Heels is an enjoyably trashy spandex soap opera with dramatic muscle

Heels (now on Stan) stars Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig as brothers who are rivals in the world of professional wrestling, butting heads in and out of the ring. It’s a soapy yet admirable series that wears its heart on its sleeve, writes Travis Johnson.

It’s kind of amazing we haven’t had more behind-the-ring professional wrestling dramas before now—the milieu seems ripe for it. Wrestling combines showbiz and sports in a way few other enterprises do. You’ve got the larger-than-life characters, the backstage rivalries, the contrast between in-the-ring personas and the real performers, and the enjoyable sight of large men smacking the living crap out of each other—which is, no matter how much your craft-beer-loving wrestling fan buddy may protest, the big drawcard.

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And you’ve got the jargon—all really cult-y subcultures are steeped in jargon. A Face is a good guy wrestling persona. They fight Heels—the bad guys. The storyline built around their battles is called kayfabe. Heels—and now you get the series’ title—adds to this the real life (well, fictional, but you get what I mean) drama underpinning the on-the-canvas action performed by the burly men of the Duffy Wrestling League (DWL), a tiny, struggling franchise in rural Georgia.

Our hero is former Green Arrow and avowed wrestling fan Stephen Amell as Jack Spade, who is trying to keep his late father’s wrestling business alive. Jack plays the heel to his younger brother Ace (Alexander Ludwig of The Hunger Games and Vikings), who might be a face in the ring but is a bit of a jerk outside of it. 

Times are tough, and the financial pressures of running a wrestling league weigh heavy not just on the brothers Spade, but on the women in their lives, including Jack’s wife Staci (Allison Luff) and his business partner Willy (Mary McCormack). When Ace gets a chance to step up to the big leagues from former pro wrestler turned talent scout Wild Bill (Chris Bauer) a lot of formerly suppressed rivalry and resentment boils over.

Heels is a pretty trashy show, and that’s okay—wrestling is a pretty trashy subculture, and it revels in it. Heels manages to thread the needle by acknowledging the outré excesses of its subject while never looking down its nose at it—we’re laughing with, not at, and we’re crying with sometimes as well, as these big beefy dudes process a range of fraternal and paternal issues on both sides of the turnbuckle. When the match outcomes are predetermined, it’s the emotional stakes that matter, and this is true of both the in-the-ring action and the drama outside that.

Perhaps the smartest choice series creator Michael Waldron (Rick and Morty, Loki) makes with the whole series is setting it not at the upper end of the wrestling ladder, but countless rungs further down. We’re not hobnobbing with Vince McMahon here; Jack and Ace’s audience and fans are their friends and co-workers, which means the line between kayfabe and real conflict is often blurry. It also locates the dramatic action among the people most attuned to professional wrestling—this is a working class drama, giving us both the appeal of wrestling to that demographic and the struggle of being a working class pro. It’s hard to imagine a drama at an elite level of the sport being so mindful of its fans.

It’s still a pretty soapy exercise, though; Heels might stake a stab at complexity, but it doesn’t do subtlety. This is a big, broad drama about big broad guys grappling with their familial legacies and each other, so it’s best not to bury the lede. Heels wears its heart on its sleeve, and that may be its signature move: if this material was treated with condescension, it’d be unbearable. Instead Waldron, Amell, and company move forward with total sincerity, and that makes this spandex soap opera eminently watchable.