Starz’s Underrated Wrestling Drama Heels Takes Things to the Next Level in Season 2

TV Reviews Heels
Starz’s Underrated Wrestling Drama Heels Takes Things to the Next Level in Season 2

It’s a truth universally acknowledged that the “sports” part of sports dramas is often the least important aspect of the stories those series are telling. From Friday Night Lights and All American to GLOW and Ted Lasso, a show’s particular premise doesn’t matter nearly so much as the characters at its center, and how the larger culture and framework of that specific world helps shape the people they become. 

Starz’s Heels is, technically, a story about professional wrestling. And, to be fair, it has quite a bit of wrestling in it, complete with cool aerial flips, devastating kicks, and guys getting hit with chairs on the regular. But it’s also so much more than that—a family drama, a superhero origin story, a girl power anthem, a meditation on the long-tail effects of trauma, a complex depiction of male friendship, a realistic exploration of the tough choices made by working class people struggling to get by in small towns. Yes, some of those things involve characters who go to work wearing colorful spandex, but the stories are so affecting precisely because they’re so deeply human. 

Season 2 picks up right where the first left off: In the aftermath of the ladder match at the Georgia State Fair that essentially became a real-life brother-on-brother brawl between Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace (Alexander Ludwig) Spade, and saw former valet Crystal Tyler (Kelli Burgland) save the day—and the Duffy Wrestling League—by throwing herself into the ring. Despite the fairytale feel of Crystal’s triumph, not everything is going so great for the DW. The wrestling community is questioning the validity of her win since she technically crashed the championship match, Ace has disappeared without a trace, Jack’s wife Stacy (Allison Luff) has moved out and taken his son with her, and the wealthy and obnoxious Charlie Gully (showrunner Mike O’Malley), head of the Florida Wrestling Dystopia league, poses a dangerous new threat. 

Thankfully, Heels isn’t interested in dragging out the Spade brothers’ separation unnecessarily, though both men do take some time to recenter themselves and recalibrate their life goals across the season’s eight episodes. Amell, best known for his performance as the relentlessly stoic Oliver Queen on Arrow, gets to play the consummate showman, even as he continues to grapple with his complex feelings about his father Jack (David James Elliott), and the legacy he left behind. But it’s Ludwig who gets the chance to really shine this season, uncovering the gentle heart of the young Spade brother who’s always been positioned as little more than a big, beefy meathead. and his growth over the course of the season—both in and out of the ring—is deeply satisfying to watch.

Heels Season 2 ultimately succeeds by doubling down on its most unexpected elements. Sure, the choreography and physical stunts that comprise the season’s various wrestling matches are thrilling to watch, but the heart of this show is the surprisingly complex relationships between its characters, an eclectic collection of small town dreamers and scrappers who are all aching for something more. Season 2 smartly broadens the roles of several supporting characters, including Wild Bill (Chris Bauer), Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker), and Diego Cottonmouth (Robbie Ramos) allowing the world of Duffy and the DWL to feel much much larger and more integrated than the series’ first season, which focused primarily on the various issues in Ace and Jack’s relationship.

And—perhaps most importantly—Season 2 reaffirms its commitment to the show’s women, who are undoubtedly the glue that holds the rest of Heels together. While a series about an independent Southern wrestling league might not be the first place you would think to look to for depictions of complex, three-dimensional female characters, the women of Heels repeatedly steal the show out from under the men at its center. 

In the series’ first season, Crystal emerged as one of TV’s most exciting new heroines, a kind-hearted wrestling superfan who fought her way into the ring and forced the men around her to take her and her skills seriously. In Season 2, she is the heart around which the rest of the show turns. As she fights to prove her mettle—and that she deserves her spot on the roster—her sense of both grit and abiding love for the sport she’s chosen lights up every scene she’s in. But, perhaps most importantly, she’s not alone. 

Crystal’s sudden (and rampant) popularity sparks the DWL to consider launching a women’s division, a subplot that opens up intriguing new emotional and narrative pathways for Willie (Mary McCormack) to explore. A former valet herself, Willie once longed to follow the path that Crystal is forging now, and McCormack has plenty of meaty material to work with as she mentors the young wrestler and reflects on her own regrets. Jaded after years of placing her hopes in the men around her to make her a star, she encourages Crystal to think for herself and keep her options open, even as Willie’s own marriage crumbles, the league teeters on the brink of financial disaster, and she starts to suspect her drinking problems are worse than she’s allowed herself to realize. 

Even Staci gets more to do this season beyond simply being Jack’s wife, and while the show’s decision to seemingly drop her singing career subplot is…surprising and unfortunate, her increasing involvement in the world of the DWL brings her more firmly into the orbit of the other characters. Luff and McCormack, in particular, make for excellent prickly scene partners as Staci’s righteous morality repeatedly clashes with Willie’s more flexible pragmatism. (I’m curious about where the pseudo-rivalry that springs up between them will go in the future, if only because Willie has spent an awfully long time as the only woman in the DWL world and is unused to sharing her position as the company’s right hand.)

There are certain scenes throughout Season 2 that can feel painfully awkward or even embarrassingly corny: the frequently over-the-top machinations and in-character betrayals that power the “Harmageddon” crossover, the promotional video Jack’s team cuts that involve DWL wrestlers literally posing on a tank, virtually everything about the introduction of a new DWL character known as The ConDamned (yes it’s spelled that way on purpose), a scene at a nursing home involving literal poop throwing. But Heels never treats its characters, their passions, or their stories as disposable or the butt of a joke they’re not in on. Instead, it takes the challenges of their lives, the specifics of their small town experiences as well as the richness of their bonds with genuine care.

In Duffy, wrestling is not something to be looked down on or laughed at, and Heels not only treats its chosen central sport with deep respect, it does its best to eloquently convey why its spectacle and storytelling ultimately matter to so many people. And like so many successful sports dramas before it—that’s what makes all the difference. 

Heels Season 2 premieres July 28 on Starz.

Lacy Baugher Milas is the Books Editor at Paste Magazine, but loves nerding out about all sorts of pop culture. You can find her on Twitter @LacyMB.

For all the latest TV news, reviews, lists and features, follow @Paste_TV

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