GLOW’s pilot mechanics

I’m writing STAY AT HOME HITMAN, a sometimes-raunchy half-hour comedy-drama involving suburban politics and scholastic espionage, mental health and struggles of new parenthood, relationships and drugs of all sorts, with a smattering of class struggles, internalised and external homophobia, infertility, familial expectations, meddling lollipop ladies, and body disposal.

I revisited GLOW because despite its much larger ensemble and wildly different story and time period, there are many similarities. It’s a sometimes-raunchy half-hour comedy-drama involving TV production politics and action sequences, poverty and struggles of new parenthood abortion, relationships and drugs of all sorts, with a smattering of racism, internalised and external homophobia, soap operatics, a wide spectrum of sexual dynamics, and flying clotheslines.

To help me write my pilot, I studied how GLOW’S pilot efficiently establishes its characters, stakes, world, etc., tells a compelling origin story for Ruth while showing her deep history and fissure with Debbie, and drops an advanced, stylised wrestling sequence as the cherry on top.

Along with specific 80s fashion and sexism, GLOW’s first scene immediately demonstrates: time period  and style; protagonist attitude, personality and occupation; general world and tone. While every pilot wants to demonstrate these as quickly as possible, opening with Ruth acting and acting out requires a bit of tightrope walking. On the one hand, Ruth is our story ‘in’ and audience surrogate, so we need to meet her right away, and the pilot needs to establish her getting knocked down again and again. On the other hand, because so many TV actors and writers “write what they know” with varying degrees of success and finesse, it’s risky to be so upfront about your protagonist being an actor or writer.

After Ruth bombs her audition, she ambushes the casting agent in the bathroom. On the one hand this could scare the audience, because before we know her well enough to like her we see her desperate, brash, try-hard, and needy. On the other hand, it’s important to get this out of the way as Alison Brie’s acting hints and a savvy audience would infer Ruth intentionally ran the wrong audition lines.*

To help counter audience aversion to Ruth, the emphatic points she makes during her audition are designed to put us on her side, her conversation with the casting director demonstrates GLOW’s grasp of ‘the system,’ and both together garner sympathy to Ruth’s cause of subverting the tough, sexist, unlucrative TV studio system. The audience may not work in TV, but futilely fighting an unfeeling corporate overlord is something we can all cheer for.

GLOW knows what it needs to accomplish In its first few scenes, and also how unlikeable Ruth can be, and does just enough to counteract any audience aversion without making her a Good Guy. After all, Ruth is about to be the story’s heel, in more ways than one.

After the audition Ruth goes straight to non-copyrght-infringing-Jazzercise-esque class, in case we weren’t sure how 80s GLOW would be. The time period is easily enough established with basic hair and wardrobe choices, but details such as slang, smoking indoors, flouro lighting and colour grade all add to the world. Some is clearly in the script (dialogue), some could be scripted or could have been added by the director (smoking indoors), and some is clearly not a writing but a directorial choice (colour grade), which all goes to show how important a cohesive vision – preferable by a showrunner – is for a good world overview.

Ruth joins not-Jazzercise late, in the spot saved by her best friend Debbie. If you’ve ever had to save someone a spot under the withering glares of a bunch of lycra-clad judgemental workout enthusiasts, you will understand how this small action gives us not only the fact of their friendship, but the deep depths of said friendship. Debbie’s boobs start leaking, which gives us visual evidence Debbie has a baby, whose name we learn is Randy. All this happens amidst a conversation which furthers plot – GLOW may have a longer run time than most ‘half-hour’ pilots, but it is still efficient and many elements do double duty.

Then the change rooms: women’s bodies! not all perfect! some muscular! While it’s often hard to judge what will continue from a pilot, both showcasing women’s bodies and Randy will continue to pop up through the series. Furthermore, GLOW will continue many of these threads even through current seasons; it never acts as though a post-pregnancy body is unattractive or undesirable, and avoids showing bodies for pure titillation, and even then when the bodies are rail-thin. The show it uses baby-then-toddler Randy to much greater quantity and effectiveness than many shows who introduce a kid as a roadblock, then foist them off on a grandma or babysitter. (This, in particular, is something we’re learning about from GLOW to apply to STAY AT HOME HITMAN.)

Debbie and Ruth swap their respective struggles with baby Randy / husband Mark, and money. Debbie has money and a hubby but can’t pursue her once-successful acting career! Ruth is single with no money so can pursue acting but it’s going nowhere! It doesn’t feel like the exposition dump it is because it properly uses their friends-venting dynamic, and the actresses’ chemistry is crucial. Ruth and Debbie will continue to be at odds through the series, and while some of their problems may overlap, they come from very different places and react differently to external situations . . . much like their characters will in the ring.

Following scenes show more layers of both Ruth’s poverty and try-hard personality. At auditions Ruth is the kid in class who asks all the questions, wants the scripts up front, does all the homework and gives herself more. If we’re not that girl, we know that girl. In all Ruth’s scenes alone, we get a firm view of how much she loves acting, how much she’s trying, how much the world is shitting on her . . . and how willing she is to take any job, including “unconventional” ones. It’s another risk to write a pilot which leaves a character alone so often, asking her to further the story without another character to bounce off. GLOW softens this by using techniques from “actress practices aloud” to “character takes phone call.”

To break up Ruth’s solo scenes, we go to the opposite end of the spectrum: GLOW auditions with 20 or so characters. These scenes throw us into the deep end with some big personalities, as well as infodumping the show-within-a-show’s conceit, GLOW-within-a-GLOW, if you will. Via Sam Sylvia, the show talks us through what GLOW wrestling will be, introduces us to most characters via their looks (a move which will be openly acknowledged and commented on in a meta-way at Bash’s party next episode) then caps it with an audition montage / obvious pilot shortcut which works because it’s oh-so-80s.

After that sensory overload we go back to Ruth alone again, a scene which adds to the pileon effect of ‘what dumpsterfire Ruth’s life is” but would be cut were the show not on Netflix and allowed to have a 30-minute runtime.

Then! Suddenly! a man climbs through Ruth’s window, talks vaguely of ‘love’ and cheating, and they fuck. The scene gives information about Ruth’s sex life, proclivities, and particular situation, while breaking up the wrestling auditions and thus stretching them over Ruth’s time. Our next GLOW checkin is “the next day” with a slightly smaller group of women, but because the show is interspersing the tryouts with events in Ruth’s life, it doesn’t need lower thirds or some sort of “oh it’s been three days of cuts” dialogue between the girls standing around the ring.

Cue the beginning of training, physical comedy, and establishing their scant skills so we can be impressed with how their abilities grow over the season. Said skill-establishing doubles for feeding us tidbits about who these characters are as people, personalities show through how they approach the wrestling and each other technically and creatively. Each time we come back, we spent time with a few more of the cast. Netflix saw this formula succeed with Orange is the New Black: throw audience in with everyone at once, flesh them out slowly one by one while everyone not in focus dances the periphery.

Ruth gets cut, splurges on tacos to eat her feelings, then has her taco dinner vandalised by skateboarding kids. It’s not just “emotional pileon continues,” though. I won’t argue every episode of GLOW necessitates its longer runtime, but giving the pilot more space pays off here, especially in a streaming show where we  can see the payoff immediately, not weeks down the road. More than generic “the world sucks” action, the specific choice to have her harassed by teen boys, in broad daylight with impunity, underlines how physically helpless she is, as well as how misogynist the world is. One way Ruth will start taking control of her life and trying to face the cruel world is getting physically strong via wrestling practice; that shit may be “staged” but it sure ain’t fake.**

Debbie arrives with baby Randy to pick up a forlorn Ruth. At first this scene feels like a repetitive ‘reaffirming their friendship’ beat, but then Debbie’s keychain reveals to the audience dun dun duuuuuun the man Ruth slept with is cue gasp Debbie’s husband!

Speaking of gasping, repressed longing, and more: back to Ruth’s life. We see her perform Cat on a Hot Tin Roof . . . to the gentle snores of her acting coach, followed by microwave dinner, watching WWE, and training alone in her dingy apartment. Again somewhat amplified by the runtime, we are shown and feel how badly Ruth wants and needs GLOW.

From that downer, smash cut to Sam Sylvia openly doing coke! A reminder the 80s were a different time, and (along with the earlier casual nudity), Netflix can do things network TV can’t.

Without much warning, we’re into the Showpiece Scene, the one the entire episode has been building to, the scene which has its cake, eats it too, then licks the icing from its mouth in slo-mo.

Ruth is soldiering through her desperate, earnest, earnestly-desperate play for a role as everyone watches . . . when Debbie shows up. She discovered Mark’s cheating offscreen, and you know what? That’s a perfect choice. Most shows would give us a scene where Debbie catches Mark in the act, or he feels guilty and comes clean, or something. But GLOW is not about Mark even a little bit, and we the audience know everything we need to about him, we don’t need that scene as much as we need multiple scenes of Ruth’s grindingly monotonous life, because that’s what makes us feel for her, and Debbie being fucked over by her best friend is actually more heartbreaking than being cheated on by her husband, something the show implicitly understands and shows here and in coming episodes.

Debbie and Ruth start a showdown while the other girls voice things the audience wonders if they’d wonder: is this all staged? Who cares! Not the audience, nor us. Without ceremony, GLOW transitions into a fullow produced slugfest, complete with flying moves and dramatic camera angles, putting an ‘advanced wrestling’ sequence in the pilot despite even characters clearly being newbies. Nowhere else has the pilot used fantasy sequences or flashbacks, so it’s a risky move, but it’s so fun and soapy and perfectly fitting with the plot and everything we know about these characters from the last 25 minutes, we lap it up.

It ends with Ruth pinned to the mat, literally down for the count, as yet another obvious-but-perfect 80s needle drop plays.

Take a bow, GLOW pilot. You pulled off something incredible difficult, and made it look easy.

.

STRAY OBSERVATIONS

– *The scene Ruth auditioning is also used heavily in the show’s promotion, so people would have had multiple chances to assume she knows the role she’s going for, but that’s a much later choice and possibly made by the marketing team in their own bubble. The marketing team driving promotional material without director or even creative producer input could be the topic of a dozen other blog posts, but we digress.

– **The show will be devastatingly clear in some of its best long-running C-plots that physical strength only gets women so far.

– The needle drops are chef’s kiss obvious, but perfectly so.

– Most Unbelievable Plot Detail: Ruth eating cinnamon toast crunch for four of her last six meals, and not GrapeNuts.

– From the sniffing (laid on particularly often and loudly in the pilot) to his glassy-versus-bright eyes to that delightfully awkward dismount from the ring, Marc Maron’s performance constantly reminds us Sam is constantly high.

– Clearly streaming allows pilots more space to play, and the first two episodes essentially feature things most networks would want in an hour-long pilot. GLOW wisely waits for the next episode to introduce another main character, Bash Howard, and flesh out some of the season’s other story generators.

Betty Gilpin is superb in the role, and her acceptance of her deserved Emmy nomination this weekend absolutely must be read.

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  1. […] antihero shows, or shows about primarily women (such as some criticism I’ve heard of GLOW), or are about ‘smaller stakes’ problems such as high school education, inn management, […]



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