Las Vegas, 28 January 1986. Opening night of the spanking new, still playing-to-the-cheap-seats GLOW live stage show. And unfortunately for our easily eclipsed Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling the date of an even more historic event: the live televised launch of the Space Shuttle Challenger, which as we know ended in disaster. Millions watched as the space shuttle exploded 73 seconds after lift-off. All seven astronauts died. It was described as the “world’s worst space disaster”, as well as an allegory for American hubris in which the most powerful country in the world flexed its technological muscles with catastrophic results.
So this is the highly metaphorical moment in which season three of the Netflix show GLOW opens – with, naturally, less cold war analysis and more tasteless jokes. “It’s probably pretend, like your Ronald Reagan Star Wars,” riffs Zoya the Destroyer, AKA Alison Brie’s Ruth Wilder in a live promo before the show. When the shuttle explodes, she is initially too busy method acting to notice. Later, when suggesting how to work the tragedy into the ring – because, you know, the show must go on, and this is Vegas after all – director Sam Sylvia calls out her motive: “So you made fun of national heroes as they plunged to their deaths. You feel guilty. I get it.”
It’s a great opener; not so much close to the bone as gnawing on it in a leotard. Plus we get Geena Davis (although never enough of her) as ex-showgirl-turned-entertainment-director Sandy Devereaux St Clair. She can usually be found wafting around the Fan-Tan casino in a leopard print outfit, dripping comedy gold about the good old Vegas days, and proffering free drinks when the chips are down. Which in GLOW, beneath the legwarmers, they usually are.
This season is markedly different in content rather than tone, while dialling up the camp and, more seriously, queer volume to Liberace levels in the move from Los Angeles to Las Vegas. Overall, GLOW is now an issues-led ensemble piece. Relationships, race, the private calamity of being closeted, eating disorders, immigrant trauma, trying to conceive, working mothers’ guilt, and, always, sexism and misogyny, have become the focus instead of the backdrop. This means there is less wrestling, which might bother some fans, but I prefer the off-stage drama. Also Sam, who was gloriously awful as the angry, washed-up, sexist cokehead B-movie director for two seasons is now way too nice. And sober. He’s not even gambling … in Vegas!
This is all down to Ruth’s good-nerd influence, and the sexual tension between them – which has always been believable but never seemed OK – reaches an awkward climax this season, in – where else? – a hot tub. Brie remains the best thing about GLOW, with her tenacity, smarts and ability to pull off a topless scene that is radical, sweet and hilarious, and gleefully dispenses with the male gaze. In one sublime moment, she and Debbie, who continue to muddle along as best friends who love to hate each other, mimic Barbra Streisand singing His Love Makes Me Beautiful in Funny Girl. In scenes like this, GLOW can still light up the room, and the heart, like no other series of its kind.
Fundamentally, however, it remains as discombobulating a watch as ever. Its gleeful, outrageous, and Bechdel-test smashing tone may be perfectly suited to our times but – and I say this as a brown girl who grew up in the 1980s – we simply did not talk like that about racism, sexism, homophobia and, well, our feelings back then. And it is a high-wire act to invite your audience to revel in the gender and racial stereotypes you purport to be interrogating. The risk, always, is that you end up perpetuating them. GLOW does both, usually at the same time, and there is – as the characters know all too well – a cost. Sometimes I salute its slipperiness. Sometimes I feel ready for the lights to go down.