Netflix Docuseries ‘Wrestlers’ Follows Up ‘Cheer’ With a (Body) Slam Dunk: TV Review

Everyone loves an underdog, but it’s possible nobody loves one more than Greg Whiteley. With Netflix hits “Cheer” and “Last Chance U,” the documentarian trained his eye on undergraduate athletes whose programs lack the resources or respect of a Big Ten institution. Each show made a compelling case for its subjects’ skill, tenacity and right to a bigger spotlight; “Cheer,” in particular, made stars of its protagonists, a charismatic squad of Texas students who performed death-defying stunts with a smile.

The second season of “Cheer” was forced to reckon with the fallout of its own success, taking some focus away from its namesake sport to address squad member Jerry Harris’ being sentenced to prison for soliciting sex from minors, as well as coach Monica Aldama’s stint on “Dancing With the Stars” and the uncomfortable transition from challenger to heavy favorite. Thankfully, Whiteley’s latest effort offers a fresh start. “Wrestlers” trades the college campus for the Louisville, Kentucky headquarters of Ohio Valley Wrestling, a small and scrappy remnant of what was once a national network of regional wrestling circuits. But while its namesake performers are technically professionals, “Wrestlers” retains the DNA of what made Whiteley’s prior portraits of amateurs so compelling.

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OVW, as it’s known, is a far cry from World Wrestling Entertainment, the powerhouse Vince McMahon gradually built into a quasi-monopoly. Even All Elite Wrestling, the WWE’s main competitor, is backed by billionaire scion Tony Khan. But what OVW lacks in scale or financial might, it partly makes up for in prestige. Before they graduated to bigger platforms, John Cena and Dave Bautista got their start at OVW, honing their ability to work a crowd and sell a story as well as their athleticism. Much of that acumen traces back to Al Snow, a former wrestler and OVW’s longtime proprietor. “Wrestlers” positions Snow as a kind of anti-McMahon, a mentor figure sincerely, if gruffly, invested in his talent’s well-being in and out of the ring.

Snow can motivate protegés and craft a master narrative with the best of them, earning OVW a dedicated local fanbase. He is not, however, a gifted businessman, leading Snow to sell a majority stake in the organization to sports radio host Matt Jones and Jones’ business partner Craig Greenberg in 2021. This sets up a natural contrast between the creatively minded Snow and his more pragmatic backers. But while “Wrestlers” is happy to use this potentially adversarial relationship as a hook, the seven-episode season complicates that dynamic, turning Snow and Jones into equally nuanced anchors of a rich ensemble.

Like “Drive to Survive,” the Netflix show almost single-handedly responsible for popularizing Formula 1 racing in the United States, “Wrestlers” seems geared toward an audience unfamiliar with the conventions of scripted combat. Snow bills his vocation as “physical storytelling,” and Whiteley employs talking heads to explain the art’s history and context, including basic terms like “heel,” “babyface” and “heat.” (Disclosure: one of the interview subjects, wrestling commentator David Shoemaker, is a former colleague of mine.) But as “Wrestlers” immerses the audience ever deeper into its characters’ world, these expert witnesses fade away. Before long, they’re no longer needed to sell the audience on the action.

Snow presides over a ragtag troupe of personalities who seem destined for the “Cheer” treatment. (Book a Cameo while you can; their prices are about to go through the roof.) Our introduction to OVW comes via HollyHood Haley J, a heel whose troubled family history spills into in-ring storyline. As a single parent, Haley’s mother Maria sold drugs to make ends meet before breaking into professional wrestling; now a producer and on-air presence at OVW, Maria dramatizes her relationship with Haley for the crowd as a means of making amends. All of wrestling is a head-spinning blend of reality and fiction, on the players’ part, and savvy know-how with a willing suspension of belief, on the viewers’. Haley and Maria epitomize that unstable mix; it’s unclear, to them or us, how much they’re inventing and how much they’re just venting.

Volatile, gung-ho and compulsively likable, Haley is a natural lead. But she’s flanked by figures like Mahabali Shera, an Indian wrestler trying to make it in America, and Ca$h Flo, a paternal type who acts as an informal team captain. Some characters are more developed than others; we don’t learn much more about the so-called Mr. Pectacular besides his habitual use of a hoverboard. Yet the nuance afforded to someone like Jones, a former lawyer from Harlan County with an earnest passion for the OVW product, shows the gaps in “Wrestlers” are more for lack of time than empathy.

Wrestling is a different kind of enterprise from football or even cheerleading. It’s nominally competitive, but the competition is carefully coordinated behind the scenes, which is not a knock on its authenticity so much as another layer on which the OVW squad can exercise their creativity and flair for showmanship. In “Wrestlers,” it’s less individual contenders who are underdogs — though many are, with checkered pasts and chronic injuries and side gigs to pay the bills — than OVW itself, a lone David squeaking by in a system of Goliaths. It’s why we take Al at his word when he says what’s best for his employees is what’s best for OVW, even when they leave the roster for other promotions, and why we worry just a bit about what a mass audience may mean for the group. But that’s a question for later. Snow, Jones and Greenberg spend the season fretting over how to boost attendance and revenue to make OVW a sustainable enterprise. I doubt that’ll be a problem after this week.

All seven episodes of “Wrestlers” are now available to stream on Netflix.

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