The struggle is real for the women of GLOW.

If the best show on Netflix simply mined 80s nostalgia while titillating us with campy wrestling, that probably would be enough to make it a decent watch. GLOW goes the extra mile to give us a wonderfully insightful dramedy. It’s funny, clever, relevant and unexpectedly moving. You don’t have to understand or even like wrestling to appreciate this show within a show, which will release Season 2 on Friday.

GLOW, short for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, gets viewers in the circus tent with a lot flash (it draws inspiration from an obscure 1980s show). Once you’re in, you’ll get wrapped up in the stories. The characters are mostly women – 14 in all. On a micro level, it’s about them trying to find their way in their careers and lives. On a macro level, it doubles as an entertaining commentary on sexism and female empowerment.

There are a lot of perspectives here that some of the audience – ahem, males – should learn to consider. GLOW walks a fine line in showing gender bias and stereotypes. This high-wire balancing act of mixing comedy and drama can be tricky. Some people will get the show. Some won’t. It likely will offend somebody. That’s the risk you run when you do a next-level, groundbreaking show. When you hold up a societal mirror, not everyone is going to like what they see.

GLOW’s heroine is Ruth, portrayed marvelously by Alison Brie. She’s the most unlikely female wrestler you’ve ever met. Ruth is as intimidating as a puppy but she has a quiet determination about herself. The young actress yearns for success in a Hollywood that is only offering her roles as a secretary or a sex object. Undeterred, Ruth is the kind of person who will audition for male roles to try and make a point. That point often falls on deaf ears. No one is listening. No one cares.

Compounding her professional failures is a personal one. What do you do when you betray your best friend? How do you repair such a mess? Ruth is disloyal to her bestie and fellow actress Debbie (Betty Gilpin) in a way that’s so intimate there is seemingly no turning back. What makes the situation worse is that they’re coworkers. No way to avoid each other. The tension between the ladies is the centerpiece of both the fictionalized wrestling show and the Netflix show.

Debbie is conflicted. The former soap opera star left acting for motherhood but she’s contemplating divorce and sees the wrestling show as an opportunity to reinvent herself as an actress. Debbie doesn’t seem comfortable being a wife or a mother in real life. As her wrestling alter ego, All-American wrestler Liberty Belle, she “feels like a goddamn superhero.”

There is price to be paid. Every day when she comes to work she confronts Ruth. In one of the most poignant scenes, Debbie said, “Sometimes, I’m so sad you took away the option of us ever being able to have a normal fucking conversation.”

The person taking advantage of the Ruth/Debbie tension for personal gain is, of course, a man. But Sam Sylvia isn’t quite who you think he is. Actor and WTF podcast host Marc Maron describes his character as a “redeemable asshole.” On a show about women, one of the breakout stars is man – much like Adam Driver in HBO’s Girls.

Sam is a burned out, washed up and coked up B-movie director. But hey, almost everyone in Hollywood was doing cocaine in the 80s. His sole motivation for trying to get GLOW made is so he can go back to his passion projects (he made a film called Blood Disco!). He has an idea for a new movie called “Mothers and Lovers” – and the plot should sound hilariously familiar. Sylvia is both mean and charming and often has no freakin’ clue on how to respectfully treat women.

And yet, he occasionally shows admirable traits. Sam is at his best in GLOW’s best episode “Maybe It’s All the Disco.” If you haven’t seen the show, I won’t spoil it, but it’s a major surprise that Sam is the one person Ruth can’t count on in an extremely trying situation.

Sam represents some of the worst and best in male behaviors. It’s his idea to use the strained relationship between the Ruth and Debbie as the fuel of his fictional show. He casts Debbie as “the face” (wrestling parlance for the hero) and Ruth as “the heel” (the villain). When Ruth complains, he retorts “The devil gets the best lines.”  

As the face, Debbie is a female version of Hulk Hogan. As the heel, Ruth’s Zoya the Destroya is a Russian stereotype (the female equivalent of Nikolai Volkoff). It’s the Cold War in a ring.

The other women wrestlers portray characters who range from mildly offensive (sexy British evil genius “Britannica” played by singer Kate Nash) to nuclear (“The Welfare Queen” played by Kia Stevens, an actual pro wrestler). If you’re shocked, that’s the point. GLOW is mocking wrestling’s long tradition of trafficking in stereotypes (in the 1980s, it was The Iron Shiek, Junkyard Dog, Virgil, Mr. Fuji, etc.).

But more than anything else, GLOW is a show about women being free to make their own decisions. In a fictionalized world and the real world, that’s something worth watching.

Top 10 best quotes from GLOW:

10. “I think my vagina just swallowed itself.”

9. “Who died and made her the black Nurse Ratched?”

8. “I’d like to call on the power of my three favorite Americans: Ronald Reagan, Larry Bird, and Jesus Christ himself.”

7. “I just need someone to disagree with so I can clarify my own instincts.”

6.  “Porn you can watch with your kids. Finally!”

5.  “So what? Ideas are cheap. Everyone’s got ideas. Your idiot butler probably has 10 Oscar-winning ideas.”

4. “What if they put us on a watch list? What if Bill Cosby gets mad at us?”

3. “Babies are boring. I mean they don’t party. They haven’t traveled. They have no sense of irony.”

2. “There are drugs in the fucking robot!”

1. “I’m not paranoid! Who told you that?”

About Michael Grant

Born in Jamaica. Grew up in New York City. Lives in Louisville, Ky. Sports writer. Not related to Ulysses S. Grant, Anthony Grant, Amy Grant or Hugh Grant.