Starz’s Wrestling Family Drama Heels Successfully Blurs the Lines Between Battles In and Out of the RingPhoto Courtesy of Starz TV Reviews Heels
“Oh, it’s all a ring, sweetheart.”
When rough-around-the-edges, veteran professional wrestler Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer) utters that line in the fourth episode of Starz’s Heels, it’s essentially the Heels equivalent of the line from William Shakespeare’s As You Like It: “All the world’s a stage. And all the men are merely players.” Because of course professional wrestling and Shakespeare go hand in hand; professional wrestling—or sports entertainment, even—is ultimately a very physical form of theatre. It is performance art. Immersive performance art, where the live audience is expected and encouraged to cheer the good guys (the babyfaces, or “faces”) and boo the bad guys (the “heels”). It’s territory that Netflix’s GLOW had its characters slowly but surely realize, and it’s territory that Starz’s Heels has its characters absolutely thrive in from the very moment we meet them.
Heels is a series that sets out to not just push back the metaphorical curtain (as opposed to the literal curtain) on the world of contemporary professional wrestling, but to examine how the lines of reality can be blurred—something professional wrestling takes to another level. That’s especially true when wrestling is literally your family’s whole life, the thing that you hope puts food on the table. Heels asks the questions one would expect a show about professional wrestling to ask: When does kayfabe (the established “fake” world of wrestling) become a shoot (the real world)? When does a shoot become kayfabe? What happens when those worlds co-exist? And in the specific case of Heels, how do these characters balance work and family when both are inextricably linked?
Created by Loki’s Michael Waldron—with Mike O’Malley serving as showrunner—the series follows brothers Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace (Alexander Ludwig) Spade as they navigate their way through the world of local, independent professional wrestling in their small, fictional Georgia hometown of Duffy. (There are accents on this show. Oh, there are accents.) The series begins nearly a year after the shocking death of their father, “King” Tom Spade (David James Elliott), a local hero who left behind a legacy and big shoes to fill. He also left behind the family business, the Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). Family man Jack, who plays a heel in DWL and hold the company’s championship belt, takes over the responsibilities of running the promotion (booking wrestlers, writing the storylines, courting sponsors, and everything else he can possibly do to grow the DWL), while devil-may-care Ace—the promotion’s top face—has dreams of making it big in professional wrestling and finally getting out of Duffy the way Wild Bill did.
Naturally, this is where the difference between shoot and kayfabe comes in, as Jack’s mature, pragmatic personality is as far a cry from his champion heel character’s as Ace’s true brash, selfish (and often cruel) personality is. Of course, while there are clear delineations between the “good” and “bad” guy in the kayfabe story, things don’t just boil down like that in the shoot world. Which is why for as “good” as Jack is, he’s extremely stubborn and always believes his way is the only way—and that singular focus on growing the DWL affects his home life. Meanwhile, the “bad” brother Ace is clearly plagued by insecurity in almost every facet of his life, both backstage at the DWL and at home, still living with their Bible-thumping mother, Carol (Alice Barrett-Mitchell).
At this year’s virtual San Diego Comic-Con, O’Malley explained what drew him to the story of Heels:
They have ambitions, they have yearning, and they want to go do those things. And even if it doesn’t seem like it can be as big as something like the WWE, to them, in this town—just like anybody who’s in a play at a small town, at a local theatre, or is in a band that is going and playing their first show or their tenth show at a local music venue—the approach that they bring to their work has incredible effort and passion.”
O’Malley went on to explain how that passion could in turn take one’s attention away from the other things in their lives that matter. That conflict, brought on by the characters working in the DWL, is what Heels is all about. That’s what Jack struggles with when it comes to being there for his wife, Staci (Alison Luff), who accepts Jack’s dedication to DWL but just wants more balance in their lives—and she has to come to terms with taking more control as a result— as well as their eight-year-old son, Thomas (Roxton Garcia).
While plenty of hardcore wrestling fans may believe that kayfabe is dead, because of the way the DWL is still considered the biggest thing in the world in Duffy (and is actually growing, due to the work Jack is putting in), kayfabe’s still pretty alive. Local children are afraid of Jack when he’s out and about, while they worship Ace like he truly is the second coming of “King” Spade. Even the adults, who have personally knows the Spades and since they were kids, still buy into the dramas created in the ring during DWL shows.
That’s the non-verbal contract one signs when it comes to professional wrestling. However, Ace very much struggles to separate the reaction he gets to what people really think of him—seeing the cheers or boos as wrestling heat instead of just a judgment of him as a person. While he may be a natural talent in the ring, he still doesn’t quite get the full picture. A former high school football star, Ace only started wrestling because Jack convinced him to in the aftermath of their father’s death, so he hasn’t even been doing this a year when the show begins, and thoughts of Wild Bill scouting him to sign him to the big leagues begin to fill his head.
Not everyone watching Heels is going to be 100% familiar with the world of professional wrestling—especially the behind-the-scenes reality—which is why the series has to be accessible beyond that. And it is. Mary McCormack, who plays DWL’s producer and Jack’s business partner Willie, has even compared the series to Friday Night Lights in terms of the contrast between needing to care about the actual sports framing device and caring about the characters themselves and their trials and tribulations. While any comparison to a show like Friday Night Lights is going to lead to lofty expectations, the pilot of Heels (appropriately titled “Kayfabe”) perhaps best channels that feeling and tone and ambiance. Pilots are difficult, but “Kayfabe” really builds up both the spectacle of professional wrestling—even in this more intimate, local setting—and the anticipation of the main event: folks closing up shop early the night of a DWL show, tailgating, meeting the wrestlers before the show, showing off their love of this promotion. Local indy wrestling, even in big cities, can have a real party atmosphere. You get to know the people attending the shows, the people running these shows, even the wrestlers working the shows. It becomes a ritual, which is something that is unspoken in Heels, even though it is very much shown.
The blurring of shoot and kayfabe is simply what you do—and what the audience comes to expect—when it comes to a show about professional wrestling. That was also the case for Netflix’s GLOW, though Heels is a more dramatic and somewhat contemporary approach to similar material. Unlike GLOW, Heels has the advantage, as it were, to not have to start from the ground up, instead introducing the audience to the world as it’s already in progress. So in addition to meeting Jack and Ace, Heels also introduces us to other members of the DWL roster, which includes: Rooster Robins (Allen Maldonaldo), the best wrestler in DWL but has yet to get the main event push he believes he deserves; Apocalypse (James Harrison), a journeyman wrestler and former DWL champion who is content with where his career has ended up; and Bobby Pins (Trey Tucker), the newest roster member, a green but extremely optimistic wrestler from Texas who’s just trying to figure out his gimmick (and wrestling, in general). There is also Ace’s valet (and “love” interest) Crystal (Kelli Berglund), who is technically not part of the roster and isn’t even allowed in the locker room—Willie’s rules—but has dreams of wrestling for the DWL, with a mind for a business that few people seem to want to listen to. Especially not Ace, even when he should. (Honestly, the whole nuclear Spade family is kind of terrible to Crystal.)
Again, for the uninitiated, Heels is a very good entrypoint into the world of professional wrestling—especially seeing it up close and seeing the intricacies of something as important as calling a match on the spot. But also like GLOW, for those who are already initiated, it does leave a little something to be desired. The reason why Heels is only “somewhat” contemporary compared to a show like GLOW is that it does seemingly want to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to the world of professional wrestling, showing what it’s like now—especially when you’re not in a bigger promotion—while still holding on to the old territory wrestling days of the a pre-Vince McMahon monopoly.
To go a little further: of course, there’s something to be said about a small town indy wrestling promotion being stuck in the past, and its audience appreciating that type of familiarity. But as characters talk about growing and evolving the DWL, and even possibly leaving the promotion for the big time, it’s difficult to parse what that looks like in terms of what other, real-life indy promotions and up-and-coming wrestlers are doing these days—and that’s not even comparing them to WWE or AEW, or even smaller, non-indy operations like Ring of Honor or IMPACT Wrestling. (Speaking of IMPACT Wrestling, fans will definitely recognize the footage when Heels shows clips from the DWL’s rival blood and guts promotion—led by O’Malley’s Charlie Gully—Florida Wrestling Dystopia, or the FWD.) It’s very clear that Waldron was inspired by the world of old-school wrestling from the ‘80s (through perhaps the late ‘90s), just as it’s clear, in general, how much that model is still what people think when they hear about wrestling: big, sweaty men, clubbing at each other.
But as Jack talks of making the DWL into something bigger, that always seems like it’s in the context of being the biggest territory around; and wrestling is far removed from the territory days, at least in the way that the show depicts it. The characters of Heels are weekend warriors, and while there is nothing wrong with that, those are not typically the kind of wrestlers who have something more coming for them. The chances of someone like Ace Spade—with just barely a year of experience in his hometown promotion and nothing flashier than a moonsault in his offensive arsenal—potentially being signed to a developmental contract by one of the big name American promotions are low.
Rooster, on the other hand, is a journeyman wrestler who has been all around the state of Georgia, but even his story is one of planting roots in one promotion before moving on to the next—the typical old-school territory story—instead of the contemporary indy wrestling experience of bouncing from show to show around the state (and eventually beyond). Rooster’s story also comes with the baggage of getting the “athletic” branding that so many Black wrestlers get—plus full of “personality”—without ever getting the push that his talent would supposedly call for. But while there are definitely rival promotions within certain states and cities that would not allow talent to work on a rival promotion’s show—for example, in the world of Heels, a DWL talent could obviously not wrestle a FWD show, and vice versa—but there are always other options. There are always other towns to make, as they would say. As small as wrestling for the DWL may be, the world of independent professional wrestling is very much not—especially not these days. (This also applies to how women’s wrestling—and the high demand for it—has evolved over the years, which the world of Heels neither acknowledges nor seems to realize.)
As a family drama with professional wrestling as the backdrop and often the framing device, Heels is a success. In fact, it has far more wrestling than O’Malley’s previous Starz series, the terrific family comedy Survivor’s Remorse, ever had basketball. The professional wrestling aspects of the show—as old-school as they are—are actually quite top notch. (It also doesn’t hurt that the set for the DWL venue—known as “The Dome”—is honestly an impressive locale for the action, akin both in size and visual scope to The Temple from El Rey’s series Lucha Underground.) The family (and wrestling) drama is a tale as old as time, as the show acknowledges: a conflict between two brothers. Ultimately, Heels is very much a compelling watch, which is something Starz itself has become synonymous with.
Heels premieres Sunday, August 15th on Starz.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, IndieWire, and Entertainment Weekly, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.
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