WWE Payback 2016 was the first pay-per view of the WWE’s New Era.
I know this to be true because the event was advertised as such during the week of television that preceded it. Multiple references to this new era were also made over the course of the three hour special itself held in Chicago last Sunday night. Similar references were made during this week’s episode of Raw as well. So it’s official, a new era has begun in WWE. But what exactly does that mean?
WWE has yet to explain what this era is supposed to represent or the implications it will have on the characters involved in current narratives. Likewise, we have no idea how this new era will influence the presentation of the product or how it will change the way fans view the product moving forward, if at all. What this new era is designed to accomplish; how it’s going to transform any or all aspects of WWE is still anyone’s guess. After two weeks of heavy emphasis but little explanation it’s clear the ambiguity surrounding this new era is intentional. What isn’t clear, at least me, is why. Few clues have been provided as to what direction WWE’s fictional universe is about to take. All we know at this time is this era is new.
Roman Reigns has been identified as the face of this new era. In the weeks since his WrestleMania 32 championship victory Reigns has been presented as a morally neutral character; an unapologetic standard bearer and equal opportunity ass-kicker. He’s not a good guy, he’s not a bad guy, he’s just the guy. This is certainly new. Never before has WWE attempted to present a top babyface as anything other than a supreme hero as dictated by The McMahon Doctrine, a booking philosophy I’ve outlined in great detail in past columns. The early stages of this experiment have significantly improved Reigns’ on-screen persona (whether a certain portion of the pro wrestling bubble wants to admit it or not) and added a new intrigue around the WWE title. With babyfaces and heels alike lining up for championship opportunities the main event scene, which has suffered from a stale predictability for quite some time, has been reinvigorated with a refreshing sense of charm.
Further down the roster the influx of NXT talent recently promoted to the main roster has allowed for the introduction of new characters, new matches and new storylines. Acts that thrived within the smaller confines of the NXT universe are largely succeeding in getting over with the notoriously fickle primetime television audience. Creatively speaking the majority of these call ups have been booked from a position of strength from the outset, which may indicate a new philosophical approach to presenting fresh talent as it relates to their status among established acts.
And then there is the newly minted women’s division. In the wake of the contrived and poorly executed Divas Revolution angle came real change. The women of this new division are no longer divas but superstars, just as their male counterparts are presented. More important than what they are or are not called is the new approach to how they are booked on the card. Hollow mean girl-type characters and stories have been replaced with more traditional pro wrestling angles, with an emphasis on athletic ability and character driven personalities.
Amidst all this new, some of the old has managed to survive.
The proverbial front office power struggle for control of Raw (and WWE on the whole by extension) has played a large part in the narrative surrounding this new and presumably still unnamed era. Shane and Stephanie McMahon embroiled in a contentious struggle for absolute power is certainly not a new story. Stories centered on the balance of power as it relates to Raw have existed both with and without McMahon involvement since the late 1990s. However, the latest chapter of this familiar story has instigated the suspension of The Authority. The WWE universe is no longer ruled by heel authority figures with ulterior motives or biased views that influence many of the stories within the universe. Anyone that understands JBL’s frequent Jack Tunney references understands that the absence of a heel ruling class is not new. However, when narrowed within the context of recent history, the concept can at least be presented in such a way that makes it feel new, especially when considering the portion of the audience who doesn’t know Jack Tunney from Jack Briscoe.
All of this new (and even some of the old being repackaged as new) has certainly made the WWE product more enjoyable to both consume and critique as of late. That notwithstanding, there is a discernible difference between an intriguing stretch of programming and the bold declaration of a new era. WWE is infamous for using wild hyperbole and larger than life symbolism when furthering both its characters and the stories that keep them alive. Historically speaking, however, the company has displayed the capability to present its brand and introduce a drastic shift in presentation or storytelling methodology with a clarity and precision often lacking in its day-to-day booking.
When Hulk Hogan defeated The Iron Sheik and won the WWF Championship in 1984, it was presented as the genesis of a thrilling new chapter in the company’s history. In the weeks immediately following, WWE laid the foundation for a movement that became a legitimate cultural phenomenon for the remainder of the decade. Everything changed: the characters, the colors, the arenas, the manner in which the product was filmed and presented. A total metamorphosis designed to stimulate each of the viewer’s senses in such a way that prevented the thought of changing the channel from ever entering one’s mind.
When steroid and sexual abuse scandals all but brought the new empire crumbling down in the early 1990s, a strategic rebranding of the product was instituted. Smaller, less super-human looking athletes were placed in the spotlight and branded the New Generation. Bret Hart’s championship victory at WrestleMania X was used as the official launching pad for this calculated approach.
The company’s creative trajectory was virtually unaltered during this period; the change was not philosophical in nature, but rather one of necessity and survival. Public relations damage control and the pressure of a Federal indictment dictated the radical modifications. Wholesome (and legal) family fun was the order of the day; human cartoon characters for the purpose of putting smiles on children’s faces.
In 1997, the Attitude Era was engineered to regain a significant portion of the audience, who left for WCW’s product in droves after becoming apathetic and disengaged with the WWF’s overly vanilla family-friendly product. McMahon’s infamous monologue to introduce the new creative approach aired on December 15, 1997. Before the year 1998 began, the new approach was in full effect. Passé good guy versus bad guy stories were thrown out the window. Characters and stories were presented with healthy doses of reality. Aggressive language, sexuality and extreme violence became the new norm virtually overnight.
The Ruthless Aggression Era is easily defined as the brand-split phase of WWE’s history. Raw, Smackdown and later a revamped version of ECW became separate entities, with wrestlers, managers, announce teams and even referees becoming exclusive acts for one of the three brands. The effects of this era were felt immediately for obvious reasons.
When the cord was cut on the brand-split experiment in 2008, WWE entered the Reality Era. The magic curtain was essentially removed and the concept of kayfabe was left for dead in every area of the business outside of the actual ring. The longstanding position to maintain the walls of WWE’s fictional universe was replaced with unlimited access to virtually everything. Behind the scenes exposés, documentary-style DVDs and backstage interviews were no longer considered out of bounds. For the first time in its history WWE placed as much emphasis on the real men and women portraying its characters as the actual characters themselves, fundamentally changing how fans viewed the product.
Each of these eras and the greater themes around them are easily definable; they each have their own unique qualities and presentations that make differentiating them a fairly simple exercise. Watch any match currently available on the WWE Network and you can likely identify the era in which it took place with little more knowledge than provided in this column. Which brings us back to the original question, what is this new era all about?
Sure, we have new characters, but that alone isn’t precedent for the pronouncement a new era – it’s an inherent aspect of the business. Story quality is not cause for a new era either, it’s simply presenting an enjoyable product – isn’t that the point regardless of what the defined era is about? WWE’s product looks and feels the same today as it did three weeks ago. No obvious shift in presentation or production has occurred, nor has the PG-centric tone of the product changed.
Are we truly on the precipice of something completely new? If so, why has the introduction of this concept been presented in a purely suggestive manner counter to each of the promotion’s previous reincarnations? What exactly is going to change? What new themes and creative directions are planned and why? Many of these questions are likely to be answered over the course of the next several weeks, one way or another. If not, the absence of any real clarity will speak volumes as well, but for all the wrong reasons.
Failing to deliver a storyline or even a character as promised is one thing; failing to deliver a new era is something completely different. Such a dereliction would almost certainly dissolve the recent goodwill displayed by the fan base after an extended period of dissatisfaction with the product, striking a destructive and entirely avoidable self-inflicted blow. The ball is in your court WWE, proceed with caution.