The pro wrestling industry is an untapped goldmine for compelling storytelling. Darren Aronofsky had this figured out with The Wrestler back in 2008, only for the rest of Hollywood to forget that lesson for roughly a decade, but the last few years have seen a surprise explosion in this very specific subgenre. GLOW used the backdrop of a 1980s all-women promotion to deliver a hilarious yet heartwrenching ensemble piece, Fighting with My Family recapped the touching story of one WWE star's rise to fame, and Dwayne Johnson's Young Rock sings its best notes whenever it's recreating the 1980s wrestling scene right before Hulkamania became a household name.
But for as good as those other projects were, Heels might just be the new champion.
Created by Michael Waldron (Loki), the Starz series centers around an independent wrestling promotion in the fictional small town of Duffy, Georgia. While there's plenty of in-ring action sprinkled throughout the season's eight episodes, it's abundantly clear early on that the show's real interests are in the people who choose to enter the business and how it can strengthen or destroy one's relationships simply by being in its orbit.
The main focus is on the Spade brothers. Jack (Stephen Amell) is a gruff-but-loving family man who runs the Duffy Wrestling League promotion. Ace (Alexander Ludwig) is his younger, hot-headed brother who seems destined for greatness if he can just get out of his own way. The cast is rounded out with Alison Luff as Jack's wife Staci Spade, Kelli Berglund as the bright-eyed Crystal Tyler, Allen Maldonado as the charismatic but underappreciated Rooster Robbins, and Trey Tucker as the adorable "himbo" Bobby Pin.
The personal and professional rivalry between Jack and Ace is on display from the onset, and the show manages to trick you into thinking this is merely headbutting between two stubborn brothers. Ace basically throws a tantrum anytime something doesn't go his way and is so arrogantly smug to nearly everyone else in town, while Jack is obsessed with delivering his creative vision of what he believes pro wrestling should be. But as each episode passes, the curtain is pulled back further to show the psychological damage the two carry, most of which spawned from their respective relationships with their deceased father and local wrestling hero Tom Spade. David James Elliott gives a haunting performance and, despite not having much screen time, he gets to hang over the show like a black cloud. It's through flashbacks with him we learn why Jack feels compelled to keep running the promotion despite obviously holding contempt towards the business and it being a burden on his family life, why Ace puts an incredible amount of pressure on himself and why the two are so often at odds with each other.
And that's all without getting into the struggles of actually being a modern-day pro wrestler. Topics like the physical toll it takes on the body, struggling finances, backstage politics, drug abuse, promoters manipulating their wrestlers for greater gains and the frustrations previous generations of wrestlers have with modern wrestling (there's a particularly great shot taken at WWE's current championship belt designs) are all brilliantly realized. By the end, you understand the people behind the series love pro wrestling but recognize its malignant flaws.
There's also quite a bit for hardcore wrestling fans to enjoy. All of the actors bring their A-game once they're in the ring, the cinematography for the action is expertly handled, and there are a few surprise cameos if you look close enough. And yes, while he's playing a character significantly different from his WWE days, CM Punk (Phil Brooks) is excellent when he pops up.
As if all of that wasn't enough, the series boasts a pair of outstanding antagonists. Mike O'Malley (who doubles as showrunner) is having an absolute blast as rival promoter Charlie Gully, bringing all the manic energy and smarminess of a coke-fueled Batman villain. And then there's Chris Baurer as Wild Bill Hancock, an obvious amalgamation of several famous wrestlers who washed up once they were past their prime. The show captures so many aspects of what major stars go through once their time in the spotlight ends with Bill that you almost wonder if they secretly had a few ex-wrestlers helping with the script. And for as detestable as he can be, Bauer turns around late in the season and drops a monologue about his relationship with one particular cast member that will leave you floored. For as excellent as the Spade brothers' drama is, this show could have just as easily been about him.
That's not to say Heels doesn't stumble in a few places, and, unfortunately, it often happens with the female characters. The series does its best to give Luff's Staci some pathos behind her frustration with the DWL becoming an all-consuming force on her family but the material can't quite escape the nagging wife trope. Alice Barrett Mitchell gets disappointingly little to do as Jack and Ace's mother, and then there's Berglund's Crystal.
In terms of character growth, she's the season's MVP and will undoubtedly be a fan favorite. Unfortunately, she also gets saddled with the "girl who is obviously just as talented as the boys but doesn't get an opportunity because of gender norms" character arc over trying to become a wrestler rather than just a valet. It's a decent arc, but it also comes off as a bit outdated. If this were 2011, it wouldn't really be an issue but we're more than five years removed from WWE getting rid of the term "Diva," two of the last three WrestleManias had women in the main event, and, at this point, it's weird when a major wrestling promotion doesn't have a women's division. It takes seven episodes for somebody to finally ask why the DWL doesn't have one, but I would bet you if the promotion really existed, Jack would be getting hounded about that topic often.
The season finale also falls just a little bit flat. There are a ton of plot threads still dangling in the air heading into the climax, but the show decides to forgo addressing most of them in favor of an eye-catching final sequence. But, then again, that's what second seasons are for.
Despite the frustrating finale, Heels is excellent. If you're not a wrestling fan, you'll be hooked by the compelling characters and family drama. And if you are already a wrestling fan, you're in for a real treat.
Rating: 4.5 out of 5
Heels is set for release on Starz beginning on August 15th.