BINGE-R #55: Glow + Barely Famous
Streaming Service: Netflix
Availability: All 10 episode now streaming
Glow is a busy, sometimes offbeat, comic-drama with a clandestine agenda and faith in its characters; it’s not always consistent, but when it works it’s sharply funny and genuine in its intent. The setting, naturally, is fake: a women’s wrestling league devised for television in 1985 Los Angeles, but the “unconventional women” who answer the casting call see an opportunity, even if what transpires sometimes confirms their worst fears. For struggling actor Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie, from Community and Mad Men), it’s the fulfilment of a role after years of knockbacks, while for some of her new colleagues it’s a chance to be themselves or simply make a living
Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, who both worked on Nurse Jackie, the show doesn’t stint on the big hair and eighties leotards, but it takes a nuanced view of these characters even as it finds broad humour in their escapades. Ruth is at once flustered and eccentric, but she’s also culpable for sleeping with the husband (Rich Sommer) of her best friend, Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), a former soap star. When Debbie confronts Ruth in the ring at training, it’s the best audition the latter has ever given. The storylines tend to hold onto issues instead of resolving them – when Debbie is recruited to the fledgling venture there’s no sudden rapprochement with her former pal.
“We did a ton of blow and figured out everything,” the women’s producer, schlocky filmmaker Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron at his most irascible), tells them while standing alongside entitled financier Sebastian Howard (Chris Lowell), and the deepest evocation of the period is the casual sexism. Sam’s disdain for Ruth makes her the plucky underdog, while the stereotypes the hopefuls are given as roles – African-American Tamme (Kia Stevens) wrestles as the Welfare Queen – are both offensive and a reminder that some things don’t change. Even if the strokes are broad, Debbie’s struggle to be independent from her husband, starts to resonate as the ramshackle Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling pilot is put together.
There are some slight moments in the first three episodes, but Glow goes up a gear in the fourth instalment because the characters are sequestered together in a motel. The faces among the dozen or so ensemble roles start to get detail and motivation, although you might think that the flashback structure from Orange is the New Black, the Netflix staple created by Glow’s executive producer Jenji Kohan, could have proved illuminating. But by focusing on struggle instead of success – there’s very little of that – a camaraderie takes hold that matches some truths to the enthusiasm and keeps this season faithful to its female protagonists.
>> Bonus Binge: If you want to learn more about the real inspiration behind the fictional account in Glow, Netflix has Brett Whitcomb’s 2012 documentary GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, complete with testimony from Godiva, Lightning, and Matilda the Hun.
BARELY FAMOUS S1
Streaming Services: Stan
Availability: All six episodes now streaming
Scoring points off the unholy intersection of celebrity and reality television isn’t hard, but this inside job from Los Angeles that gets in and out fast – the season comprises just six 20 minute episodes – proves to be reliably amusing. The gimmick is that in real life sisters Sara and Erin Foster have been offered numerous reality show gigs: Caitlyn Jenner’s sons were their stepbrothers growing up, and they’re entangled with the Kardashian, Hadid, and Hilton clans. As exaggerated versions of themselves in a series they created, the duo finally take up that offer fictionally, although they keep telling everyone it’s “a documentary”. Nonetheless they have Kardashian-like kitchen conversations while on camera, and manufacture scenarios that require more than good editing to work out.
The visual grammar and reliably informative scores of the reality genre set the mood during the footage meant to be from their production, but when the camera is surreptitiously behind the scenes inspiration is Larry David’s Curb Your Enthusiasm. Stubbornness and embarrassment galvanise each other as Sara, a model turned actor whose big role was opposite Owen Wilson in the 2004 movie The Big Bounce, tries to push her career along or Erin, a writer, does a storyline where she dates an ordinary guy only to have one famous friend after another crash their dates.
There’s a running gag in one episode about Sara using a child actor instead of her real daughter that grows in deadpan ludicrousness, but the celebrity cameos are prominent. Few take a risk with their persona – both Kate Hudson and Jessica Alba are politely unaware of who Sara is when they encounter her, despite the familiarity she offers them. The better sequences skewer the strange mores of L.A. fame, whether it’s scheduled paparazzi encounters or chasing entry to exclusive schools. Barely Famous is slight but enjoyably snarky, and it fared better than anything the fictional Sara and Erin try with a second season already finished.
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