Art Of the Real No. 2

When the smack is down.

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. 

Art Of the Real No. 1

The foxiest wrestling there ever was.

Wrestling has had two boom periods. The first was due to exposure and saturation; MTV, cartoons, toys, etc. put Hulk Hogan into the cultural zeitgeist. The second was competition; the “Monday Night Wars” made the meta story more interesting than the actual story while also (arguably) pushing creative forward, leaving us with a half decade of pop-cult fodder and, ultimately, Dwayne Johnson. Given that history, it’s easy to get excited that we’re entering a nice little golden period.

The importance of the WWE’s five-year deal with Fox can’t be overstated: wrestling has never had access to an audience this big. World Wrestling Entertainment is more than just wrestling (or “sports entertainment”), it’s a massive content machine, perfect for Fox, which is leaning on live programming to fill holes after the Disney thingy. It’s a good deal for both sides and Fox is promoting the shit out of Smackdown to their NFL audience right now. This is maximum exposure. 

All Elite Wrestling’s arrival is also interesting, if only because WWE is taking the competition seriously. They keep insisting that they aren’t, but they are counter programming at every step and moving their own online-only NXT show (which was ostensibly started to develop new wrestlers and teach indie guys how to work for TV cameras) to cable for no other reason than to say “Fuck you” to the upstarts. 

All of this means that we’re about to have more wrestling than ever, which is something I wouldn’t have thought possible when Smackdown first moved to Tuesday nights three years ago and watching wrestling started to feel like a full-time job. Beginning in a couple weeks, you’ll be able to watch three hours of Raw, two hours of Smackdown, two hours of AEW and two hours of NXT. Every week. Plus Main Event. Plus 205 Live. Plus a new Fox studio show. Plus weekly stuff from ROH and Impact. Plus monthly PPVs from everyone. And whatever is coming out of Japan (which is so fucking good right now). This list isn’t even sort of complete, but I think you get the point. 

To be a casual wrestling fan and follow WWE’s primary programming, you’d need to watch wrestling for about 24 hours each month. That said, I’m not sure what a casual wrestling fan is. Who is following Raw without Smackdown? Who watches monthly WWE pay-per-views, but not NXT? Who is watching any wrestling and not tuning in for the first episode of AEW Dynamite? These people probably exist, but I’ve never met them—everyone I talk to about wrestling either is a fan or was a fan or isn’t a fan, and the amount of wrestling they currently watch is either a lot for the first one or none at all for the other two. Who is out there watching some wrestling? (Admittedly, I’m bad at imagining what other people do and what motivates them, but don’t tell my employer because I work in marketing and imagining other people is basically my job.)

But these are exciting times, to be sure. Going back to the second boom period (and in some ways the first), wrestling is always more interesting when the meta stuff is dialled up—when the storylines happening behind the scenes that we are only a little aware of start influencing the storylines in front of us and we get to infer why.

What is Fox’s influence on the product going to be? (Rumour: take that belt off your underdog black champion Kofi Kingston and put it on Brock Lesnar, a known quantity and exactly the kind of wrestler the average Fox Sports fan would probably build in a WWE video game’s create-a-character mode.) Will NXT look more like WWE or AEW? (Guess: It’ll be more Raw than Dynamite, just with less red and more yellow, and I really think adding that second hour is going to be a problem for them creatively.) How many wrestlers are looking to jump ship to the how new “indie” promotion with infinity funding and a good TV deal? (Wild speculation: There’s a lot of talk about (and occasionally from) under-utilized talent, but most of them will cash those WWE cheques if given the chance. At least for now.) Is Vince McMahon too old for this shit? (Cold take: Who can even tell anymore?) 

I don’t think the new “Wednesday Night Wars” will be all that consequential. Certainly they’ll matter to the players involved, especially to AEW’s long-term viability as a wrestling company, but I don’t know if people will be writing books about this fight in twenty years. I’m excited for the show and their events thus far have been really good (though the production needs work—the cameras seem to miss a lot of spots), but producing a weekly two-hour show is a horseradish of an entirely different sex.

The Fox deal is more interesting to me in terms of its potential impact (see what I did there?) on the future of wrestling. Money and eyeballs will do that.

It’s impossible to predict how it’ll all play out. Frankly, I’m shocked when wrestling ever crosses over and gets any kind of attention from people who aren’t, well, like me—obsessive, lifelong fans. But for us, at least, wrestling is about to be way more fun. (And if you haven’t been watching, I’d say dip your toe into this ocean of new wrestling content with Fox’s Smackdown on Fridays and AEW’s new show on Wednesdays. They’ll be very different flavours and you can decide if you have a taste for any of it.) 

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Hi. I’m Tyler, and I’m writing a book about wrestling. This newsletter is a place for me to work through my thoughts and to share great wrestling writing. I don’t anticipate sending too frequently, will never charge money, and plan on retiring the newsletter not long after the book is out. It’s low impact—you’ll have fun.

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