Full disclosure: I’ve been a professional wrestler for nearly 27 years, so I’m going to be somewhat tough on this show, because I have a unique insight into its realism.
I’m excited that it exists — it’s not a cheap wrestling cash-in, as its executive produced by Emmy nominee Mike O’Malley and Academy Award nominee Julie Yorn, plus it boasts a solid cast.
Heels is about the Duffy Wrestling League, which is owned by the son of its creator, Jack Spade (Stephen Amell, who was on Arrow* and has actually competed in several matches; he broke his back — literally — doing stunts for this series). Jack has the worst job in wrestling, as he not only owns the promotion, but is its main writer/booker, which means that everyone intensely loves and hates him, often at the same time.
The small building that they run every week may seem small to some, but I spent the better part of a decade or more working for a family-owned promotion not unlike the one in this movie, one that had very much its own family drama. Not exactly like this show, mind you, but the bonds of family and who got the push toward fame and those upset by it? I’ve lived that.
Ace Space (Alexander Ludwig), Jack’s brother, starts the series as a face, the exact opposite of a heel. If you don’t know, a heel is the antagonist and the face is the hero. What the series gets right is that most career heels tend to be amongst the finer people you meet in wrestling and there’s a very interesting reason why: generally, the heel is more concerned with putting the match together and making the babyface look good. Most babyfaces are only concerned with looking good. This division between them goes beyond the ring and into life, so I can tell you with some authority that the majority of babyfaces I’ve met are heels in real life and vice versa.
Meanwhile, the other wrestlers in DWF struggle in their wrestling careers, like Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund, who is great on this show), a valet who dreams of more. There’s also Rooster Robbins (Allen Maldonado), who dreams of the main event; Apocalypse (Pittsburgh Steeler James Harrison) who conducts AA meetings in the ring during the week; BIg Jim Kitchen (Duke Davis Roberts), who is retiring; Bobby Pin (Trey Tucker), a young wrestler from Texas who loves ranch dressing and might just be a big kid and the masked Diego Cottonmouth (Robby Ramos). The way the boys interact with one another rings quite true again and feels pretty authentic.
The series sets up the battle between what Jack sees as right and what Ace wants and how family life — Jack’s wife Staci (Alison Luff) and son Thomas (Roxton Garcia) are often last in line after wrestling — suffers when the drug that is the ring is calling.
Speaking of drugs, perhaps the most realized and realistic character is Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer, The Machine from 8MM), who feels like every former star facing his own decline that I’ve ever met. Bauer is an incredible actor, able to convey not only the emotional and physical turmoil that Hancock deals with on a daily basis, but also gets across his danger and ability to use heat in every situation, a person who is constantly working everyone, including himself. He’s fascinating in that he’s a villain — he left Duffy and tag partner Tom Spade (David James Elliott, that dude your grandmother used to remember what sexy was on J*A*G*), Jack and Ace’s father, behind. He’s also someone trying — not always — to change who he is, particularly with backstage producer Willie Day (Mary McCormack, always incredible).
There are a few missteps. For all the attention given to Rooster and his complaints about being lost in the shuffle, his character suffers the same fate in this show. Alice Barrett Mitchell does a good job of playing Jack and Ace’s mother Carol, but she doesn’t seem like someone who spent their life around wrestling, unless the creators were looking for a parallel to Stu Hart’s wife Helen. And for all the wrestlers that seem so realistic, CM Punk’s portrayal of Ricky Rabies feels as if he’s playing a character from a horrible wrestling movie like Ready to Rumble. He seems jokey and inauthentic in every appearance. That said, Bonnie Summerville, who plays his valet Vicky, has a great moment with Crystal. And Mick Foley’s Dick Valentino needs to come back and be explored more; he’s based on Marc Maron and really pushes the idea that Jack needs to deal with the suicide of his father.
The other character that feels cartoony in this more realistic world is Florida Wrestling Dystopia** owner Charlie Gully (O’Malley, who once hosted Nickoldeon’s Guts and is the main showrunner for this series in addition to being the executive producer). He’s kind of a mix of Rob Black and Paul Heyman, but he comes off like David Cross running a hardcore promotion full of the worst stereotypes that people think of when they imagine independent wrestling.
With scripts by series creator Michael Waldron (the lead writer of the Loki series), Bradley Paul (Better Call Saul), Rodney Barnes (The Boondocks and several comic books), Daria Polatin (Castle Rock), Rachel Sydney Alter (The Society), Eli Jorné (the creator of Son of Zorn) and Eric Martin (Loki) and all the episodes directed by Peter Segal (Tommy Boy, Grudge Match, Get Smart, 50 First Dates) the show feels and looks great.
My major issue — and honestly, I expected to dislike this show and actually really enjoyed it — is that no promotion that I’ve worked for on the level of DWF has complete scripts or production at this level. Having headsets on all the referees? Man, that seems really fancy. Most places I’ve worked at did things as silly as having someone take off their hat in the balcony when time was up.
Finally, in most places that I’ve worked, if Ace did what he did to Bobby — never mind that Jack nearly did the same thing to him — he’d end up getting a receipt sooner of later.
I’m really interested to see where the series goes from here. It was recently renewed and Variety shared a quote by Jeffrey Hirsch, president and CEO of Starz: “It’s clear from the critical and fan acclaim that the stories and characters from the Duffy Wrestling League have made a connection with audiences bringing a community that is not often found to premium TV. I’m excited for our amazing cast and executive producers to get back into the ring together for a second season.”
There’s no date announced as of yet, other than nearly everyone on the show is coming back, with Tucker (Bobby Pin) and Ramos (Diego Cottonmouth) have become series regulars.
I’m really excited that this entire series is out on DVD, as it allowed me to watch the show in several focused sittings. Here’s hoping season 2 delves more into Jack realizing that wrestling is always better when it’s called in the ring.
Heels: The Complete First Season is on Starz and is also available on DVD from Lionsgate.
*Just like Arrow, Amell’s character has to deal with the gun-related suicide of his father.
**I laugh every time they show footage of FWD — which is the inverted evil DWF, a neat writing trick — because it’s old TNA matches.