Somehow, I think John Cena knows what's coming. via greenobles.com
Welcome to an experimental series, in which I, wearing my recent gimmick of Tropemaster General, will continue my comment trend of discussing wrestling tropes in the current product in an expanded format. Not only with this given y'all a further glimpse into my very odd thought-process (as scary a prospect as it may be), but I hope that together, we Cagesiders can come to a general consensus on whether or not such tropes are being well-applied. Feel free to discuss the topics I'm presenting, and of course, constructive feedback is encouraged. (Flames, however, will be dealt with in full Shadowbird persona.)
Let's kick this series off with probably the most important of tropes related to professional wrestling. Indeed, without this, pro wrestling as we know it would likely be unable to exist. I submit for your discussion the notion of Willing Suspension of Disbelief.
The term comes from author Samuel Taylor Coleridge and is used to describe a literary or theatrical work's ability to essentially suck its audience into its universe, to make it believe that what happens in the story is, at least in the terms of the story, real and believable. In wrestling, this means that the fans/marks/whatever you prefer to call them are invested in the show, the characters, and the storylines being present to them. I believe this is highly critical for professional wrestling, especially in the modern age, because of how it's being marketed to us: as entertainment. Because it is being marketed as entertainment, every element of wrestling has to be in line with the "rules" of the universe, and everything has to be deployed in a way to draw people in and keep them invested. The result of this is that not only do the fans get a good show, but the company makes money and can continue to entertain its audience.
WWE, to some extent or another, knows this, largely due to having writers that come from more traditional forms of entertainment (e.g. Hollywood). It's no accident that WWE has been trying to build layers upon layers of kayfabe, so that when one falls, another takes its place. Nor is it an accident that WWE refers to its fanbase as the WWE Universe, as using such terminology gives off the implication that the fans are a key part of the product.
TNA has also trying to play to this to a smaller degree, including encouraging fans to film wrestlers outside of the show as part of the experience, in a move seemingly inspired by the rise in popularity of Augmented Reality. This is coupled with Hogan's assertion that TNA talent should be, for lack of a better phrase, always in character. (We'll get to what I think about that later on, I promise.) Suffice it to say, both companies have a grasp on this concept, and it's not hard to figure out why.
Even in the days when pro wrestling was still putting itself over as a sport, it still required suspension of disbelief. Promoters wanted the marks to believe they were in for a solid show with clear-cut heroes and villains. Wrestlers wanted the marks to believe that every hit and hold was legitimately painful and was building up to a logical conclusion (no matter what said conclusion entailed). This is the reason why elements of wrestling that we occasionally take for granted these days (like selling moves and championships for people to chase after) were invented: to keep the illusion alive. The better promoters and wrestlers got at doing this, the more popular pro wrestling became, until it eventually reached the current level of international popularity.
And yet, there are still problems.
The thing is, what makes people willingly buy into wrestling varies from person to person, and depending on what the promoter's doing and how each individual fan evolves over time, suspension of disbelief can be a fragile thing. It's a balancing act, really. If you go too crazy with trying to make people believe the silliest things, you very easily can violate your own previously-established rules of your created universe, and people will get turned off. This is why for some fans, the Attitude Era might be a take-or-leave thing, as well as why damn near anything involving Vince Russo tends to get looked on poorly. As TV Tropes puts it, "you can ask an audience to believe the impossible, but not the improbable." A man finally managing to bodyslam a seemingly unslammable giant? Works perfectly in-universe. Two guys feuding regarding one of the competitors' mother, leading to said mother being placed on a pole as a match's target MacGuffin? Yeah, I'm gonna have to say no on that. I've harped on this before, but now you know why I say this: internal consistency is critical.
This has been TNA's problem as of late: they're losing the fundamentals of booking in favor of basically doing whatever the hell Hogan/Bischoff feel like doing any given week. A secret between AJ Styles and Dixie Carter? That angle seemingly came out of nowhere and just seems out-of-place. Their handling of alleged top-heel Robert Roode has been equally wacky. Then there's bringing Brooke Hogan, who is about as out-of-place in wrestling as she was in a recording studio, to manage the Knockouts. These baffling decisions don't help the perennial #2 promotion gain any ground.
WWE's not immune to the insanity, either. They dropped the Anonymous GM angle out of nowhere to give us...Johnny Ace. They inserted John Cena and Kane into Zack Ryder and Eve's storyline (and vice versa). THEY PUT MICHAEL COLE IN THE RING TO COMPETE. And those are just the most recent examples; WWE has a pretty bad habit of messing with half-decent or potentially-decent storylines to give us something that just. does. not. make. sense.
However, it is possible to go the complete other direction and cause suspension of disbelief to break down by being too consistent. This is something that has been WWE's biggest problem in recent years. Too much of the same ol' thing, to the point where it's getting tired, trite, and tedious. The largest example of this is (and you knew this was coming) John Cena. As Geno and Sergio figured out on the post-No Way Out live show, it has now been 6 PPVs within the last 12 months where John Cena has main-evented in a match where no title was on the line. Only two of those have been matches that justify the placement on the card, vs. Rock at 'Mania and vs. Brock at Extreme Rules. Rarely in the last year or so has John Cena ever been out of the main event, and that's even after dropping the title to CM Punk at last year's MITB (I do not count his pre-TLC run). WWE insists on building their PPVs around John Cena even when it makes no sense, and this is a violation of suspension of disbelief. It tears down the fabric of the reality WWE's built because Cena's presence is a reminder that WWE is giving the WWE Universe what they want them to see, not what the Universe wants to see. Willing suspension of disbelief requires that the target audience should want to becoming invested, and they're unlikely to if they feel like they don't really matter at all.
For those of you who might be tempted to suggest that TNA doesn't have that same problem, I give you three words: Hogan and Sting. While he may not be wrestling anymore (allegedly), Hulk Hogan is a constant presence. Part of that is justified as a part of his "running the show", but even Vince with his ego knows when to stay out of the limelight for a while. I'm not convinced Hogan does. And as for Sting, well...he may not have been in the main event as often as John Cena, but he's been in the main event scene in TNA for a long time. His other difference to Cena is that said main event matches are largely for the TNA Heavyweight championship, but it's countered by the fact that no one can really figure out why he's there. Yes, he's a legend, "Hall of Famer", and all that, but these days, he makes about as much sense being in the wrestling ring as Hogan does, and for much the same reason. Even in losses, it can be argued that Sting isn't putting anyone over (especially coupled with the shaky treatment of Bobby Roode). Too much of the same thing is a bad thing.
There is one more way to violate suspension of disbelief, and while it's very different from the aforementioned two, it's nonetheless egregious and being put into action by TNA right now: expanding the scope of your universe farther than is acceptable. With WWE, for the most part (and worked-shoot angles on Twitter/at ComicCon notwithstanding), their universe is contained within the arenas that their events take place. What happens in Vegas (for example) gets teleported to, say, the Staples Center in Los Angeles some days later. It doesn't travel with the Superstars unless the Superstars do it themselves. As mentioned earlier, though, TNA is expanding their universe outside of the Impact Zone and the various arena where they do house shows and PPVs by encouraging fans to film their talent outside of shows. This is coupled with a suggestion that TNA wrestlers be always on, always in character. I find this extremely stupid as well as a violation, because when does it give wrestlers time to recuperate from the things they're doing in character? What if a legitimately nice person is playing a "don't give an eff" heel? Do they have to be an asshole, even in situations where it'd be detrimental to them and their career? And what about the people who have to take second jobs to afford health insurance, because TNA won't provide it? It interferes with their real lives and with the universe you've built as well, because it blurs the line worse than a Photoshop newbie discovering filters for the first time. It also aggravates the possibility that TNA's talent may well become like Hogan and Flair are today: eternally locked in character, unable to let go of what they have, and destroying themselves and their lives as a result. I for one downright refuse to buy into or support that.
The bottom line of all this is such: in order for wrestling to maintain its popularity, or even reach another boom period, it has to do more than take a selective approach to enforcing willing suspension of disbelief. Pro wrestling's popularity and storytelling power was and is built around making people believe something. When it's played well, one can believe that human beings can fly, men can be monsters, and championships are worth chasing. When it's played poorly, you get cynical bastards like me. WWE, TNA, trust me on this...you do not want more mes running around. Hell, I don't want more mes running around.