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ONLINE ONSLAUGHT REDUX
Hollywood 4-Life?
December 19, 2001

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com

 

[This column originally appeared on WrestleLine on September 7, 2001...  it was my first, in-depth attempt to codify my discomfort with the whole issue of "magic cameras" and other tactics as it relates to their appropriateness to pro wrestling storytelling.  I was not 100% happy with the initial effort, and I remain convinced that I have not properly conveyed my honestly-held opinions on the matter...  but since it's pertinent given my editorializing about this week's RAW -- and subsequent e-mails I've gotten about those comments -- I've decided to republish this column as a means of continuing the discourse until I can figure out how to put all these swirling thought more eloquently into print.  In addition to the logical/rhetorical flaws, please excuse the datedness of the references, which all have to do with late Summer WWF storytelling.]

I think the time has come... enough with tossing around adjectives like "silly" and "lame" and acting like that's a complete critique. It's time to lay out a complete manifesto regarding (1) just why things like this past week's Austin/Angle/bridge skit annoy me and (2) how those shortcomings could be fixed.

I mean, it's not like there's a whole lot of other news to talk about this Friday afternoon... other than correcting myself from last column (RAW did a 4.6 final rating, not the 4.7 I reported due to my source not including the abysmally-low rating for the interrupted over-run), I got nothing but my opinion to ramble on about today.

Anyone who's been reading my columns for any length of time knows that I tend not to appreciate the "Hollywood-style" skits on WWF shows as much as I appreciate the in-ring wrestling. However, it is important -- right here at the start -- to say that I do not advocate (and probably would not enjoy) WWF shows that featured nothing but wrestling.

I've got no real problem with the "entertainment" half of "sports entertainment." Whether it's good drama, some quality laughs, or even a bona fide mystery, there's plenty of room for entertainment in my wrestling. But over the years, the Hollywood-i-zation of the WWF's definition of "entertainment" has meant more and more frequent deviations from what I personally find entertaining.

I don't know if you can point to any single turning point that led us down this path. Maybe it was the rise of Vince Russo? Or perhaps that poorly disguised mission statement supplied by Vince McMahon during the commentary of the first Halftime Heat? But it does seem as if there's been a rise in the number of poorly conceived skits in the past few years...

I mean, back in the day, we could go months or years between things that would make you cringe... and now that I think back, why did they usually involve the Ultimate Warrior (like the bit where Papa Shango made him vomit, or the bit where he got tossing in a room with a bunch of snakes by Jake Roberts)? But I digress. Suffice to say there were memorably bad segments dating back years, but that now, bad non-wrestling segments are so common that they don't necessarily even rate as memorable anymore.

But let's get on with dissecting this issue a bit more methodically....

SOME ASSUMPTIONS

Before getting off on a list of changes I'd make, it's important that we're all on the same page... or that you at least know exactly where I'm coming from. Let's face it: my tastes may not be your tastes. So I want to toss out a few of my core assumptions and beliefs about exactly what belongs in a wrestling show as a foundation for the later discussion.

Which means if you disagree with some or all of those assumptions, you can probably quite safely disregard the forthcoming laundry list of suggested changes in its entirety.

The first thing I'm gonna throw out there is this: unlike most other forms of entertainment, wrestling should exist "in our universe." I'm not sure if there's a more proper term for it, but what I'm talking about is the fact that these actions and these performers are part of our world, not part of some fantasy realm.

This is reinforced by the fact that if you meet, say, Kurt Angle, you're meeting Kurt Angle and not an actor who plays Kurt Angle on TV. And even if you want to say "But what about Dwayne Johnson portraying the character of The Rock on TV?", I will counter by pointing out that even if there are cases of guys adopting characters in wrestling, the fact is, they generally adopt one character and stick with it.

That sense of internal consistency is lacking in other entertainment forms... in this form, Dwayne Johnson is the Rock and will only be the Rock. But in cinema, how many roles has Robert DeNiro had in the last 30 years?

That's something unique about wrestling that sets it apart from the movies, and unique strengths should be emphasized, not marginalized. The chance to have these same people in the same roles for years at a stretch is special... and hey, I know it's not real, but I look at this opportunity, and I see the best way to take advantage of it is to try to maintain realism. Embrace the fact that the audience can and does accept these characters and their actions in a different way than they do characters in a Hollywood movie.

Which leads me directly to a second general area of assumption: that it's bad when I can see/hear the writers' hands. I know that they need to be there, that traditional pro wrestling "bookers" aren't enough to craft a creative direction for a company these days. But that doesn't mean that I should be getting beat over the head by the fact that there's a team of people putting words in the performers' mouths.

A fine example: Kevin Smith movies are some of my more favorite recent efforts, but I will not for one second claim that he's responsible for the smoothest of dialogue. A lot of it is very stilted: his characters often don't speak in a very natural way. But hey, it's just a movie in that case (and the dialogue is going towards a joke, anyway)... tying into my first assumption, wrestling is "real," it's in our universe, and therefore, stilted, fake dialogue has got to go.

And trust me, this is not an issue of a good performer making words better... if the words are hokey, nobody could sell 'em. Over-writing has got to go.

Maybe tying this all together is this one core assumption: I don't care what the WWF party line is, but when their product is good, it is something unique and different from any other entertainment form. They spend a lot of time convincing people that they are an action movie, a sitcom, a music video, whatever, all rolled into one. In the name of "Sports Entertainment" and mainstreaming the product, I fear that sight is sometimes lost of what should be at the core.

I mean, action movies, sitcoms, whatever.... those things are done elsewhere (and done better) by people focusing on one particular genre. So the WWF's mission should be to do ITS genre the best it can. Enough of trying to convince everybody that you've got a little something for them...

It's fine to have those diverse elements, but it'd be foolish to say that's what's gonna bring people to your product. What makes the WWF product unique is that naughty nine-letter word that we're not supposed to use anymore: WRESTLING. But where wrestling can have those elements of other entertainment forms, it'd be almost inconceivable that characters on the Sopranos will take their act on the road and fill up 20,000 seat arenas to watch the characters do scenes.

Again: embrace uniqueness, don't marginalize it in an attempt to make the product accessible to the mainstream. Either they get it or they don't...

Note that in laying out these beliefs about what goes into a good wrestling show, I've not made one claim about actual wrestling... I might generally believe that 8 matches and roughly 40 minutes of bell-to-bell time is a good amount of wrestling to have in a 2 hour show, but that's really not the point here. The point here is to address the other hour and twenty minutes so that they're entertaining enough that I wouldn't miss the in-ring action if it were lacking...

SOME SUGGESTIONS

So I want a show that, generally speaking, emphasizes realism over contrived writing, something that exists "in our universe"... assuming you've made it this far, you probably agree with those thoughts.

Now's the time to see if you agree with my suggestions for improving things. These are, by the way, in no particular order....

Idea #1: Give me a reason for the camera being where it is. [Corollary: Only have action take place where a camera could reasonably be.]

Alright, so this action takes place in my universe; and that means the cameras are in this universe, too. They can't be ignored...

An example: I can come up with no realistic reason why there would already be cameras stationed at the bridges where Angle dragged Austin to on Monday. And you couldn't even have just written in Angle grabbing a cameraman and saying, "I think you'll want to shoot this," because I'm guessing an entire truck with a dish and everything would have been required to do those remote shoots. Or am I thinking too hard?

Well, that's the point... I am probably over-thinking, but without that, I've got nothing here, so let me run with the ball.

All it takes is one part creativity and one part restraint to set up plausible scenarios for capturing most any action you want with a camera. You could get me to accept that there's always going to be a full phalanx of cameras inside the arena, so anything that takes place on the arena floor is fair game. I'll accept that there's always a camera positioned at the interview station. I'll accept that you might have a camera at the backstage entrance to catch arriving superstars. I'll even accept that you might have a camera stationed in the commissioner's office.

From that foundation, you can do most anything. Follow Steve Austin from his truck to his locker-room and do a quick skit there. Have an interview with Edge go horribly wrong when Christian attacks him from behind. Watch as Commissioner Regal sign a Tajiri/X-Pac rematch... if you can't do it believably, it might just not be worth doing. [Note: even after a lot of thought, I'm still torn on whether or not G-TV was a good, creative idea for getting a camera in where it wouldn't otherwise be or if it was just lame.]

I mean, some of the most annoying parts of WWF TV lately are annoying because they are pointless. How many 90 second "inside the Alliance dressing room" things have we seen that just go nowhere (and it doesn't help that they often feature the aforementioned stilted dialogue)? Applying my logic, those bits should be eliminated because there's no reason a camera should still be lingering.

It would help focus the storytelling on the uniquely wrestling-oriented aspect of this entertainment form to apply this logic, too... you can still do backstage skits and remote pieces sometimes, but for the most part, even if you're talking and telling stories, there's no reason not to do it in the arena, in the ring. That's when stuff HAPPENS, and other bits, well, if they're sorta pointless, let's just axe 'em entirely.

Idea #2: Everything that's shown on TV is instantly common knowledge to every character/performer

The home viewer should not have any privileged information... but plenty of times in the past, we are shown a skit, and apparently, nobody at the arena actually saw anything happen, because they are caught off guard.

It's not like I want footage of everybody back in the locker-room glued to monitors, but it's not unreasonable to suspect that these competitors would either be watching the show or would have word of important turns of events relayed to them in short order.

Eliminate this logic leak, and you can eliminate any number of silly skits (like the old chocolate Ex-Lax bit from a year or two back) that are predicated on the talent not knowing something that the home viewer does. Again, all in the name of realism.

Idea #3: Never say or do anything that you wouldn't say or do in real life

I'm essentially ripping this one off from Mike Antley's first Excess recap, but this phrasing allows me to essentially pack a bunch of stuff into one bullet point...

It allows me to address the stilted dialogue issue, for instance: over-writing has got to go, and one heuristic that might be useful is this "would I say this in real life?" approach. Paradoxically, this seems like it might punish the well-prepared talents who carefully map out what they are going to say... actually, one of the parties regularly guilty of Stilted Dialogue Syndrome seems to be Stephanie McMahon, which is easily understandable. She's hip deep in writing this stuff each week, putting a lot of thought into what's going to end up on TV... so when performance time rolls around, all sense of spontaneity is lost, and it comes off like dialogue off the written page.

Better to think "Here's the concept I have to get across," and then try to figure out how you'd get it across in casual conversation. Have a few notes, a few points you want to hit, but don't over-think it to the point where you take your own voice out of it.

This point also allows me to address the "reasonable man" issue: Kurt Angle would not, in real life, toss Steve Austin off a bridge. Kurt Angle MIGHT, in real life, THREATEN to toss Austin off a bridge to get himself a title match. I know I keep coming back to this, but it really is a fine example of what pisses me off, so...

Anyway, what we've got is a situation where for an hour, this skit is playing out, and the fans at home are thinking, "This isn't the Kurt Angle I thought I knew." I'm sure some liked the psycho Kurt, but I'm betting there were also some (like me) who just felt the whole thing was so far from ringing true that it hurt the storytelling. Who felt that there was no way Austin was really going over a bridge, so who were already looking for the "out" half an hour before the end of the show. "This is completely unreasonable behavior, so I wonder how Angle's gonna puss out of it in the end?". Something along those lines.

It's bad for two reasons: first, drama is lacking when fans cannot completely submerge themselves in the belief that something important is actually gonna happen. And second, it hurts the Kurt Angle character. Maybe they think they are HELPING Angle by giving him that tough edge, but in the long run, trying to add something that just doesn't belong might hurt him. Acting like a psycho and playing with trucks, for some reason, that works for Austin... for Angle, it doesn't. Don't ask me why. But I'm guessing it's got something to do with the fact that Austin's got that macho, testosterone-fueled redneck thing just a little bit in real life, while Angle doesn't.

Other examples of this also involve Austin... there was the night Austin "hunted" Vince McMahon, and brought him into the ring at gunpoint. Then there was the night Austin lifted a car with Triple H in it up on a forklift. These are examples where, even if Austin's a crazy redneck, these were simply unreasonable scenarios. Even as they developed, you were looking for the "out." In both cases, the "out" sucked.

In the case of Vince at gunpoint, the out was that Austin had a toy gun that popped out a banner reading "BANG," at which point Vince pissed his pants. In the case of Triple H dangling 30 feet in the air, they actually went through with it, and did the climactic thing of dropping the car to the ground. That "out" wound up sucking, however, because HHH was back on TV 2 weeks later, as if nothing had happened. It was unreasonable that Austin would act that way, but it was even more unreasonable that HHH should survive that unscathed.

Idea #4: Be very careful with comedy and self-referential bits

This is so hard to put down on paper... comedy is hard to do, and it's even harder to get a firm enough handle on to talk about meaningfully. But I've got a few thoughts that might be worthwhile tossing out...

First is that everybody's gotta be on the same page when something humorous is being presented. Hurricane Helms is a fine example of it working: everybody, Helms included, is working this angle as if "The Hurricane" is out of his gourd. The announcers and everyone else are not taking it too seriously. The fact that Big Show was tossing him around on SmackDown! was funny because it underlined that there are no super powers at play, here. We're all just in on a good joke, I think. The very fact that Helms is acting in a way inconsistent with real life (as suggested earlier) means going for the humor is the only way to go in this situation.

Other times, humor may not be appropriate, or it seems like we get mixed signals. On of the best examples of this is the Seinfeld/Newman vibe between Stephanie and Jericho... it is funny, and it's something that my friends and I do. But that's just the point: the only time you'd do such an obvious caricature of hatred is if it's among friends. So we get that vibe between Jericho and Steph, and it sort of takes away from the idea that they really dislike each other when they do a comedy bit together.

There's nothing conceptually wrong with working in those pop culture references (though I wonder how "pop" a show that went off the air 3 years ago can be), but there needs to be an awareness of how they are used and how they'll affect the atmosphere of the show.

It's similar to how I completely do NOT get what the deal with Kurt Angle drinking milk is supposed to be. He's obviously mimicking Austin's beer-fueled celebrations of the past, but why? Is it just supposed to be funny? If so, why is Angle taking the time in the middle of a heated feud to go for laughs? Or is it supposed to be a mind game, showing Austin that he's versed in history and more than willing to reprise it in his own way?

Along a similar vein, the way self-referential things are presented has got to be addressed. The last few weeks has seen Kurt Angle and Steve Austin ripping off shtick from years ago, and I wonder if it may not be a case of being too clever for its own good. Hey, nice work, writing team... I get it, everybody who's reading a website like this probably gets it... but can you really count on the impact being the same for the audience at large?

Maybe they don't remember the beer truck... maybe they don't recall the previous times that bridge in Detroit was used... and nothing was really done, either on commentary or with video packages to explain the history. I don't know if that's a missed opportunity to tell that history, or if the creative team -- from the get-go -- went overboard with trying to relive the past.

That's about all I wanted to say on this topic.... this whole "going Hollywood" thing has been an issue for years now, but it seemed as good a time as any to put as much of my opposing viewpoint on the table as possible. The combination of Monday's Angle/Austin finale with a news-light weekend meant it was time to vent!

I encourage feedback... I want to know what you think. Firstly, let me know where you're coming from: do your assumptions match mine, or do you want something different out of your wrestling shows? And then, with that foundation laid, let me know if you would make additional/different suggestions for how to fix things (assuming you think anything needs fixing). There are two ways you can disagree with me on this issue, so feel free to take advantage of both!

Like I said, I know what I want and like as a fan, but that might not be the same as what you're after. Hopefully, you've found something here in this diatribe that you can either (1) agree with or (2) use as a starting point to more fully explore your differing tastes. You know, something. Otherwise, this just goes into the pile of pointless ranting that I've collected over the years!

No matter, I try to only do it once every month or two... Monday will see me back here again, and which point I'll be packing some news to go with my opinion. See you then.....

 

E-MAIL RICK SCAIA
BROWSE THE OO ARCHIVES

Rick Scaia is a wrestling fan from Dayton, OH.  He's been doing this since 1995, but enjoyed it best when the suckers from SportsLine were actually PAYING him to be a fan.

 


  
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