“When you’re in the ring you stick to my script,” Jack Spade (Stephen Amell, “Green Arrow”) reminds his little brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig), the star duo running Atlanta, Georgia’s Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). Ace is a “face,” a.k.a. a good guy—the hero of the storyline. Jack gets the crowd riled up as his rival “heel,” the bad guy people showed up to watch get beaten. “Good triumphs over evil.” Ace tells his brother, insisting that he should win their big upcoming bout. “But it don’t.” Jack replies, knowing their audience will see the message as phony. If the good guy wins, where does the storyline go next, and what will that do to the family business?
Starz has carved out a curious niche of quietly producing some of the strongest programs of the modern streaming landscape—ones actively interrogating complex human behaviors through previously thought to be trashy/taboo subjects such as “Blindspotting” and “The Girlfriend Experience” (maybe the most under-appreciated series of the past several years). Often chasing today’s modern content trend of jumping off an “IP” of some sort, “Heels,” (from creator/showrunner Michael Waldron, “Loki“) may not fall into the exact same category—not being based on pre-existing narrative material—but instead cashes in on the niche market growth of a specific type of media; in this case, independent pro-wrestling.
Having inherited the family business from their recently deceased father Tom, running DWL now falls on Jack, who is having a lot of trouble accepting the fact that Ace is currently more “over” than him (meaning the crowd supports him more). Videos of some recent matches have gone viral online and their current “heat” (how effective the storyline is working for the audience) is at a level the brothers haven’t felt since the halcyon days when Dad ran the business, being pitted against superstars such as the now legendary Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer), an old friend of the family’s who has become a top scout at a rival company. Bill’s arrival ushers in Jack’s deep-seated insecurities, and it seems as though Bill is looking to call Ace up, and Jack seriously debates sabotaging Ace’s newfound success by changing the in-ring storyline, maintaining it out of protection for his bro.
Revolving around said bout Wild Bill has come to watch, “Heels” pilot episode, “Kayfabe” (a term referring to not breaking character), spends a lot of time explaining things for audiences potentially unfamiliar with wrestling and its encyclopedia of slang. “Don’t say fake, you’re a wrestling wife now,” Staci (Alison Luff), Ace’s wife, tells a friend. Introducing the backstage locker room and its assorted cast of characters, sentiments such as, “Tonight is sold out cause of me, and I’m only making 50 bucks,” dominating much of the dialog—a gag about how to properly distribute one’s weight during an elbow drop taking dramatic precedence over spending time to actually develop its sizeable ensemble. Despite all the early handholding, the show inevitably ends up feeling very “inside baseball,” conversations about the strain of developmental years ultimately meaning nothing when a performer sells out for corporate cash, in which terms like “screwjob” come up without being thoroughly clarified for casuals, make up a large part of the banter and narrative conflict.
Though it aims to establish a large cast of a specific sports community a la “Friday Night Lights,” the Southern charm stripped down to rural essence reads like a bubble community of trailer park athletes far removed from actual society—which may well be the intent but gets fairly eye-rolly in the Year of Our Lord 2021. “What kind of lies they tellin’ in U.S. History these days?” Wild Bill asks the daughter of an old friend as he pours syrup atop his pancakes. Dated TV archetypes such as Staci filling the “worried wife” role rounds out most of the cast. Ace’s in-ring accompanist eye-candy, Crystal (Kelli Berglund) solely exists in the first three episodes to be the one woman discriminated against in the locker room (she’s considered a valet, not an actual wrestler, cause she’s a girl) as well as Ace’s cheer-up f*ck. Thankfully, Episode 4, “Cutting Promos,” finally gives her nuanced motives and an actual story, seeding the development of a potential romance between her and the up-and-coming face, Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker), an insecure good guy wondering if he should switch to being a bad boy and start calling himself Bobby-85.
I honestly couldn’t tell you the name of another wrestler in DWL’s locker room, although former wrestling champ Phil Brooks (a.k.a. CM Punk—”It’s clobberin’ time!”) shows up for a fun turn in Episode 3, mocking just how ludicrous these entertainers’ gimmicks can get sometimes. He plays an indie-circuit veteran called Rick Rabies, whose ring entrance consists of a flying squirrel drone that spits fake blood on his opponent. It’s whole plotlines and sequences like this that make one question precisely who “Heels” was made for; solely die-hard wrestling fans, or anyone who’s briefly followed WWE at one point in their lives?
Smartly, the show does take its coda about the ultimate fragility of ego-driven performance artists seriously. “It’s fun, being the bad guy,” ’til you take that anger home with you. Like many who’ve spent decades honing their craft, the ring offers both Jack and Ace a sense of control—control over the pageantry design of their own self-absorbed world. You’re not supposed to take the heat to heart, but that’s easier said than done in an insincere business designed around grown men dressing themselves up in tights, pushing silly stupid sincerity down your throat. “Cutting Promos” concludes with a well-written speech wherein Ace responds to the cynical belief that sadness is an emotion rooted in being selfish. It can be hard to know what feelings to pay attention to when you supposedly fake them for a living. After all, wrestlers are expected to “always sell the pain, even when it’s just practice.” [C]
“Heels” debuts on Starz on August 15.