Starz’s Wrestling Drama ‘Heels’ Still Packs a Punch in Round 2: TV Review

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Sports dramas are familiar to the television landscape, and are often beloved. Fans have leaned into series like “GLOW,” “All American,” and even the mid-2000s cult classic “Friday Night Lights.” Yet it’s not the competitive action that keeps audiences pulled in weekly, or amid hours-long binges: It’s the characters and the worlds carefully crafted around them.

It’s been nearly two years since the Season 1 finale of the Michael Waldron-created series “Heels” aired. Set in the fictional town of Duffy, Georgia, “Heels” follows brothers Jack (Stephen Amell) and Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig), the stars of the Duffy Wrestling League (DWL). The league and its dilapidated dome are the life’s work of the Spade brothers’ late father, Tom (David James Elliot). Jack has struggled to keep Tom’s fledgling dream and business alive in his absence.

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Season 1 began unpacking the brothers’ deep-seated rivalry, one that was fostered from childhood by Tom’s anger and ego. It also examined the cracks in DWL’s business model. Viewers witnessed Jack’s desperation to live up to his father’s impossible standards and Ace’s obsession with being liked, which consistently puts the brothers at odds. The series focused on demystifying the wrestling world for viewers who might be intrigued by its physicality and drama, but who would have otherwise been clueless that a “heel” in wrestling is the name given to a villain. In contrast, a “face” is a term for the hero. When “Heels'” viewers last saw the Spades, they’d gone rogue, pummeling each other (for real) in the ring in front of an audience at the Georgia State Fair.

The second season opens where the first ended. Jack is frustrated that his efforts to keep DWL afloat are destroying his relationship with Ace, as well as with his wife, Staci (Alison Luff) — and are wrecking his finances. Meanwhile, Ace, angry and humiliated after being a pawn in Jack’s desire to achieve what their father couldn’t, decides to take back his life’s narrative – addressing his weaknesses, and pressing back against his brother’s compulsive need to be in control.

While Ludwig and Amell are magnetic in their roles, the strength of the ensemble cast is what makes “Heels” shine. The Season 2 premiere flashes back in time to Tom’s wake, providing viewers with a deep understanding of the Duffy community and how Tom’s death affected not only the Spades but everyone orbiting them — this sequence colors in more background for the supporting characters. In particular, Crystal (Kelli Berglund) has stretched and expanded from the needy valet who followed Ace around like a lost puppy to being taken seriously as a wrestler on DWL’s roster. Moreover, a flashback to the ’90s reveals the deep wounds and bonds that tied Tom, his business partner Willie (Mary McCormack), and veteran wrestling star Wild Bill (Chris Bauer) together; many of them unexpected.

While the dynamic wrestling sequences are still a significant part of the show, the most riveting aspects of “Heels” revolve around the immense pressure and the cost of devoting your life to an unrealized dream. Contrasting the well-worn DWL with its glossier, more financially flush rival, Florida Wrestling Dystopia (FWD), led by the spectacle-loving Charlie Gully (“Heels” showrunner Mike O’Malley) and former DWL wrestler turned FWD star Rooster (Allen Maldonado) presents a visual of what Tom may have envisioned and how far Jack still had to climb.

Just as he was in the first season, Bauer’s Wild Bill is particularly thrilling to watch inside and outside the ring. Moreover, the deeper dive into Willie’s past and her home life with her husband, Ted (Larry Clarke), and daughter, Robin (Margaret Morris), lends a sharper focus to the sacrifices and the second-tier system women must contend with in the wrestling world. It’s a position that Willie desperately wants Crystal to rail against.

While much is to be celebrated, “Heels” Season 2 isn’t without its lesions. In the first season, Staci was focused on finding a space for herself outside of her marriage and motherhood. However, this season, she’s put herself in last place again to concentrate on helping Jack at the DWL, their son Thomas’ (Roxton Garcia) behavior and the secrets Tom and Willie kept buried in dome’s basement. Luff’s magnetism is again contained within the story of Jack’s world when she clearly has much more to offer. Some cheesier bits, including a poop-hurling nursing home resident and Ace’s nightmares, also knock the series’ tone out of wack for a bit.

While Season 2 doesn’t feel as high stakes as its predecessor, “Heels'” continues its deep commitment to complex characters and showmanship in wrestling. Honoring small-town America and the hopes and dreams fostered there makes “Heels” one of the most affecting dramas on television, even if the many layers of this world and the people who orbit it are just beginning to be revealed.

Season 2 of “Heels” will premiere July 28 on Starz, with new episodes airing weekly on Fridays.

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