Hi. It’s been a while. I’ve been busy, but I think I’m ready to commit to putting this thing out sorta regularly now. Maybe two per month? I can probably handle that. Anyway, here goes.
When most of their roster got stuck on a tarmac in Saudi Arabia last year, WWE found a way to go on with the show, leveraging the few performers who stayed home (many because they weren't comfortable cashing those Saudi cheques), and the wrestlers from the NXT brand, which wasn't part of the event. The result was one of the best Smackdown episodes of 2019, because WWE is very good at writing on the fly, and introducing some unpredictability to the show makes it more interesting. Wresting is always at its best when there's some tension between fake and real.
This past Friday, they also went on with the show, airing Smackdown live from their Florida training facility, the WWE Performance Center, without an audience. The result this time was more about the tension between fake and surreal. The episode opened by telling us that these people train hard to "entertain" us (not "wrestle" or "fight" or "compete," which I think is a mistake—don't remove kayfabe unnecessarily during the goddamn show). The wrestlers pandered to fans who weren't there (which was sort of funny, but after the first match I think they realized it was a bit silly and toned it down for the rest of the show). The production wasn't tight, making the wrestling itself less crisp and more, well, fake (though it was still better shot and directed than the average AEW show, which still regularly miss marks and screw up blocking, as though they are trying to shine a spotlight on the fakery instead of hiding it).
This show went on because Fox pays WWE to produce content and Monday's Raw will go on because the USA Network also pays the WWE to produce content. I'm not sure why the empty-seat approach was preferred over airing a clip show, or better yet, something like the new Ruthless Aggression series on the WWE Network. After all, the entire Netflix library is a pisshole in a snowbank compared to the seven decades of video content sitting in the WWE archives. Presumably, they just want to keep everything pointed and rolling toward WrestleMania 36 in three weeks, but that show feels impossible right now, at least in any way that's recognizable as a WrestleMania event.
We are currently living in the opening scenes of a zombie movie. That's a dramatic and exaggerated statement, but I'm not wrong. This all has the tone of a zombie movie. Like most of North America, I rewatched Contagion this week. That's totally a zombie movie, it just doesn't have any zombies in it. But the tone! We haven't reached Cillian Murphy wandering through the empty streets of London in 28 Days Later, but the supermarkets are filled with people and empty of toilet paper. Tone! Tone! Tone!
Was Friday night's Smackdown a good episode? In a wrestling sense, no, not especially. It looked like the average episode of NWA Power, but without any of the charm. It was, however, remarkably compelling television—a thing I went out of my way to watch and couldn't tear my eyes from. It was equal parts curio and trainwreck. But it also very much reflected the tone of society back at its viewers, because wrestling isn't escapist entertainment. Watching wrestling doesn't so much remove you from reality, as it folds reality back onto itself, highlighting all of the absurdities.
And if that's not a good use of art—art!—I don't know what is.