Heels review: Stephen Amell's underrated wrestling drama hits even harder in season 2

Heels review: Stephen Amell's underrated wrestling drama hits even harder in season 2

"'Hard work pays off' is one of the biggest lies in life," bellows Heels' veteran wrestler/amateur philosopher Wild Bill Hancock (Chris Bauer) to his colleagues in the Duffy Wrestling League. "Hard work is just hard work. Will it pay off? S--t, flip a coin."

It's an apt sentiment for this Hot Strike Summer, and one that runs throughout the vibrant new season of Starz's underwatched wrestling-and-family drama. Like Wild Bill, all the key players in the DWL are grappling with the grand dilemma of American existence: Is it better to be content with your lot, or to demand more from life — and risk having those demands fall on deaf ears?

In the wake of last season's blockbuster match at the Georgia State Fair, the struggling DWL promotion finally has some heat. That should be good news for owner/head writer Jack Spade (Stephen Amell) — who inherited the league when his dad, Tom Spade (David James Elliott), shot himself — but the DWL's momentum brings with it new challenges. His younger brother/star wrestler, Ace (Alexander Ludwig), has gone missing after learning how Jack orchestrated a stunt to humiliate him in a previous match. The wrestling community is already questioning the validity of the DWL's new champ, Crystal Tyler (Kelli Berglund), since she technically crashed the State Fair match between Jack and Ace. Meanwhile, Jack's still in the doghouse with his wife, Staci (Alison Luff), for betraying his baby brother, and he faces a new threat from his wealthy and obnoxious rival, Charlie Gully (showrunner Mike O'Malley), head of the Florida Wrestling Dystopia promotion.

Heels Season 2
Heels Season 2

Daniel Delgado/Starz Duke Davis Roberts, Robbie Ramos, Stephen Amell, and Allen Maldonado on 'Heels'

Even with all that soapy set-up (and please know, readers, that I never mean "soapy" as an insult), the storytelling in Heels' second season feels more focused — especially when it comes to the female characters. Crystal's newfound popularity spurs the DWL to launch a women's division, a development that not only gives the likable Berglund more to do, but it also opens an intriguing new narrative pathway for Mary McCormack's Willie, Jack's boozy, no-BS business partner in the DWL. A former valet to Wild Bill and aspiring wrestler herself back in the day, Willie had faith that the men in her life, including Tom Spade, would help take her to the big time. Decades of disappointment later, all Willie has to show for her devotion to the DWL is a drinking problem, a crumbling marriage to nice-guy Ted (Larry Clarke), and a business built on promissory notes and lies. When a new opportunity arises outside of Duffy, Willie is forced to confront her past and future.

There's a lot of soul-searching in Heels season 2. As Ace and Jack finally begin to emerge from the fog of grief and resentment that enveloped them after their dad's suicide, only Ace seems willing to examine how the experience changed him. "I don't want something so much, like being famous, that I become sad and mean," he tells his big brother. Ludwig brings a deeper humility to Ace this season, as his big, beefy buffoon of a character evolves into a gentle man. Jack, still seething with anger at his father for abandoning his family, can't help but try to control how events unfold in real life like he does in the ring. Amell is excellent at switching on the showman's charm Jack learned from his father, while maintaining the edge of hostility that pulsates underneath his every interaction.

It's a treat to get more of O'Malley's Gully, and it's particularly fun to watch the writer-actor bounce his rambunctious ringmaster energy off Amell's stone-wall simmer. Bauer is doing Emmy-worthy work as Wild Bill, a (mostly) reformed sleazeball who speaks in literary paragraphs and who — as we learn in a late-season flashback episode — carries a profound guilt over how his friendship with Tom Spade fell apart.

Heels Season 2 2023
Heels Season 2 2023

Daniel Delgado/Starz CM Punk, Scott Hunter, Kelli Berglund, Mary McCormack, and Trey Tucker on 'Heels'

Heels succeeds, as it did in season 1, by treating the decidedly lowbrow topic of professional wrestling with respect, dissecting its culture with care, and powering its fictional league with characters who are intelligent and frequently hilarious. The matches deliver well-crafted spectacle, complete with running ringside patter from the commentators. ("Like a young Nadia Comăneci!" "For anybody under 75 right now, he means Simone Biles.")

O'Malley and his team manage to give some of the stand-out supporting players in their sprawling ensemble — including Mad Men's Joel Murray as the DWL's sponsor-turned-investor, Eddie Earl; Marcia DeBonis as Willie's effusive stage manager, Debbie; Robbie Ramos as the DWL's chipper luchador Diego Cottonmouth; and AEW superstar CM Punk as veteran grappler Ricky Rabies — more spotlight moments, while The Other Two's Josh Segarra is a welcome addition as streaming platform exec Brooks Rizzo. But the writers still seem a little unsure of how to integrate Luff's Staci into the larger storyline and give her more dimensions than just "feisty scold."

As the eight-episode season builds to a do-or-die event (the amusingly named "Harmageddon"), Heels' story steps over the line from inspirational to corny at times, and the finale cliffhanger leaps headlong into melodrama. But professional wrestling is not an art that thrives on subtlety, and true fans know that even shaky set-ups can result in a spectacular payoff. Grade: B+

Heels season 2 premieres Friday, July 28, at 10 p.m. ET/PT on Starz.

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