It’s a little early for “Best of the Decade” prizes, so forgive me this one trespass: Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie) and Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin) are my favorite TV duo of the 2010s. On stage, they’re starring on GLOW’s show-within-a-show, wrestling through late-Cold War fantasy as nefarious Commie Zoya the Destroya and apple-pie glamazon Liberty Belle, respectively. Off stage, they’re eternal best friends and occasional mortal enemies, each other’s conscience and funhouse-mirror shadow self.
Witness two distinct species of performer: Ruth’s so method, she reads Stanislavski in bed, whereas Debbie jobbed as a soap opera demi-star, “the woman who was bitchy to Linda Evans in a jewelry store on Dynasty.” The two actresses behind the actresses are clashingly great: sad-eyed Brie with her exultant sitcom-star theatricality, golden Gilpin radiating sly seen-it-all dark humor. Ruth and Debbie could be just two odd-couple sides of the same coin, the brunet craftsman with highbrow directorial aspirations and her blond producer pal working cocktail meetings with slithery moneymen.
Their dynamic runs deeper than art and commerce, though. GLOW really is some kind of epic, a business-personal saga of neon-spandex empowerment, spreading its attention across a large cast of mostly women. The ever-entertaining Netflix comedy balances so many unsteady paradoxes about empowered femalehood — inevitable, probably, on a series about women working together to fight each other. Typical paradox: In season 3, the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling have hit a new high and a new low, depending on your mileage for Las Vegas. It’s 1986, and the women are living together in the Fan-Tan, an off-Strip hotel and casino with a 24-hour buffet. A great place for sunrise nightlife and one-night stands with hot valets, no doubt. But the inspiration’s slipping out of their wrestling performance that’s taking place in the downstairs ballroom. “The show’s been sloppy as sh—,” complains coach/costar Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel), and she’s being kind.
Still, the company’s booked through April — and, after all, the fun of a steady gig is you get to focus on other opportunities. Cherry tracks her ovulation calendar with husband Keith (Bashir Salahuddin). Sheila (Gayle Rankin) and Tammé (Kia Stevens) take an acting class, going off-book with Miss Julie and A Raisin in the Sun. Sam (Marc Maron) is working on a new movie script. Newlyweds Bash (Chris Lowell) and Rhonda (Kate Nash) are penthousing through some marital difficulties.
Two new characters join the already large ensemble. The Fan-Tan’s entertainment is run by a onetime showgirl named Sandy Devereaux St. Clair. The name alone sounds like lipstick on a cathedral, and Geena Davis has a grand time playing a figure of camp and glamour. There’s also a local drag performer named Bobby (Kevin Cahoon), whose cheerful all-the-way-out homosexuality deepens GLOW’s exploration of ’80s worlds outside the nostalgiastream.
Creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch are getting more experimental, and time flies in vivid ways. Tammé struggles through back pains, and her daily life ritualizes into a bruising montage: wine, pills, wrestling, repeat, repeat. Then marvel at the stunning two-minute shot of Ruth wiping off her stage makeup while weeks time-lapse through the dressing room behind her. That moment is set to Siouxsie and the Banshees singing “Cities in Dust”; you could burn a righteous mix out of season 3’s soundtrack. One standout episode, bookended by Stevie Nicks and Dolly Parton, sends the entire GLOW cast to Red Rock Canyon for a night of hiking, bong hits, and cultural conversation. That campout becomes a showcase for Ellen Wong, whose Jenny is starting to get tired of playing a racial stereotype for cheap laughs.
The series is also hitting some walls. The will-they-won’t-they romance between Ruth and Sam just doesn’t work. Maron’s still great, turning Sam almost Ruffalovian with wounded charm, but he feels left behind in this Vegas adventure. Meanwhile, costars Arthie (Sunita Mani) and Yolanda (Shakira Barrera) are openly dating. It’s a potentially fascinating arc — ex-stripper coaxes former med student into first lesbian relationship! — that winds up oddly undernourished.
Conversely, there’s an entire episode about, like, the female body: getting in shape, getting pregnant, and getting older in an industry (world?) that cruelly judges women on looks alone. This is a physical show — the actresses famously perform their own stunts — and season 3 makes physicality a key plot arc. Sam is a lifelong smoker hacking his way through tennis matches. Tammé’s physical dissolution takes on deeper resonance when you remember she’s played by Stevens, a real-life wrestler. There’s a lot of nudity, and it always feels meaningful: casual, funny, embarrassing in an artful way, objectifying with self-awareness. And Gilpin continues to give one of the best performances on TV, juggling Debbie’s profound professional ambitions with the personal strife of a divorced mom living a desert away from her son.
Ever since the perfect first season, I’ve been wondering if this sitcom has trended a tad too sweet. It can feel overly generous in its portrait of a Reagan-era Female Eden, based ever-more-loosely on true events while exhibiting some very 2019-ish hip hindsight about the necessary breaking of gender norms. Flahive and Mensch turn this material tragic when you least expect it, though, transforming apparent successes into private failures (and vice versa). At its best, season 3 excavates the glorious tragedy underpinning the highest camp. The colorful exuberance hides sadness, and struggle. It’s a harsh world, no question — so dark that even the weakest lights look like bright stars glowing. Grade: A-
GLOW season 3 launches Aug. 9 on Netflix.