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Starz's Heels is funny, dramatic, occasionally very stupid and also incredibly moving

  • Created by Loki's Michael Waldron, "Heels, like 99% of actual pro wrestling, is unabashedly a soap opera, dropping wrestling-like backstabbings and betrayals into a domestic setting, always with its drama dial turned to 11," says Vinnie Mancuso. "It's a show about big men with bigger feelings, able to press another man over their heads but still struggling under the weight of their own ambitions, the reluctant pride they feel while performing in half-empty halls, and the responsibilities left behind by absent father figures. It is also, as you might expect, occasionally incredibly cheesy. Just a heaping dose of cheese, all over Heels, a show wherein a dramatic moment is emphasized with a shot of a popcorn bag hitting the ground in slow-motion. But the cast mostly takes a grounded approach that helps guide you through the most melodramatic moments. (Stephen) Amell, especially, seems to be having a blast playing an dickhead of the decidedly non-CW variety; Jack Spade is a relatable, human a**hole, not a bad person but a man with an unhealthy level of investment in a sinking ship." Mancuso adds: "It's the tonal shifts, I think, that may turn someone sour on Heels, at least in the four episodes I've seen. The show will delve into addiction, suicide, and self-hatred, all set to a deeply self-serious soft guitar score, before a character suddenly delivers a devastating hurricanrana during a bar fight, an objectively silly visual. It's a whiplash effect that sometimes leaves the audience, especially an audience not entirely invested in the ins and outs of pro wrestling, unsure how to actually feel when the show asks you to take something like, say, a character switching allegiances in the ring very, very seriously. But Heels is all about not only rolling with these big punches, but enjoying how dramatically wild the swings are. Funny, dramatic, occasionally very stupid, and equally as often incredibly moving, Heels touches every corner, and if you can keep popping up after the bumps, you'll understand how addicting those bright lights can be." 


    • Heels is a heartfelt love letter to pro wrestling: "When you first dive into Starz’s latest drama, the small town indie wrestling drama Heels starring Stephen Amell, you’re probably going to get some Friday Night Lights vibes," says Kyle Fowle. "The show takes a lot of cues from that Jason Katims smash hit. There’s the lived-in feel of Duffy, Georgia, where Amell’s Jack Spade runs the Duffy Wrestling League; the entertaining ensemble of wrestlers, all trying to find their spot in the DWL while hoping for things bigger and better outside of their hometown; the web of secrets and various relationship threads that are amplified by living somewhere where everyone knows who you are; even the score is clearly inspired by Explosions In The Sky. Heels isn’t nearly as assured as the show it shares a wavelength with, but across the four episodes screened for review, it certainly builds itself into a compelling portrait of small town wrestling and relationships...The premiere is a little shaky because, like so many pilots these days, it spends too much time trying to convey every little bit of information about these characters and this town rather than just letting the plot and action do the talking. It’s a rather plodding first hour, though not without its moments."
    • Heels is the Friday Night Lights of wrestling: "Much like NBC’s beloved Friday Night Lights, which captivated football fans and non-fans alike, wrestling knowledge isn’t a prerequisite to understand or even enjoy Heels," says Keisha Hatchett. "The show is a compelling family drama about two brothers just trying to keep the family business — the Duffy Wrestling League — afloat while navigating a strained relationship in the wake of their father’s death. Because of its wrestling setting, industry terms are sprinkled throughout but quickly explained, and the audience is never left in the dark about what any of those strange phrases (i.e., kayfabe) mean." Hatchett adds: "Heels is a beautifully shot and well-written love letter to independent wrestling, elevated by an ultra-talented acting ensemble."
    • Comparisons between Heels and Friday Night Lights are inescapable: "The musical scores are very similar, they both ooze an alt-country vibe, and they’re both about dusty, dead-end Southern town where a sport is the main attraction," says Dustin Rowles. "Here it’s wrestling, but as with FNL and football, knowledge and/or interest in wrestling are unnecessary. I have less than no interest in the sport, and yet this wrestling drama is my favorite new show since Ted Lasso and should be the show that pushes Starz into the next level of the streaming wars...There’s a much harder edge here than in Friday Night Lights (and considerably more nudity) and the characters are more dysfunctional and face more adult challenges, but it possesses the same heart. At its root, it’s also an underdog story, not about a sports team but an entire league, a small business trying to survive against long odds. The wrestling itself serves an important function, too, because the storylines in the ring are informed by and inform the storylines outside of the ring, which allows Heels to build in a couple of layers of drama."
    • Heels is a show that knows itself that needs to trust its audience: "When I sat down with screeners of Heels, the new Starz drama about a small-town wrestling league premiering this Sunday, not until episode two did things click into place about what this show is and what it wants to be," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It’s not that the first episode fails to check all the necessary boxes of what a pilot should be — it does the boxes efficiently and with a respectable minimum of overobvious expositional stuff. The first episode explains that the show is about two brothers who inherited and star in a local wrestling league, the family business. The older brother, Jack (Stephen Amell), plays a bad-dude wrestling character, a “heel,” the villain everyone likes to boo. Younger brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) is the 'face,' the hero, the triumphant blond smiling one who thrives on crowd approval. That first episode puts all of it into place, and it does an admirable job of setting the scene: the jaded stage manager Willie (Mary McCormack), the economically depressed town in Georgia, the older brother crushed under the weight of responsibility, the younger brother who’s sensitive, frustrated, straining for independence. Nevertheless, there were three things about my viewing of Heels’ second episode that shifted and clarified my sense of this show. The first was thanks to an oddity of watching TV via screeners. The pilot screener hadn’t yet been edited to include the show’s opening credits, but they were there in episode two — atmospheric, almost amelodic reverberating guitar chords evoking that geographically spacious, emotionally close Friday Night Lights feeling layered over high-filter character portraits and landscape photography that fade into one another with a deliberately sentimental, scrapbook-style aesthetic. Despite the pilot’s competence, it would be hard to articulate exactly what tone Heels was aiming for, and those opening credits are a strikingly helpful key. They’re the opening credits of a show that fully embraces its schmaltz, its schmoopy, sincere, tie-it-to-your-heartstrings Small Towns and Big Feelings genre. It’s a show that knows itself. Heels’ second episode also makes clear that while the show may know itself, it does not trust its audience to figure that out."
    • Heels may be steeped in the specifics of wrestling, but it’s also essentially a show about making a show: "So perhaps it’s not surprising that it has a tendency toward heavy-handed meta commentary," says Angie Han. "It’s not enough for Jack and Ace to be brothers at odds. A character has to compare them to Cain and Abel and then explain who Cain and Abel are, for the benefit of viewers who might not know. (A different character later compares them to a CW drama, which is less flattering but works as a cute little nod to Amell’s Arrow fandom.) Sometimes the habit feels defensive. I could complain about Crystal being sidelined for as long as she is, or I could rewind a couple of episodes to hear Jack explain to a disgruntled wrestler that he’s gotta wait for the belt until it’s right for the story. That grandiosity never completely disappears, and perhaps it shouldn’t, as the Spades’ story seems to become more compelling the more tragic new dimensions it takes on. But not for nothing, Heels grows more relaxed as it goes. It chills out enough by episode six to make room in its one-hour run time for a scene of DWL wrestlers just sitting around and wondering about the point of male nipples. From a plot perspective, it’s almost entirely pointless. But it’s also one of the funniest and most disarming moments of the entire season, and does more to illustrate the camaraderie within the DWL than any pre-match pep talk from Jack ever could."
    • Heels captures the humor and scrappy showmanship of sports entertainment, though it suffers from streaming bloat -- despite being a cable series
    • Band Of Horses teamed with composer Jeff Cardoni on the theme music for Heels
    • Stephen Amell says his experience working with AEW’s Cody Rhodes over the years came in handy in making Heels: “It was just so fortunate that I had a background in this world, and that I understood it a little bit,” says Amell. “Getting to essentially apprentice under someone like Cody Rhodes, who’s filling that same Jack Spade role in AEW, and certainly what he did for himself on the independent circuit prior to that, being able to draw on that was invaluable.”
    • Alexander Ludwig says he couldn't believe how naïve he used to be about wrestling: “This is a full-on stunt performance,” he says. “The athleticism that goes into this is incredible.” Ludwig adds: “I can’t tell you the amount of respect I have for these men — five minutes in the ring, and I’m gassed. Having been thrown into this world, the only thing fake about it is the story lines, and even that can change at the drop of the hat.”

    TOPICS: Heels, Starz, Alexander Ludwig, Michael Waldron, Stephen Amell