Photo via WWE.com
Editor's Note: Spare me the TLDR remarks, this is a great, insightful and fun read especially considering WWE's writing staff is full of former TV writers and not people with any kind of wrestling background. Now, more than ever, WWE Raw is more like an hour-long drama than a pseudo-sporting event.
With speculation rising over whether or not John Cena's actions at Extreme rules are worked or shot, I want to expand a little on a comment I made on that linked post. I'm an obsessive research hound, and something that interests me the most is the use of what are referred to as "tropes" - common devices used in various forms of storytelling, and that occasionally define things that happen in real life. Professional wrestling tends to use a lot of them, and has even defined a fair number of them according to TV Tropes. Sometimes, they're used well (example, numerous time when Defeating the Undefeatable has really meant something), and very often they're not done quite so well (just about any of Vince Russo's uses of the Twist Ending). But there's one trope that, until recently, didn't really pop up in pro wrestling, and its arrival serves both as a warning sign to those who love wrestling and (hopefully) a wake-up call to those who write and promote it.
Thanks to WWE's reality era, professional wrestling has entered the Uncanny Valley.
For those of you who aren't as obsessive over tropes as I am (or as addicted to TV Tropes for that matter), the Uncanny Valley effect boils down to this: the closer a creation comes to being lifelike (and this is usually used in refer to a construct's resemblance to a human), the more endearing it is...until the point where it's so close to life-like that something just seems off about it. Creepy, even. The Uncanny Valley is essentially the point where realism breaks down (temporarily, at least). You can push right past it and make something seem almost perfectly human/realistic, but it's a steeper climb to get out of the valley rather than just stay on the "sufficiently humanoid" side of it.
A sister trope to this is Reality is Unrealistic, where after having been exposed to fantastical things for so long, one can look at something perfectly plausible and refuse to believe it's real. This one also applies to this discussion, but for the purposes of simplicity, we'll get it out of the way quickly and focus on the real issue of the Uncanny Valley.
How do these tropes have anything to do with Lesnar/Cena, or professional wrestling in general? Two words, y'all: reality era.
The WWE is trying to make their stories more realistic, more grounded. Trying to make them seem plausible. Moreover, they're trying to work the internet by fueling the IWC's obsessive need for "insider information" and knowledge from out of "kayfabe". They're basically trying to rebuild kayfabe through deconstruction; the old ways are getting picked apart in favor of new stories that make a lot more sense than, say, Undertaker creating a blood cult. And while I admit that this can work (and in fact has in at least two instances), the Valley is still out there ready to be tumbled into (and with at least one storyline, it has been).
Let's take on Reality is Unrealistic for a second here: for years, we were bombarded with the weirdest things. Magical zombies with pyrokinetic half-brothers, movie-obsessed hyper-perverted transvestites, portals to Hell, leprechauns, a TARDIS-like under-ring area, hand babies, simulated necrophilia, and the Kiss My Ass Club. Oh, and occasional, tiny breaks in kayfabe (like the Chris Masters/Chris Mordesky thing during Bischoff's trial). So it is very possible that now that WWE is starting a era of more realistic storylines, the reason it's so confusing is because it's not what we've come to expect. We're used to over-the-top, never-happen-in-real-life situations. We're used to people getting fired from their job, only to come back in a mask and go largely unnoticed for months at a time. Even so, this can be worked around easily; you can take realistic situations and easily crank them up to 11 and get something closer to the off-the-rails stuff we're used to seeing. But the Uncanny Valley requires a lot more care and attention to avoid by comparison.
Now, it's not to say that the Reality Era is a total Uncanny Valley. In fact, it's not. WWE has shown the capability to give us storylines that are actually on the other, harder-to-obtain side of the valley, the perfectly relate-able side. Allow me to provide a couple of examples.
When CM Punk started dropping pipe-bombs last summer, playing up his expiring contract and speaking out against the status quo, the Reality era technically began. And it was glorious. Kayfabe came crashing down, and there was one man saying what a good portion of the WWE Universe was thinking. And it worked, because the things CM Punk was saying made sense. Before executive meddling started to cool things off, the Summer of Punk Mark II was realistic, different, and good. Of course, it later started to devolve back into WWE's prior usual, but it nevertheless started the Reality Era the right way.
Punk even managed to be a part of a second and more recent feud that hit all the right notes. He and Chris Jericho (arguably two of the best assets WWE has right now) played off of Punk's well-known family history and reasons for being straight-edge, while still taking it over the top. And again, it worked in a two-fold manner. First, as mentioned, it was rooted in reality for Punk, playing off of the very thing that defines both his character and him as a person. Secondly, and most importantly for avoiding the Valley, it played off of a common issue. Alcoholism, especially alcoholism in the family, is a far-too-common problem, and odds are good that many fans out there could relate with Punk wanting to beat down the guy who was trying to use that against him.
So there is hope that storylines in the Reality Era can skirt past the Uncanny Valley, but then again, those stories were focused on building up the product. The danger here lies in using "worked-shoot"-type storylines for the sole sake of keeping the dirt sheets guessing and swerving the IWC. We have already seen WWE starting to do this with Brock Lesnar and Cena, and for me at least, it has virtually base-jumped into the Valley.
The thing is, we know these two have legitimate issues with each other. Upon Lesnar's return to WWE, that fact was brought up several times, especially after the F5 Seen 'Round the World. Building a reality-era storyline around these two shouldn't be that hard, right? Acknowledge the bad blood. Reference Lesnar's UFC history. Use Brock's limited appearances to fuel the fire between them. Then, let them tear each other part (figuratively speaking, of course). I'd watch that.
So where did WWE go wrong? Well, let's start with the big thing: the ending to Extreme Rules. From what I can tell about the actual Lesnar/Cena match, the ending was pretty good (barring the usual Super Cena antics). Cena won, but he had been very much beaten down. But then came the questionable part: Cena getting up, cutting a promo that basically insinuated that he was going to be out for a while with injury, and then walking back under his own power. Then he shows up on Raw the next night looking only slightly worse for the wear. And then we start hearing that Cena's Extreme Rules promo pissed Lesnar off, because it was an apparent blindside.
Setting aside the debate over how much is legit and how much is a work, let's instead assume that this story is a complete work. That Cena, Lesnar, and Vincent Kennedy McMahon are all in cahoots on this. That every detail of this, no matter how grounded they may be in the legit beef these two wrestlers have with each other, is written up by the fine folks in Titan Tower. Assuming that, this story has so much wrong with it despite its apparent realism. The contradictions don't line up. In addition, most of the story is being told outside of the usual medium. Both of the prior positive examples were for the most part deployed on-camera (though the "pipebomb" summer did also deploy social media and "viral marketing"). With the exception of Cena's contradictory appearances, most of what we know about Cena and Lesnar right now is dirt-sheet material, which we know for a fact can be and has been in the past manipulated by WWE. This isn't very appealing, because while members of the IWC may like to read the dirt sheets and find out the insider info, they still want to see how it affects in the ring for the most part. (At least, speaking for myself.)
But the biggest problem with Cena and Lesnar is that because of what we know or have been led to believe, there's not really anyone to root for. I mean, yes, the IWC rooted for Lesnar in the beginning, and if the kerfuffle with Cena is indeed real (again, I won't debate that here), they might have a reason to root for him for being the wronged party. But otherwise, what we have here is a superviolent bully (Lesnar) versus a Boring Invincible Hero whose character has become as bland as cardboard (prior attempts to season said cardboard with cayenne during the Rock feud proved fleeting at best). Neither are exactly worth looking up to, and neither can really be related to. I mean, who actually wants to be a bully? And who want to be perceived as one-dimensional? They may be realistic personalities, but it still doesn't make the feud seem right. It's tumbled right down into the Uncanny Valley, though instead of creeping people out, it just confuses the hell out of them.
Is there a chance for Lesnar/Cena to climb out of the valley? Possibly, but it's going to take a lot of doing. One of the things that needs to be done is for this feud to become much simpler. The roles need to be better defined. Give either Cena or Lesnar some way to relate to the audience. And yes, there can be relate-able heels; V-Mac himself was one as an over-the-top version of that one managerial figure everyone loves to hate. Furthermore, as much of this needs to be done on TV as possible, even if it just involves Cena making some kind of drastic change as a result of his encounters with Lesnar. This means leave the dirt sheets to be right or wrong on their own accord, rather than manipulating what they hear in an attempt to give the IWC a giant twin-bird. It also means sticking to your established rules and remaining consistent in the build and reasoning within the storyline.
The reality era can work, but it's going to take more care and judgment than has been shown in the case of Cena and Lesnar. However, the way WWE seems to be doing things now, it seems more likely that the Uncanny Valley will be a regular pitfall for them and their storylines. They may still be the #1 dog in pro wrestling, but that does not mean they can ignore such a big stumbling block. WWE must learn from their reality era successes and salvage their failures if they want to make truly "real" storylines.