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Networks Are Being Forced to Decide Which Shows Are Worth Saving. ‘GLOW’ Didn’t Make the Cut.

In canceling the series on Monday and reversing the green light on a fourth season, Netflix displayed the inequities arising as the entertainment industry gets walloped by the pandemic

Netflix/Ringer illustration

If the last seven months have proved anything, it’s that the pandemic is not an equalizer. White collar professionals can stay at home while service workers are put at risk. Parents have to work two jobs while their childless counterparts can stick to just one. Regular patients have to wade through an overburdened health care system while our president is flown to a luxurious private suite.

In the entertainment industry, productions have found themselves in a version of this dynamic that’s less life-or-death, but often still devastating. On Monday, Deadline broke the news that Netflix would be canceling GLOW, reversing its original decision to renew the wrestling dramedy for a fourth and final season. After a third season centered on a Las Vegas stage show, GLOW had set up a return to both California and the small screen for its denouement. Commencing production in February, GLOW had even completed an entire episode pre-lockdown—but that still wasn’t enough to save a critically acclaimed series with creative ground left to cover and a defined end in sight. According to Netflix, the decision not to resume was “due to COVID” and its related restrictions.

GLOW isn’t the first show to meet a premature end due to the continued spread of COVID-19. Also on Netflix, YA series The Society was axed in August after just one season despite a previous renewal. Elsewhere, ABC yanked Stumptown, also due for a Season 2, while Comedy Central pulled the most dramatic bait-and-switch of all in walking back a whopping four-season order for Tosh.0. In theory, the decision was part of the channel’s larger pivot away from live-action comedy and toward a combination of animated and topical shows. But practically, it was precipitated by the same once-in-a-century cataclysm as every other cancellation.

Such headlines suggest that, heartbreaking as it may be, GLOW’s fate was also unavoidable, the tragic side effect of a much broader crisis. But that small consolation is canceled out by a slew of competing news items—the ones chronicling Hollywood’s slow, halting return to work. Following a five-month delay, Fargo managed to wrap its fourth season in time for a fall run on FX. So many shows have returned to the longtime production hub of Vancouver that the lab processing their tests got backed up and triggered another shutdown. And in the most telling shift of all, the steady stream of behind-the-scenes photos from film and TV sets has once again started flowing: Jodie Comer in Princess Leia buns for The Last Duel; Julia Garner in her fall finest as storied grifter Anna Delvey; the Stranger Things kids in ’80s sweater vests and 2020 face masks. Some projects have indeed fallen victim to the pandemic, but others have found a way to forge ahead.

There are important factors distinguishing GLOW from these other productions, many coming down to hard logistics. GLOW is shot in and around Los Angeles, which remains at a higher rate of spread and stricter stage of lockdown than Canada, New York, or Ireland (where The Last Duel is currently in progress). It also boasts a large ensemble cast whose signature activity involves close contact, physical exertion, and heavy breathing—a monstrously difficult endeavor to conduct both safely and at scale. Barring a mass relocation or a total reconfiguration of the show, it’s possible GLOW just couldn’t work for the foreseeable future.

But the Deadline piece also hints at a different, harsher logic at work. “With the significant delay and the increased costs of production,” Nellie Andreeva reported, “Netflix brass didn’t have confidence there would be a big enough audience who would tune in at that point to justify the investment.” For years, both Netflix and its major competitors have been drifting from prestige-minded patrons to harsher arbiters of data-driven decision-making. The pandemic appears to be accelerating that shift, with GLOW unfortunately caught in the crosshairs.

GLOW’s previous reprieve put it somewhere in between these two eras of streaming largesse. On the one hand, the show wouldn’t get the seven-season treatment of its predecessor and creative cousin Orange Is the New Black, but the service would at least give it the resources to craft a more intentional ending. It’s a trajectory similar to other critically adored, lesser-watched projects in recent years, including The Leftovers and Halt and Catch Fire—not an abrupt cutoff, but a gentle letdown, and an acknowledgement that having a fully told story in a back catalog forever is a desirable end in and of itself.

GLOW’s story, however, will remain forever incomplete (as will that of Teenage Bounty Hunters, another Jenji Kohan–produced show that was also axed in spite of a cliffhanger, albeit with no previous renewal to be walked back). Though it never became an awards darling, earning just one Emmy nod for Outstanding Comedy Series and three for colead Betty Gilpin, GLOW built a dedicated fan base on a heady combination of hefty ideas and bright, colorful packaging. The characters on GLOW used wrestling to work out their complicated feelings about race, sexuality, and interpersonal conflict; GLOW itself used wrestling to deliver a smart, diverse ensemble show that never felt like homework. It was as fun to watch when two characters were hashing out their differences in a hospital room as when they were hurling each other around a ring. And in Season 4, it promised to let its Gorgeous Ladies quite literally run the show, an empowerment fantasy underwritten by hours and hours of emotional realism.

Netflix was willing to support the vision of creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, but only up to a point. Across the industry, the pandemic has shown which productions are judged to be worth the extra cost of delays, distancing measures, and mass testing, a cold calculation that belies high-minded rhetoric about supporting artists and telling stories.

On GLOW, the show-within-a-show is constantly underestimated, denigrated, and endangered because of its novel concept and kitschy vibe. One of the show’s consistent themes is how both wrestling and women are dismissed as trivialities, affording both a subversive, if precarious, kind of power. At least in a meta sense, GLOW’s ending is an apt one.