|Use your freedom of choice, your freedom of choice...|
Photo Credit: WWE.com
Pro wrestling storytelling, for the longest time, has been steeped in the same water that people can sometimes get shuttled into a box thinking about what it can be. The good guys vs. bad guys dynamic has worked surprisingly well for nearly a century, and in some places like Chikara and oddly enough NXT, it still does have amazingly well-preserved currency. One only needs to look at the saga unfurling every Wednesday between Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens to see the power that Boolean morality holds when done right. But much like America has grown out of the squeaky clean White Knight besting the Moustachioed Man in Black as the main mechanism for its other scripted media, many wrestling companies have followed suit and started using charcoals and varying pressure upon which they're leaning on their graphite pencils.
Wrestling companies, especially ones written and booked by a ghastly, 69 (nice) year-old coot whose idea of current is taking cracks at George Bush, HW, not W, tend to be not years but decades behind on trends. When Vince Russo was part of WWE, he saw a future in using the antihero archetype and leaning less on overt and slavish devotion to good vs. bad. Of course, his vision on how to implement that kind of landscape was warped, but hey, one must give credit where it is due. Since he left, WWE backslid into relying on faces and heels more heavily than it did in the Attitude Era, and even fans who have clamored for more of a NASCAR-style, cult of personality color palette have started to wonder about the state of alignment.
He picked at one, he licked the other.
So maybe seeing baffled reactions at whom WWE wants its audience to root for during interactions between Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns isn't so surprising after all. Disabusing the audience, especially one as stagnant1 as the hardcore wrestling fan audience that tends to populate Twitter, of a notion that a company does things one way can be amazingly difficult. But I'm not sure that WWE is trying to present Bryan vs. Reigns as right vs. wrong. The black/white dynamic has been done to death in the company for sure, but as far back as 2010, when The Nexus attacked with legitimate beef, the idea that the heels might be more in the right than the standard Bobby Heenan solipsism would suggest started to creep in.
The only clear thing about Bryan and Reigns is that which wrestler's claim to being in the right is muddled. Bryan never got his rematch and was stripped of the title for making one fewer defense of it than the current Champion, but he did so by horning in on someone else's moment and blatantly distracting him during a match knowing that WWE wrestlers are more easily distracted than kittens and caffeine-addled, sleep-deprived parents. Reigns didn't need to suffer this indignity, and The Authority tricked him into handing over his legitimately-earned title shot when they had no authority to take it from him in the first place, but he also threw a bunch of gendered insults at Bryan and attempted to bribe his fans. Clearly, WWE is asking its audience to pick between one wrestler or the other rather than telling it to go for one choice over the other.
He went in circles. He dropped dead.
But then again, does WWE have the bona fides to be able to tell this kind of story without engendering a tepid response? Even when engaging in traditional storytelling, its babyfaces are oftentimes terrible people, while its heels are also terrible but at least have some kernel of justification for their actions. It has fostered a crowd into bloodthirsty Coliseum patrons who want blood at every turn not by taking the spirit of what made the Attitude Era great and allowing it to flourish, but by shoehorning every potential hero into either the Steve Austin or Rock molds rather than allowing Bryan to be the first Bryan or Reigns to be the first Reigns.
A great story in all facets CAN be told between the two, and WWE hit on that briefly tonight. Bryan has never been a good babyface outside of the ring as written by WWE because the writers and McMahon don't get what he's supposed to be, but Reigns is a character that team of bookers, writers, agents, and Papa Vince can really sink its teeth into. Imagine if the Bryan character wasn't such a raging misogynist with his terrible sarcasm and was allowed to be the odds-defying, earnest scrappy underdog that he plays so well in the ring? What if Reigns had never cut that terrible Jack and the Beanstalk promo that McMahon was probably so proud of himself for writing and just plowed ahead as the ultimate cool icon who just happened to be good at fighting out his differences? That feud would be ultimately compelling, but to be fair, as it stands right now, the current Bryan/Reigns dynamic is about as good as McMahon will let his product be.
Freedom of choice is what you got.
Fast Lane is not about right vs. wrong. It's a referendum on whose case the various people in the crowd feel strongly about. While I suspect the overwhelming majority of paying customers who use their voices along with their money will be in Bryan's corner, the choice is set up for every fan to take a side and ride or die.
Freedom from choice is what you want.
I don't know if wrestling has archetypes or idyllic states where it supremely good or supremely bad. But wrestling promoters by and large have failed when their vision is ironclad. Perhaps allowing room for choice isn't the worst road to be set upon. WWE has been awful week-to-week, and yet by opening up the booking for the main event to the worst-named pay-per-view since Cyber Sunday has made it intriguing. Maybe clamoring for the face and heel roles to be defined isn't such a good look after all, at least in this situation.
But by all means, let the guys and gals running things down at the Performance Center lead you by the nose, because they seem to get it right, don't they?
1 - It's hard to say a word like "stagnant" without pissing off a lot of people, but it's true that the body that's nebulously and incorrectly labeled as the "IWC" hasn't seemed to have a strong intake of new blood in awhile, which is admittedly of little fault of the community's own. Sometimes, viewpoints have a hard, hard time of changing without an influx of new eyes.
Lyrics from "Freedom of Choice" from the album of the same name by Devo reprinted without permission. Written by Mark Mothersbaugh and Gerald V. Casale.