Workplace dramas never get it right—at least not as far as the workers they depict are concerned. Doctors cringe at Grey’s Anatomy (“It’s hos-pital, not hot-spital!”), lawyers turn up their noses at Ally McBeal, and Parks and Recreation workers, well, probably wish Leslie Knope was their boss. One might think that the entertainment industry would be much better at depicting its own in shows like Smash or movies like La La Land. But as an actress, I find that they also fall short of the mark. Surprisingly, the show that just nails what it’s like to be an actress is Netflix’s Glow, a workplace dramedy about female wrestling in the ’80s.
The very first shot of the show’s pilot is a medium close up of an attractive, professional woman in a high-rise office building, delivering a powerful speech about how she refuses to be bullied into submission. As she tearfully but strongly drops out of character, we realize that this is Ruth (a marvelous Alison Brie, who simultaneously calls to mind Liz Lemon and Diane Chambers) auditioning for a role in a movie.
First thoughts? She’s pretty terrific. But, it turns out, she accidentally/on purpose read the man’s part in the scene, because, she says, “there are not roles like this for women right now.” The casting director is unmoved and asks her to read the woman’s part, which consists of the single line: “Sorry to interrupt, your wife is on line two.”
Ruth does a bang-up job of that line as well, but we learn (after she ambushes the casting director in the bathroom) that she didn’t get that part either. Why? Because, as the casting director explains, directors always say they want a girl who’s real, “So I bring you in so they can see that they don’t actually want the thing they think they want.”
The rest of the pilot shows Ruth in various situations that could be from my life or the lives of my friends. She meets up with her best friend, Debbie (Betty Gilpin, as talented as she is gorgeous), an ex-soap-opera star who encourages her to quit the business in the interest of starting a family (where true satisfaction lies). One still gets the sense, however, that Debbie might miss the acting world just a little bit. Then Ruth goes home to her unglamorous—though still TV-big—apartment to squash a gross bug on her wall and, later, asks her parents for more money while unconvincingly promising that it’s the last time. Then, of course, she auditions for the wrestling show.
At the audition, the director, (a likeably unlikeable Marc Maron) asks her, “Do people think you’re pretty? Cause, like, I’m looking at you and one second I think, ‘Fuck yeah, she’s hot’ and the next second I’m like, ‘I dunno, is she? Really?’ I mean, you just have one of those faces that kinda changes like, ‘yeah!’, ‘meh ...’” I have actually had this conversation with myself while trying to nail down exactly how the industry sees me. Like, “I’m pretty, but I’m not Hollywood pretty. I could be the girl next door, but not on the CW. Maybe I’m, like, the woman next door? I’m a momgenue!”
All of these things are as real as can be. Most talented (which I emphasize lest you think not working is symptomatic of not being good) actresses are out of work, killing themselves at a day job or asking their parents for money well into their twenties and thirties, coveting their non-actor friends’ more comfortable lives, and being objectified in a panoply of humiliating ways. While I loved Emma Stone’s speech in the last third of La La Land about how getting one more rejection will break her (a sensation I am all too familiar with), I find it offensive to all the struggling actresses out there that not only does Stone’s character get a callback for that movie but books the role and three years later is the biggest star in Hollywood. That is not how it works. And, as my friend Angelica says, she would not have had time to have that baby and make all those movies either! But I digress.
The actresses I know, myself included, are like Ruth. We went to conservatories and had dreams of joining famed repertory companies and playing the greatest female roles in the canon: Miss Julie, Nora, Lady Macbeth, Blanche, Juliet, Rosalind, etc. And then the reality of the business kicks in: repertory theatre in America is breathing its last breaths and most actresses will never play Nora. If you’re lucky, you might get a speaking role on a TV show. And as for Debbie and Ruth, they are lucky to be cast as lady wrestlers—even though they never could have imagined that possibility when they set out to pursue a career in the arts.
What is so very beautiful about the storytelling on this show is that this random, comedic job that most people think is silly and certainly not artistic becomes the most empowering, artful, strengthening, victorious thing to happen to these women. And that is a journey that I have seen over and over again. I see talented, beautiful, dedicated actors fail to achieve the dreams they had in childhood and college, but turn around and create something they never could have imagined if necessity had not been the mother of invention.
Many of New York City’s most wonderful Off Broadway companies are prime examples of this. Fiasco Theatre is made up of a group of classmates from Brown/Trinity Rep’s MFA program. My guess is that if they had all skyrocketed to fame right after school, they never would have produced Cymbeline—one of the best productions of Shakespeare I’ve ever seen. Kate Hamill created one of the most popular theatrical adaptations of Sense and Sensibility in dramatic history, and then she got to act in it with the wonderful Bedlam Theatre Company. Another regular Bedlam actor, Gabra Zackman, shares a vocation with me: recording romance novels for Audible, a trump card in cocktail conversation if ever I had one. And she even ended up writing a series of those books herself!
The story of the star-to-be hopping off the bus in New York City, struggling for a while, and then being discovered is not the story of almost any performer I know. Hopping off the bus, getting more discouraged than you could ever imagine, and then taking part in something new, weird, and magnificent—now that’s a story I recognize.
Does a show have to be true to life to be good? No. I watch Grey’s Anatomy and don’t give a fig that it’s not realistic (who wants to spend time in a real hospital anyway?). La La Land is still worthy of its Oscar nom and Smash is great fun. But if any of you were wondering (or maybe even aspiring to be actors one day), Glow tells it like it is, and looks darn good while it does.