Today marks the beginning of my three-part series called Worlds of Wrestling, in which I discuss different promotions’ “fictive worlds” that lay the boundaries by which characters and stories operate. So it’s essentially kayfabe. If you haven’t read my article from last week, I recommend doing so now. It prefaces a lot of the concepts I’ll discuss here, so it might be useful to read. If you don’t want to, that’s fine, I’m sure the ideas will still get across just fine.
Often, it seems WWE doesn’t deviate from most wrestling conventions, partly because they’re the leading source of their perpetuation – which isn’t meant to sound negative, although “perpetuate” certainly seems directed toward that effect. With WWE atop the mountain of pro wrestling, it’s unsurprising they’d be content to maintain their conventions rather than risk radical innovations. There are small changes from time to time, but nothing like the new formats and onscreen directions TNA seems to attempt every few months. But that’s next week.
What’s interesting about WWE is since they’re one of the oldest companies in the industry (they’re over 60-years-old) as well as the most successful, their fictive world often harkens back to the olden days, whether with the appearance of a legend, a reprise of a classic storyline, the sale of a vintage wrestling collection or some other nod to the company’s roots. TNA and ROH have their originators, their founding fathers, but WWE has generations of wrestlers, and therefore generations of fans. They have the unique advantage over TNA and ROH of being a time capsule that keeps getting unearthed and filled somehow simultaneously – which makes no sense literally, but you get the metaphor.
Onscreen characters are always striving for their own legacies, to insert their chapters into the book of WWE history. This gives them constant context, provided especially around historical pay-per-views like WrestleMania and Royal Rumble. That whole Rumble by the Numbers thing? It sets the expectation with each rendition of the event that some wrestler might set a new record, thereby immortalizing themselves in WWE history – or at least making WWE’s video production crew sift through videos of them. CM Punk’s 434-day WWE Championship reign? It wouldn’t seem so significant if WWE didn’t keep track of records and didn’t constantly remind people of how rarely these things happen in WWE history. Because of all those video packages, all the commentary and all the stats, we appreciate the WWE not only as a company moving forward, but as a product of its history to which we constantly compare the modern WWE and its Superstars. This is one of the WWE’s biggest assets, though there are still plenty of times when their fictive world falters.
We’ve used the word context already, but there are degrees of context for any instance. While it’s nice to say each wrestler is constantly engaging in this struggle to stake out a claim in the landscape of WWE history, that doesn’t always translate through a single match. When you’re sitting down to watch a typical match on RAW, you’re more interested in its immediate context, the goals of each man involved. In a best case scenario, the match is either part of an episodic program that’s been developing for weeks, and thus will be provided context by either recap videos or promo; or, if it’s just a program for that particular night (like when they cross-promote storylines by making a tag team main event featuring, for instance, both world champions and their challengers), they might open the show with a promo that sets up their match. In a worst case scenario, two dudes go out there and wrestle. There’s no reason given, nothing becomes of it, it’s just two guys wrestling. Sometimes that’s alright if the wrestling’s good enough, but the match comes across better when the stakes are higher, which unfortunately doesn’t happen enough for the WWE’s mid-card.
Maybe the problem is that “division” is no longer an applicable word to any title in WWE’s fictive world. I don’t really think there’s been any time in WWE history where there’s been a functional order of contendership, but usually we get some semblance of an organized “division” with at least number one contender matches. More often than not, however, WWE sets up title matches with the logic of, “Challenger A beat Challenger B in a non-title match, and therefore is the number one contender.” Sometimes you just shrug and say, “Eh, so long as the matches and the character progression are good, I’m happy,” which is fine, yet it still seems counterproductive to book matches in the first place that are ultimately undermined by subsequent stories that seem absurdly contrary to what the previous angle would have us believe.
Sometimes they try to get across other kayfabe stakes through commentary. JBL likes to say the winner of a match gets the heftier paycheck, yet WWE too often makes match results seem inconsequential (heels intentionally getting disqualified or counted out) for that to be believable. Sometimes commentators try to appeal to our sense of virtues, suggesting that the competition is what’s at stake, which I do enjoy. With JBL or any solid heel character on commentary, we tend to get a great dichotomy between virtues and cunning when he and a more face-leaning commentator argue whether it’s better to cheat if it gets you ahead, or stick to the rules with respect for a higher virtue. That’s a solid contribution to the match’s context on the commentators’ part, especially when it lacks much beyond that. However, it’s a shame when what should be give-ins become the main context the commentators can build – although that dichotomy comes up on commentary even during well-developed matches, since it’s so prominent in storylines too. However, when it comes to the week-to-week matches, the writers should be giving our wonderful announce team (and it feels like it’s been a while since I could say that almost sincerely) much more to work with.
Then there’s the whole administrative layer of WWE kayfabe, our general managers or our interim advising consultant team leader dukes of waffles or whatever. Often they either interrupt promos to create matches with wrestlers who would otherwise throw down then and there, and sometimes they announce contests in brief backstage dialogues. Despite how obnoxious general managers often are, I’m actually fine with them having smaller roles. It’s fine for Booker T to announce through a brief exchange with some random Superstar that he’ll be in a match later. Hell, depending on the interaction with Booker, they might even write in a decent conflict that’ll carry into the match. The only problem I have with onscreen authority figures is when they detract from the talent, such as by making fun of or otherwise putting down a Superstar without that wrestler ever getting the chance to prove him wrong – it’s only burying if there’s no follow-up. Besides that, I think they’re fine. They can provide a bit more context for a match than a cutaway to a graphic. That’s something.
There are a ton more components that contribute to the WWE’s fictive world, yet I think attempting to catalogue them all would strain the limits of your interest. To give a summary of WWE’s fictive world, they’re the titans of legacy, but when it comes to providing each match – especially in the mid-card – context, they often fall flat. I’m not saying they need to initiate a full-fledged ranking system, only that they need to be more consistently creative with how they set up rivalries. It does a lot less for a wrestler to earn an Intercontinental Championship match by beating the champion than it does to have that same wrestler undergo a personal struggle with obstacles relative to his character, overcoming everything to finally earn that match. That’s character development. And since a single storyline is rarely isolated from the rest of the show, the improvement of a single character and program is a contribution to the WWE’s whole fictive world. That’s what they should strive toward. Programs that run like clockwork, each story contributing to the greater whole. Hopefully an improved work environment and handle on craft will enable them to get there one day.
There you have it, part one of Worlds of Wrestling. I hope you liked it. Since you know what column to expect for next week, let me know if there’s anything else you’d like to see in parts one and two. I’d love the input.
Also, a note on my plugs, I’ve added a website I just started for my own video game reviews and opinion pieces. It’s called HyperRealm Games. Neat, huh? I think so. Yeah, there’s a Baudrillard reference in there. My first article on the site is a review of Game Dev Tycoon, an indie title that’s had everyone abuzz since they tricked pirates into buying a cracked version of their game they’d uploaded to BitTorrent themselves, which makes those real world pirates subject to an infestation of in-game pirates who ruin their game dev pursuits. It was a hilarious story and the game’s actually really fun. It consumed most my weekend. If you’re interested, check out the website.
Until the next week, I’m going to begin the red-eyed march through finals week. It’s actually double finals week for me, since somehow half my teachers thought it’d be funny to have finals on this week, when the official finals week is next week. Teachers, am I right? In the meantime, check me out on Twitter, shoot me an angry email or read my game-related articles at HyperRealm Games.
HyperRealm Games: http://hyperrealmgames.wordpress.com/