Perhaps the best compliment that can be paid to the new Starz series, is that even if you do not appreciate or know anything about the world of professional wrestling, it is near impossible not to take something away from Heels that will stick with you in a profound way.
Season one of Heels is in the books. The show is set in the fictional town of Duffy, Georgia and centers on the struggles Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) faces while running his late fathers independent wrestling league the DWL. Chief among those struggles is dealing with his brother Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig), who begins the series as a babyface (hero in pro wrestling jargon) in the league, but due to Jacks creative mind is switched to being a heel (villain) and this decision digs up some of Ace’s darker impulses to behave as a heel in real life. Jack must deal with the pressures of running a wrestling promotion and juggling his wild card of a brother and his family, this is the heart of the show.
Heels is packed with memorable and larger than life characters, with not a bad performance among them. The most memorable is Kelli Berglund as Crystal Tyler, a valet to Ace Spade who has dreams of stepping in the ring and being a wrestler in her own right. Berglund’s buildup and emotional payoff was so well done it was the first piece of fiction that’s brought me to tears in a good while. There was a scene towards the end of the season in which a fan of Crystal’s expresses such deep rooted disappointment when she learns Crystal plans to take a step back from the league, it choked me up. There is Willie Day (Mary McCormack), Jack’s no nonsense business partner who portrays maybe the strongest person of them all. There is Rooster Robins (Allen Moldonado), a star wrestler of the DWL who feels he isn’t getting the attention he deserves in the league, who struggles with the temptation of looking for greener pastures. Chris Bauer portrays Wild Bill Hancock, former wrestler for DWL who has fallen on hard times in life and is looking to regain some of that glory. His character is also blessed with the sharpest dialogue of the series, and that is saying something as ALL the writing throughout the season is superb. Alison Luff portrays Stacy Space, wife of Jack who grows more and more exasperated as she must seemingly fight solo to keep her family together. The conversations between Stacy and Jack are some of the most accurate depictions of a marriage I’ve ever seen on TV, and the show is no less captivating for it. Indeed, it felt at times I wasn’t watching a show, but rather an uncomfortable observer of the trials of an actual couple.
Would pro wrestling as a backdrop be a turn off for some viewers? It shouldn’t be. The “pro wrestling is fake” elitists may rethink that stance as they get a glimpse into this world, which as a lifelong lover of pro wrestling, I think honors the industry and its history as best it can. There are cameos from real legends of that world, whose significance may be lost on the casual viewer, but for some it will add to the show’s richness. Some of the jargon, the inner workings, the references to real pro wrestling events will go right over the head of some. But that is only half of what Heels is about. The show’s universal themes of love, family, ambition, and redemption transcend its subject matter. On that basis, every episode was an improvement on the other.
There is a moment in Moneyball when Brad Pitt’s character sees a moving moment on tape, sits back in his chair and asks the room and himself “how can you not be romantic about baseball”? When the season was all said and done, I sat back in my chair and asked myself how one could not be romantic about pro wrestling. Give Heels a go and you may be asking yourself the same. You’ll definitely ask yourself how one could not fall in love with the Spades. Everyone involved has introduced us to the saga of a family that is impossible to ignore. So please, don’t cheat yourself, and don’t sleep on Heels.
Reviewed by: Paul Huffman