When it comes to closing out a season, the makers of Netflix’s hit series “GLOW” love nothing more than a game-changing cliffhanger. Co-creators and showrunners Carly Mensch and Liz Flahive ended their first season with some major questions about the show-within-a-show’s televised future, while the second season laid out a plan in which the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling would take their gig all the way to Las Vegas.
More remarkable than those season-ending twists: “GLOW” makes good on them, even when such bold changes could prove daunting to retaining an audience in an increasingly crowded television landscape. And nowhere is more crowded than Netflix, which currently produces hundreds of its own original series. So what makes an ’80s-set series about both the weirdness of the feminine experience and the joys of pile-driving someone into a makeshift ring such a persistent hit?
“I think it’s one of those impossible questions,” Flahive said in a recent interview with IndieWire. “It’s like, how do you continue to stand out? How do you continue to break through when there are so many great things being made? You just have to keep the pressure on your show and keep the focus on your characters and the story you actually want to tell, as opposed to being too focused on what is a very crowded TV slate now, which is only going to get bigger. We try to keep our eye on the ball we started with.”
While the pressure to deliver a hit for the streaming giant is very much real, Flahive and Mensch were concerned with something more immediate: the pressures they put on themselves to deliver a season with so many radical changes that it felt like making a brand-new show.
“We joked that, for Season 3, we kind of gave ourselves the narrative pressure of a Season 3 with the production pressure of a Season 1,” Mensch said. “In terms of having to build all new sets, establish the world, the rules of the world, the visual palette of the world. There was so much just from those internal pressures, I would say we didn’t even have time to think of the kind of external Netflix-glut-of-TV-shows pressure.”
It helps that “GLOW” entered the crowded Netflix marketplace with some proven backing: producer Jenji Kohan, who created one of Netflix’s first bonafide hits, “Orange Is the New Black.” Armed with Kohan’s support and an enthusiastic Netflix team, Mensch and Flahive said they’ve been able to keep making a show that’s very much of their vision.
“The thing that was really miraculous is, they really let us make our show,” Mensch said. “They really let us make our decisions. We pitched the season and we made the season that we pitched them. I think that that many times, you can have interactions with executives where creative questions just get asked over and over and over again until you fold. That’s not how they work creatively, which is really refreshing.”
The duo said that Netflix didn’t flinch when they pitched their big idea for Season 3: moving the GLOW gals and their business to Las Vegas, where they’d go from televised wrestling to a live show hosted by a not-so-glam casino (the fictitious Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, loosely based on the Riviera Hotel).
“When we we pitched them that ending, their followup question was, ‘Are you seriously going to go there?’ And we said, ‘Yup, that’s where we intend to go,'” Mensch said. “They’ve known for a while, there was never an emergency meeting about like, ‘How are we going to pull this off?’ It was again, them being like, ‘Well, if you guys can figure out how to film 1986 Vegas, we support you.'”
And, yes, figuring out how to film 1986 Vegas was a challenge. “The city kind of erases itself every five years, there’s almost no buildings standing from 1986 that you could shoot if you wanted to, that was an immediate artistic challenge,” Mensch said.
But if the ladies of “GLOW” can make their own ever-changing locations and settings work, so could the women who created them. “It was also kind of an opportunity and kind of a parallel of where we were going in our story,” Mensch said. “We wanted to tell a story about a real performer’s Vegas, an outskirts-of-Vegas life, which was largely interiors, living together in a shitty, off-Strip hotel. We were never going to be interested in the version of Vegas that you had already seen.”
Another challenge: they couldn’t actually pack up and go to Vegas. “We still wanted to figure out how to have a season with some exterior life,” Flahive said. “Besides having to build a lot more sets than we’ve ever built on our show, building a casino, building a showroom, the scale of the show was very different this season.”
They only found two hotels in the Los Angeles area that fit the bill. Eventually, they settled on a hotel by the Ontario airport (“We called that our version of Vegas,” Mensch joked. “It felt like it was a trek. You were in the desert. Everyone complained on the ride there.”) that gave them a surprising amount of artistic freedom.
“They let fully take over their facade and build a neon marquee and redress their lobby and leave our set dressing up and use their kitchen, use the bowels of the hotel, which we really felt like we also wanted to see so you really felt like these girls were sort of like traipsing through the hotel, like a bunch of overgrown Eloises,” Flahive said.
Despite a (literal) need for more neon, the third season of “GLOW” isn’t all rhinestones and good times. Over the course of a few months in Vegas, the GLOW gals continue to grow and change, often spurred on by tough events (this is, after all, a season that opens with the Challenger disaster). The change of venue allowed Mensch, Flahive, and the rest of their writers to explore the inner lives of some of their supporting characters.
“The delicate, magical balance of our show in general is [that] there’s a larger story that we’re always honoring, and a lot of times who we dip into is kind of related to who is tying into that larger story most urgently,” Mensch said. “With Vegas, a lot of our initial questions were, who’s going to change the most Vegas? Who will be the most uncomfortable here? Who will be kind of out of their comfort zone in a way they wouldn’t be in L.A.?”
Flahive added, “If you’re gonna go to the trouble of taking everybody to a new place and building new worlds, you really want to let it hit those characters.”
While leading ladies like Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) continue to shine, the spotlight is also turned on fan favorites like Carmen (Britney Young), Bash (Chris Lowell), and Sheila (Gayle Rankin). Mensch also pointed to Jackie Tohn’s Melrose as a prime example of the expectations they hoped to upend, as this season pushes the good-time former chauffeur into new places, including an unexpected romance.
“Before you see our season, your assumption is, the party girl is going to be a pig in shit in Vegas,” she said. “We obviously did not go in that direction, but it felt like a fun kind of expectations reverse and also an opportunity to kind of hit her in ways that, you know, maybe she’d been on autopilot in L.A. in a certain way.”
Being on autopilot isn’t “GLOW” style anyway, but at the conclusion of another expectation-upending season, Flahive and Mensch couldn’t resist tradition: a cliffhanger with big implications for the future of all the show’s beloved characters. Asked what audiences should expect from a Season 4, should the series get a greenlight from Netflix, the duo demurred, while still hinting that the core DNA of their show will never change.
“I will say, more wrestling,” Flahive said with a laugh. Mensch added, “More wrestling. And I will just say, I think we left Ruth in a place where she’s got a road back to Debbie and to wrestling that is at least not [totally] clear based on how we ended it, but that we’re excited to dig into.”
“GLOW” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.