“I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take it anymore!” – Howard Beale, Network
I was already wound up about WWE’s Fastlane Pay-Per-View hours before the show actually got started. As a dedicated Dean Ambrose fan, I felt sick at the thought that WWE had worked hard to create doubt – they took Ambrose’s Intercontinental Title on Monday, thus making us believe he had a real chance to win last night’s Number 1 Contender-ship match – but knew they had no intention of actually paying that doubt off. But the show as a whole was largely unappetizing to me, and I ended the night angrier than I have been with the promotion in months.
The last time I was this aggravated, it involved all of the same characters that are giving me a headache now: Ambrose, Roman Reigns, The Wyatt Family, Charlotte. Back then my argument was basically the same – WWE has absolutely no idea how to build an organic story and pay it off. They have no idea how to develop strong characters. They have no idea how to write compelling dialogue, or create parameters where their performers can improve exciting promos. It occurred to me after Fastlane was over and I was snuggled warmly in bed that I only tuned in to see how bad they could screw the whole thing up. The answer was “spectacularly”.
Don’t get me wrong – there were other problems with last night’s show. There were several messy in-ring errors that were terrifying to watch, particularly with all of the recent discussions surrounding concussions and other injuries. It is not just WWE’s responsibility, but the responsibility of the wrestlers to protect not just themselves, but their co-workers as well. If we’re going to openly discuss these things, then you need to be prepared for your audience being sensitive to certain types of moves. Besides that, there is also an atmosphere to PPVs that was seriously lacking last night. Was watching Roman Reigns get booed out of the building in Philadelphia at the 2015 Royal Rumble ideal? No. But it was an incredible sight to behold – and any reaction is better than no reaction, and no reaction is what we got out of Cleveland for most of the night.
Professional wrestling is a unique thing to be a fan of. It’s like sports, but it’s not sports. It’s like scripted weekly television programming, but it’s not. It’s like a lot of things, but the only thing it is, truly, is itself. There are a lot of ways to produce a pro-wrestling show, and no one way is right or wrong. But, like with any good art form, self-awareness is key. What makes Lucha Underground so popular, for example, is that it has hard and fast rules about where the parameters of the world it occupies are. The world of LU includes magic and mysticism, but does not include current events or even an expansive connection to its location (they never, for example, shout out the local sports team.) There are no titan-trons in the same space as the ring, so no one in the Temple should/could be privy to the backstage segments that the television audience gets to see. There is a certain amount of continuity that fans can rely on.
None of this exists in WWE. The issue that I am always going to have with WWE is that I am a writer, a storyteller by nature, and WWE does everything in its power to flagrantly disregard the rules that have been drilled into me. These are rules I’ve learned not just from years of schooling, but from experiencing the work of great authors (playwrights, screen writers, etc.) who created compelling and all-encompassing worlds for us to explore. There are a lot of arguments I’m hearing about letting yourself get worked, or giving in to the story line in front of you and not to think you’re smarter than the people who run the company. That’s a fair argument – one I’ve actually made myself. I know I’ve referenced before that I always think of my late grandparents – my grandmother telling my grandfather, who was voicing his displeasure and confusion at her preferred daytime soap opera program, that he didn’t “know how to watch this.” That could be a valid argument for someone who doesn’t like LU, because it has magic in it. But it’s not a valid argument for WWE because they don’t know how to tell a story at all anymore.
The “tweener” nature of just about every character on the roster, and the loss of faces and heels is a problem. Tweeners are useful, but not if you have a whole roster of them, because you’re not telegraphing to the audience who you want them to cheer for. (Not that you can guarantee who the audience will cheer for, but it’s hard to turn someone in order to fit the crowd reaction when they have no true affiliation to begin with.) The imaginary world in which what goes on backstage on Monday Night Raw is not projected for the entire arena to hear is a problem, particularly when this is a rule that is regularly broken. How often do we see backstage segments in which people make reference to things announced in the ring that they were not present for? If you can hear in-ring announcements backstage, isn’t it fair to say the wrestlers in the ring can see what happens backstage and is projected onto the titan-tron? Running a website in which you regularly run kayfabe and non-kayfabe stories side-by-side is a problem. The “fake” world of your wrestling program is not something that should be placed over reality, like a painted transparency. I have never once been confused by Ricochet tweeting about something that Prince Puma did on Lucha Underground. And why is that? Because it’s clear he is a performer portraying a character. Insisting that performers where there in-ring personas all of the time creates more problems than it solves in this day and age. The fact that WWE runs programming on the network where kayfabe and reality crash into each other, shows like Breaking Ground that are half shoot and half work, is a testament to their dedication to their 21st century version of kayfabe. What could be sillier than taking something that doesn’t work and doubling down on your efforts?
Of course last night’s main event was just the latest in a long line of scenarios that highlight WWE’s inability to conceptualize the trainwreck they’ve created by continuing the involve the actual owners of the company in the main event (or really any) storyline. The Big Bad Businessmen are always going to be heel characters, whether it’s Triple H or Vince McMahon at the heart of it. Therefore, anyone they’re up against are babyfaces. But if we as fans know how hard those same people are working to create storylines (including involving themselves, like we saw with Vince back in December/January) we have to assume the people they are trying to get over are associate with the higher ups, and thus heels.
“Easy, J. Just separate the Paul Levesque the businessman from Triple H of the Authority.”
I could. But you know what? THAT’S NOT MY JOB. It’s theirs. It is the job of the company to clearly define the characters, to give me a story I can follow. No, all of the stories they are telling don’t have to be geared to me as a fan. But they should be something I can understand. If I wrote a story, a novel, where my characters had (what basically equates to) multiple personalities, the book would be panned for being an analytical mess, impossible to untangle. And that’s what WWE is – a gigantic maze of overlapping stories inside and outside of the product that create more confusion and frustration than excitement. To be considered a successful wrestling promotion, I expect you to be selling seats, yes. But I also expect your product to be interesting and something I (or anyone) can become invested in. There is no reason for a new fan to become invested in the WWE main roster product. Yes, there are great matches, but if you’re just looking for good matches there are plenty of other places you can go. A company that makes as much money as WWE does should be able to pull off something more balanced: high production quality, clear storytelling, interesting characters, AND good matches. And if you think that’s me asking for too much, then you have given up on WWE being a quality product and have settled for the sub-par trash they’ve been spoon-feeding us for years. And that’s not my problem.
For those of you who made it all the way down this far, thank you for reading! I am going to take another break from things like Monday Night RAW and SmackDown (sorry, Mauro. I love you!) and focus my attention on NXT (which I recently haven’t had the time to keep up with) and Lucha Underground. For those of you who follow me on Twitter or read this blog on Thursdays, you’ll know that my girl Sarah and I have been live-tweeting LU on Wednesday nights. We’ve been having such a good time with it, we decided to start podcasting about it. So “Facelock Feministas” is going to debut as a podcast, right here on The Lady J Says blog this Wednesday night/Thursday morning. Hopefully y’all will enjoy it (and so will we) and it can become a regular thing. Keep your eyes peeled for that, while I put my Explicit Ambrose hoodie in a drawer for safe keeping.
Listen, WWE. It’s not me – it’s you.