Heels Episode 1 “Kayfabe” Review

Given pro wrestling’s rise in popularity over the past decade, with streaming services lowering the barrier to entry for promotions large and small from around the world, it’s a wonder that there haven’t been more attempts to adapt the art form for more conventional television. Lucha Underground injected a more cohesive, telenovela-style narrative into the structure of a weekly wrestling show, but was still essentially a “sports entertainment” broadcast. The Netflix dramedy GLOW was a delightful series about an all-female wrestling promotion, but was also a period piece that grew less interested in wrestling over the course of its three seasons. To date, there are still relatively few scripted dramas set in the world of pro wrestling and, apart from Darren Aronofsky’s excellent but incredibly grim 2008 film The Wrestler, they tend to be watered-down depictions of the business co-produced by major wrestling companies who are disinclined to get into the murky details that make it so fascinating.

Enter Heels, the new Starz series about one Georgia family’s struggle to keep their independent wrestling company afloat. Like GLOW before it, Heels is a scripted television series centered around wrestling that has trained its cast extensively to participate in the sport, mired in the complex internal politics of the business and promising “real” matches as part of its narrative. Heels is a drama first and a wrestling show second, with only a few scant minutes of in-ring action in the series premiere, but of course, if a viewer just wants to see pro wrestling, there is no shortage of it on television. What Heels has to offer is the best parts of wrestling that aren’t wrestling — the soap opera, the family strife, the backstage squabbles — with a level of accuracy that is simplified for the uninitiated but not totally insulting to the smart marks in the audience. Where a wrestling match relies on moral clarity, Heels gives us exactly what the title promises: a wrestling fable with no clear heroes. 

One-Eyed Jack

Jack Spade (Stephen Amell, Arrow) is the second-generation owner of Duffy Wrestling League (DWL), a small pro wrestling promotion in rural Georgia. DWL is the heart of the town, the thing to do on Sunday nights, and also draws a healthy crowd of out-of-towners. Like his father Tom “King” Spade before him, Jack exercises complete creative control over DWL, creating the characters, making all booking decisions (determining who wins and loses), and outlining matches beat-for-beat. He also doubles as DWL’s heel champ, and in traditional wrestler fashion, keeps up the act around town. Jack says that it’s his narrative that brings people to the DWL “Dome,” but his insecurity begins to show through when a major wrestling company takes an interest in his brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig, Vikings), DWL’s top babyface.

Jack puts everything he has into DWL, spending his money on new cameras and fog machines and his free time writing and rewriting his scripts. Wrestling is Jack’s purpose, a responsibility left to him by his local hero dad. Jack has ambitions to grow DWL into more than a quaint local curio, investing heavily into better production values for his online broadcasts, but as good as he claims to be at working a crowd, he doesn’t seem to be as adept at managing individual relationships. Jack sees the DWL roster as tools for telling his stories, rather than talented collaborators, and his harried managing producer Willie (Mary McCormack, In Plain Sight) warns him that he’s not paying enough to keep his wrestlers from jumping ship. His brother is paid $50 for the main event, which implies that the rest of the roster is likely getting a hot dog and a handshake. His wife Staci (stage actress Alison Luff) is positive and supportive, but growing concerned that running the company has drawn his attention away from their family. Nevertheless, Jack is framed (at least at first) as a well-meaning patriarch whose weakness is the stubborn pursuit of his singular vision.

Jack’s whole identity is wrapped up in being the king of his little castle, so he’s immediately threatened when 80s wrestling legend Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer, For All Mankind) flies into town on a learjet to scout Ace for “the suits up north.” (Vince McMahon is name-dropped in this episode, but WWE itself is not.) Bill is the only big-league champ ever to come out of DWL, an old-school, oxy-snorting shit-stirrer in a snakeskin suit whose rallying cry to the DWL locker room is “Go get ‘em so we can get fucked up!” While Heels builds the conflict between the Spade brothers as its main focus, Bill is a more interesting foil for Jack out of the gate as he represents what Ace has the potential to become but Jack does not — a legend, but also a busted-up drunk who is guided by and rewarded for his worst impulses. Stephen Amell has yet to make a strong impression in his leading man role, but Chris Bauer is instantly fun playing the “gruff, buffoonish Southerner” that has become the unlikely type for the Los Angeles-born, Yale-educated character actor.

Heels

If Your Dad Named You “Ace,” You’d Have Baggage, Too

Ace Spade is a hero in the ring, and nowhere else. Ace’s Shawn Michaels-derived bad boy persona (complete with a Superkick finisher) has made him the DWL’s biggest star in years and granted him a chance to reclaim the glory he once enjoyed as a high school quarterback. But even as the star of the show, he’s at the mercy of his brother Jack, to whom their father left everything. Jack grants Ace the position of conquering hero, but still gives himself the last word in their promo dialogues and retains the DWL title for himself. Jack takes credit for Ace’s success, and since we see precious little of Ace actually wrestling in this episode, it’s easy to see it from that perspective — Ace got over as a babyface via Jack’s rigid scripts, but when Ace is off book, out in the real world, he objectively sucks.

The real Ace Spade is a loser, a two-timing drunk who can’t hold a job and who still has the predatory instincts of a schoolyard bully. Alexander Ludwig plays Ace as a loathsome good old boy who doesn’t deserve our pity but wins it anyway through good looks and animal charisma — in other words, he was born to be a pro wrestler. Ace’s inner sad puppy appeals to his in-ring valet, Crystal (Killy Berglund, Now Apocalypse), an aspiring wrestler herself who understands the psychology of the business far better than he does. Crystal comes across as smart, likable, and easy to root for as a female performer in an otherwise all-male promotion that doesn’t take her seriously. She sees something in Ace, which shines him up just a little so that when we’re given a real reason to feel sorry for him, we might be willing to.

Ace is dumbfounded when Jack books himself to retain the championship in their upcoming title match. Ace can sense that he has the heat and knows that the fans would love to see him win, but Jack has an eye on the big picture, and believes that prolonging Ace’s title chase will be better for the promotion. When Ace pitches a version of the match in which he wins, his own best friend Big Jim (Duke Davis Roberts, The Good Lord Bird) points out the obvious problem: “It feels like an ending,” and endings are not good for business. For Ace, this is an ending — he fully expects to wow Wild Bill with a 30-minute epic that will win him a developmental deal in the big leagues. Ace wants to go out on top, to get one over on his brother in the kayfabe reality of DWL before he leaves it behind. That’s not how wrestling works and, in the interests of keeping the story grounded in the character drama, this episode doesn’t fully go into why that is.

More Wrestling:

Heels

That Doesn’t Work for Me, Brother

This is where Heels runs into some trouble, trying to reconcile its relatively realistic take on the wrestling business with the needs of its story. All of the characters act as if Ace will be offered a contract on the spot after this title match, and that this may be his last DWL show. The implication is that Jack doesn’t want to give Ace the belt on his way out the door, or at the very least, that he doesn’t want to reward his errant brother for abandoning the family business by granting him its highest honor. But DWL is a weekly event, and writing and signing performer contracts is not a process that happens overnight. In the world of indie wrestling, it’s common for the audience to know when a local talent has signed with a major company with enough advance notice to make a big deal out of that wrestler’s final indie show. (Most indie feds also run only one show a month.) A goodbye match is actually customary and, almost universally, the departing talent is expected to lose that match in order to lend momentum to someone on the roster who is staying behind. This is basic wrestling etiquette — for the good of the business, you go out on your back. So, either this is Ace’s last match and he’s honor-bound to lose, or he’s got at least a couple shows before he can split, during which he can drop the title back to Jack or someone else of his choosing, and everyone can get at least a little of what they want.

This isn’t the only way in which Heels fudges the details of the wrestling business in the interest of the story, but even totaled up they don’t strain believability too much. The tension of the narrative is driven by characters whose motivations are clearly defined within the context of the episode, even if the world in which it takes place doesn’t line up perfectly with reality. Pro wrestling is the domain of petty, cutthroat capitalists and Jack is a flawed protagonist who is clearly letting his personal feelings get the better of him. There’s nothing unrealistic about Jack refusing to put Ace over, even if it’s in the best interests of his business in the long run to have a future WWE Superstar in his promotion’s hall of champions. And, of course, if these two boys could play nice, there would be no show to speak of. Thanks to some further plot complications late in the episode, the match is resolved in an unpredictable way that reveals character and opens the story up for the season ahead. 

Tonally, Heels occupies that Sons of Anarchy territory of being heightened and soapy while pretending it isn’t, but its self-seriousness actually feels fitting for a series set in the world of wrestling. Heels is realistic about its stakes — DWL is nobody’s livelihood, it’s a passion, and a pretty ridiculous one. But, like any cloistered subculture, wrestling seems like the most important thing in the world to the people who care about it. Will Heels’ reach for Shakespearian family drama exceed its grasp? Quite possibly, but even that is very wrestling. And while I wouldn’t suggest giving Heels nearly the amount of slack one might cut WWE or AEW in terms of suspension of disbelief, I do think it would be fitting to give it wiggle room to be a bit broad, a bit trashy, even a bit stupid. After all, aren’t these the things we love about pro wrestling?

Special thanks to Dave Foster of Palmetto Championship Wrestling in South Carolina for consulting with me on this recap.

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