Character & Continuity: What The Network Needs
Describing one's complete and utter fandom with professional wrestling is a complicated thing. One of the more effective ways is to compare it to any of a myriad of television shows. To me, it's a throwback stretching all the way from the Roman Coliseum to the current reality craze. Perhaps nothing ever is more suited to the wonders of television than wrestling. For all the catcalls and barbs, there isn't an entertainment form or sporting event that hasn't borrowed from professional wrestling. It was evident once more following the very excellent Seattle Seahawks/San Francisco 49ers game, when cornerback Richard Sherman took to the post-game interview to lay some verbal smack down on wideout Michael Crabtree.
It took approximately four seconds for the response to that hilariously over-the-top interview by Sherman to go fully viral and the wrestling comparisons to be drawn out. Even the fallout since then has been a wrestling arc. Sherman, initially indignant, apologizes. Some fans believe him; some don't. Discuss. Anyone who's watched an hour of wrestling at any point over the last fifty or so years could describe that situation happening over and over again. As with anything, it certainly could take away from the enjoyment of the sport. But it shouldn't. It's simply Sherman playing the role of the heel. Appropriate? Perhaps not. Entertaining? Indubitably. This "event" was discussed more than much of the context of the game.
And that, inherently, is the mission of those who put together wrestling shows for a living. The announcement of the WWE Network brings with it an inherent microscope, as the worlds of athletics and business collide in one of those moments that is special simply for existing and regardless of outcome. Anyone who doubts that ignores an easy comparison with television itself, where Netflix and DirecTV have infiltrated programming so much that an awards show can't happen without endless dissertations on how the landscape has changed. This is big news, in and of itself, and it's certainly huge news for wrestling fans. Not since the inception of PPV do we see a moment in time where it's incredibly important for the WWE to get quite a few things right. I don't say everything, because in addition to being completely unrealistic, it's way less interesting.
Just like Sherman, then, it's important that WWE trudge into this next couple of critical months with a game plan designed to drive interest higher among the fanbase. It's even more vital for them to draw in new viewers, and therein lies the television connection. Great stories have heroes and villains regardless of the medium, and continuity among those stories. That struggle for continuity even as television grows from episodic obviousness to over-arching mythologies is always a challenging one, and it's been the defeat of many a creator and writer along the way. Perhaps that explains the odd developments that have occurred over the last few weeks at the top of the WWE food chain. The inherent challenge of pushing what's hot, keeping the fans interested, attracting the new blood, and all the while keeping an eye to the future was challenging enough before doing it all while monitoring the Network launch.
Many wrestling fans decry the attempt at anything new even while celebrating what was, at one point, revolutionary. It's a conflict of interest and a big mistake, particularly in wrestling, where the newest concept or character can be tossed aside in a heartbeat. That said, angles and character development cannot be treated as random. It's an investment of time and money, like anything else, and a payoff of some kind is expected. For my money, that's been where this top of the card about-facing has been most evident. When Daniel Bryan turned into a Wyatt, it confused everyone. That in itself wasn't a bad thing, in my opinion at least, but it was so quickly discarded as to be irrelevant. While it certainly impacts the build for Bryan's Rumble match against ringleader Bray, that could have been accomplished in plenty of ways that had ample foreshadowing.
Part of the challenge with that storyline is the difference between the principals. Daniel Bryan is over despite himself, and so too, in a completely opposite way, is Bray Wyatt. Bryan's mic work has improved, but it's never going to be the driving force of his game. He's a guy that gets it done in the ring, and that's just fine. It's actually a breath of fresh air in a business that too often is about anything but talent. Wyatt is presented as a monster, some unearthly being who has presence beyond our understanding. Contrasted to Bryan, he is already excellent in an interview setting and gets better every day. Listening to him develop his cadence and technique is impressive. It's not just Jake The Snake's appearance at the end of Old School Raw that makes me think of the way he carried himself during promos, let's put it that way.
Wyatt is supposed to be a flawed leader. That's part of the deal when you are on the heel side of the coin. Letting Bryan explore his dark side after all the mounting frustration of his title chase actually makes sense. It's just something that the fans, his fans, should be included in. To toss away those couple segments of very good scripted stuff as just another build to a Bryan/Wyatt match diminishes both in an unfortunate way. That's not to say their match Sunday won't be very good or even great; these are two performers who are scratching the surface of what they are capable of doing on the most international of stages. It just lacks the continuity required to tell the most compelling of stories.
A similar situation is occurring with Unified Champion Randy Orton and his "backing" by the Authority. For months, we learned that the Authority felt Daniel Bryan was an inadequate champion and that this nefarious organization would stop at nothing to deprive him of the title, no matter what the audience wanted. Upon the return of John Cena, however, we find ourselves at an odd sort of impasse. Orton is encouraged to loose the reins one week and castigated for doing so the next. In the meanwhile, Triple H's stranglehold upon the mindset of self-importance continues as fan favorites like Shawn Michaels and the New Age Outlaws are reduced to the shadows of running buddies. There's no question that names of the past can play a big role in current plotlines (done to excellence most recently by Dusty Rhodes and his insertion into the Rhodes Brothers angle), but the build is muddled and confusing.
A good play doesn't reveal itself in the first act, of course, but these are a couple of obvious examples of the lack of continuity that threatens to diminish the effectiveness of the Network rollout. Simply putting people in situations is not close to enough. We must have a rooting interest, a compelling tale, and preferably some unanswered questions on both sides that foment the passion. When the MegaPowers broke up, who did you side with? Both factions had compelling arguments. When The Rock had his series of excellent verbal altercations with John Cena, neither side was necessarily presented as "right." Much of it had to do with who you had a rooting interest in to begin with, but I gave the WWE high marks for making that story so damn interesting on both sides. Shouldn't we be irritated when a part-time player and movie star comes trotting back in to rule the roost? Shouldn't we join The Rock in our disdain for a human cartoon character that represents everything that we jeered in the Attitude Era?
Those larger questions and bigger storylines are what the WWE should be aiming for always, and certainly at the present time. Everyone has heard the expression of "500 channels, and nothing's on." We have now entered a moment in wrestling where there might be 500 surprises, and no excitement. The hits and the names keep coming: Brock Lesnar, RVD, Batista...but the impact of those names has been effectively reduced by the lack of competition and continuity. Those compelling stories don't have to be told at the top of the card, either. Much has been made of the struggles of the midcard in the last calendar year and that's easily remedied by the application of time and toil. Give us a reason to care and we might. Give us grown men arguing over the use of go-go dancers and perhaps not so much. Even the tag team scene, which has seen rapid growth and improvement by simply paying attention to it, could do with an injection of emotion. Guys fighting the same battles week after week simply because they exist might still make for a good match, but not a very compelling tale.
The immediacy and topsy-turviness of wrestling is part of its innate charm. I'm not suggesting that be abandoned in favor of processed calculations that take the spirit of the moment out of things. In six to eight hours of wrestling per week, there is more than enough time to cover your bases in multiple ways. An increase in content, however, particularly original content, can and will only be effective if presented in the right light. Wrestling fans, and sports fans in general, love the stories behind the game as much as the men and women who play in them. The rules have been broken and the fourth wall is a crumbling heap. From music to movies to TV, every medium has been irrevocably changed by the advent of On Demand programming. In just about every case, those changes have been for the better. No longer do you have to buy an entire CD to listen to the couple of good tracks. No longer do you have to go to the movie theater and buy $32 worth of snacks to watch Martin Scorsese's latest (though, of course, I will). And no longer do you have to watch the "Big 3" networks during prime time to catch the best shows.
Wrestling has a unique and unparalleled opportunity to leave some of those old maxims in the rearview mirror and embark upon a journey to acceptance, if not complete respectability. And that's where we, as fans of the sport, should want it. It can sit on the fringe, naturally, but let it be known for the effective storytelling and captivating drama that it offers at its best. Those of us who live and love it already know how great it is. It's time for the WWE to get some of the rest of the folks on board, and the best way to do that is to pick a direction and stick with it. At least for a while.
*Watching last night's Raw, an unfortunate realization came to me. That realization is NOT that I like Bad News Barrett's gimmick (it hasn't grown on me, even a little), but rather that Rey Mysterio's ship has perhaps sailed. It might be the malaise of another set of matches with Alberto Del Rio (and, as a sidenote, could these two guys ever feud with anyone else? it's a little ridiculous how often they are paired) but during the course of it, even with both guys trying their best, I felt a rapid sense of boredom. And that's never happened to me during a Mysterio match. It's not all Rey's fault, of course. His career has been marred with a bit of controversy and a whole lot of injuries of late, and he's in a very tough business indeed for someone of his size taking that degree of punishment. I'm not campaigning for Mysterio to hit the pasture, mind you; he's still quite an athlete and more than capable of impressing inside the squared circle. But some of that thrill I had watching him fly around the ECW Arena those many moons ago has worn off a bit. He's still a merchandise draw and popular with the kids, and that's obviously a good thing. But to think of Rey as a viable champion at this point is perhaps tripping the light a little too fantastically. It was one hell of a run.
*I like the idea of Brock Lesnar vs. The Big Show. I always have. Part of my rationale is the lineage of big men in wrestling. From Haystacks Calhoun to Andre the Giant to Yokozuna, mass has always mattered in wrestling. And mass vs. mass matters even more. The irresistible force and the immovable object, to steal a line from Gorilla Monsoon. While it's certainly true that the same fascination with girth and size has resulted in Giant Gonzalez and Great Khali and the like, it makes for really good television and it has a special quality like seeing King Kong hanging off that skyscraper. Even after you grow up, it's still pretty cool. That said, I found the Lesnar/Show confrontation a bit underwhelming, minus Show's amusing impression of Paul Heyman. (Perhaps when Paul Wight retires, he'll join up with Mick Foley on the comedy circuit.) Putting these two guys in a ring and seeing what happens does have a certain level of wow, but not quite enough for my taste, particularly when you have the dangerous edge of Lesnar in his very limited schedule. Big Show has been booked as both the most awesome and most fragile of characters, and I'd liked to have seen some further development of this feud before its payoff. I can't think of any scenario where Show isn't being booked as cannon fodder for Lesnar's real dance card opponents, but I'd prefer it's a bit less obvious. Anything involving Brock should have that "big fight" feel, or it's a waste.
*AJ Lee's title reign is getting deserved recognition for its length, and you won't find a bigger supporter of her than me. I like her ring work, I love her interview style and willingness to throw it all out there, and I always appreciate someone who breaks the mold, even a little. Unfortunately, it's difficult to place this in the pantheon of famous title reigns because of a distinct lack of competition. WWE has always had this odd thing where they recruit wrestlers and promote models. I'll be the first to say I appreciate some eye candy, but that can be done in wrestling outside of the athletes themselves. When those two things go together (yes, Trish Stratus), it's beyond excellent, but it's not going to happen very often. The oddest part about this is that the WWE has some compelling, original characters waiting in the wings. Even Summer Rae had far more development in NXT than she's been given with Fandango. I don't mind that she's there, but I do mind that she's not relevant. How hard could it be to promote one or two and give AJ some fresh storylines to work with? Otherwise she should be relegated to the cast of Total Divas and compete for the reality television title. I don't really blame Kaitlyn for packing it in.
*Finally, I'd be remiss not to close without a few words regarding Mae Young. Her death, as with just about anything she was involved in regarding the wrestling world for the last thirty years or so, was controversial. Reports that she had passed away were refuted until she unfortunately did, but her career is an amazing testament to women's wrestling. This is a woman who was wrestling at age fifteen. It's also a woman who despite thriving during the territorial era embraced the development of wrestling, allowing herself to be used in angle after angle that others might have scoffed at. I still regard her being powerbombed by Bubba Ray Dudley through a table off the stage as one of the most unbelievable moments in wrestling. The fact that she was 77 at the time and reportedly professed a desire to have it done again from the top of a cage is mind-boggling. This is a woman who embraced the role of performer and athlete in a way that is so rarely seen. Too often, "legends" of the past have only stories from people who lived during their reigns to inform us of how excellent they were. It is to our complete and utter luck that we were able to see firsthand how this legend operated. They don't make them like that anymore, and they never will again. RIP.