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Prep for GLOW’s new season by watching the original Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling

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A terrific Netflix documentary lays out the movement’s history and battles

Photo by Ali Goldstein / Netflix

There are so many streaming options available these days, and so many conflicting recommendations, that it’s hard to see through all the crap you could be watching. Each Friday, The Verge’s Cut the Crap column simplifies the choice by sorting through the overwhelming multitude of movies and TV shows on subscription services and recommending a single perfect thing to watch this weekend.

What to watch

GLOW: The Story of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a 2012 documentary about the four intense years in the late 1980s when one of the most popular syndicated TV series was G.L.O.W., a women’s wrestling program. The show combined the serialized cartoonish antics of big-time wrestling with character-driven sociopolitical satire and corny vaudeville-style blackout sketches, all performed by athletes and actresses in skimpy clothes. Director Brett Whitcomb tells this story with an emphasis on the women themselves, getting many of the biggest G.L.O.W. stars to go on the record about the chaotic details of their Las Vegas-set production and how their lives changed — for better, and sometimes for worse — after they became television personalities.

Why watch now?

Because the third season of the Netflix series GLOW is available today.

In the summer of 2017, Netflix debuted the first 10 episodes of GLOW, a half-hour dramedy co-created by writers Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, and produced with Orange Is the New Black and Weeds creator Jenji Kohan. The show stars Alison Brie as Ruth Wilder, a struggling LA actress who auditions for a new TV pilot, unaware that the project will turn out to be Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a fantastical staged combat show written and directed by fading B-movie auteur Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron). Ruth lands the gig but is dismayed to find that Sam’s also interested in casting Debbie Eagan (Betty Gilpin), a semi-retired soap opera star who used to be Ruth’s best friend before Ruth had an affair with Debbie’s husband.

GLOW’s first season was largely about Sam and his wrestlers developing their alter egos and wrestling styles. Ruth becomes an America-hating Soviet agent named “Zoya the Destroya.” Debbie plays the super-patriotic “Liberty Belle.” Their cohorts pose as everything from a terrorist to a feral animal to a “welfare queen.” In season 2, as the league and its TV series begin building a regional following, the women consider the social impact of these cartoonish heroes and villains and start to leverage their popularity to exert more influence behind the scenes.

Season 3 begins roughly where Whitcomb’s documentary does: with the G.L.O.W. production moving to Las Vegas, and preparing to go national. The Netflix series is heavily fictionalized, but not entirely. For the most part, neither GLOW’s characters nor their interpersonal drama are directly inspired by any of the original Gorgeous Ladies. But anyone who watches Netflix’s GLOW first and then watches Whitcomb’s film should find it remarkable how much the show copies from the real G.L.O.W. The women’s makeup, hair, and costumes are spot-on. But also some of the quirkier ring personas mimic those of the original wrestlers: from the little old Jewish ladies “Ethel and Edna” (a spin on the real league’s “Arlene and Phyllis”) to the island warrior “Machu Picchu” (a stand-in for G.L.O.W.’s beloved “Mt. Fiji”).

While the character of Sam Sylvia is dramatically different from primary G.L.O.W. writer-director Matt Cimber (although Cimber also had a long career making exploitation films, pre-wrestling), the Netflix show does capture what the documentary describes as Cimber’s “Saturday Night Live mixed with wrestling” approach to the genre. Neither Cimber nor G.L.O.W.’s super-stiff ring announcer / founder David McLane (renamed “Bash” Howard in Netflix’s GLOW, and played by Chris Lowell) agreed to sit for an interview with Whitcomb. But in the movie, the wrestlers talk at length about their love-hate relationships with the eccentric, demanding, and not always simpatico Cimber and McLane. Whatever their personal feelings about their former bosses, the women acknowledge the creators’ genius in inventing a different kind of wrestling program, accessible even to the wrestling-averse.

Photo by Ali Goldstein / Netflix

Who it’s for

Fans of GLOW, students of feminist history, and 1980s nostalgists.

Due to various offscreen complications — well-covered in the documentary — the original G.L.O.W. only ran for four years and was canceled while it was still a hit. Because it aired from 1986 to 1990, its heyday overlapped with the last gasps of ’80s popular culture. The movie underscores how very ’80s the league was, with its rap intros, big hairdos, and lingerie-inspired outfits that look like they could’ve been borrowed from a ZZ Top video. The wrestlers did guest appearances on game shows like Card Sharks and Family Feud and popped up on sitcoms like Married with Children and talk shows like Donahue and The Sally Jessy Raphael Show. They were a sensation.

They also presented a different image for women on TV than was the norm at the time. As the documentary points out, there was an undeniable element of sexual objectification in the way the performers were dressed; but the storylines within the show were all about power and control, not submission. Even the opening credits showed some of the wrestlers being attended to by beefy, shirtless men — owning their desires. The cast was multiethnic, and sported diverse body-types, from waifish to hulking. Everyone had a part to play. Everyone was a Gorgeous Lady.

Where to see it

Netflix. The doc is also available to rent or buy on all the major digital retailers.