Professional wrestling is a storyteller’s medium.
Case in point: I spent my middle school years running a fictional wrestling federation on the internet, writing out extensive recaps of fictionalized wrestling events complete with matches, promos, and everything else in between. Using a combination of real WWE wrestlers and characters of my own making, I saw the world of professional wrestling as a place to explore my creativity (and, given the length of many of these pieces, teach myself how to type). None of these documents have survived, at least as far as I am aware, but I remember one particular pay-per-view I wrote was something like 70 pages long, an early sign of my long-winded nature.
This notion of fantasy storytelling remains quite common within the space of professional wrestling, enabled by programs such as Extreme Warfare and often influenced by frustration with the WWE and other available products. Extreme Warfare has no actual wrestling, instead putting the user in control of who wins, who fights whom, and how much time is given over to promos, etc. The user becomes the “booker,” the person responsible for deciding which stories to tell, which wrestlers to push or bury, and what kind of product they will sell to their virtual audiences. For any wrestling fan who has been frustrated with a booking decision (which is likely every wrestling fan in existence), fictional federations and simulators were a way to take over the role of storyteller and imagine a more satisfying narrative experience.
Earlier this week, one particular booking decision (which is airing tonight on WWE Smackdown) set off a firestorm of controversy within a subsection of professional wrestling viewers, and one of those viewers has taken an honestly fascinating step. Jeff Katz, a Hollywood producer, has started a Kickstarter campaign to create a tightly-serialized wrestling program that eschews the 52-week model of the WWE entirely. Specifically comparing it to shows like Dexter and The Wire, Katz is arguing that what wrestling needs isn’t just better decision-making, but an entirely different storytelling model which offers a beginning, a middle, and an end.
Katz has given the project 90 days to raise $100,000, and I find this whole idea to be incredibly fascinating. However, I’m not sure that Katz has provided any clear image of just what this “Wrestling Revolution” might look like. While he throws around a lot of comparisons that would excite fans of serious drama, and suggests that is what the WWE would be if it were written by Shawn Ryan, I have my doubts about whether professional wrestling is conducive to the kinds of stories he is imagining (and which I imagined back when I was a teenager).
I have to admit that there is something about Katz’s pitch which gives me pause. It sounds like a tremendous idea, but I think that he’s playing with two elements of the cable drama which are not necessarily equally suited to professional wrestling.
I am intrigued by the notion of the 12-episode structure, which seems like a good way to address some of the storytelling concerns inherent to the WWE (which includes booking on the fly, for example, with little advance lead time), but I wonder if this kind of advance planning is even possible in an industry with such concerns over injuries. What would happen if someone was injured over the course of the season? How would they protect against the “reality” of professional wrestling and its physical nature interrupting their planned story arcs? Would there be elaborate contingencies in place, with backup wrestlers on call and alternate storylines planned? And if they were forced to adjust storylines on the fly, wouldn’t that make them just the same as the WWE all over again? The idea of telling contained storylines is nice, but there is a reality to even the fake world of professional wrestling that would challenge such advance planning (which is at least part of why the WWE doesn’t commit to such complex storylines).
Another reason, I would argue, is that the talent themselves are likely not able to pull off the kind of meaningful thematic work that Katz seems to be suggesting in his comparisons to The Wire or Dexter. I can think of very few professional wrestlers who could be seen as convincing actors, and I have to wonder just who Katz imagines as part of this organization: would the importance of story result in hiring actors who can pass as wrestlers, or wrestlers who could pass as actors? And would a small organization like this one be capable of finding people talented in both of these roles? I would readily believe that there are a lot of talented wrestlers out there who are unable to break through into the big leagues, as it were, but are they capable of handling storylines of such complexity?
In other words, as someone who loved to imagine more complex and consistent wrestling stories as a teenager, I question what happens when you take that principle and apply it to real wrestlers who have to actually sell those stories. I remember that Extreme Warfare had ways of building in these kinds of logistics, with some wrestlers getting injured and others proving ill-suited to particular storylines, but there were no stakes: here, there are real stakes involving real people, and that raises a whole other set of questions abut this kind of storytelling revolution. I don’t think these logistical concerns are incapable of addressed, but they’re conspicuous in their absence in Katz’s pitch: it’s a wrestling federation without wrestlers, an empty dream more dependent on execution than on concept, and I have to wonder which the would-be investors (who have their money refunded if their goal isn’t met in ninety days) are investing in.
A larger question, though, is whether wrestling narratives are something that people are willing to take seriously. What’s always struck me about wrestling fan culture is that the federations with more indie credibility (and which are considered more pure representations of the “art form”) are those which actually pay less attention to story: something like Ring of Honor sells itself on the quality of its wrestlers rather than the complexity of its storylines, while Japanese wrestling is (from my experience) sold based on physical prowess and technical skill more than on complex characters. Part of this is because these federations blur the line between the real and the fake by largely avoiding those parts of wrestling which are clearly marked as fictional, but Katz’s federation plans to embrace those wholeheartedly while offering a more serious take on the material.
While Katz suggests that his main issue is with the narrative structure of the WWE’s programming, in one tweet he raises the oft-made comparison with a particularly maligned genre:
By evoking soap opera, Katz is continuing a common discourse in which the maligned daytime genre is used to help explain the poor acting and sensationalist storylines associated with the WWE product. However, what is it that separates a show like Dexter from a soap opera, exactly? Certainly the number of episodes is part of it, and there the comparison works with Katz’s model: by condensing storytelling, a more satisfying narrative arc can be established. But considering that daytime soap operas represent the model for the intense serialization of shows like Dexter, I would argue that the real difference between the two programs is in tone and production value: plenty of soap operas have introduced serial killers, but they’ve never been willing to go quite so dark, and they don’t have the money or the time to create the kind of moody, nuanced narrative offered to a premium cable network like Showtime.
That is not the story of the Wrestling Revolution. Whereas Dexter is a high concept backed by millions of dollars, the Wrestling Revolution is a crowd-sourced federation born out of fan frustration. As compelling as this idea might be, and as much as Katz seems to be dedicated to this cause, and as much as this says something important about how fans feel they are being treated by the WWE, is it truly feasible for the model of serialized dramas to be merged with a choreographed yet unpredictable “art form” with complex fan structures which are known for snarkiness as much as loyalty?
I do not know the answer to this question, but Katz’s model is certainly something to watch. I think the notion of fans serving as “owners” through Kickstarter is a great way to encourage their participation and involvement, and fits with the sense of “ownership” that fans feel they had over ECW and other upstart promotions. Similarly, the move towards online streaming seems important in an era where so many fans are watching Raw and other programs on YouTube, meaning that this might actually be feasible on an economic level as well.
It is entirely possible that we will never see the Wrestling Revolution come to fruition, at which point much of the above speculation will prove moot. However, I am always fascinated by discussions of narrative form in television, and to see that extended to an industry as entrenched as professional wrestling has demonstrated some interesting things about the place of serialization within popular culture – regardless of the project’s success or failure, that this discussion is being had at all should prove an interesting talking point among those fans Katz is counting on to make his dream their own.
- I don’t know if I linked to these for my regular blog readers at all, but I’ve been dabbling in commenting on wrestling online for the first time in a decade over at The A.V. Club, where I reviewed an episode of Monday Night Raw and USA Network’s Tough Enough (which I feel has improved considerably since the premiere).
- In trying to think of the WWE storyline that seemed like it might be an example of what Katz is talking about, nothing immediately came to mind. I’m sure there are some great examples out there, though, so any wrestling fans who want to offer them please feel free.