Saturday, June 24, 2017

REVIEW: 'GLOW' - Ruth Fights to Prove Her Worth to Sam While Lying to Debbie in 'Pilot'

Netflix's GLOW - Episode 1.01 "Pilot"

Desperate to jump-start her career, struggling actress Ruth heads to a casting call at an LA gym - and quickly realizes it's not a typical audition.

I was surprised when I went to the Netflix page for GLOW and realized that the episodes for the entire season were in the 30-minute range. That wasn't what I was expecting at all. I figured this would be yet another show that blurred the lines between comedy and drama. It would an entire hour of story because it has a deep ensemble of characters. It has a lot of Orange Is the New Black in its DNA. But it's also aspiring to do something different as well. That's why it is such a success in this first episode. "Pilot" has a story it wants to tell and doesn't waste any time with distractions. It's clear and to the point while still allowing for a number of great character moments. The running time could actually help GLOW become a great binge. When the premiere was over, I couldn't believe that the time flew by so quickly and wanted to start the next episode right away. Most in the audience will probably do that. I won't because I plan on doing episodic reviews of this season. But it makes me very exciting to go through this season as quickly as possible. It's just so fun and light while still being wholly original and very confident with what it wants to be. That kind of confidence is missing from a lot of television nowadays. So, it's refreshing to see GLOW start so strong with what it aims to be. That makes it easier to connect with this world and these characters.

The premiere has some very interesting things to say about female representation as well. It takes a close look at the era it is set in (the 1980s) while always being aware that it's not falling into the same trappings as the various characters feel they are (because it is airing in 2017). Of course, there are some conversations that transcend time. The premiere opens with Alison Brie's Ruth on an audition. She's pouring everything into it only for the casting director to tell her she was reading the male part. The role she's actually going out for is just a stereotypical assistant. Those are the roles that define the auditions Ruth is going on. She wants something more. She wants a role with some true substance to it. But Hollywood isn't ready to give that to women just yet. It's instead interested in the complexity of men while women are the wives and assistants. It's a trend that has changed over the years. There are some insanely terrific roles for women nowadays - especially in television. This show itself is one example of that because Brie gets to play a multi-dimensional character who is deeply flawed but still engaging to watch. The show plans on showcasing a number of different women. It's empowering to see just like it's empowering for these women that a show has come along in GLOW where they can be the center of attention.

A lot of this first episode is just setting up the premise for the series. Ruth is a struggling actress because casting directors don't see her as beautiful enough to be onscreen. First of all, that's just crazy. It's something that the show does that the audience just has to accept. Alison Brie's eyebrows are thicker here but her character shouldn't be causing such a debate amongst multiple characters over whether she is hot or not. And yet, that's what's happening. It's perfectly fine too because Marc Maron's Sam is a sleazy producer who is very blunt and upfront about what he wants from these women. It's interesting to see things from his perspective because he's just interested in a bunch of women fighting each other for the amusement of others. He doesn't want to dig deeper into the psychological nature of why women are frequently pitted against each other. He just enjoys seeing a good catfight and wants to know that these "unconventional" women are capable of making that believable in the ring. It's the traditional male gaze. He doesn't want to put up with Ruth because he sees her as stubborn actress who doesn't want to listen to directions. It's not until the emotions get real in a fight between two women that he sees the kind of energy that Ruth could bring to the show.

It's interesting to see the show play with fantasy sequences by the end of the episode. Ruth and her best friend, Debbie, get into a huge fight. Ruth was trying to make her case to Sam for why she should continue on with this project. It's feels right that despite staying up all night to learn as much about wrestling as possible that she doesn't return that much different in the actual ring. She has the outfit and a slightly different mentality. But she still moves around awkwardly because the story she is sharing isn't connecting with the other people. It's only once her personal drama with Debbie enters the ring that the sparks start to fly. They come from Sam's own imagination of the fight. He sees Ruth and Debbie going at in the ring and imagines them in a full on production of the show. It's a smart sequence because it proves to the audience that GLOW is capable of producing the actual wrestling segments. It would be so disappointing if after all the buildup the actual moments of the live show weren't all that impressive. That dichotomy could have taken the viewer out of the series and made them regret spending so much time with these characters. This sequence lets the audience know what they are signing up for immediately. Ruth and Debbie may not have these skills now. But there is a future where it could be a reality. They have the physicality to make the wrestling believable. It engages the audience in a way that is really striking. I'm not that big into wrestling or many sports. And yet, I was pulled into this fantasy because it was so fun and entertaining. That's a quality that the show should continue in the future.

However, the motivation behind that fight between Ruth and Debbie is a little wonky. They are introduced as being the best of friends. Ruth is there for Debbie even when she has an embarrassing moment in public. They are supportive of each other and their dreams in this world. Yes, Debbie may be preaching too much about finding a husband and starting a family. And yet, that's the bliss she has found. She gave up her career for that and is really happy as a result. Meanwhile, Ruth is all sad and alone. She's struggling to pay the bills. Of course, the drama comes from Ruth also sleeping with Debbie's husband, Mark. It's slightly unsettling to watch that sex scene because it's Mad Men's Alison Brie and Rich Sommer. Their characters from that show would never be intimate in this way. So, it's strange to see them like this. But then comes the reveal that Mark is Debbie's husband and Ruth is potentially destroying their friendship. It's good that the show doesn't keep this a secret for very long. The secret is established and revealed to everyone in the span of one episode. That's a nice and fun way to tell this story. Too often, shows keep secrets going for as long as possible in order to get as much drama out of them and then some. But here, it's the betrayal that will define their dynamic on the show moving forward. They were friends but now they're fighting in the ring. It's the spark that makes Sam see the potential in this show. It also plays as something needing to happen in order to create a feud between the two lead characters. As such, it's a little formulaic and forced. It's just the cost of doing business with this show though. It's something the audience just needs to accept in order to enjoy the overall series. It's noteworthy to talk about but hopefully these concerns don't drag the rest of the season down too.

Some more thoughts:
  • "Pilot" was written by Liz Flahive & Carly Mensch and directed by Jesse Peretz.
  • Much like Orange Is the New Black, this is a show with a large female ensemble where I probably won't remember all of the characters' names until the end of the season - if even that. That could be frustrating. And yet, the supporting characters only really have brief introductions here. It should be fun to spend more time with them too.
  • One supporting character of merit so far is Britney Young as Carmen. She comes from a wrestling family. That makes her seem particularly skilled for this job. It makes her impressive to the coach teaching the moves if not to everyone else who doesn't really know anything about wrestling (outside of Hulk Hogan, that is). 
  • And then, there is another supporting character - Sydelle Noel as Cherry - who has a past history with Sam. She has worked with him before as an actress. Plus, she seems pretty good in the ring. So, that seems like another story the audience should keep its eye on moving forward.
  • Ruth being let go played as more of a cheap thrill instead of something that would actually last. The wrestling is the main premise of the show. Of course, the lead character would be a star there. It largely just forces her to take this seriously and have to prove her worth to Sam - even though that ultimately happens by accident.
  • Is Debbie going to want to be a part of GLOW though? She has the physicality to do the job as well. She was a semi-successful actress before she left for her family. She was on a soap opera for three seasons. But now, her family has exploded. She still has her baby and may need a job to support him. So, she could be forced to take this one despite it meaning she has to work with Ruth.
  • Ruth getting mugged by a couple of pre-teens is very funny - especially for someone who is now aspiring to be a wrestler on television.

As noted in previous reviews from shows that released their seasons all at once, every episodic review was written without having seen any succeeding episodes. Similarly, it would be much appreciated if in the comments, the conversation would only revolve around the show up to this point in its run.