.”
Ruth, forever my dance captain from my sophomore year production of 42nd Street, recognizes that the girls need a project to bond them back together, so she recruits Russell the cameraman and takes the women to a nearby mall to film a main title sequence while Sam is distracted by his own male inadequacies. I am a sucker for a montage--be it of the makeover or athletic training variety--so this scene was made for me. From a writing standpoint, this is also a great way to reacquaint a streaming audience with Attention Deficit Disorder of who these women are, both in and out of their wrestling personas. We are reminded of Arthie’s discomfort with her Beirut persona when she suggests doing a Risky Business sunglass move instead of a terrorist war cry. We see Debbie lust over high-end fashion and grudgingly go through the motions of filming, avoiding spending with the cast beneath her “#1 on the call list.” And most importantly, we see Ruth’s comfort and confidence as a director while she plots out sequences behind the camera.
“Do you think we really captured the nexus of girl-on-girl violence and cultural consumerism in America?” she asks Russell the cameraman, who replies, “Oh no, it was way dumber than that.” But in a good way! An early flirtation sparks between the two, one that Debbie is quick to quash because she’s not done punishing Ruth yet. Whomp whomp.
The next day at the gym, Sam encounters the women enthusiastically reviewing the footage. He is a man easily threatened, and throws a temper tantrum over who’s the real director of GLOW, refusing to put his name as director on the title sequence.
“You put your name on the pilot,” Reggie the Viking points out, openly calling out the elephant in the room (namely, that Sam was largely absent the day of the pilot, when Ruth stepped in to save the day). Sam fires her, then tells the rest of the cast they are all replaceable. Yolanda’s presence is a perfect illustration of that; any one of them can get Sarah Chalked. Ruth follows Sam to his office, determined to apologize, save Reggie’s job, and set things right, but Sam is too furious with her to listen. Debbie appears and chooses that moment to let both Ruth and Sam know that she negotiated producer status on the show, thanks to her soap star background. This reveal puts her on the same plane of power as Sam and Bash, and once again, Ruth is stuck on the lowest rung of the ladder, that of “desperate actress.”
Episode 2: Candy of the Year
GLOW-within-the-show is in full production mode, and the ladies are pulling double duty as production assistants and crowd wranglers while they’re not taking their turn in the ring. Everything about their project is scrappy and super low-budge. I’m probably going to mention roller derby a lot in these recaps, as it brought back memories of skating in a bout, signing autographs for fans, then staying late at the arena to get down to the grunt work of tearing up the track and loading the truck. While filming a match, Sam struggles to get a shot of audience members managing to stay awake. Sam and Bash decide that the women need to be motivated into putting on a better show, so they come up with an idea: cut down the number of matches per episode from 5 to 3, and make the wrestlers audition for a weekly spot. He assigns partners for the week, and sticks Ruth with Yolanda, who has barely begun wrestling training. Obviously, he’s still mad and isn’t above sabotaging Ruth’s spot on the show.
Some of the other wrestlers decide that the key to winning the audition is by coming up with a gimmick. Arthie, forever looking for a way to ditch the offensive Beirut character, describes her concept to her partner Carmen: she plans to wear a prop suicide bomber jacket, blow up Beirut forever, and emerge reborn as a new character, Phoenix. Phoenix would be “nimble, seductive, ethnically neutral.” Unfortunately, she shares her idea in front of the other women, and the Beatdown Biddies steal the transformation idea right out from under her. During their audition match against Melrose, a can of Aquanet “from 3-Mile Island” transforms the old lady wrestlers into the Toxic Twins. ‘Nuke’ and ‘Ozone’ offer a half-hearted apology after the audition: “We couldn’t be old ladies anymore...It was weighing on our self-esteem.” I’ve been wondering if GLOW would push further into the topic of race and the toll that playing offensive roles like Beirut, Fortune Cookie, and Welfare Queen would take on Arthie, Jenny, and Tammé. I hope we get to spend more time with them in season 2 than we did last year.
Ruth and Yolanda know that they’ll never get a spot in the top 3 based on their wrestling, so they’re also in search of a gimmick. During lunch break, Ruth gets to know her partner better, and learns that the new Junk Chain is an amazing breakdancer. Teaching a Chekhov-trained actress how to toprock, freeze, and windmill is a plan so crazy, it just might work! In the ring, Zoya and Junk Chain’s breakdancing skit is hilarious. “In Soviet Russia, only ballet is permitted, and being fresh is punishable by law,” Zoya declares. I can never get enough of Ruth’s ridiculously over-the-top Zoya persona.
Meanwhile at the producer’s table, Debbie feels increasingly pushed out by Sam and Bash. They’re holding meetings without her, then tease her for having to go home to take care of her baby. At the same time, Sam uses his teenage daughter Justine as an excuse to get out of anything he doesn’t want to do. Debbie invites the men over to her house for a production meeting, offering fondue and bourbon as bait, but Sam and Bash both pull a no-show. Instead, Tammé shows up for a sit-down and shares some sage advice. Tammé has worked a lot of jobs in her lifetime, from Family Feud audience coordinator to airplane meal assembly line slinger, and she tells the privileged soap star that the key to getting Sam and Bash to listen to make herself useful on set. It’s not about standing around asserting power; she has to prove that she has worthwhile ideas and input. When Debbie sees Tammé’s “sober-up” candy for the drive home, she’s struck with inspiration. If exciting wrestling matches (too advanced-level) and cranked-up AC (too nippple-inducing) won’t keep the GLOW audience awake, raging sugar highs will do the trick.
The three cases of Nerds in Debbie’s car earn her some respect--if not from Sam, definitely from Bash, who still has the maturity level of a 13-year-old. With her newfound sway, she has Bash on her side and they pick Zoya and Junk Chain’s breakdancing routine as the third match for the next shooting session. Ruth in full Zoya drag arrives on set, some of her confidence returned, and she flirts with the camera/camerman while Sam watches from the booth, his expression indiscernible.
These first two strong episodes have me optimistic for a second fantastic season. Will we get to spend more time in and out of the ring with more of the characters besides Ruth, Debbie, and Sam? I sure hope so; as much as I enjoy the dynamics of the three leads, this show has too delightful and diverse a cast to leave the rest of the ladies warming the bench.