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Learned Resignation
December 23, 2002

by Rick Scaia
Exclusive to OnlineOnslaught.com


It's the night before the night before Christmas, and not a newsbite was stirring.  Not even something worth cribbing from Jim Ross' WWE.com column...  the SOB spent the whole time talking about football, it seemed like.  And the bowl games are still over a week away!

So what am I, a loyal scribe covering the Squared Circle, to do?  Well, basically, borrow some more inspiration from Jeb Lund, that's what.  First he had the idea for -- and more importantly, offered to do the leg work on -- "Crashing the Boards." And then, when he submitted his column regarding Learned Disappointment, he suggested it might be a thing where I might chime in with my thoughts, and we get a bit of a dialogue going to hash the issue out more fully.

Well, we won't go quite that far, since I got to read his piece and tailor this response... without ever giving Jeb the chance to rebut.  Kinda one-sided, I know, but such is the privilege of the webmaster!

But I am going to retort to Jeb's current Obtuse Angle... and if you don't already have it down as weekly required reading, then (a) you're stupid, and (b) you're gonna have to make an exception this week if you want my column to make a lick of sense.

I'm not going to argue that wrestling, increasingly, seems doomed to disappoint...  but what I'm going to focus on and amplify is the idea of Booked Disappointment.  Jeb chose to make it his #1 identified form of disappointment, but I'll go a step further and say it's really the only form that truly disappoints me as a fan.

But before I can even get into that, I guess I must start by laying the same foundation as Jeb did:  by answering the question "What do I get out of pro wrestling?".  The answer has evolved over time, probably starting with "It was something cool and popular that gave me something to talk about with friends" back in the 80s when I was in grade school.  Being totally honest, a bit of my answer today would probably be "It gives me the subject matter so that I can write pages and pages of crap that tons of people want to read, providing me with ego satisfaction."

But mostly, I'd guess it comes down to "It gives me a whole lot of entertainment wrapped up in a package that I'm familiar with and have been enjoying for 15 years, now." 

It's that familiarity that leads me to focus almost solely on one form of Learned Disappointment.  The disappointments that arise through sloppiness or unoriginality, using Jeb's definitions, are ones that I'm kind of resigned to, as a fan of 15 years.  They don't piss me off.  When they do grate on me, they can usually be distilled down to variants of Booked Disappointment, anyway.

Disappointment through sloppiness is a by-product of the episodic nature of wrestling today.  In days of yore, wrestling companies would map out and tape a months worth of TV in a day or two, and I'm guessing that made internal consistency a bit easier to maintain.  Today, the weekly taping schedule combines with instant fan feedback to create a nonstop state of flux.  

And the very same shifting storylines that may rank as a disappointment could morph into a superbly well-received twist a week later.  The "anything can happen" atmosphere has its upside, too, is what I'm saying.

An example: just as quickly as Albert was thrust into interfering in a PPV main event match -- drawing the ire of fans who last remembered him as a B-show jobber -- he's been demoted, and now appears to be attempting to "earn" his upgrade with an uphill battle against Edge.  Is it bad that they plucked Albert from curtain-jerker status and instantly gave him this huge push?  Yes.  But is it also bad that they took him out of that key slot and have him back on Velocity now, all in the course of two weeks?  I'd say no.

Or how about the Dudley Boyz?  Jeb uses them as an example of a team just hastily thrown back together for no good reason.  Hey, fine, I grant there was no build up and no particularly well-told story for why they're back together.  But I look at the hasty and arbitrary decision to split them apart, where it caused them to stray, and then look at how quickly fans are back into their act, and... well, I think they're in a demonstrably better place now, and they've got no choice but to thank hasty and sloppy booking.

I'll take some of that sloppiness, as long as things work out well in the big picture, like with the Duds.  Yeah, so maybe that means a guy like Rob Van Dam spins his wheels when he doesn't have a PPV-ready feud, or that the events of one week have to be de-emphasized when the pacing of a storyline is slowed down, or whatever...  because for the most part, they'll get the important stories right, and it'll be because they CAN adapt from week to week, and because we WILL accept changes if they are to our liking.

What of disappointment stemming from unoriginality?  I can't get too upset here, either.  I know what I'm getting into from the get go.  Pro wrestling is basically grown men arguing and then pretending to fight about it.  Pro wrestling fans tend towards Pavlovian responses to certain moves or catchphrases.  So you've got an entertainment form that is, itself, a bit limiting, and on top of that, you've got an audience that loves to be spoonfed the same proven formula, ad nauseum.

That's bound to be anathema to any effort towards originality.

And let me briefly digress and say that "originality" and "creativity" and other synonyms are often universally regarded as virtues, but I don't necessarily agree.  This is an argument that I have most frequently in the context of music and playing with different musicians, but it applies anywhere.  

It is pure ego to think that you can come up with a completely new good idea that nobody has had before, just by devoting a couple minutes thought to it.  Being different and original just for the sake of being different and original will more often than not lead to something that's unique, but also quite obnoxiously bad.  I don't care if you're trying to invent new chords and guitar tunings because you want to slap the audience in the face with your musical genius, or if you're dead set on turning a wrestling show into a non-stop stream of "shoot" angles to trick fans into thinking everything is real.  The point is, you have to temper this wanton desire for originality with a realization that most good ideas have already been had.

That leaves you with the opportunity to manipulate those good ideas, to combine them, to give them a shiny new finish... to make them INTERESTING if not, strictly speaking, completely original.  I'm reminded of that mildly unsettling "interview" I did with Raven back at the Pillman Memorial a couple years ago... where we wound up agreeing that there are a handful of archetypical stories that have been told and retold for centuries, and that even within the framework of wrestling, there are still lots of ways to retell those stories.

When those stories are blandly developed or blatantly recycled from wrestling's own past-tellings, that's when I am let down.  But again, it's something I'm resigned to.  It doesn't get to me that much.  There are only so many times you can catch lightning in a bottle in the form of highly profitable insurgence vs. corporate structure feuds (like nWo vs. WCW or Austin vs. McMahon), and only so many indie guys you can rip off looking for new gimmick matches and highspots.

The rest of the time, I can make do with stories that are retooled, recylced, and repeated...  if the characters involved are moderately interesting and the matches themselves are good, that's more than enough to keep me going.  And I'd rather have that than Vince Russo's industry-redefining-if-only-he'd-kept-his-job-long-enough-to- accomplish-everything-he-set-out-to "Shoot-O-Vision" any day of the week.

That only leaves me with Booked Disappointment, the only time when I actually find myself inspired to rant and rave like a loon.  The only time I might actually get worked up to the point that I'm upset and frustrated with the writers who let this happen.  The only time when I feel genuine disappointment, rather than a resigned acceptance of one of the inherent short-comings of an entertainment form I've become intimately familiar with.

As an example of the phenomenon of the people in charge making decisions counter to the mission of entertaining the audience was, Jeb put forth the Kane/Katie Vick thing...  and hey, if ever there was an example of forced-originality sucked eggs, there it was!  "Hey, guys, let's completely rewrite Kane's backstory to make it more REAL!"  Nice work, fellas...

For my own piece, I'm gonna use the on-going Torrie Wilson/Dawn Marie/Al Wilson thing on SmackDown!, mostly because it's more recent, but also because I think it is only fair to show that SD! writers are not immune to brainfarts.

What made the Torrie/Dawn thing at the PPV so infuriating was the simple fact that there was no chance in hell of a pay-off.  To me, that is central to the concept of "Booked Disappointment."  I know some writers claim when they start a book, they either don't know the ending, or have a different ending develop than the one they expected.  I posit that you cannot blindly tell stories that same way in wrestling.

Every feud, hell EVERY SEGMENT, should have a pay-off, be it big or small.  Dawn Marie's bit at the PPV?  Nothing but anti-climax, and worse, it's part of a bigger, over-riding angle that is also destined to go nowhere.  I hope like hell I'm wrong and there's some huge twist coming... but at this point, I'd bet a large sum of money that NOBODY, three months ago -- when Torrie and Dawn first started feuding and Al first started showing up -- sat down and mapped out a compelling direction for these characters.  A place where the storyline ends, and the characters move on to different things.  If I had to guess, I'd say that the direction they're heading now is Al finally coming to his senses and leaving Dawn at the altar, but hey, who the hell cares about that?  It has nothing to do with anything, and in addition to being an utterly pointless story, it's been poorly acted at times, too!

So why does the creative team continue to put it out there?  They are booking segments that have no other possible outcome except to disappoint.  In the macro, the whole Al/Dawn/Torrie thing has nothing doing.  In the micro, the segment at the PPV was over-long with no pay-off other than, apparently, to get some utterly useless heel heat on Al Wilson when he stopped the tape before it got to anything genuinely racy.

You know, it was a joke, and one-off side comment, but I got an e-mail last week from a guy who said that a better way to have ended Dawn's thing at the PPV would have been to have it interrupted in the same place... by Randy Orton and an RNN News Update.  Thing is, that might not be a million dollar idea, but it's still tons better than what WWE actually did.  Orton, unlike Al, could actually use that heat at some point.

But wait, Orton's on RAW, not SD!, so maybe that's hasty booking that would only lead to Disappointment Through Sloppiness....  ow, my head hurts just thinking about it...

I would not presume to tell anyone how to do their job, but from my frame of reference (i.e. "guy who did some Fantasy Booking two years ago"), I think it would be very helpful to develop the pay-off to storylines and work backward in the context of pro wrestling.  Maybe that doesn't work in any other form, but here, I think it does.

At this time of year, I can't help but use the example of all roads leading to WrestleMania.  By now, even if we as fans don't know for sure, I'm guessing key personnel have decided just who will and won't be available for work at WM19.  They should have a complete card and a general idea of what storylines will get us there.  Like obviously, somebody's got plans to make sure Lesnar vs. Angle happens...  but what about the rest of the card?  You want a show that is worth caring about, from top to bottom?  NOW is the point where you gotta start planning.  Need help getting started?  There's a big-ass thread on the OO Forums with people suggesting matches and full cards.  We'll leave the intervening three months up to you guys...

If we start that reverse-engineering process for WrestleMania now, hopefully we can avoid a mess like last year.  All sorts of disappointments spawned from the pre-Mania hype and the show itself last year, but one and all can be addressed by just trying to avoid Booked Disappointment this year.  Let's not worry about shocking the audience, booking by the minute to try to fabricate ratings gains, or any crap like that.  Let's worry about entertaining the audience, about developing the big pay-offs to storylines that'll convince them to come on back for the NEXT set of stories. 

I hope most wrestling fans are like me: resigned to a certain amount of sloppiness in the name of maintaining an "anything can happen" environment and to a dearth of originality so that partially lobotomized fans can sing along with their favorite catchphrases...  but the fact that over half of the WWE's audience has evaporated in the last 3 years is proof that most fans are unwilling to endure poorly conceived and executed storylines from bookers seemingly dead set on disappointing us in the long run.

And on that joyous note:  Happy Holidays!  Be safe, have fun, and I'll see you again on Friday...


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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