Television has always loved a protagonist with a good amount of flaw cards sprinkled throughout the deck. By now, we've moved from the kind of troubled leading characters who are a bit rough around the edges but still at least somewhat lovable and/or principled (think your Gregory Houses or your Annalise Keatings) to characters who eventually come to become out-and-out hatable pieces of shit, a la Walter White. Even in the latter example, though, this level of rampant awfulness was only achieved after seasons worth of careful storybuilding and character development: Walter White didn't start out as an awful dude, and the audience had a blast watching him become one. GLOW is giving the inverse a try, instead delivering a selfish asshole lacking even a little bit of self-awareness in Allison Brie's Ruth Wilder and leaving its viewers to assume that she'll have some sort of redemptive arc by the season's end.
GLOW's first season starts by following Ruth, but quickly shift their focus to creatively frustrated director Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron, requiring that you wipe up the battery acid that accumulates on your screen every time he opens his delightfully angry mouth), fleshing out his desires and backstory much more thoroughly than those of our ostensible protagonist. By the close of the first episode we learn that Ruth is the kind of woman who will fuck her best friend's husband while said best friend has an infant at home, and by the close of episode three it's been made clear that Ruth isn't possessing of much in the way of empathy or self-awareness. Roughly a third of the way into the season, and her motivations can be summed up as "wants to act," and "wants to not be treated like shit." The second is easy to get behind given the show's canny dramatization of the short shrift women were given in 1980s showbiz, but the first is about as boilerplate as it gets (and is shared by at least two other major characters), lacking any real depth or nuance.
Strangely, GLOW does a much better job fleshing out Sam as a character, diving more into where he's come from and what he's after. There might not be anything groundbreaking to his perennially misunderstood writer type, but he's at least given a level of depth that isn't offered to anyone else. None of this would be a problem if I hadn't signed on for a show...about women? The season's first three episodes do plenty to sew the seeds of some interesting storylines as it begins to flesh out the supporting cast, but so far little has emerged beyond characters who are simply trying to get the idiots in charge to notice and take them seriously.
None of this isn't to say that GLOW lacks redeeming qualities. As is typical of a Jenji Kohan production, GLOW benefits from a cast sprinkled with colorful background players, even if some of them do sort of feel a little color-by-numbers at this point. At a certain point one has to admit that the whole "goth who overdoes it in just about every way" thing is just a little bit played out...and yet, Gayle Rankin manages to make Shiela one of the most watchable side characters in a bevy of very watchable side characters.
In fact, if there's anything that's keeping me hooked, it's my desire to learn more about the ladies surrounding GLOW's three apparent players (maybe excepting Melrose; I'd be OK with her departure and am absolutely not looking forward to whatever "I've been through some serious shit and that's why I'm like this" backstory reveal she seems headed for). Characters like Britt Baron's Justine and Britney Young's Carmen work well with the rest of the ensemble to lend a god depth to the proceedings, even if some of the gags threaten to make some of them into outright cartoon characters.
Just three episodes in and GLOW is really only hampered by its stakes problem. We know what Sam's are — he wants to get GLOW made so that he can redeem himself creatively and kickstart his flagging career. When it comes to our two leads, though? Both Ruth and Debbie want to be taken seriously as actresses. The real problem is that at this point, only Sam's motivations seem to have been adequately dramatized...and it's his motivations that are driving the plot's action, to boot. For every scene like the brilliant one in which Sam squares off against his ex-wife and lets the viewer in on his creative process, we should have two or three that help to develop Debbie, Ruth, and what they're after. There's no question that Sam Sylvia is a fantastic character, but why let Ruth and Debbie drift so far into the background?
Moving forward, it'll be nice to see Ruth & Diane have a bit more agency, even if their (hopeful) reconciliation does have the seeds of some good character drama. GLOW boasts writing as snappy as any other Kohan project, and Maron just about walks away with every scene he's in, but it's frustrating to see such an oddly-lopsided narrative focus so early in the game.
Oh, and also...
• "Blood!" "Tits!" "Storytelling."
• Sam's Heavy Metal style male fantasy bullshit script must have made for a super fun day in the writer's room.
• GLOW seems to be setting itself up as a story about self-identity, ie Ruth is disliked and doesn't fit in because she's not aware of who she really is as a person; each of the wrestlers has a broad and stereotypical identity thrust upon them by white, male producers at the end of the third episode; Sam wrestles with his legacy, perception as a writer.