Sunday, July 2, 2017

Ranking The Wrestling Gimmicks and Characters of Netflix's Original Series, GLOW

My roommate and I planned on watching only the pilot of the new Netflix series, a fictionalized account of a televised wrestling promotion that aired episodes in the mid 80s called GLOW. The pilot was so unexpectedly good, we ended up watching through to the halfway point of the debut season together before he had to leave. I ended up finishing the remainder of the series the same evening.

Besides the series relating to entertainment that I have always been fascinated by and loved, the acting and writing on the show made for an enthralling viewing experience. Not every character gets a huge moment unfortunately, but you can see threads that they are setting up for a returning season.

And the performances that do get to shine truly do. Especially revelatory to me was Marc Maron as Sam Sylvia, the director of the series. I also found a lot of clever subversions for character types: Gayle Rankin's Sheila is committed 24/7 to the she-wolf gimmick and the reasoning behind it took a more mature tone than I was expecting. Britney Young's Carmen (whom I know from Crazy Ex-Girlfriend) plays the gentle giant, Machu Picchu and rather than a size issue, her central conflict is with her father and their wrestling legacy. She comes from a famous wrestling family (The LumberJacksons) and her father is against her wrestling because she's a woman. Even Alison Brie, the main character Ruth, gets an unexpected arc as she develops into the show's heel (the bad guy).

There's still some issues of underdeveloped characters or wholly offensive gimmicks but the 80s wrestling scene was awash with racial stereotypes among other things. And there are a couple moments where those issues are addressed head on. Kia Stevens, who is one of the few professional wrestlers in the main women's cast and plays one of my favorite lady wrestlers ever, Awesome Kong, is saddled with a gimmick known as The Welfare Queen. At first, she is getting a kick out of it, but soon worries about her, a black woman, portraying a negative stereotype associated with poor, black people. Sam brings her aside to talk it out and explains that it's a commentary and criticism of the stereotype: that her arc is going to involve her confronting this stereotype and overcoming it. It's a great scene (with solid acting from Stevens) and I don't believe Sam's character is feeding her bullshit, but we don't see a whole lot of payoff for it in these episodes.

Similarly, her tag team partner for their first show is Sydelle Noel's Cherry Bang. Her gimmick is Junkchain, the name of which alone reeks of blaxploitation. Fortunately, she quickly turns makes it into a Pam Grier ass-kicker. Cherry also becomes responsible for training the other girls to get them into fighting shape. I really like Cherry and there are a lot of threads of interesting stories brought up throughout the initial ten episodes, but none of them feel wrapped up satisfyingly by the end of the series. That said, she's an amazing actor, and she needs a more prominent role for second series.

But overall, the pacing of the show is well thought out, and it never feels slow. It all keeps growing perfectly and climaxes with their big live show that really does come together. And as an ensemble, I love the dynamic. At any given moment, I am despising a character I am rooting for and then loving a character I was previously wanting to see get their ass kicked. It's dynamic, it's complicated, but presented broadly and cleverly. Sounds like wrestling to me.

So I thought I'd speak to the aspect of the show that I understand the most, and that I'm most used to deconstructing. Here's my ranking of all the ladies' gimmicks and characters they portrayed for the series:

13.) Scab
Real Name: Justine Biagi
Played by: Britt Baron
The Girl: Justine is the most mysterious and keeps to herself a lot. She ends up offering the biggest twist of this first season, but in terms of the wrestling she comes up on the bottom of the list. She's working with Britannica at one point, and they have potential for a feud later on, but other than that, we don't know too much else.
The Gimmick: Seems to be a punk rocker/anarchy hybrid. Rebel youth.
The Good: The outfit was super simple and the gimmick itself has a lot of room for growth in a lot of different directions.
The Bad: I'm just not a fan of generic rocker gimmicks. This one seemed to have an edge to it, but it's that fake edge, you know, "I'm so against the mainstream! Bleh!" sort of thing. Also, we never see her take a match so it's truly hard to judge.

12.) Vicky The Viking
Real Name: Reggie Walsh
Played by: Marianna Palka
The Girl: An interesting thread is that Reggie originally has the Liberty Belle gimmick, because she's a competitive wrestler with gold medals. It gets taken unceremoniously to be bestowed on Debbie and is never really brought up again. Reggie herself kind of gets lost in the shuffle.
The Gimmick: At one point, Maron's Sylvia tells another wrestler, "I don't want you to just become a prop." And this is exactly the fate of Reggie's Vicky The Viking. Outside of her horned hat, not much memorable here.
The Good: That said, I love a Viking gimmick. It's ancient history enough that it can be played with and embellished. Walsh is a larger girl so it's a good fit for the role, and she could be a destroyer in upcoming seasons.
The Bad: Now that being said, I know a Viking gimmick is just a step above a Pirate gimmick. It's just so obvious. So hopefully they can add another layer to it. Like The Berserker. Oh, please, look up The Berserker. I think that was just a legit crazy person.

11.) The She-Wolf
Real Name: Sheila
Played by: Gayle Rankin
The Girl: Sheila's gimmick is one that she had already committed to prior to the series. It starts as that weird archetype of a character who always wears the same thing everyday or is antisocial and eats the exact same thing from home every single day. In a particularly sweet scene, Ruth reveals that she sympathizes with what motivates Sheila to commit to the gimmick 24/7. She has a subtly beautiful arc going on in the background of much of the season.
The Gimmick: That said, there isn't much to the gimmick. I do admire the idea of her wanting to avoid being reductive. She doesn't want to add explicit wolf ears (her hairdo, later revealed to be a wig, imply wolf ears), or claws. She also doesn't want to do promos about being afraid of the full moon, because that's makes her a werewolf, and "those aren't real." But we also don't see her act very wolf-like, except in the final show where she becomes a rabid and feral version of her character.
The Good: I love full commitment gimmicks. Reminds me of Undertaker and Mankind, gimmicks of that nature. She's got a very clear internal logic to her character.
The Bad: Again, a lot of this logic is not external, and so we're left feeling a little detached from the She-Wolf. Maybe she's a wolf raised by humans, and so feels confused about her identity in that regard? She just needs another wrinkle like that to connect us.

10.) Beirut The Mad Bomber
Real Name: Arthie Premkumar
Played by: Sunita Mani
The Girl: Arthie is the quiet one, who gets low-key excited when action starts in the ring, or drama gets stirred. You can also see her studying, taking notes, while she's living at the Dusty Spur. These two things suggest a deeper character than we are shown. I also love that her grandmother loves wrestling, we see her watching some at one point.
The Gimmick: Unfortunately, the gimmick is the hardest for me to stomach of the offensive racial stereotypes in the show. It also feels like it's the least confronted of that lot. Beirut the Mad Bomber is nothing but a villain an amalgam of derogatory racial stereotypes.
The Good: Arthie has a commitment to the character, even though we clearly see she's uncomfortable with it. Perhaps we get to see a better thought-out evolution of her character that's a little more progressive.
The Bad: I mean, watch her match in the final episode. It's cringeworthy. The primitive scream, the evil make-up... It's the worst of wrestling, but I rank it higher because of Arthie's commitment to the gimmick.

9.) Fortune Cookie
Real Name: Jenny Chey
Played by: Ellen Wong
The Girl: Jenny's quiet, and we don't get to see much of a personality until it's Sheila's birthday late in the season. Then we get to see how she's a bit of a perfectionist and a very enthusiastic and loyal friend. Similar to Arthie, she has some misgivings about her eventual gimmick, but there's fortunately more redeeming qualities to it than Mad Bomber.
The Gimmick: Fortune Cookie is a mix of two stereotypes: the innocent Asian flower and the naturally expert Asian fighter. She carries a sword. She wears a rice paddy hat. She teams up with the Russian in the finale for a Red Scare team. It's ridiculous, but somehow slightly less offensive than the previous.
The Good: At least this gimmick proves to be a capable fighter. And she is someone to be feared because her skills are formidable.
The Bad: It's too bad they're such stereotypical characteristics given to the Asian girl. Although during the scene where everyone's picking their own outfits in Bash's wardrobe she picks the furry outfit. So maybe she shouldn't be left to her own devices?

8.) Machu Picchu
Real Name: Carmen Wade
Played by: Britney Young
The Girl: Carmen is easily my favorite of the girls on the roster. She's sweet without being overly saccharine, and she's earnest without ever being grating. She also feels the most relateable, with her struggles: going against her family's wishes, trying to make a name for herself without the shadow of her legacy, and getting stage fright because she's never taken such strides for herself before. Again, I also loved that her central conflict was not her size. Of course, in wrestling size is an advantage, but I was worried about the show recycling this age-old obstacle for the "big girl." Carmen's struggle with her wrestling family legacy makes for some good moments in the mid-season.
The Gimmick: So since we're ranking the gimmicks, Machu Picchu falls toward the bottom half of the list because there isn't much else to it. Other than the wonderful nickname "The Gentle Giant," I'm not really sure what I'm supposed to root here for. That said, I love the moment where she thinks she's gonna be a villain, because children will be scared of her, and Bash tells her, "What? Kids will love you." And I agree. It's got room to become a great babyface.
The Good: Like I said, it's a great babyface idea. I think one possible layer to add is a bit like Mice and Men. She just doesn't realize her own strength. So she's friendly and fun when she comes out, and is an absolute killer in the ring, and is actually holding back for fear of truly, badly hurting her opponents.
The Bad: Again, at the moment, she doesn't have a whole lot to the character. I don't remember any promos she did, and her match didn't have much story to it, it was really just Bash (as the announcer) turning her stage fright into "mountain fever" and making the story of the match about her overcoming that.

7.) Melrose
Real Name: Melanie Rosen
Played by: Jackie Tohn
The Girl: Mel is one of the characters that I would go from hating to loving and hating and loving again all in one episode. She's the party girl, out late, not really committed, playing pranks, alienating herself among the girls. But she becomes very spirited, unifying the girls several times, and being a blunt voice of reason when things go off the rails.
The Gimmick: I honestly really love the Melanie Rosen > Melrose morph. The other characters constantly hate it in the show, but I love it. And it gives her a perfect gimmick to follow, the Hollywood starlet, the party girl. Her entrance carried by the guys is great, and even though it's whispered, it's the epitome of the character when she tells them, "Better not fucking drop me."
The Good: The best gimmicks are close to the real person. It has to be something they're able to turn on and turn off. Mel already is Melrose. When Cherry rips her down for not really being all that interesting and only pretending to lead a wild and crazy lifestyle, she's right. But it also makes her perfect at pretending to be something more than she is.
The Bad: I'll say the only bad part of it is that Bash and her seem to land on a more dominatrix style gimmick while in the wardrobe. Considering a dominatrix has pretty much never worked in wrestling, I would've loved to see them try.

6.) Junkchain
Real Name: Cherry Bang
Played by: Sydelle Noel
The Girl: Cherry is a fighter, a stuntwoman, and an out of work aspiring actor. She's tough, impersonal, and no-nonsense. When she's with her husband, we get to see her softer side which is nice. She's a natural leader of the team, and gets very invested in the girls' well-being and futures.
The Gimmick: Bad-ass Pam Grier ass-kicker? Hell yes. There's not too much else to it. The jumpsuit is cool, she owns the role well, and there's certainly a sense of justice that she carries with her.
The Good: Cherry is believable in the role. I love that she bends the world to her will. Initially, she and Welfare Queen fight the Rosenblatts and refuses to take shit for being two black women beating up two white old ladies. And she makes them wear KKK robes? So she can kick their racist asses? I love it.
The Bad: A dangerous line this walks is one that a lot of black wrestlers were saddled with in the 80s and early 90s: there is no gimmick, your gimmick is that you're black. Again, Cherry's character name is Junkchain. It's dicey. But since Cherry has so much control over how her character is presented and doesn't take backtalk from anyone, I think it's very cool.

5.) Ethel and Edna Rosenblatt (The Beatdown Bitties)
Real Name: Kimmy Gatewood and Rebekka Johnson
Played by: Stacey Beswick and Dawn Rivecca
The Girl(s): They become the pranksters once everyone moves into the complex, and we know they're hairstylists and always together. Other than that, they're mostly background comic relief moments and they have one solid moment before going out in the KKK robes where they show their own misgivings of the gimmick.
The Gimmick: Ethel and Edna is a really funny tag team idea. They are a great comic act. Some of the lines they have in the finale as they walk out had me laughing. And it's just so absurd. Two old ladies are gonna wrestle? Awesome.
The Good: Again, they're fantastic at their parts. They'll be great for comedy sketches and promos down the line.
The Bad: I don't know much else that you can do with this gimmick. It's a bit one-note, but fortunately there's a lot of mileage in the idea.

4.) Britannica
Real Name: Rhonda Richardson
Played by: Kate Nash
The Girl: Australian, sweet, and very capable at her character. She really likes Sam and they're seeing each other for a while until she realizes he's just not that into her. I'm glad she gets to walk away from the relationship before he has a chance to nuke it. She also comes up with the GLOW rap, and it's an interesting feel-good moment, but I like that it hints at something more to her character that maybe we'll see.
The Gimmick: Britannica is the smartest girl in the world, complete with suspenders, bow-tie, and book. But the double entendres abound, because she's also showing off her physical assets way more than her smarts.
The Good: I love clever gimmicks like this. She fronts as a genius, but the real story is her sexuality, which she plays to her advantage. All of her promos include some sort of innuendo.
The Bad: Not much here, except I do have this theory of Rhonda taking on a different gimmick (an Olivia Newton-John "Let's Get Physical" character) and Arthie, who is actually smart, takes over the Britannica character to morph it into something more legit.

3.) The Welfare Queen
Real Name: Tamme Dawson
Played by: Kia Stevens
The Girl: Tamme is great, and owns her character. We don't get to see too much of her story, save for one scene where she points out that her son will be watching and doesn't want to come off as a stereotype to him. I'd like to see more of her personal life in another season. Kia is an unexpectedly great actor.
The Gimmick: The Welfare Queen is freeloading off government money. She throws foodstamps, she buys expensive products like a fur coat that she doesn't need, and she flaunts it in front of the fiscally conservative for heat.
The Good: Again, Kia has great commitment and color to the character. It should be a villain, but it's so endearing.
The Bad: It's another black racial stereotype, and we never see this progression and evolution of it that Sam alludes to that eventually convinces Tamme to maintain the character. Maybe it'll happen next season.

2.) Liberty Belle 
Real Name: Debbie Eagan
Played by: Betty Gilpin
The Girl: Debbie is an out of work soap star who was very popular when she was a household name. She leaves to have a baby, and her husband never seems all that supportive of her career choices anyhow. I love when Carmen takes her to a match and she finally gets it, she finally gets wrestling. It's the moment I truly get behind her and become invested in her success. Before then, she's playing the entitled star, the ringer brought in who doesn't have a knack for the biz, and also steals a gimmick which doesn't endear her to the others.
The Gimmick: Liberty is the all-American vanilla hero. But I do love the bit of an edge that Debbie gives it, calling out Communists, talking about our superior weapons, and talking up our intense sense of patriotism.
The Good: It could be an incredibly broad and safe patriot gimmick, like Lex Luger but Debbie adds good color to it. The added layer of her coming from the audience, pretending to be a typical housewife is even better, giving her this down-home American suburban air.
The Bad: Not much here. Besides the fact that I think All-American gimmicks are boring. Debbie (and Betty playing her) though, makes her far more interesting than that.

1.) Zoya The Destroya
Real Name: Ruth Wilder
Played by: Alison Brie
The Girl: Ruth is by all intents and purposes our protagonist for the show. We are rooting for her the most. There's a lot of depth to her character, and her relationship with Debbie is great. I love that it's not fully resolved by the end. And I love that Ruth has to deal with becoming a role she does not want, before eventually coming to own it fully.
The Gimmick: Zoya is a proud Russian patriot, the perfect villain for the all-American housewife.
The Good: She makes anti-American jokes, she talks about the struggles in Russia that her make her a tougher, smarter, superior opponent, and her outfits are amazing.
The Bad: It's a character, so eventually it may have to evolve and become more than just a broad stereotype for the American hero to beat up. But for now, Ruth's commitment to the gimmick is great, and more than sufficient to put her at the top of the rankings.