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'Heels' — First thoughts on Starz' new wrestling drama

In wrestling, you respect the ring or you stay out of it. Heels understands the assignment.

Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig in Heels on Starz.
(Image: © Starz)

Our Verdict

'Heels' has all the love necessary for a wrestling series, but falters in one key character in the first half of the season.

For

  • 🤼 The reverence for wrestling is apparent.
  • 🤼 Viewers don't have to understand wrestling to be on board with the series.
  • 🤼 Gives an accurate representation of how hard this sport can be on its athletes.
  • 🤼 Showcases the complications of indie wrestling and relying on passion vs. paychecks.

Against

  • 🤼 The first half of the season shows glimmers of a future for Chrystal, but presenting a present day woman as a valet play toy for Ace is pretty exhausting no matter the intention.

This post contains mild spoilers for Heels.

Heels on Starz was presented with the complicated task of making a series that would wow wrestling fans without ostracizing the folks who are just here for a solid drama with a couple of their favorite actors. For the most part, the series accomplishes exactly what it means to in that regard. Whispers of "but it's fake" are quickly shut down in the first half of the season, quieted by the reverence for the squared circle and an unfettered love for the industry. 

The series follows Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace (Alexander Ludwig) Spade as they struggle with the sudden loss of their father, keeping an independent wrestling promotion alive in a small town, and the seemingly futile attempt to balance family life with all of their other responsibilities. Jack's the family man who followed closely in their father's shoes. He keeps their franchise alive — or at least on life support — and close to the vest. Ace, well... Ace was the former high school quarterback who thought he was going to go the distance and didn't. He knows in his heart that he belongs at the top, but commits one of the cardinal sins of wrestling: he's not really interested in doing the work that it takes to get there. 

One's a heel. The other's a face. But their in-ring personas don't match the people they really are in either case. The drama of Heels is engaging, but a series about wrestling requires a certain something. And it's got it. A show like this needs to highlight the pitfalls of the industry while also making it clear why the men and women of wrestling go to church in the squared circle. This series has every ounce of reverence it needs to make it really hit home, and it has a chance to be something really special if this first season manages to stick the landing.

So far, Heels only falters in one area. The series is set in a modern day, small town Georgia. It goes out of its way to highlight that "small town" doesn't mean stupid, but it showcases some ideals that are rooted firmly in the past. Chrystal (Kelly Burgland) is Ace's valet. We call that a manager in modern terms, but Chrystal and Ace's dynamic is firmly rooted in old wrestling trends that the women in the industry have fought to move on from. We know that Chrystal has dreams and aspirations, but Heels uses her as little more than a literal play thing for Ace early on. There is progression in her character, but it moves about as slow as anything else in the south. She's not even treated as a person until she helps Jack with an extremely delicate issue with Ace. It's not uncommon in wrestling for green folks to get the cold shoulder, but it's a whole different ballgame when the character in question is being used as a sex toy and little more. 

That well-earned frustration aside, writer Michael Waldron tells Chrystal's story with intent. It doesn't make the way her character is treated any more acceptable or enjoyable, but it does make it a little easier to swallow with the knowledge that the series seems to intend to move her passed where she is in the first half of Heels.

What really helps sell this series is the passion from each of the actors when it comes to wrestling as a whole. While not all of them come from wrestling fandom or backgrounds, each one has learned a passionate appreciation for the sport. We had a chance to speak with them prior to release (interviews to come soon!), and there wasn't a single member of the cast who didn't speak of the things they were doing and the people they were depicting with the utmost love and appreciation. Wrestling may be predetermined, but there's nothing fake about taking a bump.

Heels has some work to do when it comes to its female wrestlers, but the foundation of something hugely worthwhile is laid out here. Whether you're a longtime wrestling fan or someone excited to see what Amell, Ludwig, and other members of the cast do next, you're going to have a great time with this one. 

Heels will premiere on Starz on August 15th, 2021.