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‘GLOW’, our new lightweight champion

LiveMint logoLiveMint 22-06-2017 Raja Sen

Professional wrestling is a soap opera. The emotions are in place, as are good and bad guys. Replace the vamp’s dirty look with a double axe-handle from the top rope, give the mother-in-law a folding chair to accompany her taunt, and soon enough, we’ll have what WWE chairman Vince McMahon would call a show. The difference between a wrestling show and other serials, however, is that wrestling winks at its audience and asks that they pretend it’s for real.

The show lives in its own reality, a reality that works—uniquely and honestly—because everyone is aware of the lie. It is marked by an appropriately make-believe word, ”kayfabe”, which signals an alternate world where those playing heroes are genuinely valiant and at war with those playing bad, as opposed to performers working in sync, and the audience willingly chooses to believe. In the thrilling Netflix show GLOW, out this Friday, wrestling promoter Sam Sylvia turns to the women he plans to turn into wrestlers and asks them what wrestling fans want. “Blood?”, ventures one girl, “Tits?”, another.

“Storytelling,” he corrects. He’s right. Everything else comes later. Even the wrestling.

In the mid-Eighties, an outfit called “Glamorous Ladies Of Wrestling” took a dozen or two out-of-work actresses and part-time models, giving them characters and accents and—a few weeks worth of—wrestling training. GLOW, executive produced by Orange Is The New Black showrunner Jenji Kohan, is a fictionalised take on this nutty idea, and it’s time to ring the bell, for this is a triumph.

Struggling actresses have it hard. The highly committed Ruth botches an inglorious audition by reading out lines written for the man. (The woman’s solitary line in the script—the script meant to test her—meanwhile, is an interruption: “Your wife is on line two.”) Cherry, a bright and confident black actress, when told her resume “gets a bit thin” after 1979, replies that movies “get a bit white after 1979”. It is thus a bunch of extremely different young ladies—shepherded by Sam, a fading B-movie director with auteur ambitions—who come together to make GLOW happen. All they have is a hazy dream somehow involving a squared circle.

This leotards-and-legwarmers concept could have fuelled an ‘80s movie. Yet, rollicking as it is, GLOW is a compassionate and cleverly told story of empowerment and agency. Several of the women start off believing they’re above something as ridiculous as pro-wrestling, only to realise this is an opportunity for them to be the superheroes, while men in the audience pay to be their cheerleaders. Both their expectations as characters and our expectations as an audience are challenged, as this show—created and directed primarily by women—gives us wrestling as we’ve never seen it before: women’s wrestling without the male gaze, a grown-up show with grainy film and pastel colours that hews closer to Darren Aronofsky’s The Wrestler than it does the old wrestling sitcom Learning The Ropes.

Despite that comparison, GLOW is primarily a comedy—just one that likes subversion. Ruth, the show’s relentlessly earnest heroine, for instance, is the least liked character of the bunch and quickly slotted as the easy-to-loathe “heel”, someone there for the audience to boo. Like Netflix’s other longform takes on feature-film concepts—Dear White People, for instance, which went from being a great film to a greater series —GLOW features characters who prove, once we spend time with them, that there’s more to them than meets the label. Even if they are dressing up and creating stereotypes in the ring. A studious Indian girl, for instance, talks about the universality of wrestling appeal—“Even my nani watches WWF Superstars, she’s 85 and only speaks Hindi”—but finds herself packaged as a Lebanese terrorist character named “Beirut”.

Ruth, who has a Katherine Hepburn poster above her bed, and who followed up her Strindberg theatre training with “mask-work and extensive clowning workshops”, is a fantastic character. She’s damaged, but believes she’s even more damaged than she is, and there is thus an edge of overcompensation to her cringeworthy positivity. Alison Brie aces the part and gives Ruth not simply fallibility but also, buried somewhere deep under that cheery facade, an actual kernel of hope.

Marc Maron is a revelation as Sam, playing the disgruntled director like a surly, cocaine-fuelled Stan Lee. (Seriously, the resemblance is remarkable.) Soaked in cynicism, Sam has the most withering lines—after Ruth’s pre-wrestling pep-talk, he accurately calls her “half-Polyanna, half-Vince Lombardi”—and it’s a treat to watch Maron square off against and alongside the ladies he is supposed to direct. The women have excellent characters—from a shaggy-eyebrowed she-wolf to a bonafide soap-actress with Suzanne Somers hair—and the show works because of a genuinely endearing ensemble. My favourites are Britt Baron, who plays Justine, and Betty Gilpin, who plays Debbie, but I won’t tell you why. Watch GLOW.

The show gets better as it goes along, starting off straightforward (but funny) and gathering depth and texture with each episode. Which is to say, give it a chance if— for some inexplicable reason—you aren’t already sold on the premise and the overwhelmingly Eighties soundtrack. By the time the end rolls on, you realise you love these characters. Even the spoilt trust-fund guy financially backing the project, because he is, at heart, a fan. This is more than apparent when he, needlessly yet all-importantly, applies glitter to his eyelids like a pensive Ultimate Warrior.

Back in the day, a short friend indulgently let me try out high-impact moves on him — a Tombstone Piledriver, a Razor’s Edge—on a mattress, while other friends, who tried theirs on kid sisters and even, on one unforgettably hilarious occasion, the family dog, were punished (and bitten). This is why wrestling shows come with the warning to not try this at home. GLOW revels in this infectiousness, and it’s delightful how eagerly the young ladies are electrified by the prospect, feeling the need to amp up the action and throw themselves into increasingly spectacular manoeuvres.

The girls give it their all, and the reason this feels so great is that these heroines are driven by their own choice. They might have bitten off more than they could—or, indeed, should—chew, but now that they’ve tasted the turnbuckle, they want more. Even if it takes a bikini car wash to get them to them there, it’s their idea and they aren’t doing it for any man. As we see in the authentically rousing season finale, the ladies are the ones in charge.

GLOW provides a fascinatingly close-up look at the dynamic between heroes and villains, and how making the hero look good is a full time job for the villain. Wrestlers, while merely playing a part, are invariably part of the characters they inhabit—and vice versa. The way they manipulate a crowd is truly crafty. Watch out, for instance, for a brilliant scene involving the Ku Klux Klan.

I find it deeply interesting how primally, and irresistibly, wrestling audiences are drawn to type—hating the bad, cheering the good, falling for obvious dramatic triggers—while being completely aware of the hokum. Perhaps, as with religion, it’s easier to go along with what everyone says is true.

Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. It appears weekly on Livemint.com and fortnightly in print.

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