In the very first episode of Netflix’s “GLOW,” Ruth (Alison Brie), a struggling actress, auditions for an all-ladies wrestling show directed by Sam Sylvia (Marc Maron), a crotchety, crude and jaded filmmaker with a string of low-budget exploitation flicks to his name. Their first one-on-one encounter is humiliating for Ruth, as Sam instantly picks her résumé and head shot apart, wondering aloud if people think she is pretty.
“I’m looking at you one second, I think ‘[Expletive] yeah, she’s hot,'” he snarks. “And then the next second I’m like, ‘I don’t know — is she, really?'”
Thus begins a prickly odd-couple relationship common to workplace comedies: His dismissive curmudgeon clashes with her overachieving go-getter, until eventually, the curmudgeon is softened ever so slightly by the other’s earnestness. But despite its familiarity, the dynamic stood out in Season 1, in large part because Ruth and Sam avoided becoming one of the most tired TV tropes: the will-they-or-won’t they? couple. Unfortunately in the second season, now on Netflix, the “GLOW” writers are suggesting that romance is the only natural course for this pair to take.
Ruth and Sam’s interactions were among the highlights of Season 1 — snappy, rhythmic exchanges that could delight even without dialogue. (When Ruth offers her impression of Audrey Hepburn winning the best actress Oscar, Sam’s bewildered facial expression does most of the talking.) The relationship is also where one of the show’s major themes — sexism in the workplace — plays out most explicitly. Ruth is the first to see the potential for “GLOW” to be more than just a silly wrestling show and frequently chimes in with creative suggestions. She is a bit of a suck up, but Sam’s ongoing piggish insults reveal his internalized misogyny. When he cuts her from an audition in an early scene, he suggests his decision may be because “I don’t like your face, or your ass.”
“I don’t know,” he continues. “Maybe I like both of them too much. I don’t have to explain myself — that’s the beauty of being a director.”
Of course, Ruth’s unfailing determination slowly begins to chip away at Sam’s exterior, particularly when he shows compassion while accompanying her to a doctor for an abortion. But until now, their relationship echoed Lou Grant and Mary Richards or Jack Donaghy and Liz Lemon, not Sam and Diane: rare pop culture rapports, between a male boss and female employee, that are comically antagonistic but clearly based in mutual, platonic admiration and affection. It’s easy and a cliché to turn such dynamics into sexual tension, which is why Ruth and Sam felt refreshing for what they seemed to eschew.
But in the otherwise excellent Season 2, the “GLOW” writers opt for the easy and cliché route. In the seventh episode, “Nothing Shattered,” the show begins to hammer home an unspoken romantic connection by pitting Sam against the new character Phil, the cameraman who has vied for Ruth’s affections behind the scenes. After she’s seriously injured in the ring, Sam becomes jealous when Phil carries her offstage; at the hospital, he haughtily steps in to wheel her to her room. “My show,” Sam says. “Capeesh, Hercules?”
In the penultimate episode, “Rosalie,” Ruth accompanies Sam to his daughter’s school dance to help smooth out a family conflict. As the pair takes the dance floor, the song switches from the Human League’s upbeat “Don’t You Want Me” to Madonna’s “Crazy for You.” With the mood effectively set — she’s even leaning on him for support because of her injury — he goes in for a kiss. She ducks away and leaves to seek out Phil, but by the end of the season that romance seems doomed as she leaves with the rest of the cast for their new Las Vegas show, the camera lingering meaningfully on Ruth and Sam sitting together on the bus.
Sam’s slow and imperfect evolution toward being less of a sexist pig would be more powerful if his redemption stood on its own, rather than attached to his attraction to one of the women who is most responsible for it. And while Phil may not turn out to be a good fit for Ruth — who acknowledges that she has often made poor dating choices — a pivot to Sam would suggest a step backward for her character, just when it seemed she was finally entering a new mode of self-awareness.
It also doesn’t help that in real life Maron is nearly 20 years older than Brie, yet another example of Hollywood casting romantic duos in which the woman is significantly younger.
“GLOW” is a deceptively complex show, calling attention to culturally relevant issues, from #MeToo to representations of race and class, while maintaining a dark sense of humor and plenty of heart. Which is why this sudden move into hackneyed territory feels like such a letdown. Part of the pleasure of witnessing the growth of Ruth and Sam’s relationship, especially his begrudging acknowledgment that she has much to contribute to the show, was that it didn’t feel weighted down by the politics of dating. (Although it’s worth noting that in an interview with Indiewire, Brie and Maron said that they saw their characters as romantically involved from the beginning.)
Thankfully, there are a few moments in Season 2 that stick with that spirit. In “Rosalie,” Sam lets Ruth crash on his couch one night. Sam hands her a blanket and pillow, turns off the lights and heads into his room across the hall. It’s a simple exchange, but it demonstrates how far they’ve come as friends and colleagues, even if they don’t always see eye to eye. The moment also stands out because it comes and goes swiftly, with no tension or awkwardness, no lingering glances. That’s what makes it special.
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