There are two basic questions that seem unanswerable in professional wrestling, for however long they have existed.
1) Is the “Internet Wrestling Community” insatiable?
2) Is this the worst WWE has ever been, and will it ever get any better?
These two questions are asked, round-and-round, carousel style between the internet fans and WWE. They exist so loudly and so often that it literally seems as though the internet and WWE are just having an endless two sentence conversation with one another in which the other side hears nothing but its own words.
On one hand, from WWE’s perspective, it’s a no-win situation. A year ago, Roman Reigns was the foil to the WWE’s plans; the last hope between Batista and a WrestleMania title run the fan base did not want. A year later, Reigns himself became the problem: pushed too fast, too soon.
How is it that internet fans could complain about WWE not pushing new stars and then complain when they do? The answer then seems obvious: Because internet fans are not going to be happy regardless. They exist only to complain. But they will keep showing up because the want to keep complaining. This is how they get off on the product. They watch it to hate it. And so on.
Meanwhile, from the internet fan’s perspective, WWE’s routine botching of its own storylines seems so obvious it is nearly painful. It isn’t that we on the internet think the WWE is incompetent for not doing our thing, it’s that it at times seems so outside the realm of logic that they are often doing things in spite of their best interests as a direct result of the internet. They want Punk? Give ’em Cena. They want Bryan? Give ’em Batista.
Both perspectives are driven by contexts that exist together, but also seemingly separate of one another. The WWE has on the wisdom and decisions of the people in charge built itself to become the dominant force in wrestling today. It’s been this way for fifteen years, and their nearest global competitor is not particularly close. From their view, what they’ve done and how they’ve done it will work as it always has. From their perspective, they are sacrificing the qualms of the vocal minority for the good of the larger audience that will sustain them.
The internet’s perspective suggests that WWE’s dominance came from a time-and-place in which they challenged themselves to break from their mold. It holds that WWE made decisions that they wouldn’t now and did so only out of desperation and that was, in fact, what brought forth the golden age. Without the need to differentiate themselves — to drive harder and be better — the Attitude Era would never have existed, and WWE’s most creative period likely would never have happened. Instead, the WWE has become a weird caricature of the things it claims it conquered. Where they lampoon WCW for making the mistakes of never creating new stars and extending its product beyond the point of absurdity (see three-hour Nitros) they have become these very things.
So which is true? Of course, in reality, probably a little bit of both. Spend twenty minutes on Twitter talking wrestling and you’ll encounter an array of opinions about any single segment or wrestler, and spend another twenty listening to a WWE administrator talk and you’ll encounter circular logic so stifling you’ll probably need to lay down afterward to collect yourself.
Tonight on Raw and in Steve Austin’s interview with HHH afterwards, we saw and heard some telling things about how this strange relationship came to be.
Leading into Raw, WWE had advertised that HHH would be making an announcement that would “shake the WWE Universe to its very core.” Excellent marketing. On the show itself, the announcement was gimmicked as occurring on the fly; that whatever was happening was being decided in that very moment by HHH and Stephanie McMahon. The original announcement, then, was never explained. And the actual announcement was that Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins would have a chance to wrestle on the show, with the winner wrestling Roman Reigns at Fast Lane for the right to main event WrestleMania.
Why it is that Roman Reigns decided, for no apparent reason and with no actual incentive, to put up his WrestleMania main event opportunity was never really explained, other than the weak implication that Reigns is apparently a bad ass who would take on all comers. Why Daniel Bryan decided to mention he’d been unfairly stripped of the title and deserved a title shot now — instead of before the Royal Rumble during his return, or after WrestleMania when he’d have to go through less trouble — was never explained. Why Seth Rollins — who still holds the Money in the Bank briefcase and thus has a title shot whenever he wants — decided he was deserving of a title shot in spite of losing his recent chance at the Royal Rumble to a clean pin is also kind of bizarre.
Then Reigns is jobbed out to The Big Show (which is kind of counterintuitive to the whole “making him strong” effort), and HHH and Stephanie are seen backstage essentially burying Reigns for being too stupid to realize they couldn’t make Reigns do anything anyway, and he had essentially volunteered his place for nothing. Building stars?
This entire storyline — the lead program for the WWE and what they have been advertising for nearly a week — lasted the better part of the first forty minutes of Raw. Likely, the winner of the Bryan/Rollins match is going to lose to Reigns at Fast Lane anyway, to give him more of a “push”, and this entire episode would just constitute filler. From a smark perspective the absolute best result is that they somehow change gears, go with Bryan, and render the *last* two months useless instead of the next two. This is seriously just wasting TV space. A literal passing of the time between this part of the story line and the next, meaning nothing and accomplishing nothing, just getting by. To borrow from Triple H’s metaphor about the WWE being a book with endless chapters, this seems to be one of those chapters where you can plow through three pages and not remember a single word.
More and more, WWE programming seems to represent just that: They’re just going through the motions and filling up time.
But they know this. They know this more than you or I do because they are living it every professional second of their lives. They know that going into Fast Lane, jobbing Daniel Bryan to Roman Reigns while keeping Reigns babyface will do nothing to help him. They know it because they’ve known for over a year that using Bryan as a catalyst to get other guys over is the wrong move right now. They know it because they’ve already tried it several times, and it’s failed. They know it and, most importantly, they don’t care who it bothers because they perceive the consequences to be essentially unimportant.
For years now, the WWE has constantly shoved down our throats this ridiculous notion of WWE as a “universe”. We, the fans, are a part of this Universe, as are its characters and shows and history and other intellectual properties and what have you. Whatever this is, I don’t exactly understand, but I get the sense that it’s crept into WWE from some weird combination of Vince McMahon’s strange, childlike fascination with comic book culture (which itself ascribes to ‘universes’) and his insistence that he promotes entertainment, not wrestling. It also is an insecure reaction by McMahon and company to the legitimacy of the entertainment they provide: when criticized or dismissed by the mainstream it is okay because they simply don’t understand our, “universe”.
But tonight, what we heard from Triple H in a frankly baffling interview in which he worked so hard to say nothing controversial or illuminating that he actually said a bunch of controversial, illuminating things, was that WWE executives don’t really view their company as a universe at all. They view it as a multiverse.
“I don’t want to say vocal minority.” Triple H said, trying to explain why the WWE seems to have no interest in pleasing its internet fans. “But we have this one large audience that wants one thing, and this other large audience that wants one thing. We have this ten-year-old and this eight-year-old in the crowd, and then this twenty-two-year-old with his buddies.”
He then went through a variety of other weird explanations, sometimes slipping into anecdote and metaphor that never actually returned to his central point. He claimed that relative to the “Attitude” era, the internet has made it difficult to keep consistently cogent storylines (apparently the internet was invented in 2004?), that the reaction of live crowds do and don’t matter (at different points in the interview), and most optimistically that WWE is a “never-ending book” in which there is no need to get to a good storyline right away in place of a bad one, because they could always do it down the road (I wonder if Vince McMahon had told Hunter in 2000 that his push didn’t need to happen soon or at any particular time because they were a never-ending book, if he’d have taken it with as little chagrin?)
There’s a lot there, though it can seem like there is very little. Here’s what I get:
- The internet fan is probably a socially displaced and fickle 20-something white male.
- The internet fan doesn’t spend money, at least not on the stuff we’re peddling.
- Kids will grow up, but there will always be more kids. Parents buy their kids things. Like WWE merchandise.
- WWE thinks it can only please one of these audiences, and it thinks the family brand is its safest bet.
This has been going this way for years, back to WWE’s public offering, and back even further to the notion that WWE is not, in fact, professional wrestling, but rather sports entertainment. Vince McMahon sees himself in the light of a Barnum and Bailey promoter, and not in the way of a Vince McMahon Sr., for this very reason.
Meanwhile, HHH, whose made a second career out of faithfully serving up whatever traditionalist platitudes are offered to him as the complete and total gospel, must — at least publicly — put on the good face that this is too what he believes.
Where does the internet fan’s hope rest? Maybe, I guess, in the increasingly hopeless notion that HHH’s public affronts are just circumstance. That he has to, in other words, say and do these things this way to continue to impress to investors and McMahon and the board of directors that this is the way he’d run things, even if he wouldn’t. But hearing the rest of his podcast with Austin, that does seem increasingly tough to swallow.
In the end, the brutal reality of the situation is that we on the internet don’t really matter. At least not as much as we should in return for the loyalty we’ve shown the product. Eight-year-olds who love wrestling will turn into thirteen-year-olds who are embarrassed by it, and those who continue to love it will eventually wither into the strange amalgamation of nerd/geek/hipster wrestling fan that makes up the “not necessarily vocal minority” of the WWE “Universe”. We aren’t the money WWE wants because we aren’t enough of it, or we aren’t the right kind, anyway. Adults push back. Children are much more easily told who to like, and do so without question. It is easy to make for a kid a hero, because all they want is a hero, not the right kind of hero. Just a hero.
But we still exist, in another universe that WWE can occasionally call upon when they’re desperate, or bored, or need someone to make a joke about or rage on. We amuse them when they work-up something we might like and amuse them in a different way when we are driven crazy by where they end up. A special few of us become a part of it, turned back for a few minutes into bright-eyed children and then brutally hammered to death by the notion that we are writing or producing or performing for old men’s expectations of product, and not our idea of good story or quality TV. I point that out because so often we hear stories of former WWE employees — writers and production crew and so forth — who can’t understand things even from the inside.
WWE, ever image conscious and reactionary-to-a-fault, can abide the notion that they are an entertainment company that caters to children much more easily than they can abide the notion that they are a wrestling company that caters to nerds.
So how do we react? Well, probably for all these reasons (and certainly thanks to the Network), the nostalgia movement in pro wrestling has never been as strong as it is now, and counter programming has grown and grown. There are countless numbers of podcasts, blog posts, Twitter accounts, great self-published books and so on exploring what pro wrestling used to be and what it ought to be.
It’s funny, really.
I mean, I do look back fondly on wrestling from when I was a kid, and yet am so frustrated so often by it now. It seems so easy. From a booking perspective, there are as many problems with wrestling from 1992 as there is now. In some respects there are probably more. WCW did try to write-in RoboCop and WWE did try to employ a wrestling dentist.
But I loved it as a kid. I never questioned it or felt my loyalty to it was betrayed. I even thought Virgil was okay.
So maybe that’s the rub.
Maybe that’s all the WWE really has ever wanted to be. A big, jacked up, farcical carnival and soap opera for kids. And hey, that’s okay. I don’t mind being a big kid. I think that’s a good thing about wrestling fans, actually. I think WWE does too, deep down.
If they’d just come out and say it.