You HAVE To Watch: Heels
Wrestling is weird.
If you’ve ever listened to a wrestling podcast, the industry and the people in it are fascinating. The combination of athletics, performance, and taking care of themselves makes wrestlers part jock, part drama queen, part entrepreneur, and part doctor. Even if you don’t like watching wrestling, you might be interested in the wrestling industry.
Heels is about the wrestling industry.
What Is Heels?
Heels is a dramatic series about the Spade brothers carrying on the family independent wrestling legacy in rural Georgia, and how life and what happens in the ring cross over.
The series stars Arrow’s Stephen Amell as Jack Spade, the owner, only writer, and champion of the Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). A lot of the drama revolves around how his decisions as the only person with creative input in the DWL affects the people around him. This includes his self-conscious brother, Ace Spade (Vikings’ Alexander Ludwig), as well as his wife Staci (Alison Luff) and son Thomas (Roxton Garcia), whose financial situation and happiness depend on the availability of the family’s distant patriarch and the money his creative decisions bring in.
The first episode does a good job setting up our main characters, their relationships, and their roles in the DWL. It mostly follows Jack and Ace. The Jack scenes watch him at arms length. He’s indecisive about whether he or Ace should win their championship match on the next show. He consults Willie (Mary McCormack), a wrestling veteran who helps him manage the DWL. He also talks with his wife about it, some of the wrestlers, and Ace. It’s never clear exactly why he’s hesitating, or exactly how he’s feeling, but he definitely doesn’t want to either drop the belt or put it on Ace.
We also follow Ace. His character’s a face (a good guy) but the real Ace is a jerk. He tries leaving a convenience store without paying for gum, and cuts a cruel promo on the cashier when he’s caught. Later, Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer) tries to recruit him for an unnamed major wrestling promotion that’s clearly the show’s stand-in for the WWE.
[spoilers]The episode ends with Jack and Ace arguing before their match. This leads to Jack throwing away the planned match, embarrassing Ace in a few seconds by making him cry in a submission hold. This ruins Ace’s chances with the WWE.[/spoiler]
Is It Sooooo Good?
This is the first series I’ve looked at that I really can’t recommend without a lot of caveats.
Caveat #1: Unlikeable Characters
Most episodes end with a character being a huge jerk, followed by an episode where the jerk expects sympathy. This is not behaviour I like in, y’know, real humans, and have a low tolerance for as a narrative tool.
As the series progresses, it follows Jack, Ace, and Wild Bill getting worse every episode. We do get flashbacks about the Spade brothers’ hard life growing up, which explains but doesn’t excuse their behaviour. And sure, the show is called Heels, wrestling lingo for the bad guys, but by the fifth or sixth episode, I found I any characters I enjoyed punished for it by the show.
Speaking of wrestling lingo:
Caveat #2: Neither Authentic Nor Self-Explanatory
If you go into Heels as a wrestling fan, some wrestling elements of the series might annoy you.
We open with Jack writing a script, detailing every move in a match. It regularly comes up that Jack writes the whole script for every DWL show.
The thing is, that’s not how wrestling works. Matches aren’t scripted, they’re planned out, usually by the wrestlers and an agent, based on the time they’ve been booked and the match results they’re given. Sometimes that means the last few minutes of the match are predetermined, sometimes they literally only know who wins the match.
If the show spent energy talking about how weird it is that Jack writes full scripts, that would be one thing. But no one on the show questions the scripts, only that Jack’s the only one with creative input.
On the flipside, I’m not sure how easily someone who doesn’t know wrestling can follow the action. Unlike Glow, which barely took place in the ring, most episodes of Heels conclude with a match. And a lot of the dramatic moments tie into wrestling minutia.
I admit that my opinion might be skewed. Non-wrestling fans might not catch or care about the minutia and still follow the episodes just fine. Heels isn’t Shakespeare.
Caveat 3: It Pays Off In The End
Eight episodes make up Heels season 1. I loved episode 8.
I love a good setup and pay off. Especially when I don’t realize I’ve been set up until it pays off. Episode 8 pays off so many setups from the earlier episodes. It’s one of the best season finales I’ve seen. If there’s a season 2, I’ll be happy to see what happens next. If Heels isn’t renewed, I’m satisfied with this ending.
I usually give a new series three episodes. I considered giving up on Heels after episode 1. Then, I considered giving up after episode 6. But I’m so glad I stuck around for the whole season. If you have the patience to give an iffy show 8 hours of your time, I suspect you’ll enjoy it in the end as well.