There has perhaps been no more consistently inventive or enjoyable television in the past 15 years than World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship shows Raw and Smackdown.
In what other programme would an Olympic gold medallist spray milk at his opponents out of a fire hose and another week perform a 'moonsault' from 15 feet off the ground? In what other show would the millionaire owner and his family participate as fearless fighters and offer themselves up as the chief villains of the piece? In what other show would you find the most childish of behaviour and the most brutal of beatdowns?
It is funny, clever and exciting. Most importantly it is ridiculous.
Professional wrestling is one hell of an odd bird. If a limousine is dropped from a crane, we could call it Action. If two enemies mock each other, Comedy. If a daughter slaps a mother, we call it Soap Opera. It is more often than not lazy and imprecise to diagnose genres, especially if the art in question isn't trying to follow or break conventions. The WWE isn’t a mishmash of types. It reminds you of other and varied things (Saturday Night Live, Dallas, anything and everything) but it is its own thing. There really is nothing like it.
North American professional wrestling (as opposed to Japanese professional wrestling, which goes without storyline set-ups, albeit retaining character styles and types) is fundamentally about so-called feuds, compelling confrontations over honour or ego or title belts. These rivalries are the bread-and-butter of the WWE (the finest of all wrestling organisations) and even extend to the snide banter between commentators who will sometimes side with particular competitors. For feuds, the build-up is as important as the fight that takes place in the ring. These are the speeches (promos), the challenges, the interviews, the backstage sketches that create personality and motivation. Resentment, rage, disdain, negative chemistry. Hype.
The WWE avails itself of many different tones and colours; types of humour, of character, of plot or of match.
There are hard-hitting brawls with very little complication or variation of 'moves'. Then there are intricate tussles that involve speed, holds, a repertoire of moves and counter-moves that are amateur wrestling (in which a few wrestlers have a grounding) sprinkled with gold-dust.
The first kind are more 'fights', so to speak, and can degenerate into ultra-violent encounters (often sanctioned as 'no disqualification' matches) involving sledgehammers and steel chairs, ludicrous considering this is meant to be a real organisation with real rules. In these matches intelligence is used to be sly or underhand or vicious. The second kind is often known as 'technical' and intelligence here is knowing how to get the upper hand with a flick of a wrist, the flip of a body or a perfectly applied submission hold. These are more 'believable' as true battles for supremacy.
There are spectacular moments in the ring too - leaps off the top rope, a ladder, or onto the perennially cursed, and crushed, Spanish Announce Table. A good mixture of these in-ring ingredients, as with those outside, makes for a satisfying two-hour programme.
The WWE doesn't want for creativity or fantasy. The Undertaker has made a habit of 'dying' and then rising again and Mick Foley played three characters (Mankind, Cactus Jack and Dude Love). Once two of them discussed whether the third, Cactus, should emerge from the shared psyche. In the past couple of years the dashing and narcissistic Cody Rhodes has suffered a broken nose and, believing himself hideous, shuns the camera's gaze. Elsewhere CM Punk has led a Straight-Edge Society to save people from the dangers of drink and drugs. The entire roster has recently been menaced too by the Nexus, a group of rookie wrestlers who announced their wish to rule the WWE by dismantling the ring and anyone who would stand against them ("You're either Nexus or against us").
A few years ago the WWE began to take the edge of its violence (no blood), profanity and provocation. Thankfully the dirty side (going as far as necrophilia and hanging in their two darkest hours) has been washed away with a new commitment to a PG certificate. Intensity of combat and pushing the envelope artistically need not entail cussing, sex and gore. Going specifically after a younger fanbase should eventually help creatively as well as financially; restrictions are the mother of invention.
There are many elements that need to convince and work in harmony to put across such wild concepts as WWE offers. The person striking or speaking needs his opponent to 'sell' surprise or anger towards words or appropriate physical discomfort towards blows, just like in any drama or fiction on television. You won't look good unless the person you are fighting wants you to. The commentary team must do justice to the larger-than-life goings on, to imprint them in our minds as incredible ("Oh my GAWD!") and credible ('he's focusing on the injured right knee'). The live crowd, in fact, plays the biggest part of all with cheers, boos, signs, shock and the accumulated energy they bring to the arena. If we see people excited then we will be too.
The crowd is both audience and performer (unscripted, even if they know their role) for the second audience sitting at home.
The men and women who perform in the WWE are athletes, actors, choreographers and creators of personas with distinct backgrounds, ideologies, catchphrases and gimmicks. Professional wrestling in its mainstream American guise is the craft of an all-round entertainer. It is the craft of an athlete training and preparing not for competition with others but, with the same dedication, preparing to meet the demands of themselves, their audience and their art.
No matter how much you work to minimise injury, the almost daily trans-American schedule is punishing on the body and the mind. This toll has been blamed in some parts for a couple of high profile tragedies that have befallen wrestlers in the past decade. It takes courage. Things can go wrong. Fake or not, the human body remains flesh and bone.
Some of the performers are best in the ring. Some are better at talking. Some are better at telling a story non-verbally, of nuancing a physical and emotional dynamic in the ring. Some shine at being mean, some at being heroic. The trait that most characters share is arrogance. They think they deserve a shot at success, they think they're the smartest, the coolest. the most righteous.
A number of these personas cleave closely to the person at their heart. Several of the storylines of corporate machinations or of love or of poisonous grudges originate in the real. The actual purchase of WCW by WWE owner Vince McMahon was dramatised and spun, with his son Shane buying it from under him out of spite. Conversely, stories can bleed off-screen and outside the fictional sphere. Triple H and Stephanie McMahon were married in the show and then subsequently fell in love and wed in real life (they are still married in the show too). In the past few months CM Punk, rumoured to be annoyed at how he was being treated by management and dissatisfied with the direction the company was taking, was allowed the freedom to give an in-story speech bemoaning the self-same things.
When you buy a Rey Mysterio or Stone Cold Steve Austin toy, you are buying a character and a real person all at once. When you buy a toy Thor, you aren't in the same way purchasing Chris Hemsworth along with a Norse God.
Indeed, performers have been known to get caught up in their personas to the extent that they are reluctant to, or downright refuse to, relinquish a title (let's not forget that success in the story is success and money for the 'actor'). How far an artistic persona represents the artist him or herself is a debate that causes much consternation and confusion. The line that separates the two is one that we sense and understand instinctively, taking into account the conventions of each genre.
There is a sliding scale. In some arts the two overlap more than others , at least according to unwritten rules. An actor is not attacked for his character's deeds. The ideas and viewpoints represented in a book may or may not be espoused by the writer unmediated. In music we feel that the persona is more transparent. Do rappers speak as themselves or are their lyrics filtered through a character? In the last case a defence of violent proclamations seems, rightly or wrongly, harder to make.
Professional wrestling plays with the balance and understanding of real/fiction and the WWE does this more brilliantly than any other television. As a matter of fact it exposes the extent to which real and fiction in these arenas and elsewhere are in opposition at all. If there is an accidental or a fleetingly purposeful revelation of that which cannot be fully understood or explained within the story-frame (known as Kayfabe) an audience educated in switching between viewership registers will easily put it to one side. Those who are curious about the world is put together or negotiated would consider behind-the-scenes and on-stage as forging a newer, stronger and more vital 'reality'.
This isn't like Moonlighting or The Simpsons (or Shakespeare's soliloquys, or the Marx Brothers) where characters break the fourth wall. The WWE is constantly giving and taking from the audience , seeing what absurdity it can get away with, adjusting plots as they are unfolding, skirting the myriad lines between too much and not enough.
The WWE shows how quickly we can put ourselves in a different place mentally - how very little square footage is needed to suspend disbelief. We can get involved with something that has only the surface of truth. That is all we need : a mask of pain, an expression of delight, the thud of the canvas. If it looks right, who can say it isn't?
Having said all that, constantly making oneself aware of the irreality of the contests does not make for greater enjoyment of the contests and tales at the core. It isn't clever to know that something fictional is fictional. Though it is interesting to dissect its creation (for essays such as this, for example) I doubt it does anybody any favours to constantly alienate oneself from the story in this way. You have to, or at least I have to, get 'into it'.
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In some circles Professional wrestling has been given 'legitimacy'. Roland Barthes and others compare it to ancient Greek theatre. Others say it is like a live-action cartoon. These essays can sometimes smack of cowardice. The writers clearly enjoy wrestling but can only laud it indirectly through more established and respected forms. Wrestling should not seek such dubious cachet.
Wrestling is still being attacked. They say "it's not real" or "it's a farce". The fact these criticisms exist shows that the world created by the WWE is more realistic and its artifice therefore more disquieting than other programmes or plays. Regardless, that no-one is actually trying to cause brain damage is a strange criticism.
Even in a fresher and younger incarnation the WWE has a grungy energy to it. It is slick, yes, but not antiseptic or anodyne. Other wrestling promotions are comparatively amateurish in terms of acting or camerawork even if they may occasionally surpass the WWE in wrestling quality (the lowlier organisations are called 'Indies', a bit like independent studios against WWE's Hollywood machine). The sets are impressive. Wrestlers enter to fireworks, a wall of big screens flashing out their entrance videos, speakers roaring with their theme tunes. John Morrison (the goofy and gymnastic 'rock star') comes out in slow motion while Mexican jumping bean (the Mexican 'luchador' style of wrestling is high-flying and acrobatic) Sin Cara fights in a dimmed mysterious blue light.
The WWE leads the field with their video packages. Montages are used to summarise a feud or a story and whet the appetite for the coming final showdowns on Pay-Per-View. These two/three minute trailers are superbly edited and rarely fail to make the so-so epic. With the quality of film trailers in decline the employees of the WWE are simply the best in the business:
The company structures its product along the lines of genuine sports. It has a hierarchy of belts and titles. There are marquee events like the majors of golf or tennis Grand Slams (such as Wrestlemania, Summerslam, Survivor Series). The way the calendar is arranged to peak at PPVs gives a satisfying rhythm of ups and downs.
For all its spangly ostentation and insolence, Professional Wrestling can actually make boxing (from which it takes a few of its modes of confrontation) or mixed martial arts look silly. Why? Because something that is surreal or unreal can digest a lot of hype. Hype in real fights, with people going out to hurt each other, is laughable and disturbing. They try to make the real into a film. Are all boxers deluded egomaniacs? They don't really want to decapitate others or eat their children. Yet they still act up to an image. Or just act up.
Because outcomes are pre-determined the WWE is not sport. It is true sport in another sense - play and trickery. They make harmless fun out of the spectacle of harm. The WWE is great entertainment : rib-tickling and rib-cracking. It is fantastic fun.