Thursday, October 1, 2015

Wrestling Is a Television Product

If Rollins winning makes you dislike a show, maybe you aren't the problem
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Normally, I try not to pay Aubrey Sitterson any mind, basically because he has opinions, specifically about fans he disagrees with that he blithely labels as "bitter nerds," that grate on me something fierce. But an article he wrote came across my desk that presupposed a blatantly false premise that professional wrestling, at least on the highest, most corporate and mainstream level, is not a television product. Wrestling is written as a television show. It may be a poorly-written one when it comes to WWE, but even into the beginnings of pro wrestling in its modern form, it has always used the same tropes that scripted entertainment has.

Granted, the nature of pro wrestling being shot in front of a live, participating audience does make it different than any other show on television. And no other production outfit is as insane as WWE is at content creation; the most prolific shows may produce 18 hours of footage for use per season. WWE gets to 18 hours of content in shorter than a month's time, and it has no offseason. Making direct comparisons to, say, Game of Thrones may be a bit treacherous.

However, both RAW and other scripted dramas use the same beats to tell their stories. Ideally, feuds have beginnings, rising actions, climaxes, and resolutions, regardless of how WWE tends to have them play out. Issues that drive towards the big matches are personal. The means by which WWE tries to get fans wanting to see Seth Rollins get his comeuppance are similar to the ones that the Game of Thrones showrunners used to make King Joffrey so reviled.

And making the leap that "in-the-moment" kayfabe doesn't exist for other shows or the assumption that all wrestling fans lack the mental capacity to tell Seth Rollins, the performer, from Seth Rollins, the dude, apart is sheer lunacy. I can vouch for large portions of my readership respecting the humanity of performers even if their characters act like dogshit people. And if everyone who watched Game of Thrones knew the show was fake, then why on earth would the visceral hatred for Joffrey have remained intact after given episodes ended for many people? If scripted shows or movies didn't inspire such guttural feelings in people, then Jack Gleeson (or Tom Felton or Vincent Kartheiser) wouldn't get nasty Facebook comments or the like for stuff they do in fantasy universes. I can't speak for people en masse in any fandom, but at least I recognize my assumptions are based in anecdotal evidence.

And his premise that "heels winning" should be considered tantamount to "not liking a show" is faulty at best, especially in the light of the first shaky statement that wrestling isn't television. Again, going back to Game of Thrones, people will still tune in en masse even if the "hope spot" on the actual show hasn't been revealed yet. The four of the five seasons of the hit show have ended on major downers, and the second season that ended with the fantastic Battle of Blackwater Bay was only redeeming because Tyrion Lannister, perhaps the most charismatic character on the show, was forced to command the armies of his loathsome nephew Joffrey, making his side less of a heel than Stannis Baratheon's.

Yet, people still flock to it, and the anticipation for the final three seasons is at fever pitch. People don't just watch television out of compulsion, and catharsis and happy ending are two big components to enjoyment for many people. With Game of Thrones, the endgame is somewhat in sight, even if it's taking longer to get there than with most shows. With LOST, another show that inspired controversy among its viewers, the eyes on the show dropped off because it wasn't clear that the catharsis was coming until towards the end of the series.

In wrestling, those beats are similar. A heel Champion can be successful if the endgame for his title reign is in sight. It's why Randy Orton was so successful as the figurehead for the Authority; Daniel Bryan's victory was assumed and received at WrestleMania XXX (even if the plans didn't originally call for it, but in the end, results are all that matters, I guess). If Rollins' title reign is failing, it's because the end may not be in sight for him. He's already beaten everyone that is a threat to his title, or at least escaped from their grasp via shenanigans. If Brock Lesnar couldn't take the belt away from him at Battleground or John Cena at SummerSlam, who presumably can?

But even if the "you're not always supposed to like the show" statement was representative of this fantasy world where wrestling wasn't a television product, where wrestling excels over other TV shows is that it has several other avenues to provide catharsis because of how cards are structured. If you don't like Rollins winning all the time, hey, you can get into the Divas Revolution (theoretically) or Lesnar turning Big Show into the World's Largest Pile of Ground Longpig, or The Big Guy vs. Kevin Owens, or any number of feuds on a show where the babyface can theoretically win and provide a happy ending, however intermediary. Wrestling is never a show where you should come out of it "not liking" something because of the result if it's booked well. It also patently refuses to acknowledge the fact that maybe the heels have a larger, and especially in WWE more justified following than they would in a regular show, and that people show up to see a guy like Rollins win. But hey, Kermy Sips the Tea dot JPG and such.

But the rub in making such a statement feels like another attack on fans for being "too negative." Any criticism of WWE can be brushed off because that's the desired feeling that you're supposed to be left with, or so Sitterson claims. But what if that feeling is malaise with the product and desire to change the channel? Ignore the low ratings for a second, because overnight ratings are trash and don't mean anything, especially compared to the years that the pundits like to compare them to right now. Check the feelings in your heart. Are you "kayfabe mad" because Rollins is winning, or does his continued overexposure make you want to change the channel? I know many people for whom the latter is the case, and that's not being worked. That's growing disinterested in WWE because to them, it's becoming a bad television product.

And that's what WWE is. It's a television product. If it weren't, then wins and losses would matter explicitly towards title shots, and things like Sting destroying a statue or Rikishi running over Steve Austin with a car or even Randy Savage attacking Ricky Steamboat's throat with a ring bell would not be used to advance stories. Wrestling in its own way can be unique from other scripted forms of entertainment, but to pretend it's above the same beats that govern it is foolish at best and a blatant attempt at brushing off legitimate criticism at worst. I'll leave you to assume which camp this argument falls under.