Starz's "Heels" proves wrestling isn't fake by creating a show about it that doesn't feel genuine

If wrestling is your bag, maybe you'll enjoy it. Otherwise you're better off watching literally anything else

By Melanie McFarland

TV Critic

Published August 15, 2021 8:00AM (EDT)

Alexander Ludwig in "Heels" (Starz)
Alexander Ludwig in "Heels" (Starz)

"Heels" tests the theory that you don't need to know or understand anything about a particular sport to enjoy a show set within it.  When the sport in question is wrestling you may understand why this is the case, since wrestling is not a sport in the purest sense of the term. It's full-contact theater that incorporates athleticism and skill.  All outcomes, rivalries and moves are predetermined and choreographed. Everything is scripted. Rules, such as they are, might as well be breakaway prop furniture; the ever-changing question is who gets to do the smashing. Also: never call it fake.

Knowing this much is key to comprehending why a professional wrestling fan may see levels in "Heels" that I may not fully appreciate. The drama assumes most of its audience does not keep up with the WWE, explaining in its introductory title card that in professional wrestling, the heroes are called "faces" and the villains, "heels."  

Even if you know next to nothing about wrestling, one can easily recognize shades of classic rivalries within its central plot about a financially strapped, family-run wrestling outfit defending its regional title from a flashier upstart out of, where else, Florida.

This is the main threat Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) must confront, but it's not the only one.  As the eldest son of a long-gone local wrestling legend, Jack is intent upon keeping his father's legacy alive by revitalizing his business, the Duffy Wrestling League.

Jack is convinced that the DWL is the soul of their small Georgia town. But the regional wrestling outfit, like its home, has seen better days. Director of Photography Larry Blanford drapes shots of the town in a dusty haze that communicates a sense of wear and tear along with resilience, and it accentuates the shabbiness of a repurposed warehouse where Jack and his team wrestle.

The DWL "dome" remains a source of pride, in which Jack pours good money after bad, much to the ire of his wife Staci (Alison Luff), whose understanding is running about as low as their bank balance.

Regardless of that, Jack gets a lot of mileage out of being a churchgoing family man while his younger brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig) seethes at being trapped in his shadow.

In the ring, Jack is the heel to Ace's the hero, but around their small Georgia town their roles are reversed despite Jack insisting Ace play the part wherever he goes. That the show takes its name for the term used to refer to villains implies that anyone can make a heel turn.

It also reminds us that at the end of the day, this show, like wrestling, is basically a soap opera. It may run on premium cable, but it looks, sounds, and feels like a basic subscription-level exploit, albeit one that users heavier-duty expletives and is substantially dourer.

Those familiar with Amell from "Arrow" are likely to know this already. Don't get me wrong; that was an exciting show in its heyday. Nobody tuned in to watch the man act. Charisma is his superpower, along an impressive set of abs. But a story like this requires its star to demonstrate some emotive variety. Amell's range runs a scale that starts at brooding before moving through to scowling and unspecified intensity before landing at last in sadness.

Sometimes to mix it up a little, Amell brings forth a brooding scowl, or peppers a moment with a sad intensity. But that's about the extent of what we see from him. Ludwig, an actor most people recognize from "The Hunger Games" and "Vikings," is capable of greater versatility, the breadth of which does not emerge in this series.  

Kelli Berglund fares a bit better with her character Crystal Tyler, an underappreciated valet hungry to prove herself in the ring but largely ignored because she's not a man. Berglund has a lot of fun with Crystal's creative determination and frustration – enough that when her entirely predictable arc reaches its climax, it's still satisfying to watch.

Starz gave "Heels" a straight-to-series order before its creator Michael Waldron became the head writer for "Loki" and penned the script for "Doctor Strange in the Multiverse of Madness." However, the opening pair of hours, which Waldron wrote, are obviously lesser works than anything Waldron created for Marvel. They are a spilled buffet of awkward exposition shoved into a small space, and it's a lot to slog through to get to the first of many face-offs between the Spade boys in the ring.

That toxic sibling rivalry threatens to ruin more than a few family dinners. The DWL is a close-knit band of dreamers who work at day jobs to support wrestling avocations that might go nowhere, and the scenes that focus on those players as opposed to Ace and Jack are decent chasers to their harsh shots of antagonism. Most forgive Jack's exhausting drive to succeed, but his business partner Willie Day (Mary McCormack) may be the most understanding and have the lowest tolerance for deviations from Jack's plans.

But as familial tensions escalate, everyone starts wonder how long this weekly play can continue. You might too.

McCormack's performance along with Chris Bauer's liquor-soaked portrayal of Wild Bill Hancock, a local wrestler who made good and abandoned Duffy, compensate for the limited emotional resonance of the show's top star. Coupled with the expansive personality Allen Maldonado pours into his tough-talking wrestler Rooster Robbins, they boost scenes that drag enough to keep episodes moving.

Mike O'Malley, operating here as both showrunner and the season's biggest heel, Charles Gully, also has a good time with his portrayal. By channeling a blend of Vince McMahon and Joe Exotic into Gully he realizes exactly the kind of slimeball one envisions would create a gimmicky wrestling squad dedicated to destroying a classic show like Jake and Ace's.

Still, when one recalls O'Malley's consistently excellent series "Survivor's Remorse," "Heels" simply does not compare. This a drama that more often plods than leaps and never makes a case for its necessity. At the very least a wrestling story should feel genuinely exciting and light up a room, right? But if that what you're looking for, you won't find it in Duffy. Try pay-per-view, or "GLOW."

"Heels" premieres Sunday, Aug.15 at 9 p.m. on Starz.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's TV critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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