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The Narrative Dissonance of Pro Wrestling; or, Shut Up About Bad Booking Already

The McMahon Family, sort of.

Professional wrestling is a lot of things, but primarily it is a narrative based form of entertainment (or art if you’re feeling like arguing that point) with the goal being presenting characters and stories to an audience to make money. When it’s broken down like that the mysticism and romanticism does tend to melt away a bit, or at least present chips in the veneer of wrestling itself. Yet, the narrative dissonance of modern pro wrestling is profound, in part by a constant sense of friction with its core fan base.

Since the dawn of wrestling discussions and the much-bemoaned death of kayfabe, the idea of the laymen discussing the “booking” of wrestling shows has been impossible to ignore. Right now, as WWE finds itself gearing down for the tail end of 2018 before getting into their “WrestleMania season” groove the idea of booking, or for this purpose, bad booking, has once again become a hot button issue.

Wrestling discussions on virtually every platform of late are centered around Vince McMahon and his lack of a connection with his audience, how WWE’s ratings continue to fluctuate and they don’t seem to understand what we, the collective audience, actually wants. WWE is, often times, just flat out bad, that much cannot be argued. The writing can seem confusing or decidedly thin, the characters’ motivations can change or not reflect the core beliefs of that character and sometimes things just happen for no reason. Regardless of how bad WWE and other wrestling programs can be sometimes, I find myself returning to the same question time and time again: how can these people tell their stories when their fans refuse to let them?

We’ve all heard of “bad booking,” in fact, just about every single wrestling fan has at one time or another griped about “bad booking” and gone on to fantasy book a character that we feel isn’t being given their just due. Yet, it’s just that: fantasy. I’m not on WWE’s writing staff and chances are that most of their vocal, raucous crowds aren’t, either. Even if, like me, you somehow made the foolish decision to be a professional writer for a living, any and all ideas that I am able to churn out to “fix” the problems of WWE’s writing is still just fantasy.

This is where I find myself in an odd situation, mostly because I find WWE as a company to be disingenuous, greedy and rather dull. Every time one of the McMahons champions diversity or some noble cause it feels about as honest as watching a White House Press briefing. The product itself, well, my interest ebbs and flows in mysterious ways. Right now the flow has been brought down to almost a trickle, but mostly just because I don’t have time to spend on something that’s continually frustrating to be a fan of. All of this, by the way, is to establish that I’m not defending WWE as a company or a creative endeavor.

Instead, I’m defending a storyteller’s right to tell a story.

Because, at the very core of this issue, WWE has had this problem for years now and it doesn’t seem to be getting better. There will always be whispers of backstage, long term decisions, then they won’t materialize when the fans catch wind of them and disagree with them. Wrestling is unique in a lot of ways, but mostly because the actors that play the characters that we watch don’t get to put their character aside and assume another role. Maybe years ago that was possible, but in a post-kayfabe world the entirety of a wrestler’s career follows them until they finally decide to retire for the fourteenth time.

This all dawned on me while watching Daniel Bryan and AJ Styles put on what was a really good match at TLC and I couldn’t stop thinking about how many complaints I saw about Daniel Bryan’s heel turn and how it was the “wrong move,” knowing that DBry probably played a huge role in making that happen and was probably enjoying himself immensely. You see, because when he was American Dragon the heel in ROH, he absolutely loved every moment of it and you could see it. So there I was, reminiscing about the history of this wrestler that I very much understood, noting the callbacks to his old gimmick (“I’ve got until five!”) and how everything that he’s done in between has become a part of this character as well. There’s no reset button for these guys. Both him and AJ Styles are the summation of their entire careers up until this point, which is also why fans love them and believe that they deserve to be given the spotlight over hand-chosen favorites of the company.

Bryan Danielson could be the Daniel Day-Lewis of pro wrestling in that he’s the best in the world at what he does, but unlike DDL, he doesn’t get to change his role after he’s done with his current story, he has to keep living the damned thing until the world’s oceans rise and the seas, newly devoid of life, reclaim us. Imagine if Daniel Day-Lewis could never stop being Christy Brown from My Left Foot, but instead had to be an iterative version of that same character. What the hell would Bill the Butcher, Daniel Plainview, Gerry Conlon or even Abe Lincoln look like if everything had to be that linear?

Wrestling is unique, which provides complications in telling coherent storylines to fans that feel, frankly, entitled to be the tastemakers. The whole thing isn’t exactly surprising, especially in a world where so much of our pop culture that is aimed at the same general audience as pro wrestling by the way of movies, videogames, comics and every other medium targeting a predominantly 20-30-something male spends most of its time pandering instead of challenging. No, I’m not about to guilt you for liking Marvel movies because I like some of them, too, nor am I going to rag on you for reading comics, because there are some awesome comics out there and I’ve got some friends that write comics and do a fantastic job. Instead, what I’m saying is that there’s a formula, one that refuses to take risks and is instead aimed at profiting from the audience and giving just enough to keep them on the hook ad infinitum.

I could spend the rest of my life railing against Hollywood’s over-reliance on Save the Cat and the death of storytelling, but instead I’ll give a brief summation for those unfamiliar with it. The writer of Stop or My Mom Will Shoot and Blank Check (I’m not kidding here) penned a book unlocking the secret of the monomyth -- the hero’s journey -- by providing a literal cheat sheet giving an almost minute-by-minute breakdown of how to tell this one type of story (there are said to be seven types of stories, for those interested). This became the gold standard in Hollywood and if you take an outline of the Save the Cat beat sheet and compare it to a lot of beloved hero movies, you’ll start ripping your damned hair out when you see filmmakers adhere to it almost down to the second. Virtually every major hero movie released these days adheres -- religiously -- to the Save the Cat formula, which almost always gives audiences exactly what they want.

There’s some stress, some failure, a tertiary or even secondary character (if they’re feeling bold or near the end of an actor’s contract) will meet an untimely demise to show just how stacked the odds are for our intrepid hero, but eventually the odds are overcome, but at what cost?!?!?! The point here is that popcorn flicks aren’t just popcorn anymore, they’re just flat out candy most of the time, if not just cotton candy in that they are fluff. If most major forms of entertainment are all sugar with no real substance, why the hell should pro wrestling be any different, right?

That seems to be the prevailing mindset when it comes to pro wrestling. Fans, who are used to getting what they want out of their entertainment, have grown used to the way that stories are told and when certain conditions aren’t met, sour on the experience and expect to get exactly what they want. This is where the bit about wrestlers not being able to refresh their characters and play different roles comes into play, because these characters are so strongly bonded to fans that it’s impossible to separate from them and suppress the very human urge to see them succeed. So yeah, when Roman Reigns gets anointed as the new “guy” while someone like Daniel Bryan, or Seth Rollins, or any number of fan favorites are right there, with a long, impressive history with fans to back up their value, frustrations tend to bubble up to the surface.

The idea that sometimes the best place in a story for the absolute best actor isn’t the leading role doesn’t fly with wrestling fans, which causes them to turn on the product. Most people don’t look back at Gangs of New York and complain that Daniel Day-Lewis played second fiddle to the handsome, Hollywood darling of Leonardo DiCaprio, who started off as a teen heartthrob who worked incredibly hard with the roles he was given to become one of the best working actors in the game and... Doesn’t this sort of sound like someone like John Cena or Roman Reigns at a certain point? Yeah, it does.

Wrestling fans are impatient. Sometimes they are impatient with good reason, but other times it forces the hand of WWE and other companies to completely rethink the stories that they’re trying to present, which ends up in a jumbled, confusing muck of a soup instead of the one that they had intended to make. Mounting pressure forces them to “send fans home happy” at shows like WrestleMania, where hardcore fans are usually the ones in attendance and are looking for certain conditions to be met to keep them happy.

While I’ll never begrudge people for wanting what they want, it flies in the face of telling a good story. Telling a good story means subverting expectations and upsetting the audience. Telling a good story means that sometimes the hero doesn’t win, sometimes they take a detour and face different challenge, especially in wrestling where a character has to be present at all times and can’t take a curtain call after finishing up one story and waiting in the wings for the next one to start up.

An example of the discordance between fans and the stories being told would be when Daniel Bryan joined the Wyatt Family. This was widely derided at the time as a very, very foolish move. Daniel Bryan was red-hot, widely seen as the best performer in the world at that time, and many felt that his time had finally come to be the top wrestler in the company. All of this while the company was trying to tell a story with Randy Orton and Batista at the top of the card. No, it wasn’t particularly compelling, was mostly a business decision considering Batista’s Hollywood clout, yet the audacity that WWE would present that as the main story while Daniel Bryan was placed on the backburner and as sort of a heel was just unimaginable. What were they thinking? Bray Wyatt was a goofy cult leader, using out-of-touch magic tricks and other stuff that screamed early-90’s Vince McMahon and this was where Bryan was slumming it on the card.

Then this happened.

Just about everything about this segment was amazing. But why was it so effective? Because the fans so desperately want to cheer for Daniel Bryan. They so desperately want to see good things happen for him, but he was denied -- again -- that opportunity with joining the Wyatt Family. So when he turned on them, it was cathartic. Not just because Daniel Bryan is a good professional wrestler, but because he’s a good character and this story happened, much to the derision of the fans, and tension was introduced to the long, winding story of Daniel Bryan.

That’s the kind of moment that only professional wrestling can really provide. That isn’t to knock his eventual win at WrestleMania, where they had to rewrite the main story of the show to center around Bryan and give a feel good moment at the end, because that moment was incredible and showed the power of fans speaking out very clearly about what they want. Wrestling is one of the few mediums where there is that instantaneous feedback to tell everyone involved if something is working or not.

But those special Daniel Bryan at WrestleMania moments can’t happen all of the time, nor should they. Sometimes different stories need to happen and should perhaps be given a chance. Fans have pushed back against Roman Reigns for so many years now, imagine what would have happened if WWE was able to just go through with crowning him as their big star when they originally wanted to, only to find that maybe it wasn’t working? Or what if it actually did work out? WWE could be an entirely different company right now if they had just been able to run with Roman defeating Brock at WrestleMania instead of Seth Rollins having to run down to take the title instead.

Undoubtedly, those moments are surprising and genuinely exciting, but in terms of storytelling, they’re in no way effective and undermines the very idea of telling stories to an audience. There’s no tension to these stories because the fans will just chant, tweet, comment and rage until their voices are heard while WWE will continue to try to tell their stories, then backtrack, then second guess, then make a decision, then someone like Vince gets pissed and tries to go back to his original idea and, well, you get the idea already.

My plea to you is simple: before jumping on WWE for bad booking and literally trying to steer the ship from the outside, let them actually tell some of their stories first. Performers often times have a hand in the creative side of what they’re doing, especially at the higher levels, and while it might seem unfathomable that someone like Daniel Bryan would turn heel and not be the big ole’ babyface top dog that everyone wishes him to be, that he knows that and is having fun denying fans what they desperately want, knowing that when the time is right, they can flick a switch and deliver on that big moment of making him exactly that once again.

There’s no doubt that a lot of these people in decision-making roles are incompetent, stubborn and irrational. These people are very much deserving of your criticism, but let them actually mess up first instead of deciding in advance that they have. It only makes the product worse. The truth is, no matter how out-of-touch a Vince McMahon might be, his main job is still to entertain you enough for you to give him your money. In addition, there is also a team of competent, perhaps even gifted writers that are either bored out of their minds or scared out of their gourds trying to help steer the product in the right direction to make as many of us happy as they can.

Essentially, give them a chance to tell their stories and if their stories really do suck as bad as we all think they probably will, then you let them know. If things still don’t get better, maybe look elsewhere for your entertainment needs. There’s a lot of pro wrestling out there right now, with most of it downright easily accessible, fun to watch and full of compelling characters. Yeah, I get it, it sucks if you love Daniel Bryan and want to support him, but if you haven’t picked up on this already, I like Daniel Day-Lewis a lot and even then I’m willing to admit that Nine was only okay, Lincoln was mostly fine, Ballad of Jack and Rose was just creepy and I just did not care for Stars and Bars. It’s okay to have favorites and sometimes just not be into it. Hell, my favorite director is Paul Thomas Anderson and my favorite author is Thomas Pynchon and lemme tell you, Inherent Vice didn’t do much for me.

Just let them mess up on their own, alright? They will, don’t worry about it. The strange push-and-pull between Vince and his audience is just dragging everything down and making it all unwatchable to no one’s real benefit. Life is too short to rage-watch three hours of Raw, two hours of SmackDown and however much else secondary programming if it sucks. Trust me, there’s plenty to love out there. Let them lose you and have to fight to get you back. Let the performers feel out their roles. Let the writers try to challenge you, make you mad, only to bring you in for a crescendo later. As long as you’ve decided that they suck at what they’re doing and you’re going to just demand you get what you want you’ll never get those big, awesome moments that can only happen in pro wrestling. Instead they’ll keep trying to feed you candy and lose track of how to make a damned meal that anyone likes, but keep trying, failing and making amends with the candy again. Break the cycle.

Dave Walsh is a novelist and a guy that occasionally talks about wrestling. He, for some reason, produces a strange, narrative-based wrestling show on Twitch every Sunday called SCFL Pro that is like if David Lynch made a wrestling show using assets from a video game.

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