Starz family wrestling drama ‘Heels’ set in small-town Georgia

Stephen Amell, star of the CW’s ‘Arrow,’ anchors the drama.
Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig plays brothers who run a local Georgia wrestling league in Starz's "Heels." STARZ

Credit: Quantrell Colbert

Credit: Quantrell Colbert

Stephen Amell and Alexander Ludwig plays brothers who run a local Georgia wrestling league in Starz's "Heels." STARZ

The name of the newest Starz drama “Heels” sounds like it could be set in an over-the-top New York City fashion house starring Kim Cattrall and Kate Hudson.

But the title is a wrestling term for the villain, the antagonist that plays off the hero. And the series is actually about a small-town Georgia wrestling league led by Jack Spade, played by former “Arrow” star Stephen Amell. The series debuted earlier this month and airs new episodes Sunday nights at 9 p.m.

Jake plays the “heel” during the weekly wrestling matches in fictional Duffy, Georgia (but largely shot at Areu Studios in Atlanta). He faces off against the “babyface” good guy, played by his younger, and less business savvy brother, Ace Spade (Alexander Ludwig of History series “Vikings” fame).

Off the mat, Jake actually sees himself as the “good guy,” even if his passive-aggressive insecurities and occasional arrogance makes it clear he is a far more complex figure. Ace’s insecurities are more obvious, with festering resentment toward his older brother and his father, who had taken his own life a year earlier. In other words, the storylines in real life are more compelling than anything that happens in the ring.

The drama, which debuted earlier this month, has received favorable reviews, many comparing it to NBC’s cult classic “Friday Night Lights” in style and scope.

Decider’s Josh Sorokach wrote he was “completely entranced by the compelling storytelling and dynamic performances,” noting the “incisive writing and nuanced performances.” The A.V. Club’s Kyle Fowle said the series starts a little slow but over time, “you’ll find yourself emotionally invested in a bunch of misfit weirdos throwing fake punches while dressed in spandex.”

Michael Waldron, who is already being lauded for Disney+’s “Loki,” came up with the concept. Mike O’Malley, the series showrunner, is familiar with sports and Atlanta. He did the same job for Starz’s comedic drama “Survivor’s Remorse” (2014-2017), focused on a basketball star moving to Atlanta from Boston with his family.

“I thought ‘Heels’ was fully formed and the scripts were great,” said O’Malley, a wrestling fan who quickly jumped aboard.

Amell has wrestling bonafides, having appeared in WWE, Ring of Honor, and AEW, but the scenes they did for “Heels” were by no means easy. “There’s no faking,” he said.“That’s the rap professional wrestling has. But you go in there with someone as strong as Alexander or whoever and let me know what you think.”

He appreciated the history of what he dubbed “wrasslin’” in the South, with Ted Turner launching WCW in 1988 and drawing big-time names such as Dusty Rhodes and Ric Flair to Atlanta. “It was really useful to go back and watch some of that old stuff to get inspiration for Jack Spade,” Amell said.

The show, though, is fundamentally a character study. “Come for the wrestling but stay for the trials and tribulations of these characters,” Amell said. “The situation with the brothers is something most everyone can relate to. Nobody flights like those who love each other.”

Jack sometimes lets those personal issues interfere with his business ambitions to turn the league into something bigger, including a shocking moment at the end of the first episode that propels multiple storylines as the season moves along.

O’Malley said overseeing “Heels” under strict COVID-19 protocols last fall was challenging, with crew isolated into pods and everyone masked up. “The joy of making shows is the interpersonal connections, the collaborations on set, the coming up with different nuanced moments, the inspired moments that are really charged with energy between individuals,” he said. “You lose that in COVID. Ideas you can convey with a look or voice, the subtleties are harder to pull off.”

But he said the show didn’t suffer in the end. And with O’Malley at the helm, the humor isn’t far behind.

In episode two, a drunken Ace gets into a pointless bar fight and Jack feels compelled to get in on the action. After one man insults their dad, they get ready to double team him, but Ace’s girlfriend takes the bully down instead with such alacrity, the brothers just give each other comical “what the?” looks.

Not that this is going to be “Road House” redux.

“There are those who watch the show and say the guys in the bar got what was coming to them and the Spades got what was coming to them,” O’Malley said. “And this happens in towns all across America. A bunch of drunks get into a fight. Nobody gets arrested and nobody gets sued. But I do believe in future episodes there will be comeuppance for this type of behavior.”

One of the rising stars of the “Heels” wrestling ring is Rooster Robbins, played with panache by Allen Maldonado (”The Last O.G.,” “Sneakerheads”), who added 20 pounds of pure muscle to play the character. The four-month pandemic delay helped make that easier to do, he said.

“I love boxing too,” he said. “I came in ready.”

But he said it was rough going because they did fully choreographed stunts. “By the time we finished shooting, my body was done!” said Maldonado, who is now starring in ABC’s show “The Wonder Years,” also shooting in metro Atlanta. “Even if you’re punching someone at 50 or 75% power, you do that over a 15-minute period and you’re going to feel it!”

Rooster aspires to move up the ranks, but at the start of “Heels” he’s a typical weekend wrestler, getting paid peanuts while juggling multiple other jobs like hosting karaoke night at the local bar.

“This show is an adventure of souls,” said Maldonado, who was a writer on “Survivor’s Remorse” with O’Malley. “It’s people trying to discover themselves. Wrestling just happens to be the common thread among these unique individuals played by some fantastic actors.”

Allen Maldonado stars as Rooster, a wrestling star in "Heels." STARZ

Credit: Quantrell Colbert

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Credit: Quantrell Colbert

Stephen Amell and Mary McCormack in the Starz drama "Heels" shot in Georgia. STARZ

Credit: Quantrell Colbert

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Credit: Quantrell Colbert


“Heels,” 9 p.m. Sundays on Starz or Starz on Demand the day after.