TV, Interrupted: Why GLOW Deserved Another Round In The Ring

(Welcome to TV, Interrupted, a series where the /Film team remembers, eulogizes, and makes a case for the revival of TV shows we loved that were canceled far too soon.)

Nobody ever said being an entertainment junkie would be smooth sailing all the time. Whom among us can't relate to the whirlwind rush of discovering a new show, quickly getting way too invested in the characters and ongoing storylines, urging all our friends and family to share in its joys along with us ... only to find out one day that the series has been slated for cancelation, before the major arcs could be fully wrapped up. 

Such a punishing experience is enough to give many TV viewers trust issues, resulting in some who understandably remain wary of even starting certain new shows until hearing official confirmation of subsequent seasons. Sometimes, news of an early cancelation briefly unites the entire internet in solidarity to "save" a particularly beloved series — and occasionally, against all odds, all that social media chatter actually works. Most of the time, unfortunately, that's not the case.

So for all those who recognize the sting of this emotional roller coaster all too well, consider this new series as a clarion call in support of all those hapless serials that gained intensely loyal fanbases, showed consistent promise, but ultimately fell short of telling a complete, satisfying story due to circumstances beyond their control. I can think of no better show to get the ball rolling than with "GLOW," the popular Netflix ensemble that came to a sudden end after three rollicking, hilarious, and heartwarming seasons of storytelling. Let's pour one out for the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

Why GLOW Was Great

Early on, "GLOW" faced somewhat of an uphill battle in terms of convincing viewers that, no, you don't need to be a wrestling aficionado in order to enjoy this show. As someone who's never watched a minute of wrestling in his life (I'm assuming getting fragged to a friend's wrestling competition in high school doesn't count), take it from me — you needn't be a wrestling aficionado in order to enjoy this show. 

To describe "GLOW" as merely about wrestling would do it no justice at all. It was that, to be sure, given the real-life story that the series is based on. Wrestling fans largely praised the production for its respect and appreciation for the 1980s-set world of the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling, a team made up entirely of Hollywood castoffs and misfit women hoping to rise to international stardom, both through televised productions and in the ring.

More than that, however, "GLOW" also told a wonderfully balanced tale that put women and women's perspectives front-and-center. Created by Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch, the show's diverse ensemble and nuanced storylines easily sidestepped issues of representation that have plagued countless other productions. Rather than forcing one or two characters alone to shoulder the complex expectations of an entire marginalized demographic, "GLOW" simply took the most sensible course. By focusing on no less than 15 major characters, all of whom came with their own different personalities, motivations, backgrounds, and flaws, the series genuinely provided something for every viewer. 

"GLOW" primarily followed the turbulent friends-turned-enemies-turned-friends-again dynamic between Alison Brie's Ruth Wilder and Betty Gilpin's Debbie Eagan, complicated by Ruth's affair with Debbie's husband Mark (played by "Mad Men" alum, Rich Sommer). That said, the first season soon expanded beyond this inciting conflict and provided room for its deep roster of talent to add their own unique flavors to the mix.

By the end of the show's third season, we had our pick of various storylines to follow. Through Sunita Mani's Arthie Premkumar, "GLOW" deftly tackled issues of race and, with season 2's introduction of on-again/off-again love interest Yolanda Rivas (Shakira Barrera), closeted LGBTQ+ relationships. Sydelle Noel's Cherry Bang allowed the series to explore the idea of women in the workplace, miscarriage, and adoption, as well as the baseline challenges of simply existing as a Black woman in America. And Britney Young's Carmen Wade functioned as the conscience, soul, and beating heart of "GLOW." 

Why GLOW Was Canceled

History is littered with moments where everyone can vividly recall where they were and what they were doing when major tragedies unfolded right in front of their eyes. The JFK assassination. That "How I Met Your Mother" finale. Elmo ... beefing with Rocco? For those as caught up in "GLOW" as I was, the abrupt cancelation came as a similar shock — not least of all because Netflix actually greenlit the fourth and final season before reversing course. Officially, Netflix attributed the cancelation to the pandemic, particularly given the difficulties of filming such a "physically intimate" production.

This ... didn't go over particularly well at the time, and for good reason. Setting aside the obvious inconsistency of all the other close-quarters shows Netflix allowed to continue during the peaks of the pandemic (hello, "Bridgerton"), suspicion immediately fell on the streaming service's longstanding practice of canceling shows after two or three seasons to avoid contractually obligated pay increases. Sites like Wired have reported on this dubious trend before, pointing to typical reasons of viewership stagnation, but in 2019 Deadline went a step further and laid the blame at Netflix's standard operating procedures. As writer Nellie Andreeva explained:

Netflix's deals include bump/bonuses after each season that are getting progressively bigger. While the payments are relatively modest after season 1 and a little bigger after season 2, I hear they escalate after season 3, especially for series owned by Netflix — sometimes from hundreds of thousands to millions of dollars — as the studio starts to pay off the shows' back-end. For series from outside studios, which I hear cost about 20% more than their Netflix-produced counterparts, I hear the built-in payment increases do not skyrocket as much but still are bigger after season 3, season 4 and beyond.

How's that for a smoking gun? In many ways, it'd be easier to come to terms with feeling deprived of more "GLOW" if it'd simply been a matter of flagging ratings and a general loss of interest among audiences. That doesn't appear to be the case, however, if season 2 ratings are anything to go by. The fact that Netflix doesn't release any meaningful metrics only compounds the issue, leaving us with one fairly unconvincing excuse from official channels, an unsatisfying cliffhanger (but a great season finale), and no shortage of tea leaves demanding a thorough reading.

Unfinished Business

By the time season 3 came to a close, "GLOW" and its characters had come a long way from when their journeys first began. Ruth and Debbie finally achieved a semblance of the mutual respect and affection they once held for each other, though hard-fought and not without their fair share of friction along the way. The entire GLOW production moved from the confines of an old Los Angeles boxing gym and accompanying rundown motel to the dizzying success of putting on live events at a Las Vegas hotel and casino. The found family of wrestlers, meanwhile, weathered all sorts of personal and professional setbacks ... though some dealt with more drama than others.

All of these plotlines, however, came to a grinding halt once Netflix axed "GLOW" season 4. The final episode aired in August of 2019 and was promoted as the big "GLOW" Christmas extravaganza, adding an appropriately sentimental flair to the proceedings while it did its level best to wrap up the ongoing story of season 3.

Some characters fared better than others in terms of providing emotional closure. Exploitation filmmaker Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron) is one such example, having used GLOW out of desperation to get his Hollywood career back on track. Over the course of the show, the unexpected appearance of his illegitimate daughter Justine (Britt Baron) motivates him to do right by her for the first time in his life, though he proves as shaky a father as he is with directing wrestlers of varying degrees of talent and experience. On top of it all, his burgeoning feelings for Ruth and her fumbling attempts to respond in kind create simmering tension between the two. 

Sam ultimately chooses his daughter, formally adopting her and encouraging her own screenwriting career while Ruth, having made up with Debbie, ends the season with a momentous cliffhanger. Debbie, juggling her own regrets as an absentee mother to newborn Randy versus her ambitions as a professional wrestler, makes her boldest move yet and spearheads a revival of GLOW on television ... but when offered the directing job for the exciting new opportunity, she chooses to leave and return home to Omaha instead.

Will GLOW Ever Return?

Though the finale set up a fresh, new status quo for another season full of change and possibility, that final, bittersweet parting note was the last taste in our mouths of "GLOW." There's no telling how these characters and storylines would've concluded if given the opportunity, though clearly plenty of runway remained to bring the plane in for a satisfying landing if given half a chance. So what are the odds of a possible return? Should we still hold out a faint hope for more "GLOW" in our future?

I say this for my own well-being just as much as yours, because it's probably best to rip the band-aid off here and now. Sadly, the same Deadline article that gave us insight into the probable financial reasons for pulling the plug on "GLOW" also provides an explanation for why we're not likely to see another studio swoop in and save the show:

I hear there is a standard clause in the deals for Netflix series from outside studios that prevents the shows from airing elsewhere for a significant period of time, said to be two to three years, making a continuation on another network/platform virtually impossible. (According to sources, the blackout period could be as long as 5-7 years since the date of the series' delivery or even longer.)

Though the article is speaking in more general terms, this certainly doesn't paint a rosy picture for "GLOW." It's especially disappointing in light of Sunita Mani's Instagram post after the show's cancelation, which revealed that much of the cast had formally requested greater emphasis on the characters played by women of color and more of a commitment to diversity behind the scenes. As Mani writes, "Our show creators and producers HEARD US. They were in the process of making season 4 reflect some of the systemic problems we outlined." Although even a production as well-intentioned as this one ended up coming up short in some crucial areas, the willingness of the creative team to address those issues speaks volumes.

In a cruel twist of fate, "GLOW" ultimately fell victim to the same threat of early cancelation that constantly plagued the GLOW wrestlers portrayed in the actual show. As the creators stated at the time, " still sucks that we don't get to see these 15 women in a frame together again," but at least they gave us one hell of a ride.