Netflix is now a mess. The streaming service currently has more than 100 million worldwide subscribers and has quadrupled the amount of original programming it creates and offers to subscribers. It's too much. It has finally started cancelling shows. But it keeps renewing shows that are very, very bad. It's starting to resemble old-school TV and that's why the mess looks familiar.
Recently cancelled are Sense8, The Get Down, Marco Polo and Girlboss. Of those, only Sense8 had any real merit. The Get Down was a hideous failure, Marco Polo was boring and Girlboss was, in a word, repulsive. Netflix claims it doesn't pay attention to demographics or viewer numbers, but what the company means is that it doesn't talk about these numbers. What does get its attention is critical praise. In an era of so much content, praise from the press matters.
GLOW (now streaming on Netflix) deserves praise. It's very, very good. But it also manages to expose the problem with Netflix content – there is minimal quality control, meaning the show swerves from great to wobbly indulgence. Episodes vary a lot in strength. A lot.
The first episodes are charming, fresh and funny. It's a half-hour drama-comedy set in the 1980s and is very loosely based on the story of the real TV production Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a women's wrestling thingamajig that started airing in 1986 and ran for four years. Women actors playing women wrestlers. That's the gist.
In a way, GLOW, as with Stranger Things, is an homage to the eighties, but creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and co-executive producer Jenji Kohan (Orange Is the New Black) use the material and the setting in that era to deliver an often caustic commentary on the lack of roles for women then and now. And the sexist treatment of women in the entertainment industry, plus, well, the fraught drama of women being empowered to act out aggressively but together in a unit. It has a strange, stinging vibe, this series. Its comedy is bittersweet and sometimes just outright bitter. It's one of the best Netflix originals in ages.
At first, Glow is about Ruth (Alison Brie, who was Trudy Campbell on Mad Men and Annie on Community), an actress scratching out a living in L.A. and trying to avoid the ultimate defeat of doing porn. She's near penniless and wants serious roles. In the opening scene, she deliberately reads a man's part at an audition to make a statement about being reduced to playing the secretary who pops into the male boss's office with a phone message.
Desperate, she's determined to land a role in this Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling thing, even if she'd rather do Tennessee Williams. On the set, she meets others like her. A strength of GLOW is the slowly growing emphasis on the ensemble cast. It's all women and they are of all shapes and sizes and ethnically diverse. They bicker, of course, and some are brittle but they form a team that's determined to nail this wrestling weirdness. It will bring dignity to all of them.
But there's a nasty undertow in Ruth's already panicky life. She's been having a fling with the husband of her best friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin from Masters of Sex), a former soap-opera actress now depressed and lonely with a baby to take care of. Debbie despises her new life and despises Ruth when she discovers the affair. She despises this wrestling thing, too, but she's given an opportunity to punish Ruth, so you can guess where this is going.
In the middle of this female-centric drama and anxiety is comedian Marc Maron as Sam Sylvia, the cynical director of this new women's wrestling show. Maron is excellent as the smugly sarcastic, sexist veteran who thinks he knows these women by merely glancing at their bodies. He's a stereotype who becomes more than that and he's representative of the entire, outrageously sexist industry. "Who doesn't trust a man with a moustache full of cocaine?" one of the women says of him.
A problem with GLOW, as the early episodes roll out, is that Sam gets a bit too much time at the centre of things. As the show within a show evolves, there is less about this fabulous group of diverse women and more about Sam and, then, oddly, the series emphatically shifts back to the women.
GLOW is good, sometimes great, and brave in a way that no network or most cable channels would allow – it sprawls, allowing the ensemble cast of women characters to emerge in an organic way. In that, it most resembles Orange Is the New Black. Except that it has a wicked sense of humour rather than being trippy.
It's highly recommended. Netflix is a mess, GLOW is a bit messy, but a very appealing kind of mess.