Dec 9, 2019
Rusev, Lana, and Bobby Lashley on Monday Night Raw
Since the middle of October, I’ve been watching wrestling as a fan.
Not a critic.
No podcasts, Facebook posts, or articles on the subject. Just occasional Tweets, some of which get deleted as quickly as they’re unleashed because the old adage, “If you don’t have anything nice to say…” plays in my mind afterward.
And while I do have some nice things to say, they’re so few and lacking in passion that I’m not inclined to say them. What I’ve discovered in watching WWE and AEW “as a fan” the past few months (the way wrestling’s staunchest defenders would have me watch), is that wrestling television just isn’t very…good.
Not “good” in the way I’d judge any other weekly television show, at least.
Jon Moxley in AEW
This will come as no shock to most longtime WWE fans.
AEW fans are likelier to bristle at this idea because Dynamite is more watchable, fun, good-spirited, and consistently entertaining than RAW or SmackDown.
But, after the initial glow of the first few weeks faded, I started watching Dynamite as yet another wrestling show plagued with its own set of nonsensical problems. Because I so desperately want to love every episode, when Dynamite fails, it stings tenfold. I’ve certainly not given up hope. It's so new and I'm happy to give it time to iron out some of its kinks...I just wish those kinks were new.
As a wrestling fan, I just never know if I’m going to get an amazing tag match between The Young Bucks and The Lucha Brothers or an overlong, goofy skit that I struggle to literally hear. The end result is a dissatisfying experience, which is no different than what I get when I watch “that other place”.
Speaking of “that other place”, I always know exactly what I’m getting on RAW & SmackDown: the same creative stagnation and systemic failures, interrupted by brief flashes of hope that are just as quickly extinguished by yet another terrible booking decision.
The Fiend in WWE
So, after watching wrestling like a fan for a few months, I’ve come away asking, “How is this any better?” If anything, it's been worse.
And this is coming from someone who WWE & AEW actually caters to - not someone who they claim to cater to and don’t.
Perhaps this is just wrestling, I often wonder.
Perhaps wrestling inherently doesn’t lend itself to the kind of consistent quality I can easily find on HBO, Hulu, Netflix, Amazon Prime and, most recently, Disney Plus.
Perhaps due to wrestling’s hodgepodge construction - a blend of improve, skit, theater, and athletics - it will inevitably be hit & miss within the confines of any television presentation, be it one or five hours long. Perhaps the only way wrestling can ever be “actually good” is when viewed in its natural habitat: live at the theater, gymnasium, studio, or arena.
Clever as that explanation seems, I’m inclined to think it’s an excuse born out of years of unnecessarily terrible television. We want to like wrestling, after all. It makes sense that we would stretch our brains into a pretzel to make it "okay" to like it.
The idea that in order to fully enjoy wrestling we have to fundamentally redefine our evaluation of “good” and grade wrestling on its very own little curve is, itself, disrespectful to the art.
It’s true that we evaluate artistic mediums according to their particular set of principles and established structures, in addition to a broader understanding of “quality”. For example, you don’t judge a Taylor Swift song according to what makes for a good episode of Law & Order. Music and television are different mediums and present different aesthetic considerations. But both may achieve their desired emotional responses using the tools of their respective mediums, and so both may be judged as “good” or “effective”.
But does that mean I’m supposed to judge pro-wrestling with an understanding that hokey shit is a part of pro-wrestling?
That’s the implication of grading weekly wrestling shows on their very own little curves.
The Librarians in AEW
It’s okay if it’s sometimes stupid and bad because wrestling is inherently sometimes stupid and bad.
While some reading this may respond with an enthusiastic, “Yes!”, I’m still not there, even after years of watching as both fan and critic. A part of me still believes wrestling can be good in the same way other shows are good.
I can’t think my way to a state of mind where the illogic, self-congratulatory idiocy, and sexism of the Lana/Rusev/Lashley angle isn’t profoundly unwatchable television. This is what accounts for my persistent hesitation in admitting I’m a wrestling fan to anyone (notice I used the word “admit”). When I see Lashley and Lana locking lips on stage or Kenny Omega lifting tiny weights or I hear Lawler’s problematic cracks on commentary or I can’t even hear Chris Jericho or I’m told to follow a wrestler on Twitter to really get a sense of their gimmick, I’m just embarrassed.
I’m embarrassed by wrestling’s low opinion of itself and, by extension, wrestling’s low opinion of me.
I don’t believe I should have to make peace with the fact that WWE and AEW are allowed to be objectively poor from time to time, so that I’m then able to have a subjectively pleasant experience. This is not the same realistic philosophy as, “Everyone has a bad week from time to time”. This is the unrealistic philosophy that wrestling somehow exists outside every logical metric for evaluating art.
I also wonder, why is this such a widespread view?
Vince McMahon of WWE
Wrestling is erroneously slotted into the “it’s so bad it’s good” sub-genre of entertainment. This is one of the many reasons it doesn't evolve.
I’d be more inclined to accept the idea that wrestling is “so bad it’s good” if it was actually good at being “so bad it’s good”.
But, more often than not, weekly wrestling shows are just plain bad - as in fundamentally not entertaining in any capacity.
Further preventing wrestling’s ability to successfully attain the status of “so bad it’s good”, is how often it's “so good it’s good!”
Wrestling fans are forced to frame each moment of a wrestling show in their mind according to a set of values that justifies its existence. If a segment is stupid...well that's just the stupid segment tonight. If a segment is great...that's the make-good for that stupid segment earlier. While wrestling fans are more than capable of navigating this ever-winding quality-dynamic, I contend it puts undue strain on their fandom.
There is no: I'm sitting down to watch wrestling because it's good and I like it and this is going to satisfy me from start to finish.
The medium, as reflected by those in charge of it, very much wants to have its trashy cake and its gourmet cake and eat them simultaneously. And it expects fans to just be okay with that - to allow for it and even defend it.
This is reflected in every weekly show’s inability to strike a consistent tone or level of quality. This is also reflected in a fanbase of diverging perspectives: some of whom genuinely enjoy the hokey bullocks and believe its intrinsic to the art, some of whom suffer through the hokey bullocks so as to get to the goods, and some of whom represent a mix of the two.
Then there are all those people (the majority of wrestling fans) who just aren’t watching because they’re tired of being embarrassed.
Cody "smashes" a throne with a sledge hammer in AEW
This is what I’ve learned over the past few months of watching wrestling "the way I’m meant to”:
it’s actually less fun.
Watching as a fan, at thirty-three, makes it even more difficult to justify watching when wrestling so rarely respects my intelligence and my emotional investments.
So, for me, in 2019 and presumably beyond, the only way to consistently watch weekly wrestling television…is as a critic.
Watching as a critic allows us to supplement the lack of weekly wrestling’s creativity with our own. It allows us to engage our mind on any level, in a way the shows naturally do not (or can’t for longer than a few weeks). We’re free to fantasy book, deconstruct angles, and offer our takes with a wider community. This allows us to connect with…anything.
Ideally, it wouldn’t be this way, but wrestling has created these circumstances by failing to deliver what fans need.
Consider the end of the quality-spectrum that successfully slots into the “so bad it’s good” sub-genre (E! celebrity docu-series, reality TV competitions, Bravo franchises, CW teen-melodramas, etc). All of these shows actually deliver their promised experiences. Even if such shows are graded on their own curve, they consistently offer a unified fanbase exactly what that fanbase seeks.
Wrestling does not do this.
Real Housewives fans don't threaten to #CancelTheNetwork when an episode doesn't deliver. They just discuss what happened on the episode...because it did deliver. When TV gives the audience what they want, it doesn't leave room for doubt. It doesn't result in social media campaigns or outrage - it just inspires fun dialogue and good ratings.
SmackDown's new set after transitioning to Fox
The wrestling medium has not considered the affect of its “sometimes wrestling is just stupid” ethos.
It’s considered even less how that concept is at odds with its other deeply held belief, “Don’t disrespect wrestling by calling it fake.”
Wrestling has failed to reconcile these contradictory philosophies, all the while failing to realize which perspective is more beneficial to its longterm health.
The idea that “sometimes wrestling is just stupid” is rooted in the past.
It’s rooted in wrestling’s insecurity, a holdover from a bygone era when wrestlers had to ("for a shoot") beat up a fan who challenged the legitimacy of their “sport”. It’s a perspective that’s completely out of step with an entertainment landscape offering instantly accessible excellence and highly personalized experiences that satisfy diverse audiences.
"Sometimes wrestling is just stupid" also assumes that wrestling fans believe in kayfabe.
So when wrestling is just stupid, it’s not as though we think it's an accident.
Pro-wrestling would be wise to consider that, to question the value of “popping the boys”.
If it doesn’t, it risks playing to a house of empty seats.