“GLOW” Season 3 starts with a catastrophe. As the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling prepare for their Las Vegas stage show debut, Ruth (Alison Brie) and Debbie (Betty Gilpin) go on a local news program to provide live, in-character commentary during a space shuttle launch. Debbie, as her all-American wrestler persona Liberty Belle, touts the superiority of the U.S. space program, while Ruth, as the Russian heel “Zoya the Destroya,” mocks the “puny rockets” as “not even real”… right up until the Challenger explodes, killing all seven crew members and numbing the watching world.
“Shocking” and “uncomfortable” don’t do the scene justice, and viewers will cringe. “GLOW” creators Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch chose to invoke real-world tragedy as an obstacle for their fictional characters. They wrote the episode, constructing this calamitous moment for those watching (in Nevada and on Netflix), and the immediate question — “Why?” — sets a high bar for success, not just for this episode, but the ensuing season.
Although “GLOW” provided the answer long ago, the premiere fearlessly reiterates and reworks its rationale: Wrestling, which may seem like a frivolous type of entertainment, not only combines artistry and athletics, but also gives these ladies a greater sense of purpose. The show assumes similar motives, enveloping a fun concept in genuine humor and heart, but Season 3 transcends its sport, period, and overall unreality. These new episodes attempt — and attain — the goal of eradicating the boundaries between their reality and ours.
Part of what elevates this new chapter is how honestly it confronts difficult subjects again and again, often enough that the recurrent tightrope walking becomes a theme — the circumstances (and lack of easy fixes) are difficult, moving, and invigorating in a way few shows can manage. Without spoiling the enticing new stories, “GLOW” Season 3 finds everyone on the team adjusting to their new casino-based lives. Living in luxurious hotel suites that eclipse their original motel rooms, the wrestlers, along with director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) and producer Sebastian “Bash” Howard (Chris Lowell), routinely ride the elevator down to a breakfast buffet before commencing with training, shows, and that “Viva Las Vegas!” nightlife.
Aside from the first and last episodes, the wrestling is largely done off-screen, resulting in better developed narratives for the talented ensemble (cast by Jen Euston). Flahive and Mensch find subtle commonalities between character arcs so everyone has a sounding board, which helps individual growth and group camaraderie feel natural. Cherry Bang (Sydelle Noel) starts considering having kids while Debbie struggles to live four hours from her one-year-old. Sheila “The She Wolf” (Gayle Rankin) finds a new idol in a (magnificent) drag performer named Bobby Barnes (Kevin Cahoon), motivating both to bare their souls onstage. Tammé (Kia Stevens) tries to push past physical ailments that face any aging wrestler, arriving in a sage position to advise Debbie on how to handle her own work/life balance.
Ruth, meanwhile, remains a bit of a mess — and purposefully so. The same person who was self-destructive enough to sleep with her best friend’s husband is making better, but still-questionable decisions while avoiding obvious, if perhaps ill-fitting, sources of happiness. Brie guides her through these choices with enough conviction to keep you on her side, while the writers provide her just enough inner turmoil to justify delaying what may seem inevitable. Just as important: indecisive Ruth is forced to make consistent choices through point-blank confrontation: Her will-they-or-won’t-they dynamic with Sam is addressed in the first hour, and her career pursuits broached in Episodes 5, 8, and 10, in clever, advancing fashion.
Amid the nuanced character work and meaningful messaging, “GLOW” still has a grand ol’ time throughout. There’s an episode where each wrestler swaps personas or creates new ones for an impromptu bout. There’s a camping trip to the desert, and a father-daughter outing in Hollywood. There’s an underground ball held as an AIDS fundraiser — filled with rich performances — and even a Christmas special. “GLOW” never sacrifices lively entertainment at the expense of affecting drama, or vice versa, which is even more impressive considering how good this creative team is at creating both.
That balance has been chronicled in past seasons, too, so let me say this about Season 3: It’s not content doing the same thing, on any level. It’s not settling for just hoisting a story on the backs of characters who could certainly carry a lighthearted, good-time comedy. Nor would the staff be interested in addressing the same topics in the same way as other TV shows. The season makes so many unexpected pivots, it’s stunning how well they all add up. You can break a lot of it down to great writing — carefully honed arcs that layer nicely on top of each other — but there’s still a piece that’s inexplicable magic. Plenty of series confront racism, homophobia, gender inequality, class discrepancy, and double standards; fewer touch on all of them, and fewer still find new avenues into dealing with each. “GLOW” stares down these challenges and knows it can pin them, even if there isn’t always a clean resolution to the match.
Early on, when Debbie hears she missed a big moment in her son’s life, the blend of resentment and excitement on Gilpin’s face is remarkable. The Emmy-nominated actress hits every note of Debbie’s conflicted emotional state so thoroughly, it’s impossible to pick apart the choices or explain why it all comes through. She just nails it, each little moment building to an even bigger one. “GLOW” is worth breaking down as thoroughly as time allows, but through one viewing, it’s also evident how much this season accomplished, because it so evidently tried to do a lot. By the end of the first episode, “GLOW” clears the high bar set for itself, and by the end of Season 3, having repeated the same courageous approach to its storytelling nonstop, it soars.
“GLOW” Season 3 is streaming now on Netflix.