I like AEW.
Actually, I love AEW. I am going to once again shell out $50 for an AEW pay-per-view this weekend.
Most of the stuff is entertaining. Often fun to watch. Enjoyable.
But something has been off about AEW so far this year. And I didn't hit me until that segment between Hangman Page and CM Punk.
First off—when watching live, the segment didn't make a lot of sense. However, if you pay attention to the long term story that has been told, then all of it made sense.
Consider AEW's booking style: the company always has a long-term story playing in the background. For the first two years of the promotion, it was Hangman Page's quest to become AEW Champion after a disappointing first title match against Chris Jericho. The newest long-story? CM Punk's return to glory.
All three of Punk's major feuds—Eddie Kingston, Maxwell Jacob Friedman, and Page—all had the same theme: the real CM Punk has not shown his face yet.
As good as that long-term story is, there lies a problem. It has been poorly communicated. Outside of the excellent a handful of good stories, most of AEW's television for the past 6 months has been...off.
Communication is a key creative element. The audience does not necessarily have to know where the story is going, but the audience needs to be aware that the story is going somewhere. Clear communication is a hallmark of good-to-excellent TV writing.
But Tony Khan is not a good-to-excellent TV writer. In fact, I did not realize until lately how middling he was at it. Sometimes I've said he was terrible; I think the proper feeling to express my criticism is that he has strengths and weaknesses and his weaknesses have been more prevalent as of late.
It's not just the off music cues (like at the end of Thunder Rosa's promo) or the weird presentation of the TNT title story. It's about the fact that Khan is not a professional TV writer. He is a die-hard lifelong wrestling fan; he is, for what its worth, a very good executive; he is a strong head booker; but his work as a TV writer leaves a lot to be desired.
Not all of it is bad, of course. There was great TV with the Friedman-Punk feud, the Friedman-Wardlow feud, and Wheeler Yuta's quest to prove himself to The Blackpool Combat Club. But outside of those programs, AEW has unfortunately been disjointed and unfocused. Stories that could have had a great deal of potential—such as the Serena Deeb-Hikaru Shida story—fell short of their potential because of the weak TV writing.
No matter how talented a performer is—actor or pro wrestler—when the TV writing is subpar, that performer isn't going to overcome it. Period.
In other words, he can book a show, but he can't write one.
Wait... isn't "booking" and "writing" the same thing?
No. They are not.
Far from it.
And that might be Khan's problem.
In a recent video interview with Forbes where he explained his creative process, it gave off the insinuation (at least to me) that he considers "booking" and "writing" to be the same thing. They aren't: booking is the decision of how things are presented; writing provides support to the booking decision(s) and offers clarification and justification to the audience. As I once said, booking is business; writing is creative.
I'll give this example for those that might not understand I mean: Wrestler A and Wrestler B are in a feud. The Booker might decide that Wrestler A needs to go over Wrestler B because he wants to push Wrestler A as his focal act due to the feedback that wrestler has been getting from the audience. That's a clear business decision. Now, he has to make that decision make sense in fictional canon for the audience. So he might have Wrestler A win against Wrestler B after a lengthy storyline feud. The actual plot, the actual angles at each turning point in the plot, and so on—those are the creative decisions. That's writing.
If you seen my comments on here, I constantly argue that Khan needs an experienced TV writer to help craft the shows. The promos don't need to be scripted—guided improvisation is best—but a Chris Kreski-like storyboard of various feuds and relationships would help tremendously. The company lacks a great deal of creative discipline and structure; it has only become more pronounced as the roster got bigger.
AEW places the bulk of their emphasis in-ring product; perhaps a little too much. It has been the company's saving grace from the very beginning as it has attracted, and built up a dedicated base of, fans that value such things. I'm not going to knock that as I do enjoy the in-ring work of AEW's talented performers.
However, there's a consequence: the shows as a whole are frenetic and disjointed. Pacing is off: a strong first hour might be followed by a rushed second hour. Not much is allowed to breathe. Khan lacks the experience and savviness to complement the company's top-notch, crowd-pleasing in-ring product with quality TV writing. It is a very tough act to do by himself—even with the input of others.
By no means I am encouraging Khan to be more like WWE: WWE is terrible at TV writing. I do think, however, Khan can take a cue from the creative process of Lucha Underground. It doesn't need to go into the supernatural or have overacted backstage segments, but the show had a balance between disciplined storytelling and a strong in-ring product—contract issues not withstanding.
I hope Khan recognizes that TV writing is his weakness. He's good at admitting his faults, but I also know he's very defensive whenever anyone criticizes his decision-making. I would think, though, that he would want AEW—his baby and his pride and joy—to be strong as possible with the strongest roster and the strongest creative process in the world. Khan is well on his way with the former; he needs help with the latter.
Tony, hire a writer.