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All the Write Moves: Glow

July 24, 2018

Throughout its lively first season, the Netflix half-hour dramedy GLOW blended serious themes with silly spectacle by transforming a real life oddity from the 1980s — the sports-entertainment franchise “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” (GLOW for short) — into a warmhearted examination of women’s social status during the Reagan era.

Among the many vibrant threads in the show is the complicated relationship between Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a method actress so insufferably earnest that the best gig she can get is playing a villain on a cheap wrestling show, and Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a self-loathing filmmaker who numbs the pain of a disappointing career with anger, cocaine and sex.

The first episode of GLOW’s second season (which dropped on June 29) takes the Ruth/Sam dynamic into even more difficult territory, deepening the show’s examination of gender politics by summoning two important names from film history. Though it runs about 30 minutes (if one subtracts opening and closing credits), the episode provides several strong examples of purposeful storytelling.

Hitch, please

The first season covered the development, taping and release of the pilot episode for GLOW, the show-within-the-show featuring Ruth and other women playing outrageous characters. The second season tracks production of the show-within-the-show’s first year of episodes. All of which should make clear that Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the creators of GLOW (the Netflix series, not the 1980s show), relish the potential of metatextual storytelling.

Therefore it’s fitting that in the first episode of the new season, Ruth gives an anguished Sam a pep talk by suggesting they’re like Alfred Hitchcock and his wife, Alma. Hitchcock, of course, is such a legendary cinema figure that most people know his name and can cite at least one of his movies, usually Psycho(1960). More than just the so-called “master of suspense,” Hitchcock was a master of self-promotion.

Yet it’s likely that only people who have read a bit of film history are familiar with Alma Hitchcock and the important role she played in her husband’s career. Beyond serving as a screenwriter on many of his films under her maiden name, Alma Reville, she provided uncredited consulting services on movies that Hitchcock made throughout their decades-long marriage.

The Alma/Hitch references in GLOW form a sharp mini-arc. First, Ruth boosts Sam’s ego with the Hitchcock comparison. Then he inadvertently gives Ruth agency by telling her to keep the cast occupied while he attends to technical matters — little suspecting that Ruth will use that agency to shoot a title sequence. Finally, the arc pays off when Sam screens the title sequence, becoming furious that Ruth encroached on his terrain.

“I don’t need help,” he barks at her. “I need you to be a fucking actress.”

More than just winking at the audience, the Alma/Hitch references draw a line connecting chapters from history: Alma Hitchcock lived in her husband’s shadow but Ruth Wilder, a woman of a different generation, feels entitled to recognition for her efforts. Both labor under the weight of patriarchy.

That’s what makes the Alma/Hitch references topical, and that’s what allows the GLOW team to comment on today’s issues by demonstrating how those issues resonated throughout the 20th century and beyond.

Takeaway: Use history to contextualize current events

Shop culture

A new GLOW storyline begins when Ruth meets a cameraman named Russell (Victor Quinaz), then recruits him to shoot and edit the title sequence. Setting aside the sexual tension this encounter sets up for subsequent episodes, Ruth’s interaction with Russell leads to one of the episode’s best lines.

While guiding her fellow performers through skits in a shopping mall (from fighting over shoes inside a store to brawling on an escalator) Ruth draws on her formal training to create dramatic situations, even though the goal is to render those situations comedically. Sometimes she goes for goofy visual gags and sometimes she tries to accentuate the characters her fellow performers portray. But from the beginning of the process to the end, Ruth functions as a sort of auteur, creating scenes from nothing and seeing them through to fruition.

So at the end of the day when Russell compliments Ruth by saying they shot “some rad stuff,” she’s thrilled. In her hapless way, Ruth sees more in the compliment than she should, asking Russell if he feels the footage captured all the sociopolitical heaviosity she had in her mind.

“Oh, no,” he says. “It’s way dumber than that.”

One can’t help but imagine the makers of GLOW seeing that line as more than just a way to undercut Ruth’s delusions of grandeur. For all of its exemplary qualities, GLOW is, at its core, a story about people with wildly varying degrees of talent making a tacky television show. The charm of GLOW is that it acknowledges its own ridiculousness at regular intervals.

Takeaway: Let the audience know you’re in on the joke

Takedown

The most poignant aspect of this particular GLOW episode is the way Ruth continues attempting to rebuild her friendship with Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin). The two were best friends until Debbie discovered that her husband was having an affair with Ruth, but fate threw them back together as co-stars in GLOW, the show-within-the-show.

The first episode of season two finds Debbie slowly drifting back to Ruth but as always, Ruth fails to see the whole picture. Even as Ruth shoots the title sequence with the best of intentions, trying to help Sam get the results he needs, Debbie seizes an opportunity for a power play by sweet talking the show’s financier into giving her a better contract than the other performers.

At the end of the episode, right after Sam berates Ruth for her unauthorized directing, Debbie reveals to Sam that she’s been named a producer of the show-within-the-show. Ruth erred by assuming everyone would applaud her team spirit, while Debbie scored by acting selfishly.

Punishing Ruth for kindness and simultaneously rewarding Debbie for coldhearted gamesmanship amplifies everything that GLOW is about — the intricate nature of female relationships, the power struggles coursing through the entertainment industry, the tension between cynicism and idealism.

Takeaway: Drama hits hardest when good people fail

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