So Netflix made a show about women’s wrestling in the 1980s and I am hard-pressed to imagine a concept which would seem, on its face, more custom-made for me. But then I watched the show. So, okay, I watched the whole season (ten episodes, hovering just over thirty minutes each), I was interested enough to want to know what it would do. Let me try to gesture at what really did not work, and also what I enjoyed. Vague spoilers.
I love the look of the thing. The first episode’s opening credits, with the neon wrestling scenes scored to Patty Smyth’s “The Warrior”–yes!! yes, I want all of it!!! And whoever did costumes for this thing shares 82% of my taste in ’80swear. Terrific choices: slouchy pastel sweaters but no baggy dresses, pushed-up jacket sleeves but no shoulder pads (or maybe limited shoulder pads). Just enough cheesiness in the look, but no “we know better than that now” winking. And, I mean, there’s a plot-relevant Howard Jones song. I swoon, I die.
Several of the side characters are fun. I especially love Britney Young as Carmen Wade, the daughter of a wrestling family. She’s just utterly charming whenever she’s onscreen, and her thing with pretty cokehead rich boy Bash (an also-surprisingly-endearing Chris Lowell) is sweet and delightful. I want them to either get together or end up as gay BFFs. (We’ve had some hints that Carmen may prefer the ladies and, well, Bash has a houseboy.) I also occasionally enjoyed watching Marc Maron as sleazoid, yet also political, yet also artsy indie, yet also shlockmeister director Sam Sylvia. This character made no sense and did a lot of reprehensible things which the show then forgets about, but he is also a reluctantly-repentant sleazoid and I’m always down for that, plus Maron sells him even when he should not be sold.
Problems include the fact that this show does not really seem to know what’s funny and what isn’t. It drags jokes out way too long, it has characters do cruel things for laughs and then forgets about it instead of finding a way to make the aftermath also funny, it expects us to root for characters who think they are charming as they blunder obnoxiously through other people’s lives. Which can work, if the characters get their comeuppance (for this, not for an unrelated sin), or if the show seems to know just how awful they are rather than tee-hee-I’m-so-awkward’ing …or if the characters are actually charming.
Oh, also, the audience reactions are often blatantly unbelievable. (Since when did ’80s LA Goths give unprompted patriotic cheers?) In general the end of the season doesn’t earn its sisterly-solidarity notes. I extremely do not believe that Cherry would make the decision she makes, nor do I think it’s actually a good one given her situation and experiences so far.
Also, oy, the disingenuous politics and the main plotline. I should’ve known how this would go when the first episode lectured us about sexism in Hollywood and then immediately had Alison Brie show her boobs. There’s tons of racist caricature because It’s The ’80s (we know better now!) and we get the white director’s justifications for that, his opportunistic deployment of progressive ideology, but we don’t actually delve into what the women think or feel. There are several moments where it’s obvious that we should hear something fairly intense from one of the women: “Welfare Queen” should have lines or scenes about her role, not just a one-liner about how her son goes to Stanford. “Beirut” should get a chance to say more than just, “They really hated me!”, after an audience yells racial slurs at her. (She should especially get more since Sunita Mani is a fun actress who does a lot with a small part.) The white ladies who talk about how afraid they are that [racially-charged spoiler] will happen, should get some kind of reaction moment after it does in fact happen! Instead we get the director explaining his thought process to us, because that’s definitely something we all wanted.
As for the main plot: In episode one Ruth (Brie) does something hurtful and awful. She then spends the entire season being punished for it, in a wide variety of horrible ways, while she whimpers and cringes and tries to show how hardworking she is. She’s basically really unpleasant in the first episode and then miserable and eager to please for the entire rest of the show. Meanwhile the person she hurt is also a main character, and spends the entire season wrapped in self-righteous victimhood. Oh my God, who thought this would be fun to watch? I loathed both of these characters and they are the stars. Kill me. (Also, guess their race! No, bonus round, guess their weight.)
I know few among us can be Jaime Hernandez, but remember Queen Rena’s feud with Vicki Glori? Remember how great that was, how it made both of them understandable even though Rena’s a queen and Vicki’s a tag-team of ego and rage? How it explored racism, and showed women’s wrestling as simultaneously humiliating and empowering? Remember how these larger-than-life characters cared about other people and tried to figure out how to make amends when they screwed up?
That’s one kind of story, and not the only kind; I’d extremely be down for a wrestling AbFab, where terrible people love each other while doing terrible dramatic messy things. I’d even be down for a wrestling Soapdish, a wallowy pleasurefest, a marshmallow dipped in cynicism. There are so many ways this show could have been better.