Welcome to Petition Worthy, a biweekly column that revisits canceled TV shows that we wish had a longer lifespan. In some cases, we’ll also make a plea for them to be given another chance. For this installment, Valerie Ettenhofer laments the news that the lights have gone out for GLOW.
What could be better than an empowering and emotionally complex underdog series about lady wrestlers of the 1980s? Well, one that actually gets to finish its story arc.
GLOW wasn’t the first series to fall prey to a COVID-19-related cancellation, nor was it even the first to be un-renewed after it had already secured a deal for the next season. But it’s the 2020 TV loss that hurts the most so far. The three-season comedy-drama, which was created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch and produced by Jenji Kohan, has always been a highlight of Netflix’s original programming lineup and a breath of fresh air all around.
GLOW begins with Ruth Wilder (Alison Brie), a down-and-out actress whose life just imploded when she was caught cheating with the husband of her best friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin). These two strong personalities anchor the show, but their world soon opens up when they land an unexpected acting gig. Ruth, Debbie, and a crew of other misfit and cash-strapped women are recruited to become the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling (G.L.O.W.), a female wrestling league showcased in a new TV series.
Behind the scenes of this production, which is the brain-child of B-movie director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), each woman is incredibly different, with goals and insecurities that often cause friction. Ultimately, though, they form a chaotic but passionate group friendship, one that carries G.L.O.W. through its broadcast run and into a Las Vegas residency.
Everyone favors one season of GLOW or another, but I believe each season is better than the last. The show is based on a real wrestling series that aired in the ‘80s and it’s able to tap into generational nostalgia while still feeling immediate in its character-driven drama. GLOW was initially centered on the antagonistic relationship between Debbie and Ruth but coheres in a beautiful way as the seasons unfold, telling a story that’s goofy and hilarious yet also emotionally vulnerable. It’s also, at times, a sports series in the truest sense, celebrating the triumphs of the human body by showing off real female wrestling in all its bruising glory.
GLOW’s cast is so vast that if you asked a group of fans to list their favorite character, you might get a half-dozen different responses. For me, it’s Bash Howard (Chris Lowell), the closeted trust fund baby who funds the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling and provides live commentary for each match. Lowell’s performance is nuanced and heartbreaking, from the scene in which he first enters a gay bar and the camera spins around him, catching his face as it flashes between curious and apprehensive, to the shattering moment when he’s told in a phone call that his best friend died of AIDS.
Whenever I need a good cry, I listen to Genesis’ “Man On the Corner,” a song featured prominently in a Bash-centric episode; it works every time thanks to Lowell’s humanistic performance and the GLOW team’s compassionate handling of this tragic era of LGBT+ history. Bash’s arc is just one of a dozen or more that deserves more closure than the show’s third-season cliffhangers allow.
Flahive and Mensch announced the show’s cancellation earlier this month with appropriate seriousness, urging that fans should continue to focus on the very real tragedy of the COVID-19 crisis. They also expressed a measure of dismay at the series’ abrupt ending, noting that they filmed for three weeks before the pandemic shut-down. They told Dateline, “It still sucks that we don’t get to see these fifteen women in a frame together again.”
That’s what it comes down to, really. GLOW is a series about scrappy, diverse women that boldly put more female faces — and bodies, in intense physical scenes — in front of the screen at once than nearly any other show on TV. Hell, if you pooled the casts of several key categories in recent Emmy races, you’d end up with fewer main female cast members combined than the G.L.O.W. wrestling team offers all on its own.
GLOW is a series that shows up for women, again and again. It never once backs down from its detailed explorations of female power dynamics and the particular challenges that accompany intersections of womanhood — among them age, race, motherhood, body type, and sexual orientation.
Presence alone doesn’t equal representation, something several GLOW actresses pointed out in a letter to the network and the series’ producers before cancellation. Sunita Mani, Sydelle Noel, Britney Young, Shakira Barrera, Kia Stevens, and Ellen Wong expressed their discomfort with the stereotype-centered writing of their characters as well as one season’s apparent lack of writers of color. Mani, who is one of several actors to point out that the show’s cast is generally very supportive and close-knit, says that the series’ creators and producers responded positively to the group’s feedback, holding “poignant Zoom conversations” and planning a “cathartic” fourth season.
This makes GLOW’s cancellation all the more heart-wrenching. It’s unfortunately rare to hear about productions that are willing to acknowledge their mistakes and course-correct. GLOW’s fourth season would’ve been the perfect chance to see these underserved (yet still beloved) characters grow to their full potential.
Mani’s character, Arthie, had just fully come to terms with her sexuality at the end of the last season. Noel’s character was considering adopting a child, while Wong’s had recently revealed to the group that her family survived the Cambodian Civil War. These characters have always been easy to love, but with the promise of thoughtful, authentic representation by writers and producers who pledge to do better, they could become the stuff that Funko Pops and little girls’ dreams are made of.
GLOW’s demise is tough to accept, in part because it seems so avoidable. Sense8 was given a movie farewell. One Day at a Time got rescued by PopTV. It’s true that Netflix, previously known as a savior for canceled cable and network shows, has been quick with the axe lately. It’s also true that some shows have already survived a Netflix cancellation thanks to strong fan campaigns and creative plans to find closure.
As Maron mentions in a video appeal posted on Twitter, the story for what would’ve been the show’s final season is already plotted out. G.L.O.W. — the show within the show — has rallied its team and come back from the dead more than once. So why can’t the series we love do the same?
In GLOW’s final episode to date, directed by the late, great Lynn Shelton, Debbie proposes an ideal future to Ruth. She and Bash bought a TV network, and she’s set to be president of it. Ruth can direct a new wrestling show, she says, and the girls can make up all-new characters. “I’m going to build us an Eden,” she promises Ruth. It’s a powerful line, one that’s not easy to forget.
If, God forbid, we truly never see the story GLOW had planned as its fourth season, at least we got our Eden for a little while. Thirty whole episodes of it, with love for these women and their stories that shines through every frame. Nothing can take that away.