GLOW, Netflix’s heavily fictionalized dramedy about the production of the ‘80s cult classic syndicated TV wrestling promotion, premiered last Friday, and already seems to be the service’s next breakout hit. By the time the show within a show gets into production, it does closely resemble the original, but this is also not “based on a true story.” Multiple (if not most) major characters are based on figures from the original series in some form or fashion, but it’s usually their gimmick and not anything about the women portraying them. Since the show will likely inspire a newfound interest in the ‘80s videos and the fiction/reality line on the Netflix show is a bit blurrier than most, here are a few things you should know going into the series.
Netflix nicely asked media who saw advance screeners not to reveal what gimmick each woman has by the final episode of the season, and I’m happy to oblige. But I can tell you that the vast majority had a direct inspiration in the original GLOW. The show dealt in trashy, over the top stereotypes, especially for the characters played by the women of color, like Big Bad Mama (a “voodoo queen” from Louisiana) or Palestina (just guess). Some were (sort of) recast if the actress left, as there were three distinct “Farmer’s Daughters” in four seasons. References to then-current pop culture were also numerous, such as Melody Trouble Vixen (MTV), the Heavy Metal Sisters, and Dementia (a female Jason Voorhees).
This one is fairly simple. Marc Maron plays Sam Sylvia, the sleazy B-movie director hired to helm the show, and a stand-in for real life B-movie and GLOW director Matt Cimber. Chris Lowell’s Sebastian “Bash” Howard draws less direct, obvious, inspiration, but there are elements of both Dave McLane (the longtime wrestling fan who had the initial idea for the show) and, to a much lesser degree, Meshulam Riklis, the Israeli businessman who helped bankroll GLOW. Make sure to watch some videos of McLane after you finish off the season, because Lowell clearly did.
The new series clearly draws much of its inspiration from the 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, which heavily downplayed McLane, who declined an interview request for the project. Cimber did as well, but he got the lion’s share of the credit creatively, with the “GLOW girls” saying McLane wanted something grittier, closer to a traditional pro wrestling show, just with an all-female cast.
Speaking of which…
On one hand, GLOW was explicitly a television show, broken up into seasons (26 weeks on, 26 weeks of reruns) and featuring skits that had the elements of more conventional televised fiction, like laugh tracks. “We do comedy skits and a lot of dance numbers,” McLane told Broadcasting in 1986. “We are a branch of Monty Python [and] Laugh-in; the best of WrestleMania and Miami Vice.”
The promotion existed entirely as a television production with the exception of a failed house show run at the peak of its broadcast popularity. Almost everyone who got in the ring was an actress specifically trained for the show, the exception being Deanna “Matilda the Hun” Booher, who had limited indie experience. When GLOW was cancelled, almost everyone who appeared on the show left pro wrestling, with Lisa Moretti (WWE’s Ivory and GLOW’s Tina Ferrari) being the most notable exception. In almost every sense that matters, it wasn’t pro wrestling as we know it. But…
Halfway into the show’s run, McLane left the show, and much of the cast went with him to a new promotion, Powerful Women of Wrestling (POWW, which is not a typo in spite of not being an acronym). Yes, there was a promotional war. With GLOW. POWW dumped most of the GLOW wackiness, picked up a number of independent female wrestlers, and ran something that more closely resembled an actual promotion, even associating itself with Dick the Bruiser’s WWA. The show also launched while some of its performers were still in GLOW episodes that were airing, so it was all very confusing to watch, especially since POWW replaced GLOW in some markets and they both folded around the same time in 1990.
If nothing else, GLOW drew really strong ratings in syndication. An early 1988 trade magazine ad reported a 14 share (the percentage of people watching TV during a given time) in New York and a 12 share in Los Angeles for the last weekend of January. And that’s after the POWW exodus, no less. There was even a GLOW newsstand magazine at a time when the WWF was the only other promotion with its own in-house publication. Plus, GLOW and POWW were at least able to survive a couple years with both on the air. And while there are some stories in the documentary that ring false, the degree of fan mail that the cast got isn’t one of them.
However, by all accounts other than those in the documentary, it failed as a live event. But if the audience was not necessarily the traditional wrestling fan base, how much does that even mean? The show was definitely in the zeitgeist, with “Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling” almost becoming a generic term used by non-fans for women’s wrestling, the same way that “WWF” and “UFC” had their own Xerox/Kleenex-style popularity in the English language. Hell, a GLOW-themed episode of Married…with Children is one of the most memorable of the series.
Was it a fad? Maybe, but we know this much: A whole lot of people watched.
David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, NY. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.