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‘GLOW’ review: Netflix wins with ’80s ladies wrestling comedy

Kia Stevens, Jackie Tohn, Ellen Wong, Rebekka Johnson,

Kia Stevens, Jackie Tohn, Ellen Wong, Rebekka Johnson, Britt Baron, Marianna Palka star in "GLOW" on Netflix. Photo Credit: Netflix / Erica Parise

THE SERIES “GLOW”

WHEN | WHERE Starts streaming Friday on Netflix

GRADE A-

WHAT IT’S ABOUT Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) is a struggling actress in ’80s-era Hollywood who answers a casting notice seeking only women — a lot of them. What could this be, the increasingly desperate Ruth wonders? She finds out soon enough. Washed-up director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) is casting for an all-female wrestling series, to be titled “GLOW,” for Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling. Others are looking for work, too, and the spandex-glitter show seems — at worst — amusing. They include Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), who has past ties with Sam, and Sheila the She Wolf (Gayle Rankin), who has a keen sense of smell. There’s also Tamee (Kia Stevens), Melrose (Oceanside’s Jackie Tohn), Jenny (Ellen Wong), Arthie (Sunita Mani) and retired soap actress and Ruth’s friend Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), whom Sam is particularly interested in casting. The show is based on the ’80s cult wrestling series of the same name.

MY SAY “GLOW” is terrific, but how could it be otherwise? The source material alone makes this an instant winner. As proof, check out the original credit sequence from the ’80s series (it’s online) or the 1985 pilot (ditto). Stars like Jailbait, Gremlina, Brunhilda, Debbie Debutante, California Doll and Cheyenne Cher wore their own signature Day-Glo leotards — a visual sequined assault of Saturn yellow, fire orange and rocket red — and each boasted her own mock killa rap hook. (Tammy Jones: “I’ll tap my toes all over your face.”) They screamed, strutted, body-slammed and did everything the guys did. But as a sendup of something that was already a sendup, high camp was unavoidable — comedy, too. “GLOW” was very funny.

This 10-parter probably could have written itself, but context, plot and character development are what’s really needed to make it into something intelligible. Co-creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch have done that by avoiding the easy temptation of turning this material into a running gag, or the characters into clowns. Instead, they’ve got lives and back stories, tragedies and triumphs — mostly the former. To us, they’ve been consigned to the dark underside of an eat ’em up, spit ’em out industry. But to them, the show is a paycheck, a way out, a chance for glory, or a chance for redemption. Where we see a farce, they see a wrestling version of  “Fame.”

And while it may be hard to imagine Brie as a professional wrestler, even a fake one, that is one of the jokes, or the better part of one. With aspirations to “real” acting, Ruth also wants to eat. She’s very much into “Method” (Sam takes to calling her Uta Hagen, the famed acting teacher) and into exploring her role. That’s the other joke, which is mostly on her: There’s nothing much to explore.

Sam eventually consigns her the villain role in the ring because she’s too temperamental. “All the crying, the desperation . . . that’s what I hate about you. And relax. The devil gets all the best lines.”

“GLOW” is about female empowerment, and couldn’t be otherwise, but there’s a little more going on — female relationships, and the unique ties that bind, even when frayed by a patriarchy that profits from fraying them.

BOTTOM LINE Smart, funny newcomer in spandex.

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