Heels is a heartfelt show about complex people, unified by their affection for wrestling. It’s impossible not to want to leap off the top rope along with them.
The biggest hurdle faced by any TV series or movie about the world of professional wrestling, like Heels, is how to make one of the most unique art forms on the planet palatable – and indeed interesting – to those who don’t already love it. When judged on that challenge alone, Heels might be one of the best TV series of the year.
Heels understands the essential dilemma at the heart of wrestling. Take it too seriously and you look like an idiot who is over-enthusiastic about people pretending to fight each other, but treat it like a joke and you laugh in the face of those who genuinely love the business. That’s a line that Heels – created by Marvel series veteran Michael Waldron – walked in its first season, and the drama series continues to do so.
We reunite with Duffy Wrestling League boss Jack Spade (Stephen Amell, familiar to those who love watching the Arrowverse in order) after the successful big show from season one. But he’s also worried about his absent brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) and wondering how to deal with the unplanned ending of the championship match.
Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund) is now somehow the champion, despite having never wrestled a match before, while rival wrestling tycoon Charlie Gully (Mike O’Malley) is spitting blood. And not just because Jack punched him square in the face.
Like GLOW before it – RIP to one of the best Netflix series ever – Heels understands that wrestling’s inherent drama is best enhanced by building colorful and complex characters. The core cast remains in place from season one, with Mary McCormack able to add prickly new layers to Jack’s business partner Willie and Trey Tucker standing out as the lovable doofus Bobby Pin, still recovering from the broken leg he sustained in the first season.
But the sibling dynamic between the Spade brothers still sits at the heart of the show. Amell and Ludwig spend more time apart this time around, but there’s a clear gravitational pull between the two of them and, crucially, between them and the squared circle.
Wrestling might not always be good for them, but they can’t live without it.
Amell and Ludwig are both terrific, with Amell in particular excelling as a defiantly internal man whose unwillingness to stop moving creates tension with those around him. He’s given his body and mind to wrestling and he doesn’t know how else to live, which contrasts nicely with McCormack’s Willie – a woman who’s seemingly desperate to find a way out before she disintegrates completely.
Berglund, too, joins the list of standouts this season. Her story touches on the difficulties for women in the wrestling world, particularly outside of the major companies with TV deals, and she’s given extra gravitas by sharing scenes with real pioneers of women’s grappling like AJ Mendez and Serena Deeb. When Berglund is on screen, she owns the show.
Obviously, with such a large ensemble, some characters suffer and don’t get as much depth as others. There’s also a little too much willingness to delve into the past in lengthy flashback scenes, rather than letting the characters reveal those stories through their actions in the present.
Fortunately, we’re never far away from another wrestling event, and it’s here that the show really flies. The DWL is an old-fashioned promotion and there’s a joy in how Heels taps into wrestling at its purest, simplest, and most satisfying. If you’ve grown up on a diet of WWE, you might see some of the swerves coming, but that doesn’t stop them from being punch-the-air thrilling.
As a devoted wrestling fan, I found it impossible not to allow Heels to grab me in a headlock yet again. These are characters who hold wrestling deep in their bones and even the loudest of the “wrestling is fake” crowd will struggle not to be swept up in the exquisite drama of it all. When the bell rings, nothing else matters.
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