As GLOW’s show within a show readies its official debut episode, it’s apparent that the Netflix comedy’s first season was, in effect, a five-hour pilot/preamble to where things were really headed. It’s one of many series airing this summer that last left air just before #MeToo exploded and has returned with little ambiguity in its message about correcting codified gender expectations. In just over 30 minutes, “Viking Funeral” establishes that Sam will be digging his heels in as an insecure chauvinist, while Ruth and Debbie in particular take significant steps toward asserting their creative and financial clout.
Not that their progress comes without pause. Debbie puts her foot down with Glenn and the network, distinguishing herself as an accredited actress worthy of a producer credit (and slowly closes Sam’s office door on frenemy Ruth to illustrate that she is, in fact, highest on the call sheet), but she leans on her unfaithful husband Mark for help negotiating the coup. And while she and Mark are splitting up for good, she can’t quite bring herself to assure a local dry cleaner that she’s prepared to reclaim her maiden name.
Ruth goes rogue, corrals new cameraman Russell (played by prolific indie filmmaker Victor Quinaz) and oversees a main-title sequence at the mall that evokes the silly spirit of the original G.L.O.W. and serves this GLOW’s narrative end of bonding all the women, who are anxiously awaiting Sam’s direction and wary of Cherry’s replacement, Yolanda (relative newcomer Shakira Barrera). The only issue is that Sam bugs out, berates Ruth, and fires Reggie for piping up in her defense. (Though for a Viking, Reggie’s half-hearted chair toss on her way out wasn’t terribly warrior-like.) Along the way, Ruth and Debbie even have an explicit back and forth about whether Russell — who invited Ruth over to, ahem, look over footage — gave off more of a first-date or date-rape vibe. (Silver lining there? At least Debbie was looking out for her former BFF despite their differences.)
One other thing about Russell: As coiffed and outfitted, he is perhaps the most authentically ’80s character I’ve ever seen on a post-millennium period show. Overall, GLOW instantly feels far more natural in its period aesthetic than last year. Maybe that’s a personnel or a budget thing, or my imagination (or all those super-awesome mall retail references), but season two so far feels less Wet Hot American Summer and more like the true re-creation of a moment in time. All of that helps give heft to the more dramatic goings-on, e.g. Sam continuing to take his frustrations out on poor Justine. Not that she’s entirely fazed, given her sweet new gig making merch for doofus boyfriend Billy’s punk band. And odds are she’ll wind up being a softening influence, while Debbie does a number on his ego back at the office.
Episode director Lynn Shelton, who’s familiar with Marc Maron from helming episodes of both GLOW and his eponymous IFC series, wrests some necessarily unsympathetic work from Maron. The hints of vulnerability are still there — clumsy attempts at appearing professional, gnarly cocaine habit, looming inferiority complex — and that will all get teased out as the season goes on, presumably parallel to the ladies’ growing self-confidence (it’s doubtful we’ve seen the last of Reggie). But the stakes are nailed down, and Shelton, along with Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch (the show’s co-creators and writers on this episode), have made a statement with “Viking Funeral” that GLOW is doubling down on its aim to be fun and fierce.
Feminism isn’t the only concern taken up by this season from the jump. Arthie (a.k.a. Beirut) continues to struggle with her crass terrorist gimmick, and you get the sense that ensemble members like Tammé (a.k.a. Welfare Queen) and Rhonda (a.k.a. Brittanica) will soon tire of their respective reductive alter egos. But that’s conflict for another day. On this afternoon, they and She-Wolf Sheila and Melanie and the gang are predominantly game for having fun with their personas, and “Viking Funeral” elicits plenty of charmed chuckles. (Beatdown Biddies Dawn and Stacey haranguing elderly mall-walkers comes to mind.) And thank goodness Flor is still standing by as Bash’s flamboyant right-hand man, and kudos to whoever whipped up Bash’s outrageous do.
We’ve just begun our deep dive into season two, but GLOW is poised to give fans more catharsis along with its admittedly broad appeal for laughs. And now that the stage is literally set, there’ll be wrestling too. And as any wrestling fan knows, that’s where the real story lines live.
Apart From All That:
• Where is Gregory?
• Go ahead and put those reading glasses on, Jody.
• Hal Freeman was indeed a real porn director, and shockingly or not, the subject of a Supreme Court case judged by Sandra Day O’Connor.
• Oh c’mon, no one hadn’t seen Cheers.
• Rick Hollander is the Rex Manning of local TV directors.
• I’m with Sam: That portfolio is so not a Trapper Keeper.
• Nice, subversive use of Jesus and Mary Chain’s “Just Like Honey.”