That the world of professional wrestling could be mined for rich television drama should come as no surprise. After all, it IS rich television drama. It's a soap opera that bleeds and sweats and risks injury. It deals in pathos, melodrama, comedy, and absurdity, and it does so while athletes perform acts of agility, strength, and choreography. A behind-the-scenes look makes all the sense in the world. Netflix's GLOW already did a pretty great job of showing a wrestling promotion through the lens of comedy and 1980s throwback. Heels, the new Starz show from creator Michael Waldron (Loki, Rick and Morty), tackles wrestling from a perspective that feels achingly, almost wistfully dramatic, with the kind of blue-collar-poetry patina that recalls Friday Night Lights and the workaday dramatics of a show like Nashville.
At the show's center are brothers Jack Spade (Stephen Amell, Arrow) and Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig, The Hunger Games, Vikings), the two top stars of the Duffy Wrestling League in small-town Georgia. Until recently, the DWL was run by their father, a former wrestler whose death has left the creative direction of the promotion to Jack. Stubborn and fiercely protective of his creative control, Jack scripts the promotion's live shows, creating storylines that he hopes will continue to put butts in the seats and captivate the local audience. Jack is also the promotion's top heel, wrestling lingo for the bad guy. He'll walk out to the ring, berate the hometown crowd, then cheat in the ring to win. He's opposed by Ace, who is the company's top babyface, or simply "face" (the good guy), with his long blond hair, chiseled body, and youthful energy. It's a dynamic that's served wrestling for decades, away from the brighter lights of the bigger promotions (WWE's Vince McMahon gets name-dropped, but the show has a fictional company stand in as the big bad corporate wrestling behemoth).
Heels knows it's playing to an audience that will have different levels of knowledge about the wrestling business, so it educates as it goes. The first episode leans heavily on the notion of "kayfabe," an old carny term meaning, essentially, that you keep up the gimmick that the wrestling is real no matter what. This extends from selling the moves in the ring to selling the feuds outside of the ring. The notion that wrestlers behave as their characters whenever in public has eased somewhat at the WWE level, where the reality that these are performers putting on a show has been normalized, but in Duffy, where the performers live and work and go to the drug store, and where selling tickets to the kids and their parents is your livelihood, it's important for Jack and Ace not to break kayfabe, and so the local kids are a little afraid of Jack, and every time Ace's less-than-admirable real personality bubbles to the surface, it's a problem.
To draw a less wrestling-savvy audience into the show, Heels introduces a rookie to learn the ropes, Bobby (Trey Tucker). He's trained by Rooster (Allen Maldonaldo) and Apocalypse (James Harrison), the DWL's veteran talent, as well as Crystal (Kelli Berglund), who's Ace's valet in the ring — and his quasi-girlfriend outside of it — and who seems to have the chops to be a wrestler herself, although she gets stonewalled at every opportunity.
Heels' greatest strengths are the way it draws out the world of the DWL and its various moving parts, and the way Jack and Ace's family life bleeds unavoidably into their wrestling dynamic. Jack's wife Stacy (Alison Luff) keeps a wary eye on the accumulating credit card bills and raises their son, Thomas (Roxton Garcia), and although she supports the promotion in every way she can, she also sees how Jack's mom Carol (Alice Barrett-Mitchell) essentially gave her life over to the DWL, and she doesn't want that.
Ace, meanwhile, might have a future outside of the DWL when he's presented with a golden opportunity by Wild Bill (Chris Bauer, True Blood, The Wire), a DWL veteran who made it big in the corporate wrestling world. Wild Bill is the closest Heels comes to the kinds of rough, crude, scumbag wrestling characters of old. He also shares a now-contentious romantic history with Willie (Mary McCormack), Jack's no-bullshit partner in running the DWL.
Where Heels falters is when it presses its thumbs a bit too heavily on the emotionality of its world. Jack and Ace's relationship is fraught from the start, with a rather classic dynamic of Jack as the know-it-all older brother, and Ace bristling against that control. The relationship is even more stressed when it becomes obvious that Ace would make for a hugely effective heel — he's young, pretty, cocky, and acts like a real asshole in his out-of-the-ring life — but Ace doesn't want the crowds to boo him. These conflicts are punctuated by some truly egregious and heavy-handed music cues that play like a parody of Friday Night Lights, a show that Heels is fairly transparent about wanting to follow in terms of presenting a show about a small-town subculture that stands in for its very human drama.
Friday Night Lights is a lofty perch for a show like Heels to aspire, and it doesn't quite get there in its first few episodes. Its ambition, while admirable, can feel cloying when it falls short, with its emotional beats rarely given a minute to breathe before the show demands that you feel deeply about them. Professional wrestling's true magic is the way that it gets audiences invested in seeing its dramatic conflicts play out in the most outrageous ways possible. Heels could take a lesson from that, because it's got all the potential in the world if and when it chooses to really cut loose.
Heels premieres on Starz Sunday August 15th at 9:00 PM ET
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Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.