The premiere of this wrestling-themed family drama is one of the most pilot-y pilots of the year, packed with all the details necessary to build the world of a small-town-Georgia pro wrasslin’ league run by the late league founder’s son, who’s struggling to keep it going while also playing out a rivalry with his younger brother.
But the pilot also provides a pithy explanation for why so many fans are devoted to the sport at all its regional and national levels, despite the truth that none of those leagues has even attempted to keep secret for years: It’s a fake, scripted presentation for the entertainment of its audiences.
Not that it matters to the spectators in the crowd. Duffy Wrestling League’s new owner, Jack Spade (Stephen Amell), tells his brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) that audiences come “because they trust me to tell them a better story than they have to live with every day.” That may overshoot on the implied unfulfilled nature of wrestling fans — you don’t have to be unhappy to enjoy a few bouts of trash-talking men in spandex underpants jumping on one another and knocking their rivals about with metal folding chairs — but it’s still a good take on why we enjoy scripted entertainment in any form.
Back to Jack. He has the weight of the world on his shoulders, facing down the financial woes of promoting the business with new GoPros and fog machines in a leaky auditorium in need of repairs, while a wily rival promoter from “up North” (a wannabe Vince McMahon) tries to lure fans to his new Florida Wrestling Dystopia with bombastic videos offering cheap tickets to people who promise to boycott the Spades.
And then there’s Ace, the face — the wrestling term used for the good guys — to Jack’s heel, DWL’s reigning championship belt holder and signature bad guy. In Ace’s mind, bad guy is the role Jack is playing outside the ring, too, as Ace accuses Jack of unfairly preventing him from becoming the new Duffy champ in order to keep their DWL feud going and fans buying tickets every Sunday night.
Ace, of course, is an entitled ass. He likes the adulation of the fans who’ve been cheering him on since he was a local high-school football star, and he’s eager to take the belt from Jack on the night when a scout from a national wrestling league is sent to poach him out of Duffy. Meanwhile, in addition to the upkeep woes and the time he spends promoting DWL, Jack is also juggling family life with his son and a wife who patiently clips coupons so he can buy those fog machines, writing the scripts for the matches between all of DWL’s talent, and not dealing with the recent death of his father, Tom, who may or may not have died by suicide.
Ace’s accusations about Jack’s selfishness don’t take Jack’s hardships into consideration, not to mention the likelihood that his departure from Duffy would lead fans to lose interest in DWL. Tom, who wrestled as King Spade, was the DWL champion. Jack is the current champ. Ace says he deserves to wear the belt now, but by doing so will all but ensure the family business will die without ever making any real investment in it himself.
All this contributes to Jack coming up with a brilliant ending to the big Sunday-night showdown between him and Ace, one foreshadowed by Ace’s valet, Crystal (Kelli Berglund), and her memory of Ace crying on the field after a big football loss.
The match starts with Jack immediately attacking Ace and throwing him to the mat. He pulls Ace’s arm behind him in a real move that causes real pain. Ace melts down, begging his big brother to stop. Jack tells the referee to call it, which means Jack wins, and the audience sees Ace rolling around, handily bested by Jack. And in an easily prompted display of his immaturity, when Ace finally gets to his feet, he hits Jack and knocks him out of the ring. Just as Jack knew he would.
The crowd is now booing Ace and chucking their popcorn and paper cups of beer and soda at him. Just as Jack knew they would.
And what about that scout, Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer)? Turns out there is a bit of history repeating itself, as Bill was the former DWL heel who has now come home to spring Ace off to the fame and fortune Bill himself experienced when he abandoned Tom Spade and the DWL for “up North” wrestling years ago. But he left the building. Just as Jack knew he would.
Now that Jack has written Ace into a DWL corner, will Ace step up and become the partner his brother and the family business need?
Notes From the Squared Circle
• Heels was created by Michael Waldron, a writer with quite the résumé. He’s a former (Emmy-winning) Rick and Morty writer, creator of the Disney+ hit Loki, and script writer for the upcoming Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness movie, and he’s writing a Star Wars movie script for Marvel Studios head Kevin Feige.
• The Heels showrunner is Mike O’Malley, who also portrays Charles Gully, the delightfully obnoxious proprietor of the Florida Wrestling Dystopia, who we’ll almost certainly be seeing much more of.
• In a series about pro wrestling, there will be a lot of big-personality characters, but one of the premiere’s scene stealers is the more subtle Big Jim, a DWL face who tells Jack he’s quitting because his pregnant wife worries about him getting injured. Jim is played by Duke Davis Roberts, who you may remember from Longmire and The Good Lord Bird. Justified fans will certainly recall his season-six arc as Choo-Choo, the war vet and minion of one of that season’s heels (of the non-wrestling variety). Roberts’s performance as a guy slowed mentally by a piece of shrapnel stuck in his head, but sensitive and loyal even to those who had betrayed him, is a standout even in a series that was full of them. He’s a character I still think about years later.
• The Heels premiere was all about the dudes, but the cast is full of great actresses who, here’s hoping, get their time on screen as the season goes on. The always terrific Mary McCormack leads the way as Willie, who’s been a partner in DWL since Tom Spade owned it. She seems less stressed than Jack, even though she’s been dealing with all the Spade men for decades. Backstory on all that, please.