Set in mid-1980s Los Angeles—specifically, in an unglamorous warehouse in the San Fernando Valley—two intertwined conflicts drove GLOW’s first season. Inspired by the real-life TV show Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which aired from 1986 to 1990, Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch’s Netflix series followed the underdog story of a group of struggling actors trying to pass for an all-female league of professional wrestlers.
Those two major challenges: First, the women, few of whom had athletic backgrounds, had to learn how to conquer the body-slams and flying squirrel-like aerial attacks taught by stuntwoman Cherry “Junkchain” Bang (Sydelle Noel) so they could convincingly play real wrestlers on TV. But they also had to grapple with the often-racist foundations of their characters: Take Tammé “Welfare Queen” Dawson (played by real professional wrestler Kia Stevens), who wears fur coats and throws food stamps like confetti, or Arthie “Beruit the Mad Bomber” Premkumar (Sunita Mani), an Indian American medical student who, in the season finale, got pelted with a beer can.
Simmering beneath all of this was tension between the series’ main characters, the overeager Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), who plays “Zoya the Destroya,” the show’s Soviet heel, and Ruth’s former best friend, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), a retired soap opera star who plays the patriotic “Liberty Belle.” At the beginning of GLOW, Ruth slept with Debbie’s husband, then spent the remainder of the season groveling for forgiveness. It was an uncomfortable dynamic, and the league’s washed-up, coke-snortin’ director, Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), pushed it to the limit for the sake of good TV.
Between the amazing glittery costumes, impressive wrestling moves, and exceedingly likable characters, GLOW’s first season was great, but it wasn’t perfect—although each member of the ensemble had a unique backstory, it was difficult to keep track of everyone, and sometimes the plot felt limited by the “show within a show” concept. But GLOW’s second season goes above and beyond by finally addressing looming questions (like those uncomfortable racist caricatures) and fleshing out subplots involving the show’s more peripheral characters. I won’t spoil too much, but I will say that this season’s queer love story made me weep pure, crystalline tears of joy, hope, and gratitude.
But the thing that really makes the new season of GLOW worth watching is how the characters face issues that were particularly raw in the 1980s (like the AIDS epidemic and the stigma around divorce) and others that are still relevant today, especially in the wake of #MeToo: sexual harassment in the workplace, fair pay, sex work, drug use and abuse, the pressures on working mothers. It’s especially interesting to watch the internal conflict of “Welfare Queen” Tammé get externalized when her son, a Stanford student, discovers her new career. This juxtaposes sharply against the “America first” rhetoric of Debbie’s “Liberty Belle,” who seems oblivious to how her role as the show’s beloved heroine enforces the real-life marginalization of her coworkers.
Thankfully, season two of GLOW is still just as charming and campy as the first—the soundtrack is equally killer (with deep cuts like Missing Persons’ “Destination Unknown”), as are those sparkly costumes and acrobatic wrestling moves. This time, though, it gives its characters challenges that, 30 years later, feel just as challenging for women in any workplace.