There's a lot to like about "GLOW."
Based on the 1980s Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling promotion, the new Netflix series boasts five-star turns by Alison Brie, Betty Gilpin and Marc Maron in roles that fit them like neon spandex. Its diverse supporting cast doesn't get much ring time due to the half-hour format, but performers like Britney Young, Britt Baron and Gayle Rankin still make moving drama out of their arcs. And creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch mix in comedy with the kind of top-rope balance that's become a signature move of executive producer and "Orange is the New Black" creator Jenji Kohan.
But what, specifically, is there for pro wrestling fans?
Besides its own purely entertaining material, "GLOW" presents a well-rounded look behind the curtain of the wrestling arena. Sure, there are the requisite fish-out-of-water scenes featuring the actresses, stay-at-home moms and other women in the cast learning flat-back bumps and rope-running. And though we've seen that on "Tough Enough" for years, "GLOW" livens up the process with fun cameos by pro wrestlers John Morrison, Brodus Clay and Carlito as trainers, plus Joey Ryan, Alex Riley, Christopher Daniels and Frankie Kazarian as grapplers themselves.
What's fresher about "GLOW" as pro wrestling fiction, however, is its treatment of the form's psychology. A conversation between Riley and Gilpin's characters doesn't just lay bare its soap opera essence, it explains how the role of the heel (bad guy) is to heat up (generate sympathy and enthusiasm for) the babyface (good guy). And, in an even more interesting and relevant move, "GLOW" asks an important question when some of its women are given stereotype wrestling characters to portray: Are such characters exploitation or satire?
It's an old question in pro wrestling, but one that still hasn't been answered satisfactorily. When presenting characters like the Iron Sheik or Cryme Tyme — or, in "GLOW," Beirut the Mad Bomber and the Welfare Queen — do they reinforce fans' concepts of people from the Middle East and people of color? Or are they so obviously stereotyped that they force fans to confront those concepts?
"GLOW" asks the question with a thoughtful scene between Welfare Queen performer Tammé Dawson (a terrific Kia "Awesome Kong" Stevens) and Maron's coked-up B-movie visionary Sam Sylvia. But, again because of the show's brief format, it doesn't muster much of a satisfying answer. Sylvia tells Dawson the Welfare Queen is a "fuck you" to the Republican Party for perpetuating the myth, and later, she and Sydelle Noel's Junkchain are the heroes for embarrassing two white women they talk into playing Klan members (Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekka Johnson).
But Dawson's question to Sylvia about her character's subversive intent — "Will they (the crowd) know that?" — gets a less favorable answer in the season finale. In a match pitting Sunita Mani's Arthie "Beirut" Premkumar against Kate Nash's Rhonda "Britannica" Richardson, the Indian-American wrestler is accosted by some white men in the audience who throw a beer can at her that misses and cuts open Britannica. Though those few fans clearly didn't "know" Beirut is satire, hopefully future episodes spend more time exploring the question of whether they should have.
It's a great time for "GLOW" to ask it, too.
In current WWE, World Champion Jinder Mahal has found nuance in the "evil foreigner" stereotype, avoiding racist trappings and succeeding where predecessors like Mohammed Hassan and his goon squad of al-Qaeda stand-ins failed. Kentucky wrestler Dan "The Progressive Liberal" Richards has made headlines with a gimmick so incisively ripped from them that his audiences call for his head in a way that hasn't happened since wrestling's '80s heyday. And our own president is a product of pro wrestling psychology, if only from all the time he's spent in that carny world.
"GLOW" earned a second season on Netflix for a lot of reasons, but certainly one of them is how much of the art of pro wrestling it has left to explore.