I watched Wrestlemania 31 with pretty much all of my wrestling friends. A few years ago, most of us were involved in the business through local indy promotions, as performers, creative, producers. Some still are. (Me, I’ve been sober for 5 years)
I don’t remember a single one of my friends leaving after Mania dissatisfied.
A smart wrestling crowd is always hard for WWE to please. A wrestling crowd of indy people… not anyone’s favorite challenge, especially considering the underwhelming build-up to Wrestlemania 31.
The show, despite the inevitable gripe or two, was a home run. So much so that I have trouble identifying another Wrestlemania that was as well-rounded and packed with entertainment.
However, after the yearly Wrestlemania spike of enthusiasm, what was left? By now, we’ve become accostumed to the idea that after the post-Mania Raw, whoever wrote those “good shows” is eventually going to go back into their cryogenic chamber, only to be thawed out the following March.
Because WWE’s writing isn’t that great as all get out. It hasn’t been for a long while now.
But… the truth – the obvious, painful truth – is that WWE’s main creative flaws are technical and quite solvable. Here they are:
1. No Setup
There is a history of “just because” booking decisions plaguing the show.
Chief, current example being Ziggler and Lana. Let me give you two scenarios.
Real Scenario: one day, after weeks of taking Rusev’s abuse, Lana decides to pack up. Leaves Rusev. Comes out when Dolph is in the ring. Kisses him. Why? Just because.
While WWE explains why Lana abandons Rusev, Ziggler’s inclusion in the storyline is arbitrary. Why did she pick Ziggler? No explanation was ever given. When you don’t explain, when you don’t set up what your ending will be, the viewer tends to feel lost, disengaged.
Lana’s approach of Ziggler feels random, which portrays her character as lacking the drive and decisiveness becoming of a strong, leading lady. And Ziggler just stands there and let her do whatever. Sure, it’s Lana (most men would just stand there), but it takes any power Ziggler’s character could have away from him.
Alternative Scenario: as Rusev’s weeks of abuse linger on, Ziggler finds Lana backstage. Maybe the first time, we only show he’s watching a brooding Lana after a verbal beating from Rusev.
Show after show, their interactions become more meaningful. A smooth-talking yet concerned Ziggler makes it clear Lana doesn’t have to take any shit… shit she’d never have to deal with a certain “Show Off” by her side.
This would be where Rusev and Ziggler would clash. Maybe it’s just brawls, maybe they have some matches. In these fights, Ziggler is clearly trying to win Lana over, battling back against a bigger, stronger man, much like he wants Lana to do (points easily illustrated by the wrestlers and the announcers).
Now, maybe Rusev has beaten Dolph in a brutal match where Ziggler fights heroically to the bitter end, and we can have Lana dump Rusev and head to the ring to kiss Dolph after the match, signifying the culmination of both their struggles: Lana’s to break free from an abusive companion and Dolph’s quest to gain her love.
This alternative scenario works because, as it was taught to me, your viewer wants to be taken on a journey. A journey for which he is willing to suspend disbelief, but not intelligence.
I’m sure you can remember more examples where WWE has employed similar tactics, devoid of proper storyline setups, like:
a) The Bellas acting babyface, then heel, then babyface again. Why? Just because.
b) The return of the Anonymous GM, who had already been revealed as Hornswoggle years before. Why? Just because.
c) Bray Wyatt‘s random interferences in feud-ending matches. Why? Because f*** you, that’s why.
SUMMING UP: Want a character to do something? Show us why he/she will be doing it beforehand.
2. No Character Variety
It’s entirely possible to argue that, at present time, WWE’s roster is in great shape, despite a few exits. Under the same roof, you have…
- the poster boys: Cena, Orton, Lesnar
- the go-to part-timers: Taker, Hunter, Sting, Jericho
- the young guns that are taking over: Rollins, Ambrose, Reigns
- technical marvels like Neville, Kidd and Cesaro
- a slew of ridiculously talented people just waiting for more opportunities in Balor, Owens and Zayn
- women wrestlers like Charlotte, Becky and Sasha who can wrestle the living shit out of any crowd
Despite this enormity of talent, WWE’s roster is, character-wise, mostly stale. The reason? Most personas aren’t that unique. More often then not, they seem written to be downright generic.
While wrestlers like Wade Barrett, Sheamus and Big Show have unique looks, physiques and were “packaged” in distinguishing ways (attire, catchphrases, move set), that’s where their uniqueness ends.
By and large, their reactions are the same: confronted with adversity, they cheat to win, they attack foes from behind in pretty much the same way. Every week, a different heel hooks the tights to win, leaves the ring when challenged face-to-face by his nemesis.
For the most part, we’re limited to a steady diet of ass-kicking babyfaces (Reigns, Lesnar), clean-cut heroes (Cena), wrestler’s wrestlers (Bryan, Cesaro, Neville), chickenshit heels (Rollins, New Day), and a few crazy, mysterious gentlemen (Taker, Sting, Balor, Ambrose).
If you rewind your wrestling VCR, you’ll find Crash Holly, a small but crazy wrestler who believed he was a tough-as-nails Super Heavyweight who could clean everyone’s clock.
You’ll find Steve Blackman, a no-frills martial artist, with no tolerance for the flamboyant side of wrestling, trying to achieve success despite an offbeat partner who talks to a mannequin head and is constantly pestering him to come out of his shell and showing charisma – unaware that, most likely, Blackman was all shell and no fish, a precursor to Lance Storm’s “serious” routine.
How many wrestlers on today’s roster can we pick out whose character offers them this kind of depth and possibilies? Notice I didn’t even have to characterize them as faces or heels.
Which leads me to my next point.
3. No Personality-Driven Character Design
Wrestlers are merely taking turns at using the same antics, which even the less savvy fan comes to recognize and anticipate, consciously or unconsciously.
This leads to a predictable product, filled with characters with little else to distinguish them other than their look.
Imagine Walter White and Jesse Pinkman from Breaking Bad, reacting to a bad-ass drug dealer moving in on their action the same way for 5 seasons. Not just the same way over time, but in unison.
The differences in reaction are what make their characters so unique: Walter first reacts fearfully but quickly bounces back to thinking things through and then just being outright ruthless.
Jesse shits his pants, runs away, takes drugs, makes even worse decisions than usual due to the mounting pressure… and still somehow manages to help Walter and stay alive through it all… and he’s awesome, bitch.
In WWE, if a dangerous figure appeared in the ring, all the heels would most likely just leave the premises and head to the back. Not a single one would do it differently.
If you think of wrestling in terms of faces and heels, that’s exactly what you get: faces and heels. Not individual characters who react differently and handle the same problem in their own unique way.
TO REVERSE THIS, two things would be required:
– the writing quality has to go up; namely, writers would need to go back to square one and dilligently work on setting each wrestler apart from their fellow roster members
– characters would mostly likely have to become more personality-driven and more closely match the wrestler’s own personality
If the best wrestlers were challenged to amplify their own characteristics, they will experience a completely different level of comfort in their performance, not to mention provide a much more natural, energetic, convincing performance than the one they put out with a script approved by the same people who book Barrett, Sheamus and Big Show every week.
It’s the same principle used by stand-up comedians. If your act is about what is real to you (things that really do bother you, etc…), the audience will believe in you, even though you’re not a classically trained actor.
Then, if every character is uniquely built in accordance to each performer’s strengths and personality, they can certainly react to run-ins, scathing promos and firings in their own particular way easily. Not just use press Ctrl+H for “Heel Reaction” or Ctrl+B “Babyface Reaction”.
Finally, returning to the randomness of Lana’s approach of Ziggler, and just for the hell of it, here’s a personality (and character) driven reply to a “random” woman’s advances-
With no real uniqueness to the characters, there can be very little novelty from a storyline. Which is why it has become very difficult to tell this week’s Raw from last week’s.
4. Too Broad of a Target Audience
Let’s take this on with an example.
Breaking Bad is mostly directed at the young to middle-aged male adult market. For good reason. Besides an innovative narrative, the show features a wide selection of violence, profanity, drugs, you name it.
As much as the heel in me would like to see an 8-year-old kid’s reaction video to a compilation of the stiffest scenes from the show, let’s ignore that heel thought for now.
Truth is that kid isn’t watching Breaking Bad, he’s watching cartoons and live-action shows with more light-hearted plots.
Now imagine a TV show that tries to please the Breaking Bad audience AAAND the people who watch Sesame Street.
If you give a kid Walter White and Jesse Pinkman to watch, you’ll fuck his shit up. If you give me Big Bird to watch, I will be the one fucking your shit up.
If you give a kid a Austin vs. McMahon angle, you’re not speaking to his intelect or taste. If you give an adult Hornswoggle and Adam Rose dancing in the ring, you’re not only NOT speaking to his intellect, you’re all but assuring a lightning-quick lunge toward the remote.
Welcome to Monday Night Raw. Where, by WWE’s own admission, “there’s something for everyone”.
In other words, WWE seems to be targeting young kids, while simultaneously trying to maintain a more adult following.
While probably great to grab sponsorships, trying to cut through so many demographic lines condemns each age group to sit through segments that, by their own definition, are NOT for them.
There’s a reason Rick Grimes doesn’t break into a musical number on The Walking Dead. There’s a reason Big Bird doesn’t get up one day and kill everyone with a machete. Those actions wouldn’t connect with the target audience. In fact, one would be sending the audience on a one-way trip to “Other Channels”.
By aiming to please more than one master with opposite tastes, the only likely result for pro wrestling is the pleasing of no one.
A POSSIBLE SOLUTION would be a legitimate roster split, with a kid-friendly show on one hand, and a mature, heavy-handed presentation on the other.
But that would probably mess with the sponsorship dollars. And one always has difficulty touching a working system.
5. The Office is Deciding, Not The Crowd
Through a plethora of examples in recent years, it has become obvious that the crowd is getting less and less input on who gets traction.
Meaning: the wrestler may be performing for the crowd, but he’s also performing for the agents and the suits.
Ideally, he/she’d perform for the crowd who, in their own way, are performing for the suits, who gauge the crowd’s every move, in order to identify trends in support (or lack thereof) of certain characters.
This is why, at one point of WWE’s meteoric rise above WCW, it was half-jokingly said that Crash Holly was more over than anything in Dubya-C-Dubya. His likability start to get him over and WWE smartly put more and more gas on the Crash Holly fire.
Once upon a time, it was very easy to listen to the crowd and adjust creative accordingly. Now, it seems the adjustments are often made to stifle momentum, instead of enhancing it.
While that may sometimes be warranted – a wrestler may just not be ready to deliver on the backing he is receiving – the stifling of a wrestler’s rise is usually counter-intuitive. Not to mention, counter-productive.
The live crowd not only signals its own approval (by popping or booing), but it also influences the approval of the TV audience, in the same way a sitcom audience enhances the experience of a “Friends” or “Seinfeld“. Jokes, even entire characters and storylines can be put over the moon with the right crowd reaction.
But what happens when, for as much as you cheer, the office has other plans? What happens when you chant for your guy until you’re blue in the face, and the office still doesn’t budge?
By negating the crowd, WWE may be sucking away their enthusiasm. Furthermore, WWE may also be negating the rise of promising stars.
It did so to Zack Ryder, who eventually became fodder for Cena, Kane and Eve to step on. It did so to CM Punk, who was fed to Triple H at the height of his popularity.
In both cases, WWE stifled a ridiculous amount of momentum with business decisions that ultimately provided no real gain. Certainly no gain that justified putting Ryder’s momentum below sea level or seriously jeopardizing Punk’s.
By often refusing to give the ball to the crowd’s chosen ones in favor of its own hand-picked prospects, WWE negates the most basic of wrestling’s business culture: striking while the iron is hot.
SOLUTION: test iron’s temperature. If hot, then STRIIIKE!
6. WWE’s Flaws are Multiplied Exponentially by the Quantity of Content it’s Putting Out
Guy Kawasaki, one of the world’s most popular keynote speakers about entrepreneurship, often remarks:
“If you suck and go short, that’s okay. If you’re great and go long, that’s okay. But if you suck and go long that’s like being arrogant and stupid.”
Let’s say we agree that WWE’s product right now is less than stellar.
In all likelyhood, they would “suck” a lot less if they had a schedule similar to Impact Wrestling, Ring Of Honor or Lucha Underground.
WWE’s current TV schedule includes Raw, Smackdown, Total Divas, Tough Enough, with some countries also airing NXT, Experience and Superstars. That’s a combined maximum of 10 hours per week, which doesn’t even included everything else being pumped into the WWE Network.
There is just no way you can take a show:
– with mostly poorly-developed characters and storylines
– that frequently stifles its own roster when they do start to develop
– doesn’t necessarily listen to the “voice of the people”
– aims to please demographics with little to no overlapping interests when it comes to their wrestling content
… and expect 2-3 hours of good, solid content… Much less 10!
But, just like the bus in Speed, there is no stopping WWE’s content bus. They are paid millions for it and, for the moment, ratings (despite the decay) are trumping quality. I know, it doesn’t bode well. You feel like doing this:
By Triple H’s own admission on the Stone Cold Podcast, the 3rd hour of Raw is insanely more difficult to write. But what do you do once the bus is in motion? You can’t just call the USA Network and cancel the 3rd hour of Raw. There’s so much money on the line.
Well, you tighten the writing.
Any half-decent screenwriter can tell you the ins and outs of character and storyline arcs. Any half-decent promoter realizes listening to said writers is a proposition at least worth considering.
Finally, allow me to inform you that FREE SHIPPING.