It was sometime after last night's Raw had concluded, with its fairly typical assemblage of the evil Wyatt Family dominating the ultimate do-gooder John Cena and sending television viewers to bed with the imagery of him resting uncomfortably with quite the headache while Bray sang twisted karaoke. This is a closing that wrestling viewers are familiar with, that of a major face suffering a big setback in their quest and the idea that evil reigns supreme (fleetingly, natch) in this topsy-turvy world. A couple of hours later, in reviewing the show, I discovered that those in attendance in Baltimore got a rather important postscript. The Wyatts planned to resumed their attack on Cena after Raw went off the air only to be waylaid by...The Shield. Considering that The Shield had spent a large portion of the live program defending their own honor against the reformed Evolution, perhaps this was to be expected. But it doesn't make it any less strange, really.
Watching the replay of the Raw backstage pass on the Network, that is indeed what happened. It didn't garner any special attention from the commentary team, perhaps due to the presence of "#HEEL" Dolph Ziggler, reformed and sobering. This is just how the cycle of life works in professional wrestling. Heels hear cheers and become heroes. At some point, they decide they are concerned with how the crowd feels about their performance. It never starts that way, of course. Like any relationship, it just enters a different phase, but they're the same people. But are they? Should the Cena save be read as The Shield serving their own interests (as their character development necessitates), or as a change in their attitude towards Cena or the large segment of fans that support him? Unclear.
What is clear is that the "Reality Era" appears to be a not-too-subtle attempt to convince us as viewers that the dividing lines between faces and heels don't really matter all that much. It plays into some of the top storylines in the company, as talking heads debate whether the Universe handing JC a 3-on-1 match against the entire Wyatt family was more a punishment of the superhero or an opportunity to get his hands on the cult leader. Considering Cena's locked in a cage with Bray in a couple of weeks, I'm not sure I get the latter logic, but hey: at least there was an attempt at explanation. The truth is far less difficult to pinpoint. Plenty of people tired of Cena's machinations years ago, and just about all of us want more. If there's a chance to put more guys in the ring, bring it on! Besides, is Cena even an underdog with odds like that? Certainly not the way he's been presented. There's no need to hang that decision on the fans when the Authority is bringing out half the roster against The Shield. Appreciate the attempt to make the "voting" application useful, but success eludes.
Not that long ago, it was heavily rumored that at least one member of The Shield, Roman Reigns, would be abandoning his team in favor of a push and a run at the top of the card. Those plans appear to have been scrapped with the entire trio now submerged in their battle with the leadership of the company. It's not the fans' treatment of The Shield that has caused this as much as the "tweener" mentality that pervades the scene. This stable is to be applauded because they have broken the yoke of terror that Triple H has been unleashing on the roster for some time now. They are going to cut the same promos while they go about their business, staring down a team that had similar cool credibility once upon a time. What's a fan to do?
Antiheroes are nothing new in themselves, of course, and certainly not in the wrestling business, which prides itself on being timeless and timely all at once. But from The Shield to Cesaro to The Wyatts themselves, I'm at a loss to think of a time when they abounded so prevalently. It solves plenty of problems on the creative end, of course. Sending out the talent and awaiting the reaction eliminates all the difficulty of planning. It's also a topic discussed at length by former WWE announcer Jim Ross in a series of tweets, decrying the lack of true heels left in the WWE (at least as far as presentation is concerned) and making the case that they are required in order to engage fans and drive the business to the level that is needed to sustain itself. Heels do have to be heels, after all. Or do they?
The essence of his point is that once "bad" guys reach a certain level of coolness, they cease to be bad in the traditional sense of the word. Wrestling can and should be populated by characters of all kinds, including those that are incredibly hard to classify, but it's at its core a morality play and that requires people whose motivation is consistently less than savory. Much of this rests on presentation, naturally; but a good deal of it requires the investment of time and energy into a person that will be loathed. This was easy enough back in the old days, when being from a certain country or occupation meant instant rage, but in this current climate of revelations and mixed motivations it becomes a true art form. The only way to ensure yourself of heel success is to be the anachronism on legs: the cowardly tough guy, the unintelligent brain, the ugly ladies' man. There is nothing more infuriating in life than someone who's not good at something and thinks they are great at it. It's an easy element to book, exploit, and reap the rewards from in wrestling. But it requires a recipe of equal parts commitment and energy.
The invisible line between fan favorite and most hated has never been more tenuous, and it needs a bit of course correcting. As the broadcast team points out how many fans the Wyatts are converting, they prod the tale towards the inevitable conclusion. It's hard to feel the proper emotion for a group presented as too cool for class. The nWo had many reasons for the end of its life cycle, but a major one is surely that once a group is so cool that the established stars want to be in it, it's no longer cool at all. It doesn't take Groucho Marx to see that's a club that you might not want to be in, as fun as it might appear. The WWE has to resist the urge to treat the "reality" era as an opportunity to exorcise the rites of the past, because you're only going to deposit money in feuds you're interested in. Brother vs. brother, underdog vs. powerhouse, angel vs. demon: whatever your fancy, emotional investment is a requirement in order to see the feud through. Groups battling other groups over Various Important Motivations that shall remain nameless would not qualify.
There is a prevailing thought that you can't determine who fans cheer for. While that's ostensibly true, it misses the mark in that true promoters can harness those emotions and use them to push folks in a certain direction. In fact, that's their job. While wrestling needs to be smart enough to recognize when it's made a mistake (bringing Batista back assuming he'd be cheered), they also must stick with their guns regarding the grand plan from time to time in order to sell the big story. It actually doesn't take a whole lot more than a preening heel like Rick Rude showing up to insult the hometown fans to make this work, even in the reality era. The reality will always be that when attacked, we respond in kind. You can go along with the audience and become a pseudo-heel like Fandango, or you can take a stand and slap the hand that's trying to feed you every step of the way. Having redeeming qualities or a mysterious cool quotient will only get you so far before it ceases to pay the bills. That's not old school thinking; that's wrestling history 101.
The wrestling world is a big place, and it takes all kinds. Certainly appealing to different core groups makes sense and keeps things interesting. We may even be beyond the point where anyone can take a heel gimmick and make it work for a career. But that in itself is not an excuse to abandon the planning and execution of one of the things that wrestling shares with all successful entertainment mediums: requiring an (often larger-than-life) villain to push things to another level. One would hope that this noble cause has not been lost in a wash of merchandise sales and fleeting loyalties. I'll take my favorites cool upon careful reflection, thank you. Eliminate the true heels at your peril.
*The first opponent out of the chute for newly minted champion Daniel Bryan is...Kane? While the ample backstory between the two is surely compelling in its own way, I can't state I'm agog with excitement over this development. While yesterday's beatdown in front of Mrs. Bryan was a large step in the right direction (isn't it about time things got more personal?), Kane was marginally successful in his corporate persona and leapfrogged several talents that were more worthy of a shot at the gold. (We'll pass on the topic of Lesnar, as his part-time commitment prevents that move from coming to fruition yet.) Cesaro would have been a great choice, given his memorable Battle Royal win at WrestleMania. As it stands, we're stuck with once again elevating a past name into the main event level as a quick excuse to keep DB on an even keel with a victory. This is precisely the type of thing I was hoping would be diminished following WM. One positive for this feud is the continuing desire to keep Stephanie McMahon as a heel focal point. She has only scratched the surface of what she's capable of, far beyond the monotonous droning of her husband as he explores ground covered over and over again. Stephanie has an opportunity to come into her own as a monster, and it's about time that WWE presented a strong female character with a very big dark side.
*The breakup of The Brothers Rhodes was once again hinted at last evening, if not overtly stated, and it's high time in my estimation. In order for Cody to take the leap to the next level he's been circling for some time now, he's going to need to sow his oats on his own, and a feud with his own kin (particularly one that's been able to play the heel quite well at times) is a great place to start. I'm naturally concerned about what happens to Goldy once that course is run, but he's an entertaining enough character that I find it hard to imagine he falls off the map completely. Kudos to them both for taking a secondary feud and making it work for longer than they probably imagined. They should receive their opportunity to face each other (something they've both longed for) and use it as a great springboard to close the book on the team and catapult Cody to bigger and better things. Kudos to both for their efforts, and let's get things to the next stage.
*It may be obvious at this point due to the attention it's received, but I must add my voice to the cacophony of praise aimed at the WWE's Warrior-themed programming on the Network last week. It's unfortunate that a tragedy precipitated it, but it's a welcome relief to be able to spend more time with beloved characters once their time on this globe is up. Too often a bell salute and a fade to black is all we get in terms of closure for those that inspired us. The pieces themselves were very well done, as WWE's nearly always are, and provided some insight into the very long and strange trip Warrior undertook. It also provided some excellent insight into the infamous Self-Destruction DVD and some unbelievably poignant moments during his last WrestleMania weekend, including footage with friends turned bitter rivals Vince McMahon and Hulk Hogan that were downright emotional. If this is what we have to look forward to, we're fortunate indeed.
*Using reality to push fantasy is something wrestling has always done. Take any successful gimmick in the business and most likely it's based in part to something linked to the performer themselves. It's easy to see why: getting behind what you know is far easier and more effective than attempting to get behind what you don't. In that vein, the abundance of reality shows and Total Divas weddings have taught us that not only do wrestling weddings work much better out of arenas, but there's a hell of a lot of them. While using real-life spouses and relatives is generally a smart play, less needs to be more here. I don't pretend that fans don't have access to this information, and therefore the veil of secrecy can be dropped, but not mentioning it and blatantly advertising it are two different animals. WWE must be careful to not let their desire for the success of their side projects overtake the necessity to do their main gig really well. Adding a personal stake to a feud is smart money; adding too many risks turning what's already an exercise in disbelief into calisthenics most impossible.