If you've forgotten how it feels to watch GLOW -- a show that looks like candy but goes down like a shot of hard liquor -- the new season will remind you in record time. Season 3 comes out swinging with a gag only GLOW could pull off, a brilliant extended riff about the Challenger disaster that I watched with my hands over my mouth. The summer of '80s nostalgia is in for a deliciously rude awakening.
GLOW, back in the ring Aug. 9 on Netflix, is still having a blast in Season 3, which relocates the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling to Las Vegas for their new live show and brings in a fantastically game Geena Davis -- as former showgirl-turned-entertainment director Sandy Devereaux St. Clair -- to play with the cast. The new episodes offer all the show's usual divine pleasures: wrestling triumphs, glitter eyeshadow, big-haired Betty Gilpin yelling at men. But just like Vegas, all that neon commercialism masks a desperate underbelly.
The Fan-Tan Hotel and Casino, home to much of the action this season, is a pressure cooker packed with showgirls, singers, and other entertainers, all caught in different stages of the hustle. If the first two seasons of GLOW were about the business of making a show -- how to attract a fan base, what to do once you've found one -- Season 3 is about the exhausting, unstable life of a performer. As the ladies are pushed to the limit by their repetitive schedule, the season trades training sequences for montages about the physical and emotional toll of putting on the same show every night. It's a subtle shift at first, but it sends fissures through the group that threaten to crack everyone wide open.
The first part of the season suffers from spending less time on wrestling, the meat-and-potatoes stuff that makes this show so bruising and empowering. Early episodes feel more aimless, even if that aimlessness is part of the story. But the season clicks into high gear in Episode 5, "Freaky Tuesday," a go-for-broke bash that finds a riotous excuse to get back in the ring when the ladies all decide to switch parts for a night. I'm hooked on the way the costumes are just a little bit off (leotards ride up, leggings don't fit, bra straps are showing) when the women switch outfits. Both in and out of the ring, GLOW is frank about women's bodies. One storyline finds Cherry (Sydelle Noel) debating whether she wants to keep trying for a baby knowing what pregnancy would do to her livelihood, especially after she meets a showgirl who's struggling to get back in the business after having a kid.
GLOW is still blessed and cursed with a sprawling cast of interesting characters, and Season 3 finds more for a few of them to do, but only in snippets. The clash between Debbie (Gilpin) and Ruth (Alison Brie) that powered Season 1 is mostly in the past, giving the actresses a chance to finally show off their chemistry as friends, but the show hasn't found an anchor strong enough to replace that rift. (Ruth's conflicted feelings for Marc Maron's Sam don't have the same spark.) As the season works overtime to give almost everyone a moment in the spotlight, it can sometimes feel fragmented, hinting at stories that aren't fully explored. A plotline for Debbie, in particular, deserves more screen time. But a series of vignettes is better than a five-hour movie, and unlike some streaming shows, GLOW knows how to structure a self-contained episode. At its best, the show plays with its own limitations, capturing what it feels like not to know everything going on in a person's life. That setup also makes it more satisfying when the characters do communicate: The standout sixth episode, "Outward Bound," sends the ladies on a camping trip where they wind up opening up to each other, reckoning with the stereotypes they perform in the ring.
GLOW, after all, has layers -- shiny makeup over bruises -- and the third season excavates all kinds of buried tragedies. New character Bobby (Kevin Cahoon), a drag performer at the casino, organizes an underground AIDS fundraiser that becomes a center of the action late in the season, allowing the show to address the unimaginable scope of the AIDS crisis through an artist's lens. Some of the season's richest moments come courtesy of Bobby, who forms a sweet connection with Sheila (Gayle Rankin) but brings out the worst in Bash (Chris Lowell). Bash is still struggling with his sexuality in the wake of his green-card wedding to Rhonda (Kate Nash), and it sours him, turning him into a jerk as he overcompensates to hide his feelings. In more ways than one, this season really is about the emotional toll of putting on a show.
The third season also adds new shades to Debbie, a character so easy to root for -- because Gilpin's barely contained ferocity is so satisfying to watch -- that her prickliest decisions always land as disappointments. Debbie makes bold moves to seize power in an industry that would prefer to keep her powerless, but the show doesn't have rose-colored "girlboss" glasses for her adventures as a producer. GLOW has a gift for not feeling uninspiring when it digs into the ways women inflict pain. It's so straightforward about women's complexity that it's thrilling.
The first time entertainment director Sandy watches the Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling do their thing, she's in need of some company. She says it's "better to cry in the dark with strangers than alone in a big empty house." GLOW wants its own audience to have that kind of experience: cathartic and communal, if not always easy. Fans looking for a story wrapped up in a bow won't get their wish this year; more than either of the first two finales, the third season finale ends on a note that suggests showrunners Liz Flahive and Carly Mensch are counting on renewal. But why move GLOW to Vegas if not to pull off a gamble?
TV Guide Rating: 4/5
GLOW Season 3 premieres Friday, Aug. 9 on Netflix.