In 1986, a new wrestling TV show called "GLOW" began to run in syndication in a number of major television markets throughout the United States. The Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, an all-women's wrestling promotion made up largely of previously untrained actresses, sought to capitalize on the growing popularity of professional wrestling by presenting a new vision for the medium.
Over four seasons of programming, fans enjoyed the over-the-top caricatures that each performer played. Despite the fact that, like a lot of programming of the time, the target audience was eager male viewers, young girls connected with the larger-than-life heroes and villains on the screen. At a time before there were many visible female role models on television, their superheroes were GLOW girls.
It's upon this canvas that the new Netflix series "GLOW" paints its story. While the characters and specific scenarios are loosely based upon the '80s show that inspired it, the spirit of that production lives strongly within this modern dramatic re-creation.
With executive producers Jenji Kohan and Tara Herrmann of "Orange is the New Black" fame, and writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch as the driving force behind this predominantly female ensemble cast, the result is a terrifically entertaining show from a decidedly female perspective.
As the defacto star in this ensemble show, Alison Brie channels Ruth, a hungry actress desperately seeking her big break in Hollywood. While the actress known best for playing key parts in the casts of "Mad Men" and "Community", along with a number of high-profile movie roles, was not wanting for work by any means, her desire to step out and take on a complex, flawed character led her to pursue this role doggedly. As she recently recounted to co-star Marc Maron on his podcast, she had to fight just to be considered for the role.
"I responded to the role immediately," said Brie to ESPN.com. "I just connected with her and understood her, and I liked that she was really flawed. I think I was at a place in my career where I really wanted to get my hands dirty. I've played very polished characters in the past, and I was intrigued by the time period. I was intrigued by the wrestling obviously, which is so far outside of anything I would ever think that I would do, and so that excited me.
"I read the first episode and the writing was just so incredible," Brie continued. "Coming out of 'Mad Men' and 'Community', which I think were really smart, really well done shows, they set the bar really high, and the writing on this was just as nuanced and interesting. I liked that it was a comedy first, but had a lot of depth and drama to it."
The make-up of the roster of "GLOW" brings together 14 women from wildly different backgrounds, ranging from the stage, to TV and movies, to music and, in the case of Kia Stevens, professional wrestling. While the central conflict of the show's first season centers around the complex relationship between Ruth and Debbie, portrayed by Betty Gilpin, each woman brings something very different to the table.
"The women on the show are incredible," said Brie. "It's such a cool cast, and they are all bringing something very unique to their characters based on their own lives and their own perspective. I think that was so important, because you have 14 women on a show and you want them all to be different, and I think they really do -- each one has their own point of view."
Assembling a cast of characters to play a ragtag group of actresses, models and athletes is one thing, but then there's the small issue of actually getting them into the ring and teaching them how to wrestle. Outside of Stevens, none of the women on the show had any wrestling experience whatsoever, and so, just over a month out from the start of production, they all came together for a wrestling boot camp.
Enter Chavo Guerrero Jr., the long-time wrestler who's competed for WWE, WCW, New Japan Pro Wrestling and, most recently, for Lucha Underground. Guerrero, interestingly enough, is connected to the history of GLOW himself, as his uncle Mando Guerrero helped to train the initial crop of GLOW stars back in the mid-80s.
With a group of women who had never stepped into a ring, save for Stevens, it was all about the basics.
"I'm not teaching them to have a Wrestlemania match," Guerrero pointed out. "I was teaching them to look like they knew what they were doing in a scene on camera, while at the time same, protecting themselves. They were really doing the bumps and falls and flies, although we did have a couple stunt doubles with the girls. Everything you see really in the show, those actors were able to do all of it."
Stevens, better known as "Awesome Kong" to independent wrestling fans and "Kharma" to WWE fans, was excited to see the group learn the trade, just as she did years ago.
"It took me back to when I first learned how to wrestle, and all the things that I did not knowing the first thing about wrestling," recalled Stevens. "Everyone's shy and they're self-conscious about doing certain things, or doing it wrong in front of everyone, and I found it to be just so cute and adorable. But they picked it up rather quickly. In fact, a lot of the girls picked it up quicker than most wrestlers would probably prefer, like can you make it look a little harder please?
"They were great," Stevens continued. "Just the attitude, and the fact that they were so committed to learning and perfecting the moves. The respect that they had for the sport is really what touched me, because that's what wrestling is all about."
Over the course of the month, and then throughout the production as their training continued, each woman embraced the role and the opportunity they had been given by throwing themselves in head-first.
"What was really cool was that every one of these girls, they, when I say stepped up and above and beyond what was expected of them, every single one of them was amazing," said Guerrero. "I think what happened was that we built confidence in the girls, and they were able to do things that they had no clue they were able to do."
Brie, already in love with the character she was ready to portray, was falling in love with her new-found skills as well.
"So much of it is about putting fear aside and committing 100 percent to throwing your body at another person," said Brie. "So it was a great challenge in overcoming fear, really, on a second-by-second basis when you're in the ring. That was empowering. I felt like I was walking a little taller, and just felt like a badass."
Bringing the 14 women together in such circumstances also served to create a communal atmosphere that carried through the production of the show.
"It was an incredible bonding tool for all the women on the show, because aside from Kia Stevens, who's a pro wrestler prior to this show, no one had done this before," said Brie. "It was a great equalizer, put us all on common ground and we really had to work together and support each other while learning these sometimes terrifying moves."
Creating a cohesive cast is important for any show and while the actresses were trying to fit into Stevens' world, she was trying to do the opposite.
"Usually in a wrestling locker room I'm like the locker room captain, and this is different because the roles are kind of reversed," said Stevens. "This is a locker room of actresses, and even though I first got into the entertainment industry as a child actor, I hadn't done that in a long time. So I'm the wrestler coming into a group of actresses, and they took me into their fold and the camaraderie there was just unbelievable, just magical."
Though the wrestling events and the training that each of these women do is the backbone of the show, everything that goes on outside of the ring is what makes the show more than just a comedy about wrestling. Each of the women in the show has to tackle their own issues and, as it's set in the 1980s, there's a deep well to draw from; racism, feminism, sexism, sexuality, drugs and the responsibilities of parenthood are just a few of the topics dealt with in a thoughtful, meaningful way.
"I think one of the great things about doing a period show is that you can really delve deep into issues that were current at the time, and you sort of have a get out of jail free card to kind of explore them to a deep extent," said Brie. "Even ones that are really prevalent today. I think a lot of stuff on this show will sort of ring loudly in people's ears."
"Though the show is called GLOW, Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, it's about so much more than just wrestling -- we hit a lot of topics that are relevant, especially in today's political climate, that every person who watches it is going to relate to," said Stevens. "There's something in it for everyone -- even if you're not a wrestling fan, there is something in this show that every person it going to relate to, whether you're a man or woman, gay or straight, black or white -- you're going to relate."