Magic, Memories, and Mania VALENTINO'S MAGIC, MEMORIES & MANIA: Ten Steps to Fix WWE's Storytelling Approach
Sep 5, 2011 - 10:52:08 AM
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By Shawn Valentino, PWTorch specialist
Last week, I purchased a 14-disc collection that tells the tale one of my favorite cultural figures, Superman. After all of these years of comic book films, I still believe that the greatest of them all is the original Superman movie starring the late Christopher Reeves and directed by Richard Donner. Having grown up in the eighties and nineties with larger-than-life figures like Hulk Hogan, Randy Savage, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin, The Rock, etc., I have always felt that the Superstars of pro wrestling are the closest thing to the iconic figures of the comic universe. Somewhere along the line, the world of wrestling lost that larger-than-life feel. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the last few months where WWE has allowed internal logic and character consistency - concepts that have been dwindling over the past decade anyway - fall to the wayside.
How does WWE fix this problem? Although there is no solution, I point back to Donner’s guiding mantra when he was directing the first Superman and that was verisimilitude, or respect for the appearance of truth. The wrestling business needs to stop being insecure about what it is and concentrate on creating an escapist world of entertainment with characters that have a strong constitution and behave in a logical fashion in the context of the reality of the story presented.
When I am not writing about the world of wrestling, I write self-help books and give advice based on my life experiences. Today, I will outline a ten-step program to help fix WWE’s jumbled product of inconsistent characters, incoherent storytelling, and stale presentation.
(1) The characters must behave logically in the confines of the universe they create.
I have already written an article condemning WWE’s cheap tactic of resorting to shoot style promos to spark interest in their product. I likened C.M. Punk’s usage of behind-the-scenes insider terminology to Christian Bale calling out the fact that Heath Ledger is dead in the middle of a Batman movie. Even if it garners some momentary interest, I do not see any long-term value in breaking the fourth wall and destroying the credibility of the world of escapism that any brand of entertainment is attempting to create.
I think the best segment of the year was the pre-WrestleMania promo between Undertaker, Triple H, and Shawn Michaels. They sold the idea that winning and losing was a matter of major consequence to their careers and the fact that HBK was forced to retire due to the stipulation the year before added to the gravitas. None of the characters were making snarky comments or winking and smiling at the audience, and it resulted in the most dramatic in-ring masterpiece of the year. Although Punk did create a buzz and have a great match with Cena, the damage it has caused the product has outweighed the admittedly high quality of his performances. Storyline presentation has been a mess, and the characters have been going in and out of character and alienated the viewer from the escapist journey viewers seek when watching wrestling.
(2) No more worked-shoot promos
To summarize my first step into a practical method to achieve the verisimilitude that WWE should be seeking would be to advise them to stop with the worked-shoot promos. Sure, they can be funny and generate gasps from the audience, but the overall negative effects outweigh the heat ignited amongst a small part of their audience. What comes out of the characters mouth's should remain focused on forwarding stories within a reality where winning and losing and settling personal grudges are what drive them.
(3) Slowly phase out matches between “stars” on free television
PWTorch editor Wade Keller has written many columns that have advocated the return of squash matches. When I first started watching wrestling, viewers were accustomed to seeing Superstars fighting generic jobbers and showing off their entrance and key moves. Not only did it allow viewers to become familiar with the characters, it also made the rare occasions when two top stars fought seem special. Of course, the Monday Night Wars changed everything and now nearly all matches on television are between so-called stars. The problem with that goes back to what PWTorch columnist Bruce Mitchell has said, “If everything is important, then nothing is important.” Can anyone name ten great matches on Raw and Smackdown over the last year or two? WWE (and TNA) present hundreds of bouts where big-name wrestlers collide ever year and almost none of it is of any consequence. I do realize it would take time to train most viewers to accept squash matches again, but I feel that if they slowly re-introduce them to the audience, it would help move stories forward in a more intelligent, interesting fashion, and it would help build up characters instead of having them needlessly exchange wins and losses to the point that no one gets over.
(4) Take two or three young wrestlers and give them larger-than-life personas and names/entrances
The death of “Macho Man” Randy Savage earlier this year reminded many people of a time when wrestlers would jump off the screen with their charisma and magnetism. I do not believe there is anyone in today’s wrestling universe that has that type of spectacular appeal. There is a reason that The Rock returning earlier in the year ignited such a spark in the programming. To illustrate an example of what is wrong with today’s wrestling, I will look at the old Legacy trio of Randy Orton, Cody Rhodes, and Ted DiBiase, all talented young wrestlers, but none of them really have the flash and excitement to truly appeal to a casual fan. When my friend, who does not watch wrestling regularly anymore, looked at them, he said they look like they came off an assembly line of generic action figures. Now let us look at their fathers, “Million Dollar Man” Ted DiBiase, “The American Dream” Dusty Rhodes, and “Cowboy” Bob Orton. All of them had completely different body-types, personas, and promo techniques.
I am not saying a complete return to a cartoonish universe will work, but I do believe WWE needs to get behind three young wrestlers and give them some type of larger-than-life character based on traits of their own personality and attempt to make them into stars. They should give them a flashy entrance with cool music instead of the generic tracks they have saddled their wrestlers with in recent years. WWE should celebrate the uniqueness of their Superstars that the average person can be in awe of.
(5) Do not underestimate the importance of good commentary
One of the most entertaining aspects of 1980s WWE was the banter between Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan or Vince McMahon and Jesse Ventura. I loved the dynamic between the babyface host and the funny heel with an alternate set of values but believes he is right in his views. At the time, most matches were squashes or time-fillers, but the announcers made the show fun to watch. Let us contrast that to the generic cookie-cutter faces and annoying color guys that host today’s shows. Thankfully WWE brought Jim Ross back, but he needs to be the main voice of the program. WWE should replace Josh Mathews and move Jerry Lawler and Booker T, both embarrassing themselves on commentary, to new roles. I would like to see Ross with a consistent, toned-down Heel Michael Cole. On Smackdown, they can experiment a bit, but anyone has to be better than Booker. I would like to see Mick Foley return as the color guy because he was becoming good in that position before he left WWE. If WWE can place a strong combinations at the announce table that can entertain while telling the story and building up the characters, the quality of the show will grow exponentially.
(6) They should keep the World Title belt on at least one champion until WrestleMania
There was a time when holding the World Championship was a prestigious honor. Those days have gone the day of the dinosaur. Now it is merely a symbolic gift that is given to anyone that has put in some solid service with the company. Not only that, it is passed around so often that holding the gold no longer has any value. I watch the show every week, and I often have no idea who the champion even is. WWE needs to rebuild the importance of the World Title. It will take a long time to do so, but one approach they can take is to structure a long-term plan around one champion and stick with it barring unforeseen disaster. I would like to see them take one of their current champions, either Orton or Del Rio, and have him hold the Championship until WrestleMania. I don’t want to hear about wrestlers being 15-time champions. I would prefer to see a strong long-term champion with many meaningful victories against credible challengers until losing the belt actually means something.
(7) No more heel or face turns until WrestleMania unless it organically takes place due to fan reaction
One of the most frustrating parts of watching wrestling in recent years is how characters completely change between hero and villain or vice versa without any real explanation as to why they have adopted a new set of values. If WWE wants to pride itself as competing with other mainstream entertainment companies they need to learn how to create consistent characters with a strong constitution. To develop that discipline, I would like them to keep all of their wrestlers as either babyfaces or heels without changing them until WrestleMania. This allows viewers to become familiar with and connect to the current incarnation of their characters. That way, if they turn, it would mean much more. Additionally, wrestlers should not suddenly shift between good and evil without a logical explanation for their change. Their should be a moment that causes them to shift so fans aren’t left confused as to why a character has abandoned their previous code of conduct.
(8) Create four tag teams with a cool name and set of tandem moves and keep them each together for at least one year
Tag team wrestling has been a dying art in wrestling for years, but with a little bit of effort it can thrive again. I am not a fan of thrusting random wrestlers together temporarily and calling them a tag team. I want to see the return to two Superstars in similar outfits with double team moves and a cool name and entrance music. There are so few tag teams today that the division has all but ceased to exist. One way to get viewers interested in tag action again is to create teams that have a collective identity and that are working towards a championship that actually means something. If WWE could take eight wrestlers and make four teams that will stay together for at least a year, then they could plant a seed to grow an area that was once one of the highlights of their programming.
(9) Bring back managers
There is not much explanation needed here. I would like to see at least two male managers with strong, unique personalities worked into the shows over the next year. It is true that Vickie Guerrero is an excellent performer, but I want to see the return of the arrogant, annoying villain with a stable of wrestlers that he or she is using for personal glory. This would not only help solidify the line between heel and face, but the manager would also serve as a mouthpiece for stars that are not yet established at promos.
(10) Write four-month story arcs for wrestlers and stick to the plan
Most of the great storylines in wrestling history took a long time to develop and built to a compelling conclusion that made sense and captivated audiences. Looking back at the ridiculous fly-by-night booking in recent months shows that WWE needs to write out their plots ahead of time and stick with the program. Otherwise, they risk losing any type of sustained fan interest or trust that what they are viewing will have any type of logical payoff. I would like to see Vince McMahon and his staff plan out long-term angles for its main characters and stay on track, whether it is going the way they want or not. Right now what is most important is that the stars are portrayed in exciting, intelligent tales of good and evil that makes sense to the average viewer.
None of the ten steps that I have outlined require major budget increases or philosophy changes. They are measures that can easily be weaved into the programming over the next few months and create a more entertaining and well-presented product. Just like movies, if WWE wants to be an entertainment company, they need to seek verisimilitude. They are at a major advantage to UFC because they are in control of their own universe and are able to create dramatic stories with larger than life characters.
If they develop the discipline to showcase this fictional world they create in the best manner possible, then the Road to WrestleMania will be a pathway to larger audiences and superhero tales that would even make comic books envious.
Please send questions, comments, and feedback to firstname.lastname@example.org and check out my new book The Showstopper Lifestyle on Amazon. Feel free to add Shawn Valentino on Facebook.
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PWTorch editor Wade Keller has covered pro wrestling full time since 1987 starting with the Pro Wrestling Torch print newsletter. PWTorch.com launched in 1999 and the PWTorch Apps launched in 2008.
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He hosted the weekly Pro Wrestling Focus radio show on KFAN in the early 1990s and hosted the Ultimate Insiders DVD series distributed in retail stories internationally in the mid-2000s including interviews filmed in Los Angeles with Vince Russo & Ed Ferrara and Matt & Jeff Hardy. He currently hosts the most listened to pro wrestling audio show in the world, (the PWTorch Livecast, top ranked in iTunes)
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