With the transformative brand extension looming in the near future most within the WWE universe have gone through the inevitable exercise of drafting a wish list of fantasy scenarios and storylines they hope to see. Among the plethora of creative desires (ranging from thoughtful to outlandish) one consistent sentiment stands out: the notion that the brand split should serve as the catalyst to eliminate all McMahon characters from the mix; a long overdue acknowledgment that their creative expiration dates have long since passed.
Common sense and approximately 12 seconds of honest thought should have been all that was required to recognize such a scenario would not occur. If not, this past Monday’s episode of Raw extinguished what little hope remained. Shane McMahon will run SmackDown and Stephanie McMahon will run Raw. Next week the siblings will choose general managers to enforce their respective storyline visions. Detractors of this predictable announcement immediately took to social media to voice their displeasure; another prime example of the propensity to set themselves up for disappointment that too many WWE fans continue to exhibit. As usual, a large sect of the pro wrestling media chose to placate the fan base’s failure (or refusal) to grasp WWE’s obvious agenda rather than explain why such a scenario is categorically absurd given all that we know.
— IGN (@IGN) July 12, 2016
It has been 19 years since Vince McMahon sat across from Jim Ross in a makeshift backstage studio and spoke of behind the scenes politics, contract negotiations and time-honored wrestling traditions on an episode of Raw; the second time in as many weeks the WWF’s kayfabe curtain was set ablaze in the wake of the infamous Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series 1997. As the conversation came to a close McMahon emphasized the fact that “Bret screwed Bret”, a phrase that was promptly etched into the promotion’s protected canon.
Addressing the pink and black elephant in the room (or more accurately, no longer in the room) was as necessary as it was unprecedented, the fanbase was confused, angry and distracted; some level of explanation was required – contrived or not. More than anything else, the segment successfully transformed a negative situation into a positive opportunity. Rather than reluctantly addressing the controversy and attempting to quickly move on, the segment cleverly converted McMahon from a lively ringside announcer to the hard-hearted owner of the World Wrestling Federation; willfully revealing the master puppeteer controlling the web of strings traditionally hidden from public view.
Six months later, the Mr. McMahon character would be in full bloom. In the spring of 1998, Shane McMahon’s character was subtly introduced amidst the announcement of Mike Tyson’s involvement in WrestleMania XIV. A year later we would come to know Linda McMahon as well as the innocent and doe-eyed Stephanie McMahon. Since the turn of the millennium at least one member of the McMahon family has maintained a significant presence on WWE programming but for a series of sporadic exceptions primarily between 2005 and 2008.
No one denies that without the struggle between Mr. McMahon and his defiant redneck champion, Steve Austin the WWE would likely not exist as we know it today. The storyline defined the Attitude Era, made the likes of Mick Foley, Triple H and Kurt Angle into big stars along the way and helped the WWF win the Monday Night War. Since the fall of WCW and the absence of a viable outside threat, McMahon chose to manufacture a threat using the dynamic of his own family. Power struggle storylines involving different members of the McMahon family have been a part of WWE’s never-ending narrative since 2001. Since then the foursome has taken turns aligning and turning on one another more times than even I care to count. Some stories proved compelling (Vince vs. Shane at WrestleMania XVII), some proved to bomb (The Invasion angle), some proved to be somewhere in the middle (Shane’s return prior to WrestleMania 32)…and then there’s Vince vs. Stephanie at No Mercy 2003, which belongs in a category all its’ own.
After all that time it’s understandable that many are suffering from McMahon fatigue. The characters have been grossly overexposed in recent years, Stephanie’s character in particular. Content centered on these characters has often lacked focus and creative continuity, which only fuels the discontent. At the same time, fans and critics alike have placed far too much emphasis on the trajectory of these characters in terms of traditional pro wrestling story arcs we’ve grown accustomed to expect.
WWE is no longer a character-driven product, the brand itself is now the star of the show; arguments for or against such a strategy are for another time and another column. Not only have the McMahons been fully integrated into the brand-driven philosophy, but the characters have been morphed into something that goes beyond traditional babyface or heel roles. The McMahon family dynamic (and the constant power struggle that follows) has become forged into the very framework of WWE, like the WWE Championship itself – rather than tangible characters part of a storyline with a beginning, middle and end. The power struggle material is nothing more than a surrogate device; a credible and recognizable device to generate conflict or drama in the same vein as the iron throne in Game of Thrones or peace on the streets on Hell’s Kitchen in the Daredevil universe.
Think of any high-profile narrative, any one of your favorite angles or significant matches presented by WWE over the last two decades; chances are a McMahon was involved in some fashion, even if that involvement proved to be secondary to the story. The iconic dream match between The Rock and Hulk Hogan at WrestleMania XVIII was only possible after Vince called upon the NWO to inject the infamous lethal dose of poison amidst a power struggle with Ric Flair. Speaking of Flair, remember that iconic retirement match against Shawn Michaels at WrestleMania XXIV, yeah me too. Two months earlier Flair crossed the boss before Vince instituted the ruling that the next match Flair lost would be his last. Daniel Bryan’s epic WrestleMania XXX story hardly needs any further explanation. The Summer of Punk and the visceral rivalry with John Cena could not have existed as it did without the McMahon dynamic looming in the background. Sting’s long-awaited WWE debut was, of course, tied into The Authority angle. Mick Foley’s dramatic championship win on Raw was only dramatic because of the way the character was framed in relation to Vince and The Corporation. Some of Randy Orton’s best work as a dangerous heel was in conjunction with his feud with Triple H and the attacks on Vince and Stephanie. The rise of Seth Rollins coincided with his link to The Authority. Even Roman Reigns benefited from being placed across from Vince in December of 2015.
I know what you’re thinking, okay fine, but it’s enough already. This surrogate device you speak of has grown tired and I’m bored, it’s time to let it go.
The life-cycle of a strong conflict device can be endless, especially in pro wrestling. The threat from a foreign menace; former tag team partners turned into hated rivals; the selfish desires of championship glory destroying a stable or alliance, the list goes on and on. These devices have existed for decades, over a century in some cases, yet they remain widely accepted when executed in a compelling manner. Only devices that fail to relate with modern times fizzle out.
The calculated maneuvering of a wealthy but dysfunctional family, who happen to own a global billion dollar enterprise is anything but out of touch with the times; it’s Dallas without the oil – a show that drew record ratings for over 13 years in the ultra-competitive network television market before it was the subject of three successful TV movies and a series reboot 20 years after it was last on the air. The McMahon power struggle is as much the primary emphasis of Raw and Smackdown as oil wells were the primary emphasis on Dallas, or as much as the day to day operations of a city hospital is the primary emphasis of the long-running daytime soap opera, General Hospital (another program ripe with characters who have existed in the same universe for over 20 years).
The failure to connect with the McMahon device speaks to one of two things, either the storytellers failure to produce a sound story (a fair and reasonable criticism) or one’s own personal taste (which is reasonable, but unfair ammunition when criticizing a story’s quality). As is often the case, the significant portion of WWE’s unsatisfied customers fall into the latter category, even if many McMahon stories have proven to be technically unsound. These disgruntled viewers continue to watch WWE expecting to consume what they want to see rather than the product WWE is rigorously marketed as being. These same folks refuse to accept the notion that WWE is not presented as pro wrestling and therefore fails to adhere to certain tenets of the medium, or that the brand has been positioned as the shining star of the promotion, or that that WWE Network original programming like Swerved and Ride Along are considered more valuable than actual wrestling content. Having these feelings doesn’t make one wrong per se, but it does demonstrate a debilitating inability to accept reality.
WWE is not subtle when it comes to hammering home an important point; Vince McMahon is not satisfied until each and every viewer has been thoroughly beaten over the head with whatever information he’s deemed important in the most superfluous manner possible. The writing has been on the wall for weeks, months even, and yet a certain segment of the viewing audience refuses to accept the notion that the McMahons are not going anywhere. If you fall into that category, that’s on you. The McMahons will continue to occupy a certain portion of WWE programming so either change the channel or deal with it.