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Courtesy of Netflix

Netflix’s GLOW shines where other female-fronted shows fail

Here we... here we... here we fuckin’ GLOW!

Spoilers ahead if you, unlike me, had better things to do this weekend than watch ten episodes of GLOW in a row.

Such is the nature of media in 2017 that before GLOW had even dropped on Friday, we’d been treated to a whole host of hot takes about everything from its perceived catering to male fantasy to complaints that its central conflict revolves around a man. And sure, simplistically, you could read it that way. But: (and here’s my first spoiler) it’s also very good.

GLOW, which was released on June 23, centres around a group of women cast in a TV pilot about women’s wrestling, based on the 1980s syndicated ladies wrestling circuit, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Executive produced by Orange is the New Black’s Jenji Kohan and starring Alison Brie, the show follows Brie’s character Ruth, a ‘serious actress’ who ends up at a casting call for misfits and unconventional women to star in a pilot about wrestling. The women, newcomers to wrestling, led by Marc Maron’s slimeball Sam Sylvia, learn to work together and just about put on a pilot. Underscoring the laughs and spandex-filled ring scenes are personal battles for the women to overcome; infidelity, miscarriage, race, and abortion are all handled delicately and with humour within a ten-episode arc that doesn’t at any point drag.

Ruth is the ‘main’ character, the person whose eyes we see this world through, and her ex-best friend Debbie (Betty Gilpin) is her opponent, but as in Orange is the New Black, GLOW features an ensemble cast of characters. As is the case with ensemble casts there isn’t yet enough time dedicated to seeing these women’s backstories and what brought them together, but there are small crumbs sprinkled throughout – just enough to make you care right now, but not so much that you aren’t anxiously waiting for next year.

Relatively new actress Sydelle Noel as Cherry is quietly the best character in GLOW and the one we are teased with the most – if the show is renewed, we will likely get to see a lot more of her, along with the wonderful Britney Young as Carmen. All of the other women are deserving of more attention, but Kate Nash, in her first acting role, deserves a special mention as Rhonda, if only because it’s a treat to hear “shag” and “marmite” on U.S TV shows. Brie and Gilpin are good enough, but it’s the other misfits who really make the show.

GLOW does deal with entirely uncharted territory for TV as a comedy about women’s wrestling, but that’s not the only way in which it sets itself apart. The moments where it threatens to be clichéd are either forgivable in a campy setting – like when Debbie discovers Ruth (Brie) has been sleeping with her husband and storms into the ring to fight her, thus being cast – or are subverted. The drama that underpins the whole story, Mark's affair with Ruth, is a story we’ve seen before. The slow rebuilding of their friendship over weeks as we realise Mark is actually a dick, is not. The women don’t hate each other forever, but they also don’t immediately run back into one another’s arms. They slowly learn to forgive, and at the very end when Ruth wants to go for a drink, Debbie tells her, “we aren’t there yet”.

It’s realistic: friendships are not always either entirely broken or fixed in a moment. They, like relationships, take time for trust to rebuild. Additionally, a surprise daughter storyline is dealt with not dramatically, but with incest jokes and a semi-heartwarming conclusion. These are soap opera storylines repackaged to tell a new story: just like wrestling.

Throughout GLOW, there are these moments where we go, “I’ve seen this tale before”, only to be pleasantly surprised. A shock pregnancy, for example, is usually a sign (cough: as in Girls) that the writers absolutely cannot be arsed to create any kind of drama. Double points if it’s with your best mate’s husband. But in GLOW, we see Alison Brie quietly, resolutely, have an abortion. It’s sad in its loneliness, but not in the fact of it. It just isn’t the right time. That is a milestone for a medium that so often sees the A word skirted around or not even mentioned: people get pregnant, they panic, they have it or they give it away. Only in Crazy Ex-Girlfriend and Obvious Child have we (to my memory) seen such a careful, truthful, representation of something that many women choose to do and ultimately recover from.

Of course GLOW isn’t perfect. Of course there are moments where it veers into predictability, or the jokes fall flat, or we get bored of being told that the objectively beautiful Alison Brie is somehow hideous. But what it is is yet more evidence that the best original stories are being told at home, where we can comfortably spend five hours in bed getting to know characters and then know we will (probably) find out where they are this time next year.

GLOW’s first season was funny, a little sad, and an indicator of very good things to come. Netflix’s programming can be hit and miss, but the recent cancellation of Girlboss is perhaps a sign that what the audience wants is not simply female-led shows or quote-unquote ‘strong’ women, but shows by and starring women that we can relate to, and that despite the characters’ issues, have any shred of likeability left in their souls. We don’t want black-hearted, entitled tyrants; we want real, whole women, flaws and all with real stories – and you can find all that, at home in your pyjamas, in GLOW.