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In the opener of the second season of GLOW, the Netflix comedy based on the syndicated 1980s women’s wrestling series, Marc Maron’s character, a director named Sam Sylvia, turns to new cameraman Russell (Victor Quinaz) and asks, exasperated, “You ever work with this many women?” Sure, Russell replies. He used to shoot porn.
That appropriately meta comment for a TV show about a TV show — one that was created by two women, and features an ensemble cast of diverse female performers — illustrates a central conceit of GLOW: the lack of meaningful opportunities for women in film and television, and the lengths to which they’ll go to carve out a space for themselves in an industry that primarily wants their bodies, not their ideas. They succeed, sometimes, for a bit, until some dude knocks them down a peg by firing them, or pulling his funding, or burying the show in a shitty timeslot. It’s always a man who has the power to tear the rug out from under the whole production. But then, it’s also always a man who gives women the opportunity — essentially, his permission — to create.
This maddening dialectical tension runs through GLOW like a current, alternately powering and threatening the women who make up the cast of the show within a show. In season two, that tension gathers over Sam and Ruth (Alison Brie), a GLOW wrestler/cast member and veteran of discouraging, often humiliating Hollywood casting calls. Ruth comes alive in the role of Zoya the Destroya, her alter ego in the ring, a Cold War–era Russian menace with a shock of hair sprayed into a faux hawk. She’s also the secret creative force of the vintage series, having directed the pilot episode when the irascible Sam was MIA; now, she earnestly offers to be Sam’s Alma Reville, a reference to Alfred Hitchcock’s screenwriter wife — the woman behind the man, one who provides encouragement and, in a quiet way, gets the job done.
Sam reluctantly agrees, then blows up when he discovers she took the cast to the mall to shoot a title sequence without his approval. “I had ideas,” she murmurs when he rages at her. “OK, well, put ’em in your diary,” he growls back. Yet as the season progresses, Sam toggles between an attraction to Ruth and a growing trust of her as a collaborator.
Some critics objected to the fact that on this show about women, Sam’s storyline takes up so much space — besides the clichéd will-they-won’t-they dynamic between the male and female leads, we watch Sam take in his long-lost teenage daughter, Justine (Britt Baron). But women don’t exist in a vacuum, and GLOW is a stronger show for demonstrating the challenges facing women in an entertainment industry dominated by men — the domino effect of Hollywood power dynamics, and the unavoidable muddle of the personal and professional. Debbie (Betty Gilpin), a former soap star with a newborn baby, is juggling her lead role on the show with the demands of motherhood and her recent split from her husband, Mark (Rich Sommer), who cheats on her with Ruth at the start of the series. To gain some control over her life, she demands a producer credit, and proceeds to shut Ruth out of discussions over the creative direction of the series, even when fellow producer Bash (Chris Lowell) suggests they get Ruth’s input.
But even Debbie needs Mark, who works as an agent, to come to dinner with the head of the network and help her negotiate a better contract. Executives see her as her wrestling character, the freedom-fighting Liberty Belle, and not a real producer with ideas to contribute. GLOW establishes early in the new season the degree to which women have had to depend on men to make art when Debbie tries to pick up her costume from the dry cleaner and discovers the account is still under her ex-husband’s name.
It’s no wonder Ruth is left ambivalent over her feelings for Sam; he represents every obstacle she’s tried so hard to overcome. Yet the two have a clear connection, and Brie and Maron, despite their nearly two-decade age difference, share an electric chemistry. Sam’s arc in a way mirrors that of Marc Maron himself, who is vastly more appealing when working with or interviewing women. His autobiographical IFC series, Maron, didn’t have one woman on the writing staff, and it showed; it’s so much more interesting to watch him be vulnerable than to watch him try to be cool. “I’m not angry with you,” Sam admits to Ruth late in the second season. “I’m an insecure old man. I get defensive. Sue me.”
GLOW exudes a refreshing earnestness, a reflection of its subject matter — a group of creatively frustrated women having a blast putting on a show together. It’s about the surprising spaces that appear when you open yourself up to left-field ideas — the freedom that comes with thinking outside the box, maybe even putting people in control who normally aren’t. Yet the show’s strength lies in its embrace of the realities and limitations of the L.A. dream, despite the good intentions of its characters. An air of bitter disenchantment perfumes the second season; no matter how hard you try, it’s not easy to find satisfaction in a system that forces you to compromise yourself so often you don’t even realize you’re doing it. Maybe it is disappointing that Ruth and Sam would go down the romance road. But as GLOW demonstrates so well, the creative life is full of disappointment.
GLOW is now streaming on Netflix.
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