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Netflix’s ‘GLOW’ Keeps Getting Brighter As It Gets Darker

The deep ensemble cast has fully transcended the premise of the ’80s wrestling show, where the most emotional and enthralling moments are in its tiniest gestures, not its grandest ones

Netflix/Ringer illustration

A striking thing about Season 3 of GLOW, in which the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling descend upon the garish 24-hour buffet of 1986 Las Vegas, is how little wrestling transpires onscreen, or for that matter how few jokes about the garish 1980s the show feels compelled to crack amid all that not-wrestling.

Partially that’s a matter of location: Given that parts of Vegas remain stuck, aesthetically and socially, in the ’80s, the casually stupendous Netflix comedy series, created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, feels less like a period piece than ever. But mostly it’s a testament to how vivid and magnetic its ragtag troupe of female wrestlers have become, to the point where you’ll gladly watch them do anything, anytime, anywhere. Including not-wrestle. Most of the show’s third season is just people chatting (or fighting, or fucking, or playing the “fake flute” while stoned) in era-appropriate but otherwise unflashy hotel rooms. What’s doubly striking is how GLOW only keeps getting better as it gets quieter and subtler and more insular. The fewer literal leaps off the top rope it takes, the harder it hits.

GLOW stars Alison Brie and the since twice–Emmy nominated Betty Gilpin but quickly established itself as a 15-deep ensemble flex. The show premiered in 2017 with a flashy premise (spandex + suplexes + a disregard for the male gaze, unless you count Marc Maron looking downtrodden) set in, thanks to Stranger Things and Dark and so on, Netflix’s preferred decade. Season 1 (wacky misfits become pro wrestlers) got a lot of attention and deserved it; Season 2 (wacky pro wrestlers further blossom into three-dimensional people) was deeper and thornier and even better, in large part because it resisted any notions of cheap “Girl Power” triumph. (Last season ended with the trashy but lovable show-within-a-show cancelled; the fictional GLOW ensemble’s move from L.A. to Vegas is a flukey last-ditch effort to keep the band together.)

Here in Season 3, our heroes are still professional wrestlers, with all the chokeholds and pitiless racial stereotyping that implies; Ronald Reagan is still president, and neon and synth-pop still reign supreme. But the ensemble, now closer to 25 characters deep, thoroughly dominates the show, to the point where GLOW’s tiniest gestures outshine its grandest ones. We kick off this season with the gang recoiling in black-comedic horror from the Challenger explosion that coincides with the Vegas show’s opening night. Yet more memorable is a quick shot of Sheila the She-Wolf (Gayle Rankin) huddling for warmth beneath the coat of Tammé the “Welfare Queen” (real-life wrestling veteran Kia Stevens) outside the casino during a fire alarm. The camaraderie is mostly subconscious, and all the more infectious for it. You’ll feel the warmth, too.

Please pay that forward, by the way. GLOW needs to be protected. Netflix is developing a nasty reputation for touting its diverse programming only to cancel those shows before they realize their full potential: See the throwback sitcom One Day at a Time in March and the surrealist Ali Wong–Tiffany Haddish animated series Tuca & Bertie in July. An alarming Deadline piece earlier this year suggested that for financial reasons, Netflix prefers its shows to last only two or three seasons, with few exceptions (Stranger Things, obviously; House of Cards, maddeningly). GLOW is arguably the streaming giant’s best original show, and both the critical rapture and modest Emmy love hopefully grant it some measure of protection. But given that Season 3 is largely about the challenges of keeping a show going and a surrogate family intact, there’s plenty of meta anxiety on offer, in the event you need any more anxiety, which you don’t.

And yes, very little of Season 3’s drama takes place in the ring. Exactly one person, the bubbly but passionate Carmen “Machu Picchu” Wade (Britney Young), still cares about wrestling for wrestling’s sake; for everyone else, GLOW is a job, a paycheck, a means to an end. Our lead characters are all clearly eager to move on, to abandon the show’s premise entirely. For example, Ruth—a.k.a. Russian heel Zoya the Destroya (Brie)—is still a frustrated aspiring actress embroiled in an odd and not entirely successful will-they-won’t-they romance with Sam (Maron), who is nominally still the Vegas show’s grouchy director but is so checked out he spends most of the season either moping in a hot tub or helping his young daughter Justine (Britt Baron) shop a screenplay he realizes is superior to any of his own. (Ruth and Sam are far better off as a Don-and-Peggy situation than a Don-and-Megan situation, if you’ll forgive the Mad Men analogy, but as GLOW insists, you can’t have everything.)

Whereas Debbie, a.k.a. patriotic star Liberty Belle (Gilpin), is a frustrated aspiring producer who is willing to quit not just wrestling but acting entirely if it means she no longer has to fly back to L.A. every week just to see her infant son. Gilpin still does most of GLOW’s strongest capital-A Acting, quick to tears and even quicker to rage, but her sublimely random and goofy fake flute, which lasts roughly five seconds, is a career highlight. But in truth almost everyone onscreen gets a showcase moment. Smarmy producer/emcee/moneyman Bash Howard (Chris Lowell) struggles to reconcile his sexuality with his marriage to Britannica (Kate Nash); meanwhile, Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) and her husband Keith (Bashir Salahuddin) argue over whether or not to have a baby. Love is, dutifully, a battlefield on this show, but motherhood, whether present or future tense, inevitably proves a far gnarlier one.

The bench here is shockingly deep, and only getting deeper. Even the hard-partying Melrose (Jackie Tohn), a previously less prominent character who in another ensemble show might fade deep into the background as a recognizable face (and raspy voice) but little else, gets some of the best lines (“I thought I was a prostitute”), not to mention a full arc and a startling monologue. Season 3 adds Geena Davis as an old-Vegas luminary who appears to transcend the Boys’ Club but still finds herself bound by it; she doesn’t have as much to do here as you’d imagine, but with only 10 episodes and roughly two dozen established characters worthy of both praise and careful attention, the show arguably needs no new blood whatsoever.

Montrose gives her monologue, by the way, during a midseason hiking-trip campfire scene in which she and her estranged best friend Jenny, a.k.a. Fortune Cookie (Ellen Wong), tearfully discuss the Holocaust and the Cambodian genocide. (“The killing fields,” Jenny intones, with a shiver.) GLOW takes great big swings, and as its half-hour episodes creep closer to the 45-minute mark, it further collapses the meaningless distinction between prestige-TV comedy and prestige-TV drama. Every gleeful burst of nudity is offset by a sincere and intense discussion about the sanctity (and the pitiless cultural battleground) of women’s bodies. But the show also avoids the easy clichés that so often accompany that material: In this universe, the lady who leans out of a convertible and pukes is not necessarily pregnant, and the other lady who makes herself puke after eating a cheeseburger is not necessarily setting up an agonizing, season-long bulimia arc. GLOW’s most emotional and enthralling moments are momentous indeed, but they rarely come when or how you’d expect.

Which brings us back to Sheila the She-Wolf, long a misfit among misfits, and the one GLOW character who for presumably traumatic but wisely never-explained reasons basically acts and dresses the same in and out of the ring. Rankin gets many of Season 3’s most thrilling and unexpected moments: one involves that campfire, and another involves Liza Minnelli. (The premise of this season’s longest actual wrestling sequence is that everyone’s so bored by the Vegas show that they can only get themselves excited by switching characters.) But the Sheila scene that really got me comes earlier, a more solemn but also more devastatingly casual moment of quiet understanding between her and a drag queen named Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon), a welcome new addition who gets many of the glitzy showcase moments you might’ve assumed Geena Davis would get.

Ah yes: This season also ruminates on gay pride and virulent homophobia, another aspect that you desperately wish made it feel more like a period piece. But GLOW doesn’t feel like a period piece, or for that matter a wrestling show anymore. It has never been afraid to get dark or to unveil cliffhangers that feel more like existential threats, if not to the actual show than certainly to the plucky wrestling troupe the show is ostensibly about. But the triumph here is that the characters, in all their vibrant messiness, have fully transcended the premise. GLOW doesn’t need the ’80s trappings anymore. It doesn’t even need the ring.