You may not be able to take your eyes off the styles in “GLOW,” Netflix’s terrific new comedy about women’s professional wrestling. Set in 1985, the show reeks of high “Dynasty”-era hair, Jane Fonda leotards, porn mustaches, and, when the women aren’t wearing their Spandex work outfits, shoulder pads flat enough to snort coke from. There’s a VW Rabbit that will hop its way straight to your heart.
“GLOW” takes clear joy in regurgitating dated cultural kitsch, and that’s exactly as it should be. The show is a fictional take on the start of a real-life icon of American kitsch: the 1980s TV series known as “GLOW,” or “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.” But this behind-the-scenes story doesn’t play out merely as a giant goof on kitsch and Madonna-like women throwing one another around the ring. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (both from “Nurse Jackie”), it has a solid respect for its characters, their choices, and wrestling, too, even as it generates plenty of laughs.
The big arc in “GLOW” will be familiar to fans of “let’s put on a show” movies, as a ragtag collection of losers in LA tries to succeed against the odds and win. The losers in question include models, stuntwomen, struggling actresses, and a down-and-out B-movie director (played beautifully by Marc Maron), all of whom are trying to create a pilot for a wrestling show that will attract the sport’s mostly male viewership. In the case of “GLOW,” which is available on Friday, the familiar dark-horse arc unfolds with enough charm and surprise to feel fresh. Plus, it introduces a new, almost “Orange Is the New Black”-sized TV ensemble to explore — which makes sense, since the show is executive produced by “Orange” creator Jenji Kohan.
Alison Brie, from “Community” and “Mad Men,” stars as the sincere Ruth Wilder, a struggling actress — and a bad actress, it seems — who can’t get work. She refuses to do porn, and winds up foisting herself into the newly forming wrestling show, even though Maron’s Sam Sylvia can’t stand her. In an effort to create story lines among the women, Sam hires unemployed soap star Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), aware that she hates Ruth for sleeping with her husband. Their tensions play out in the ring, and out of the ring, just as he wants. The gang practicing to be in the pilot also includes the shy Carmen (Britney Young), who comes from a long line of wrestlers, the sane Cherry (Sydelle Noel), who helps train the women, and the carousing Melrose (Jackie Tohn), a music video actress who drives a limo.
If Sam had his way, the wrestling matches would be paired with elaborate story lines — the kind a frustrated B-movie director would invent, involving, say, a post-nuclear dystopia and warring lesbians. But the show’s producer, played with a bratty streak by Chris Lowell, wants a more conventional approach — that is, he wants lots of primitive battles with minimal story lines. I won’t tell you who wins, but if you’ve seen the original “GLOW,” you can guess. Maron really shines. He’s even better playing Sam than he was playing himself on his late IFC series “Maron.”
It’s pretty clear in the Netflix show that the original “GLOW” was exploitive, reducing women to offensive stereotypes — wrestling names on the Netflix show include “Welfare Queen” and “Fortune Cookie” — in order to grab the testosterone market. The subtext of the fighting was almost always girl-on-girl action. But “GLOW” was also a means of empowerment for some of the women, as they entered a traditionally male space, took over a traditionally male sport, and built a successful product. The show captures both of these angles sharply, but without pushing them so hard that the show feels too pointed. It’s light entertainment with some muscle at its core.
Starring: Alison Brie, Marc Maron, Betty Gilpin, Britney Young, Sydelle Noel, Jackie Tohn, Britt Baron, Kate Nash, Chris Lowell
On: Netflix, season one available June 23