Heels Review: A Funny, Addictive Wrestling Soap Opera - VRGyani News and Media

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Wednesday, August 4, 2021

Heels Review: A Funny, Addictive Wrestling Soap Opera

Pro wrestling, that part-sport-part-opera performance art with its own impenetrable culture and lingo dating back to the era of traveling carnivals, is a whole lot of things, but what you can never, ever call it is "fake." Longtime followers understand that pre-determined though the results may be, these are real people who chose to toss themselves onto a wooden canvas multiple times a week in service of one of the strangest, least-respected forms of entertainment on the planet. It's that odd behind-the-scenes tableau—made up of equal parts inspiring tales of success and tragedies filled with broken bodies—where Starz's new drama Heels mines its stories, and it works even at its most uneven because the series deeply understands how real the "fake" world of pro wrestling can be.

RELATED: ‘Heels’ Behind-the-Scenes Featurette Goes Into the Ring With the New Starz DramedyFormer Arrow star Stephen Amell—who also once wrestled a space alien supervillain in the WWE, the definition of having some experience—stars as Jack Spade, a lawnmower salesman by day who spends his nights trying to keep his late father's small-town independent Duffy Wrestling League above water. Jack writes the scripts, spends too much money on smoke machines, and stars as the league's top villain, a "heel" in wrestling parlance. His younger brother, Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig), has caught fire as the DWF's most popular good guy—a "face"—snagging the attention of the talent scouts "up north" at a corporate, nationally-televised promotion. Ambition, ego, and good old-fashioned sibling resentment clashes both inside and out of the ring, as the brothers Spade struggle with keeping the oversized emotions drummed up in the squared circle out of their personal lives. Meanwhile, the backstage world around them acts as a heightened microcosm of the world. Crystal (Kelli Berglund) is a valet who knows she could wrestle circles around most of the men, despite not being allowed in the dressing room; Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonado) is the league's most athletic performer, who notices the championship belt never seems to hang around a Black man's waist; Staci Spade (Alison Luff), Jack's wife, can no longer just stay at home while her husband plays at superstardom.

Created by Michael Waldron, Heels, like 99% of actual pro wrestling, is unabashedly a soap opera, dropping wrestling-like backstabbings and betrayals into a domestic setting, always with its drama dial turned to 11. It's a show about big men with bigger feelings, able to press another man over their heads but still struggling under the weight of their own ambitions, the reluctant pride they feel while performing in half-empty halls, and the responsibilities left behind by absent father figures. It is also, as you might expect, occasionally incredibly cheesy. Just a heaping dose of cheese, all over Heels, a show wherein a dramatic moment is emphasized with a shot of a popcorn bag hitting the ground in slow-motion. But the cast mostly takes a grounded approach that helps guide you through the most melodramatic moments. Amell, especially, seems to be having a blast playing an dickhead of the decidedly non-CW variety; Jack Spade is a relatable, human asshole, not a bad person but a man with an unhealthy level of investment in a sinking ship. On the other side of the spectrum, there's one of TV's all-time great "that guy" actors Chris Bauer as "Wild" Bill Hancock, a flamboyant former superstar turned talent scout, who manages to combine the best of Heels' grounded grittiness and heightened melodrama into one performance. Wild Bill is a walking example of what a life devoted body and soul to wrestling often gets you; he still wears the flashy snakeskin outfits and talks mostly in catchphrase-laden promos, all of which fails to hide a vice-fueled detachment from reality and a back that took too many bumps to bend right. Bauer's performance is funny and heartbreaking, all at once.

It's the tonal shifts, I think, that may turn someone sour on Heels, at least in the four episodes I've seen. The show will delve into addiction, suicide, and self-hatred, all set to a deeply self-serious soft guitar score, before a character suddenly delivers a devastating hurricanrana during a bar fight, an objectively silly visual. It's a whiplash effect that sometimes leaves the audience, especially an audience not entirely invested in the ins and outs of pro wrestling, unsure how to actually feel when the show asks you to take something like, say, a character switching allegiances in the ring very, very seriously. But Heels is all about not only rolling with these big punches, but enjoying how dramatically wild the swings are. Funny, dramatic, occasionally very stupid, and equally as often incredibly moving, Heels touches every corner, and if you can keep popping up after the bumps, you'll understand how addicting those bright lights can be.

Rating: B+

KEEP READING: 'Heels': New Trailer Shows Stephen Amell in a Brother Rivalry in Starz Wrestling Drama



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