Heroes and Villains: Planning for the Future

Hi. Running a fever, girlfriend out of town for a month (she’s a fellow grad student, and is on a research trip), a heap of grading to do…. Hope you all appreciate this column, which I’ve (metaphorically) walked through eight feet of polar bear-ridden snow to deliver into Widro’s hands. Well, not really. I’m feeling under the weather and I’m pretty sad to be alone (sort of–my cat’s here with me), but it’s really not that much effort to write this column. I mean, sometimes I’m running late and have to bust ass to get it done in time, but it’s never the hardest thing I have to do in any given week. And as I’ve said before, I like the written version of the sound of my own voice too much to miss a week.

Okay. The last three (actually four) weeks:
1. Ideas, concepts, etc., which wrestling has historically been unable to get right.
2. Ideas, concepts, etc., which wrestling has historically got right.
3. Ideas, concepts, etc., which wrestling writers should try out.
This is part four, in which I’ll try to explain why these three previous columns matter.

GOOD ENOUGH ISN’T GOOD ENOUGH ANYMORE

Way back when I submitted the original idea for Heroes and Villains to Ross Williams (drop us a line if you’re reading, Ross!), I proposed that this be a weekly analysis of issues of character development in wrestling. Well, over the course of its short existence, this column has evolved into something more like a look at the mechanics of wrestling as a form of expression/art (most weeks, at least–sometimes I go the current events route). During this time, I’ve returned again and again to one theme: the evolution of the business from a simulated sport with relatively few narrative trappings into the very complicated thing we watch every week.

Not everyone has embraced this change (even if they are too young to actually remember this earlier era of wrestling). There are some folks out there who think wrestling is best when it is simplest. This is a seductive argument. There is something pure about watching two guys just, you know, wrestling. This is the appeal of Ring of Honor, at least to some extent: it’s a pure, primal experience.*

Well, except it’s not so simple. Part of what makes ROH so entertaining is the personas of its wrestlers. Yeah, so Brian Danielson isn’t exactly a fount of charisma (more than offset by his general awsomeness in the ring), but most of the guys in that promotion have clear personalities that add an extra dimension of fun to their matches. Would CM Punk, Steve Corino, Homicide, Lo Ki, or Christopher Daniels be nearly so entertaining without their well-developed (and well-executed) ring personas? So, clearly, it’s not quite as simple as wrestler A vs. wrestler B, even in a promotion that emphasizes the athletic side of wrestling. We enjoy a match more if we believe that wrestlers have more at stake than just a notch in the win or loss column.

Feuds are more fun to watch if we actually believe the two wrestlers hate each other. No one doubts that. But it’s not so simple–the hard work is in getting us to buy into wrestlers’ hatred for each other. Some wrestlers are good enough actors to make us buy into this with the simplest of storylines. Others aren’t. The writer’s job is to come up with an interesting, plausible reason for two wrestlers to hate one another. This is the very essence of a wrestling storyline. On some level, every angle, feud, vignette, promo, and interview must convince us that two wrestlers have an issue. Maybe they don’t hate each other–maybe the feud is based on respect or something. But there has to be some reason for us to believe that these two people want to put their health and pride on the line and fight each other.

Title belts are a useful tool for accomplishing this.** Of course these two guys want to fight–they both want to be world champion! After that, things get a little tougher. Sometimes writers and bookers turn to the fairer sex to establish a reason for two characters to hate one another. Mixed results there, if you ask me. Other times they use a tag team break up to launch a new feud. The success of this approach depends on how much fans cared about the team. Sometimes feuds originate from a single action in a random match–wrestler A hits wrestler B with a particularly gruesome German suplex (kind of like RVD on Dupree last Thursday). Or maybe A taunts B, or cheats to win. Wrestler B wants revenge. Tensions escalate. I like this approach, but there are a finite number of possibilities here.

In recent years, writers have had to come up with more and more reasons for feuds to start. With so many PPVs and weekly television shows, there’s a lot of time to fill up. As a result, we’ve had to witness some downright wacky feuds over the past few years. The two most infamous examples are probably the Kane-Jericho feud of 2000 (occasioned by Jericho spilling coffee on Kane) and the Booker T-Edge feud of 2002 (a dispute over a Japanese shampoo commercial). These angles inspired revulsion and hand wringing from the IWC. Rightly so. These are just not compelling reasons for two men to fight each other, let alone hate each other.

* Hey Goforth fans! Be on the lookout for my reviews of ROH: Reborn Stage Two and the 2 Cold Scorpio shoot DVD. On Inside Pulse, naturally.

** This isn’t to say that belts are, you know, props. To treat them as such is bad for two reasons. First, the world title should be the glue that holds a promotion together. Everyone should be want the title, even if they have no realistic chance of getting it. This is what brings these people together every week, and it’s what makes us care whether they win or lose. Second, the world title actually means a lot to wrestlers (some of them anyway) in the real world. Chris Benoit’s celebration with Eddie Guerrero at Wrestlemania XX will probably be the defining moment of his career. It would be foolish to diminish the prestige of a title that means so much to one’s employees.

NEW WAYS

If the WWE is to remain entertaining, its writers must put more thought into why these feuds are developing. Neither show is giving us compelling reasons to believe that wrestlers hate each other. They’re getting lazy. Now that there are multiple titles on each show, writers have been content to let the prestige of the belts drive many storylines (the problem being that the prestige of some of these titles is completely conceptual). On Smackdown they’ve let the dominance of HHH and Evolution drive the majority of the storylines– the only feud not in the shadow of Evolution is the Wagnerian Kane/Lita/Hardy/Snitsky epic. Smackdown is doing a little better. London/Kidman has been a ton of fun, and the likely Booker T/JBL feud* looks somewhat promising (even if the outcome is foregone to all but the densest fans). However, the growing prominence of Kurt Angle and his stable of hosses is threatening to replicate the situation on Raw. Is it any wonder that ratings, buyrates, and basically everything but DVD sales are stagnating?

We don’t need any more high concept feuds. Clarity is more important than cleverness. At the same time, the same old crap isn’t going to cut it either. WWE writers need to take the time to look over the most and least successful angles over the course of the year.** I think they’ll find that the most successful stories were the ones which left us guessing–which gave us something we don’t see every month. Intrigue is hard to manufacture, however. How can the WWE make their angles more interesting?

The easiest way to garner interest in a story is to make it relevant to the audience. That’s not the same thing as showing the mundane details of everyday life. I don’t want to see Kane shopping at the grocery store. I have no interest in seeing Hurricane argue with his roommates over the long distance bill. But I do have some interest in seeing allegories relevant to my life. I am interested in seeing wrestlers deal with the problems of loneliness and isolation. I’m interested in an angle about the dangers of strict adherence to tradition. And there are plenty of other themes out there, ripe for the taking: redemption, defeatism, confusion, youthful enthusiasm. These are all more complicated than the staid revenge theme which has dominated wrestling angles. Not that there’s anything wrong with revenge; it’s just that it loses its bite when it’s the cause of every feud.

I would suggest that WWE writers should choose a theme for every feud they program. I think they should do this as soon as they make the decision of who’s feuding; in fact, choosing a theme might even precede choosing participants for a storyline. I think Vince McMahon should support this approach; in fact, I think he should insist upon it. McMahon seems to have given up on chasing the next big fad (current forays into reality television aside). The focus should now be on crafting quality programming in order to cement the loyalty of the existing fanbase. Well written feuds will lead to more PPV buys. Programming a new wrestler in a good angle will increase interest in this wrestler–which leads to greater DVD and merchandise sales. And most importantly, producers of quality programming are rewarded with word of mouth from satisfied viewers. This isn’t always enough to save a show from cancellation, but this is hardly a concern for the WWE. Put on good shows and the viewers will come back, probably sooner rather than later.

* Admission of (potential) wrongitude dept: A couple of weeks ago I predicted that Big Show would win the title from JBL as a transition champ (with Angle winning it soon after). Looks like that won’t be the case, based on last week’s Smackdown and recent house show lineups. I guess it’s still possible that JBL will drop the title to a transition champ, Booker T in this case. I really hope this doesn’t end up happening, cause the WWE title can’t afford to be any further devalued. JBL is a lot more respectable of a champ today than he was a couple of months ago, but the belt is worth a whole hell of a lot less than when Eddie won it from Brock Lesnar. I like Booker T; I’d like to see him get the belt at some point in his WWE career. But giving the belt to a guy with lukewarm heat (Booker) after an extended run by another guy with less-than-scalding heat (JBL) is going to make the WWE belt look like the WCW belt, circa 2000. Still, I really doubt that Vince McMahon will want to give Booker T the belt, what with Book’s repeated announcements of a pending retirement. Should be an interesting feud, even if the outcome is a foregone conclusion.

** Yes, this does beg the question of how to objectively determine what constitutes a successful angle. I don’t have a definitive answer, but we’d probably want to look at buyrates and television ratings, with an eye for positive and negative trends. A successful angle will also elevate the status of participants. So writers might also want to determine which angles were instrumental in propelling an also-ran midcarder into upper midcard status. Here’s an example: the Christian-Jericho-Stratus sex bet angle really did a lot for all three participants. I’d call that a pretty successful angle, even if it didn’t really affect buyrates that much.

DAVID MELTZER PRESENTS STABBING ISSUES

Listened to Dave Meltzer’s show this week. I always enjoy WOL, but I rarely find time for it. It’s just hard to find something productive to do while you’re listening to it–I usually end up playing solitaire or something. But this week I had some clerical-type grading work that I could do without that much active thought. So it was a good week to listen, especially since Mick Foley was the guest.

I guess there were three particularly interesting things to come out of the show this week. First of all, Mick Foley confirmed that he’ll be doing a talk radio show soon. I’m not sure if this is a done deal or not–at times he talked like it was, but I also thought I understood him to say it’s not in cement yet. I’ve really grown to appreciate Foley more over the past year. The “Greatest Hits and Misses” DVD got slagged a good bit when it came out earlier this year, but I really enjoyed it. I don’t listen to much talk radio myself, but Foley would be a good addition to the growing liberal talk radio movement. Foley’s got this really honest air to him–he always seems to tell it like it is. He also mentioned that Chris Nowinski is even further to the left than him. Could it be that the Nowinski-Steiner debate over Iraq was a shoot? Steiner seemed to be speaking from the heart (or the pituitary gland, as the case may be), and Harvard Chris presumably opposed the war in real life. I wonder what else Nowinki might have done, had fate not cruelly intervened.

The second interesting piece of news came real early in the show, when Bryan Alvarez, Bruce Mitchell, and Meltzer discussed the retirement of Pat Patterson. Meltzer and crew speculated (as opposed to reported) that Patterson might have used the HHH affair as a way to get out of the company. It’s interesting–Meltz, Alvarez, and Mitchell rightly pointed out that Patterson surely knew the consequences of criticizing HHH. But why burn your bridges? Why leave on a sour note, when you can just retire gracefully? Could it be that Patterson wanted to send a lesson to McMahon–that he’s surrounded by yes men? Whatever the reason for Patterson’s odd departure, you have to think Sylvain Grenier is a little worried right now.

Meanwhile, Vince McMahon is looking to send Raw (and possibly all the other shows) to another network. The WOL tribunal seemed to agree that McMahon will succeed in getting more money for the television package. Now you can credit this to McMahon’s business savvy–and I think there’s probably some truth to that. However, I think the real factor at work here is the fracture of American mass culture. Ratings are down for everything across the board. There are just too many entertainment choices out there–hundreds of cable/satellite channels, DVDs, video games, the internet…and cable-on-demand is probably only a couple of years away from ubiquity. That consistent 3.0 rating is going to look awfully good to a lot of cable networks in a couple of years. Hell, if might even look good to one of the big four broadcast networks in a couple of years. The question is whether that 3.0 will hold up over time. Will you still tune in to Raw every week after video games get even more addictive, cable channels become more specified to your particular interests, or the internet becomes even more tempting (as if that’s possible…)? Here’s an even tougher question for Vince: will you choose to watch the HHH of 2006 when you can buy a DVD compiling the best of Raw 2000 (or order it on demand from your cable company)?

The future of entertainment is going to fundamentally transform the mechanics of the pro wrestling industry. It might not even survive. It might become a niche market which we will have to pay dearly to partake in. How will the WWE build for the future while it’s encouraging its fans to look to the past via DVD releases? How much would you pay for access to a wrestling channel? Would you pay $30 a month if it was the only way to see wrestling on American television? These are all vital questions which we can’t possibly answer right now–all we can do is make clumsy predictions based on imperfect evidence. In the meantime, it looks like the WWE will be doing okay financially for at least a few more years.

NON WRESTLING RELATED MATERIAL

I’ve always been a fan of Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch. Don’t much care for the other varieties–I just want a peanut buttery breakfast cereal. I was greatly disappointed by Reese’s Puffs–not nearly enough PB taste. Unfortunately, Peanut Butter Cap’n Crunch is frequently prohibitively expensive (for me, at least). Well friends, let me let you in on a well-kept secret: the best peanut butter cereal available in the United States today is Peanut Butter Toast Crunch, part of the Cinnamon Toast Crunch line of cereals. It’s way more intense of a peanut butter taste, and it’s cheaper than Cap’n Crunch (at least where I bought it). Tasty stuff.

PLUGGERY

It’s about time I devoted a whole plugs section to the folks in my home, the wrestling section. Here it is.

Hevia has my back, with regard to email correspondents and former wrestlers aspiring to the title of journalist. Thanks Dan.

I’ve never plugged Jed before. That’s borderline perverse, since we started writing for 411 at the same time. I think I’ve got Jed beat in total number of columns, but I’m pretty sure he’s the word count champ.

As always, Gordi deserves a plug, doesnÃ?á¢??t he? If there’s any doubt, check out his interview with Matt Bourne. Gordi, you do count as a journalist.

And Eric recaps a show I never really quit watching and another show I never started watching. Seriously, is anyone excited about TNA anymore?

NEXT WEEK….

Another reader-inspired column, as I’ll examine the issue of continuity in wrestling. Is good continuity a necessity for good shows or a liability preventing new fans from understanding the product? I don’t have the definitive answer, but I’ve got a few ideas.