It had been coming for a long time.
Probably since the mid-90s one-two punch of Brian Pillman calling Kevin Sullivan “booker man”, and the Montreal Screwjob giving birth to the Mr. McMahon character. But we’ve certainly been in an era where the real world is an established part of wrestling’s fictional one since CM Punk hit us with the Pipe Bomb promo in June of 2011.
Maybe it’s not an era. Maybe what I’ve always thought of as the ‘Reality’ Era (if you don’t like that designation, The Ringer’s David Shoemaker once dubbed it “the Worked-Shoot Era”, which works just as well) is just the new reality.
An era would have ended by now. Almost nine years after Punk closed Raw with a speech about McMahon’s imaginary brass rings, idiotic daughter, and doofus son-in-law, this weekend we’re getting WrestleMania 36. It’s an event WWE is selling with the unrealistic slogan “Too Big For One Night!”, which is in actuality their realest event ever.
The ‘Reality’ Era persists because in a time when everyone knows wrestling is scripted, and your most dedicated customers at least think they know a lot more than that, no one has come up with a better way to make the audience question what’s real and invest in what’s being presented.
It’s why, up and down WrestleMania 36’s 16 match card, there are programs which include the performers’ real lives, and the public’s knowledge of the wrestling business as part of their fictional storylines.
For the first time in years, the prospect of Brock Lesnar leaving for the UFC isn’t hovering over the show. But his opponent Drew McIntyre’s motivation includes being released by WWE in 2014. Before he pulled out of his match with Goldberg, Roman Reigns was calling the Universal champ a “part-timer”. Their rivalry was based as much on their collegiate football careers as it was their wrestling ones.
The Randy Orton/Edge and Undertaker/AJ Styles feuds both involve the use of shoot names and accusations of being unable to walk away from performing. Bray Wyatt isn’t just trying to avenge a WrestleMania loss when he faces John Cena, he’s looking to punish Cena for what happened to his push after he lost their 2014 feud.
Both the Charlotte Flair vs. Rhea Ripley and Kevin Owens vs. Seth Rollins incorporate the company’s developmental system into the narrative. Flair and Rollins want to prove they made NXT and the Performance Center possible, while Ripley and Owens are out to demonstrate what WWE’s training did for them.
Those last two have doubled down on their connections to WWE’s ‘Reality’ since WrestleMania 36 was forced to move to the PC. And it’s that move - which like other historic ‘Mania firsts like the event being pre-taped with no fans in attendance, and presented over two days (Sat. April 4 & Sun., April 5) was forced by the coronavirus pandemic - which give this year’s show its most potent dose of reality.
WWE and some of its fans have argued that the world needs an escape right now. COVID-19 and the social distancing which is our best tool to fight its spread has made the world strange, and frightening. Entertainment like Raw, SmackDown, NXT, and WrestleMania can be that escape.
I won’t deny that completely. There have been times over the past few weeks of watching or thinking about those shows (and AEW Dark & Dynamite), where I have been entertained enough that I do forget about the unprecedented situation we all find ourselves in, and the uncertain times ahead.
But unlike when I get sucked into something like Netflix’s Tiger King, or catch the latest Better Call Saul on AMC, or revisit an old fave like Alway Sunny on Hulu... it’s never long before I’m jarred back to the here-and-now. All it takes is one shot of the blackness around the ring to remind me there are no people in the seats, and from there I have to think about why that’s the case.
That’s the reality we’re all in, and the one even the most gifted pro wrestlers and promoters can’t kayfabe away.
Even on a show packed full of ‘Reality’ Era stories designed to blur the line between truth and fiction, it’s why this weekend’s WrestleMania 36 will be the realest WrestleMania ever.