❖ We’ve always been at war with Eastasia

Once when he happened in some connexion to mention the war against Eurasia, she startled him by saying casually that in her opinion the war was not happening. The rocket bombs which fell daily on London were probably fired by the Government of Oceania itself, ‘just to keep people frightened’. This was an idea that had literally never occurred to him. —1984, Chapter 5

The only thing that wrestling fans agree on about TNA Wrestling is that no other wrestling company works this way. They don’t agree on much else, but this one is solid. No wrestling company treats its talent like TNA does. No wrestling company produces its programming like they do. No wrestling company writes and promotes stories and wrestlers quite this way. Whether you’re on the side that thinks this is bad or good, you agree with it. They’re an island unto themselves.

Wrestling companies have long had invasion angles, so much so that ‘invasion angle’ itself has become a trope. When TNA began the Aces and 8’s story last summer, fans largely rolled their eyes and said “Here we go again.” They said this because TNA has executed an invasion or insurrection story roughly every 18 months of its existence.

If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face—for ever. —Chapter 3

The writers of TNA Wrestling have a belief, one that holds steady with scrutiny: it’s better to be at war than at peace. Wrestling is—by design—art about conflict, and how one solves the presented problems at hand. TNA’s direction is that the most interesting conflicts are those of war. The company is constantly in danger of outside groups looking to tear it apart, or inside groups who have banded together to usurp the establishment.

George Orwell’s 1984 explains a motivation for presenting a product like this: by keeping an audience constantly on edge, the theory goes that they’ll stay glued and become invested in the saving of the world.

This paragraph from 1984 describes the universe TNA has created better than anything I’ve read about the company:

The Party seeks power entirely for its own sake. We are not interested in the good of others; we are interested solely in power, pure power. What pure power means you will understand presently. We are different from the oligarchies of the past in that we know what we are doing. All the others, even those who resembled ourselves, were cowards and hypocrites. The German Nazis and the Russian Communists came very close to us in their methods, but they never had the courage to recognize their own motives. They pretended, perhaps they even believed, that they had seized power unwillingly and for a limited time, and that just around the corner there lay a paradise where human beings would be free and equal. We are not like that. We know what no one ever seizes power with the intention of relinquishing it. Power is not a means; it is an end. One does not establish a dictatorship in order to safeguard a revolution; one makes the revolution in order to establish the dictatorship. The object of persecution is persecution. The object of torture is torture. The object of power is power. —Chapter 3

Other wrestling companies convey a sense of justice. There is struggle; there is strife, but if your heart is true and your will strong, you will win. Bad guys lose, good guys smile, and everyone goes home happy. TNA does not operate like this. When a hero wins, it is often for only a moment: a new villain (or perhaps the hero himself, corrupted by power) comes to pass, and the long, hard world gets smaller and less wondrous.

TNA’s first group was “Sports Entertainment Xtreme” (this is a company in love with pun acronyms). The less said about this group the better, as it was the least enjoyable part of TNA’s first year. I only bring them up to illustrate that an invading and disruptive force existed in TNA from nearly the beginning, and that invasion stories are more or less an essential part of TNA DNA.

Raven’s “Gathering” group was the next group to try to tear TNA apart. Overlapping with S.E.X., the group were a band of villains for several years before Raven himself became a hero and took care of them. Jeff Jarrett’s “Planet Jarrett” group took over TNA in 2005, which TNA felt was such a “cancer” that they brought in Sting, a man famous for decimating invading stables. Sting’s character in TNA to this day is that of a sentinel; a great knight defending the homeland. But even he wasn’t immune to occasional bouts of power and corruption.

In 2007, Kurt Angle created a small stable, flanked by AJ Styles and Tomko. That held his power in the company for a while, but as the group slipped, so did his spot. So in the summer of 2008 he put together a larger, more formidable group: the Main Event Mafia. The group was comprised of Angle, Nash, Booker T, Scott Steiner, and Sting, who held the World Championship until losing to Mick Foley in spring 2009. The Mafia was already falling apart by that time (wars are generally short), but it was pretty well done by the summer. Foley, who was in charge of the company at the time, immediately turned into a bad guy and threatened to hold the entire operation hostage, as you do.

Perhaps it is the constant war that makes the TNA Heavyweight Championship so cursed. Unlike other titles in the wrestling world, TNA’s big prize is a beacon of evil, corrupting literally every single person who’s ever held it longer than a week. It promises power, but doesn’t actually contain anything.

That curse was no clearer than in 2010. Hulk Hogan’s arrival to the company signaled a new narrative, a subtle boil that fermented at Bound for Glory of that year, when Jeff Hardy became a villain, taking possession of the World Title as the leader of a new group: Immortal. Created by Bischoff and Hogan, Immortal was a grand takeover, meant to change the entire course of the company. It was largely successful; the TNA of today is nothing like it was before Hogan showed up. Of course, the war was internal, fake, and an illusion. Sting, ever the valiant sentinel, put Hogan back in power only a few months after he took him out.

What can you do, thought Winston, against the lunatic who is more intelligent than yourself, who gives your arguments a fair hearing and then simply persists in his lunacy? —Chapter 3

The latest war is between an invading group of mostly outsiders: The Aces and 8’s, who’s visual appeal is ripped directly from Sons of Anarchy. The Aces and 8’s has suffered from comparisons to the nWo, but that group never took this long to get around to things. It was three months before the group had a single identifiable member, and nearly a year before their leader was revealed. This slowing of the narrative suggests that TNA is hoping the group will remain at war with the company for quite some time. The Aces and 8’s share a little bit of every invading stable in TNA: a quest to destroy the status quo, a band of guys large and small in wrestling success, a clear and identifiable cause, and an equally clear road to implosion.

WWE offers stories for as many kinds of fans as it can fit, often stepping on the toes of certain groups to appease others. Ring of Honor, Chikara, ACW, and other large indies offer more focused approaches, entirely ignoring certain segments to appease one or two. TNA offers exactly one thing: wars. If you like your wrestling to feel like it’s constantly on the brink of collapse, constantly under siege and subterfuge, then this is your show.

Critics of this approach suggest that constant war is draining, not only to the performers, but also the fans. Two recent periods offered brief respite. AJ Styles’ several-month run as champion in late 2009 was utterly refreshing, as was Bobby Roode’s historic reign in 2011-2012. Both periods offered significant wrestling feuds, but no large groups or conspiracies. Both ended because a war was about to begin. In watching the shows from these periods, you can almost feel the anxiety from the commentators and performers that this is all a bit dull, a little rote, and wouldn’t it be nice to have wolves at the gates again.

In the six years I’ve been writing about pro wrestling, TNA Wrestling continues to be the most interesting subject. So few writers try to wrap their heads around its unique eccentricities, and simply paint everything they do as a failure. But the company continues to grow, to shift, to evolve. Can you say that TNA hasn’t changed significantly more in the last five years than WWE? How about ten years? It’s astounding how lithe the company can seem at times. And yet, through all their production shifts and talent comings-and-goings, there is always a new war.

The object of waging a war is always to be in a better position in which to wage another war. —Chapter 9

❖ WWE and The American Taliban

Whenever WWE chooses to change a character to suit a cultural or political shift, I can’t help but think of Sgt. Slaughter. Through the 70s and 80s, Sgt Slaughter was a tough—if portly and a little one-dimensional—American hero, a lionized army action figure who took on all sorts of mid-card foreign villainy. He was almost universally considered a respected contributor to the art, destined to slowly fade away into the 90s as age and cultural irrelevance kicked in.

Except that’s not what happened, at least not for a little while. In late 1990, as the US ramped up Operation Desert Storm, WWE decided to write a parallel narrative involving an insurgent American sympathizer to Saddam Hussein. This followed the long line of American wrestlers taking the side of cartoon foreign evil in order to ignite crowds into paying money to see them get beaten up. The foreign baddie is a cornerstone of pro wrestling. It’s nothing new. It’s an easy story to tell, and one that’s hard to screw up. It’s also tough to defend , since its primary ingredients require a certain amount of audience xenophobia.

Anyways, in late 1990 Sgt Slaughter’s character changed to an Iraqi sympathizer. Flanked by General Adnan (played by Adnan Al-Kaissie) and Colonel Mustafa (played by the Iron Sheik), Slaughter went to work enraging fans by aligning himself not only with Iraq but specifically Hussein. He did things burned the American flag, called for the US to surrender, and other acts of light treason. There were no public service announcements by Slaughter explaining that he was playing a character on a show where there are both good and evil characters.

Slaughter won the WWE Championship from The Ultimate Warrior in January 1991, and was poised to feud with über-Patriot Hulk Hogan, culminating at Wrestlemania VII, in a somewhat hardcore match. Slaughter lost, but his Iraq sympathizer character kept on until September (long after Desert Storm concluded). He then immediately turned into a good guy again, and essentially disappeared for five years.

I think about Slaughter because he essentially committed character suicide. Slaughter was never going to be seen as an American hero again. Save a few inconsequential matches, he played a villain for the rest of his active career. When he returned in 1997, it was as a corporate stooge to the freshly-evil Mr McMahon. Going to the dark side was the death of his former character. It never came back. But was it a good idea in retrospect? Was it worth it?

WWE is often at its most creative when repurposing a fresh villain out of an irrelevant good guy. Batista, CM Punk, Shawn Michaels, Bret Hart and others have all benefited from bouts of villainy. These characters developed layers, new strengths and weaknesses, and came out the other side fuller and more interesting to watch. But these characters all became villains for internal reasons. WWE’s track record with characters ripped from the headlines has been less than consistent.

It’s difficult to not look at characters like these as anything but weak attempts at capitalizing on the emotions of the audience. Ripped from the headline villains are almost always topical foreign evil. If a cheap pop is mentioning the city’s name to the home audience, then cheap heat is suggesting the superiority of another place. The Iron Sheik used to spit whenever he said “USA” because he was performing in the US, after all. Sgt Slaughter came across as particularly on the nose. La Resistance, a team built entirely to illicit boos about the French in 2003, was also annoying. Muhammad Hassan—the American Muslim sick of being treated like a terrorist in 2005–was a failure not because of his premise, but because his premise assumed that he would become a sympathetic character, when really he was just a jerk.

With the structure of “us=good, them=bad” firmly established, just what are we to make of the so-far excellent portrayal of “The Real American” Jack Swagger? For those who haven’t seen him, let me catch you up. Jack Swagger is a young and very fit, very accomplished amateur wrestler that has always been a bit of a prick. He’s never been evil per se, but the sort of disagreeable scumbag you’d think wrestling would be filled with. If wrestling was Back to the Future he’d be the bully behind the one you remember. Anyways, he’s always languished about 30 back from the top of the card, and in mid-2012 left to do some soul searching (a popular theory is that he adventured on Mars). He re-debuted earlier this year with a longer hairstyle and a new friend, Zeb Colter. This is where it gets complicated.

Zeb Colter is essentially a Tea Party diehard. He has a wonderful 1890’s bush moustache, stands about three feet tall, and espouses the beliefs of the far-right. He talks of taking his country back from “illegals and takers.” He suggests that America is something we have to fight to get back. He rips quotes pretty much straight from Glen Beck, Sean Hannity, and other extremist pundits. He is, for all intensive purposes, a successful painting of a type of person we’ve all come to know in the last few years. WWE is portraying Colter and Swagger as villains.

What’s more, WWE has placed them on a course to feud with Alberto Del Rio, a Mexican wrestler who recently became a good guy. He is the World Heavyweight Champion. In the US, he is technically the outsider. Swagger and Colter are the proverbial “us.” What’s going on? Why did the script flip? And how well is it working? Well, it all has to do with whether you agree with The Newsroom.

The Newsroom is an HBO drama, where moderate Republican journalist Will McAvoy (played by Jeff Daniels) has a change of heart about American politics and goes on the offensive. In the last episode, McAvoy attacks the Tea Party and extremist Republicans:

What’s more frightening than the perversion of our great history is that sensible strong smart Republicans, the very men and women who should be standing up to radical fundamentalism, are so frightened in losing primary battles to religious zealots that they’ve thrown in the towel on sanity…. They can call themselves the Tea Party. They can call themselves Conservatives. And they can even call themselves Republicans. Though Republican’s certainly shouldn’t. But we should call them what they are: The American Taliban.

One might think that WWE wouldn’t be a stage for ridiculing and demonizing a measurable wing of the Republican party, especially since Linda McMahon ran (and lost, by a wide margin) as a Republican. But that would be a misunderstanding of how WWE operates. WWE has historically operated as a populist narrative, driven by the needs of the many. John Cena has performed in marquee matches for ten Wrestlemania’s in a row (a feat not even Hulk Hogan can claim) because quarter after quarter he dominates merchandise and ticket sales. The Rock is WWE Champion right now because he is the most popular person in the world who wrestles. These things are obvious, but what’s less obvious is that the moral direction of WWE is also populist. This means that sometimes it isn’t always forward-thinking, and can often be seen as downright conservative. Their treatment of women, people with different sexual preferences, minorities, and respect for religions other than baseline Christianity (hell, even that) have generally been progressively abhorrent, but generally in line with American populist culture. Good guys win and bad guys lose because most people want that to happen.

The upside to taking this approach is when the crest finally breaks and rolls back, you really notice. Vince McMahon has been in business as long as he has because he has strong ideas, weakly held. That allows him to be versatile, to know when to laugh at himself, and to change course. It’s impossible to know if Linda’s defeat in 2012 loosened Vince’s sympathies to republican thinking, or if he ever had any to begin with and we all just assumed so because he’s white, old, and rich. Maybe Swagger was in the pipeline the whole time. Maybe WWE is South Park-ian in their ability to throw bombs at every stereotype, both distant and close to home. But maybe it’s much simpler than all of that.

The mistake critics of Zeb Colter and Jack Swagger make is thinking that the Tea Party is a populist party, that they represent ideals shared by a majority of people. If the 2012 Federal election was any indication, this couldn’t be further from the truth. One by one, Republicans who espoused extremist beliefs were decimated by Democrat opponents. If WWE is to be criticized, it’s for striking after the iron has cooled. Still, they’re angering the right people, which tells me that they’re doing something right.

WWE has created a narrative where an American zealot villain is challenging a foreign hero, and they’re doing so because the zealot espouses increasingly marginal beliefs, while the foreign wrestler repeatedly saves his best friend from danger. They haven’t usurped the “us vs them” narrative so much as tweaked it to “normal vs extreme.” Most people are “normal” (kind of goes without saying), and they’re doing what makes the most sense to the most people, most of the time. Swagger’s career longevity has everything to do with the character being able to organically evolve past the caricature and into something new, to return to “normal” eventually. But hopefully not too soon.

¶ Republican weakness

I don’t celebrate what has become of the Republican Party in America. In becoming a joke party, supported solely by people who believe in archaic forms of justice and morality, they have hurt American democracy by failing to act as a force of legitimate opposition. And I’m hardly the only one who thinks so.

There isn’t much to the GOP’s plan for America. One need only watch Mitt Romney’s nomination speech from the RNC. Light on facts, light on policy, and heavy on one singular message: let’s go back to when things were simple. To the GOP, this equates to smaller government, lower taxes, and fewer restrictions on land ownership and business practices.

If all the GOP were after was a ‘simpler’ America without many rules, they wouldn’t have been trounced so poorly in the last election. Taken at face value, “smaller, smarter, simpler” is a pretty good pitch. If their talking points and policy choices focused on economic conservatism and common-sense approaches to business (as they love to purport) they’d be doing a lot better.

Unfortunately for the GOP and US politics as a whole, the party has become overrun with some of the most backwards political statements in modern memory.

Republicans lost the election because they were against things no modern member of society need be against.

They wasted their time on ancient pro-life policies, and were outed over and over in 2012 as having no idea what they were talking about on the subject. They likened rape to having children out of wedlock, claimed rape as an act of God, and had lots to say on what happens in the event of ‘legitimate’ rapes.

Republicans failed to coerce minorities to vote for their platform as well, partially based on a number of painful choices over the last few years. The Republican immigration policy is a tawdry mess of mixed messages, and the lack of diversity in the ranks is pathetic. Most of all, they believe that nearly half the country are moochers.

Finally, republicans have fared poorly in the one area they stereotypically (though not historically) peacock about: the economy. As of late, Republicans believe that it’s been wise to hold the economy hostage. In 2011, Republican tactics got the US downgraded by Standard & Poor’s, and as I’m writing this congress has essentially given up trying to fix the fiscal cliff issue. It’s been an embarrassing couple of years for a party that would like to appear responsible with people’s money.

The point of this article is not to poke fun or deride Republicans for no reason. The point is to articulate that by focusing on the wrong things for the country, Republicans have become a much weaker party. In a 2-party system, having one weak, deluded, and hampered party doesn’t just mean that one side will more easily win—it means that it isn’t really a democracy anymore. At least, it’s not a competitive democracy living up to the potential of the idea.

“It is fine for the opposition to take on the role of a spoiler, exploiting all opportunities to damage the governing party but it hurts if now the damage is directed at itself and the country. It should distinguish between harm and harm not done to the country.”

That line was actually written about Botswana by Mmoloki Gabatlhaolwe, but it accurately describes the issue facing Republicans today. It’s more than fine to resist things. One could argue that resistance is the only real card that can by played by an opposition party. But continually and so stubbornly refusing to evolve arguments and make compromises damages the democratic conversation, simply by eliminating one voice from the discussion. Obama and the Democrats won the election not because their ideas were great, but because they were less asinine than those held by Republicans. That really shouldn’t be good enough.

America certainly isn’t alone in this. Tunisia, Russia, the previously-mentioned Botswana, and my own country of Canada and others share this problem. Sure, the degree of weakness varies wildly, but the problem is the same. If the dominant opposition of the leading party is weak, then the leading party isn’t properly challenged.

There’s a phenomenal paragraph by Thamsanqa Mlilo in regards to weak opposition in South Africa that sums up this point entirely:

I believe strong and credible opposition can provide a real challenge and scrutiny to government activities and provide a viable ideological alternative to the electorate and ideally provide a platform for democracy. A government kept on its toes by a vibrant opposition is likely to keep its policies and goals in check and, hopefully in sync with the needs of the population. However, the opposition itself has to be built on democratic foundations and if operating within a structurally permissive political environment it can foster national democracy.

The sad fact is, the Republican Party is incredibly important to the health of US politics. But their act isn’t even close to together, which means they’re nowhere near where they need to be. I hope they at least see where they went wrong, but evidence suggests they don’t really see it yet (link goes to Amazon for David Frum’s book Why Romney Lost. Here’s the Kobo link). Much like how a fight is only really worth watching if both combatants are evenly matched, democracy only really works when the debate is even, tough, and intelligent.

❖ Moments

Just what the hell was Mick Foley talking about on Monday when he asked CM Punk if he wanted to be a statistic or a legend? When he stressed the term “moment” over and over? Just what is a moment, anyway? Why is it so important to the world of professional wrestling? 

Was it a continuation of storyline logic? More proof that WWE is changing before our very eyes? Or something about catharsis, of purging, of spilling everything and then watching for a reaction

As usual, WWE isn’t about to actually answer their own questions. But I’d like to believe it has to do with a grander definition of the term “moment.” Sure, there’s matches. There’s titles. There’s victories. There’s defeats.  A wrestler can collect all of these things, count them up, and hold up a scorecard. But above all else, the most precious coins you can amass in the WWE Universe are moments. 

Moments are what make characters into legends. Moments are what Freddie Blassie championed in the opening for Wrestlemania XV, the best intro video WWE ever produced. “There are moments echo through the ages,” he heavily states. “They will never let us forget them,” he continues, as the video pans to a smiling, bloody Mick Foley, having moments before fallen twenty feet from the top of Hell in the Cell. Moments matter more than any championship. They matter more than any character. They are the only thing that matters.

WWE is finally understanding this so confidentially that they can put it out there, plain as day.CM Punk has the WWE Championship, and he’s held it longer than anyone in the modern era. Who cares? Where are the moments? They hesitate to promote it as a thing they can deliver, but here they are, plain as day selling Hell in a Cell as a PPV where we’ll see a goddamn moment, ladies and gentleman. I hope they deliver. 

❖ Irrelevant

Today, TH (if you will) took Mark Madden to task on his latest piece of drek: naming Tyler Reks the 2012 wrestler of the year because he quit the business. I agree with everything TH said about the talentless, bloated husk that is Mark Madden, but I’d like to add something here: Madden is irrelevant, and he’s screaming like a baby because nobody takes him seriously. People are right not too. He’s a dolt. 

Also today, Jim Dalrymple linked to John Gruber’s takedown of Dan Lyons’ hateful, incorrect, and ultimately irrelevant piece on the new iPhone, saying: 

The simple truth is, Lyons is not relevant so he posted stupid articles to get pageviews. Higher traffic doesn’t make you relevant, you still sound stupid.

This is exactly what I feel about the vast majority of professional wrestling journalists, but the folks at Wrestlezone explicitly and Madden specifically. 

One quote from Madden’s hateful, incorrect, and ultimately irrelevant piece sticks out as the worst of all: 

The spotty-faced teens & college dropouts who make up so much of the IWC won’t enjoy reading this, but FOR THE WRESTLERS, fake wrestling was much better in the territorial days, and when WCW provided a viable second option.

Let’s ignore Madden’s inability to tell time (WCW was founded several years after Vince McMahon launched “Rock n Wrestling”, openly declaring wrestling a fiction and moving the industry forward, so it was an alternative in an era when even kids knew it was scripted), and focus on the argument he’s spitting: wrestling was better back before Vince McMahon took over. There are subjective arguments to make regarding Vince’s vision of wrestling (just like there are subjective arguments about the iPhone). And Madden’s probably right in a very narrow way: it might have been better forcertain pocketbooks, but it was inevitable. If Vince McMahon hadn’t put out the territorial fire, someone else would have. Or they would have wrecked it themselves. The NWA sure looks great these days, don’t they? 

The whole ‘territories were better’ argument hinges on the fact that the NWA and others treated wrestling like a sport. Guys like Madden—who like sports and hate the arts—liked that. Once it became clear that wrestling wasn’t a sport, and in fact could be many things that aren’t sport (it could be comedy, drama, improv, and transgressive pulp, among other things), guys like Madden had (and continue to have) a hissy fit. 

Here’s the thing: treating wrestling like a sport means lying to your customers. That may have worked for a while, but it’s never going to work forever. It’s like arguing that magicians were better off back when nobody but them could do card tricks. It’s true, but it’s irrelevant. Have you seen what magicians are doing these days though? It’s incredible. Education eradicates the status quo and breeds innovation. Innovation moves things forward. Things moving forward scares the crap out of morons. It’s been like this for a long time, folks. Across industries, crafts, and theologies, it stands true. The only people who don’t like progress are those who profit off ignorance and oppression, and who are brainwashed by those in positions of so-called power.

I don’t know if wrestling is better under Vince McMahon. But wrestling is in a better place when it’s not pretending to be something it isn’t. And it’s sure as shit better without people like Mark Madden. Nobody except Madden thinks otherwise.

❖ Jerry Lawler

On the September 10, 2012 episode of Monday Night Raw, commentator and legend Jerry Lawler collapsed at his post and was helped to the back. Details are still scattered, but they’re coming and they’re, as of this post, cautiously promising. It should be obvious how much we all want Lawler to pull through.

Due to the nature of live and choreographed violence with real risks, WWE unfortunately has a pretty long list of things that have gone wrong during the show. Wrestlers have been injured, and even died, yet none of these have ground the show to an absolute halt. For reasons we can only speculate, they do not stop shows due to performer injury or health issues. This almost always comes across as cruel: cruel to the injured; cruel to the fans who would certainly rather they get some answers than distractions; hell, even cruel to the performers who are charged with distracting the live and television crowd.

On Raw, this was amplified, as Michael Cole’s sole commentary quickly diminished to nothing. Cole informed us of Lawler’s situation, and then rather promptly stopped talking. It would seem they didn’t have a backup plan, although any regular viewer knows that Josh Matthews and any number of WWE Superstars could have filled in for emergency support. Instead, they let the audio stay cold, out of respect for Jerry. They aired the crowd reaction, but nothing else for the rest of the night. I don’t think this was a decision, but it led to an interesting result: almost half of Raw was a reminder of what the show would be like without Michael Cole and, more importantly, without Jerry Lawler.

A few friends of mine on Twitter asked me to write something about this, mostly because earlier this year I suggested we all try to turn the commentary off for a while. I’m a proponent that sports-inspired audio dilutes the art happening in the ring, as it creates a disonance between what you’re viewing and what you’d like to be viewing (or what they want you to think you’re viewing).

There is a massive difference between turning the volume down on a regular episode of Raw and the crew react to an emergency situation, so it’s not something you can compare. It’s absolutely not fair to anyone. My article wasn’t about trying to eliminate wrestling commentary entirely; it was about removing an element for a small period of time to see if the show needed it, and if it needed changing. If there’s anything I missed from the article, it was in the complimenting what commentators do extremely well. I imagine watching the last hour of Raw without any commentary was incredibly uncomfortable for many, and therein lies the hard work: Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole provided a comfort you don’t even know is keeping you going until it’s gone.

Viewers probably noticed how much more choreographed the wrestling was without commentary. The audio has always done a great job of covering that up. Cues seem more obvious, and the beats of the match play out with a cold predictability. You feel like you’re watching a cowboy movie from a hundred years ago, one who’s plot has been mocked for decades by better productions. For the televised audience, Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole work exceptionally hard to make even poor wrestling matches seem watchable, to make even grave misteps in consistency, loose plots, and tired angles appear like integral acts in the grand play.

This gets complicated, because there are great reasons to pay attention to the wrestlers and nothing else. I covered those in my article from the winter, so I won’t go over them again. It’s not important here, anyway. What I’m trying to say is Jerry Lawler is really fucking important and good and necessary and a treasure, and I want him to be okay, and if I ever made it seem like I didn’t respect his day job I’m sorry, that wasn’t my intention.

I’m a critic, and sometimes critics can come off as cold, but I do this because I love it. I deconstruct because I love it. I dig deep and think really hard because I respect the people who put on this show, who wake up every day and do a phenomenal job doing a thing that doesn’t get nearly enough respect. I don’t say that enough. None of us do.

❖ Tout

Throughout all of 2011, the one major complaint wrestling fans had about WWE was their over-utilization of Twitter, specifically trending topics. Beginning last month, WWE began pushing a new social platform, Tout, which allowed members to publish 15 second videos (essentially a video tweet). For a TV show, this made a lot of sense, as it’s more exciting to show viewers talking than read what viewers wrote in. But if WWE is going to use some kind of social networking site to bolster viewer interest, why is it preferring Tout to Twitter?

For starters, what I mentioned above may well be enough for most people. WWE apparently has the right to broadcast Touts on its programming, and they’re using it to showcase the (terse, grammatically questionable) thoughts of fans back to them. Portions of WWE programming is now devoted to fans watching other fans.

But Tout’s emergence as WWE’s new favoured outlet made more sense when they released their second-quarter earnings report, and mentioned that they’d “entered a strategic investment agreement with Tout.”

It’s no doubt WWE likes Twitter. It’s perhaps the best platform they’ve ever found for giving them unfettered communication with its fans. But WWE has zero control over Twitter, and a company like WWE must hate that. WWE has no control over how many people on Twitter know about WWE. They have no control over what they see. They have no idea how many WWE fans are even on Twitter. And Twitter, because they’re a much bigger company, would have no interest in working with WWE on issues of control. But Tout is obviously a different story. Tout is a feed of created content for WWE to use however it sees fit.

Going to Tout.com, the first thing you see is a picture of Zack Ryder, WWE superstar. Scroll down a bit and you see John Cena, and WWE’s official Tout account. Importantly, you also see others, like Shaq and Kelly Ripa. This isn’t just for the WWE, but it’s clear that WWE is the most important thing in the world to Tout.

Aesthetically, Tout may make more sense to WWE than Twitter. Unfortunately, it does not have Twitter’s userbase, or activity. There’s also the lack of anonymity: on twitter, you can have a username that isn’t your name, and post whatever you like. On Tout, your face is right there. I’m actually surprised how litte a deterrent that’s been for people thus far, though, so maybe that’s not as big a problem as I thought. Still, there’s also the matter of time. To use Tout, you need either a webcam, an iphone, or an android phone. Windows Phone, Blackberry, and all other types of phones aren’t supported. Twitter can be used by any phone in the world, by anyone, and it takes far less time to tweet a few sentences than to record a video and upload it.

The question for wrestling fans is, then, do you want to participate in this thing? Certainly, it ‘outs’ you as a fan more than Twitter. It also means what you put up there can be used by WWE at any time. What is the percentage of the fan base who wants to enjoy the product, and also wants to possibly be on TV? The middle of that venn diagram are potential Tout users. The question the rest of the WWE fanbase wants answered is, when will WWE just produce some television without asking all of us to help them out?

❖ What WWE is becoming

I talked about this topic on episode 49 of our podcast. It’s a lengthy one, and if you listen to it this article will cover much of the same ground. My predictions for Raw 1000 almost all came true, and most of them dealt with this issue. WWE is changing right before our eyes. They began to lay the groundwork with the shift to PG, and the enhancements to social outlets over the last 12 months. The shift has been very gradual, but also unmistakeable. Watch an episode of Raw from even 2008, and you’ll marvel at how much they’ve altered both presentation and focus.

On the podcast, Rich mentioned that Raw 1000 was littered with moments even WWE usually tries to hide from its timeline. DX all of a sudden has all most of its members back. Mae Young’s hand baby returned, all grown up and back from the boarding school soap opera kids are sent to when they need to rapidly age. Sean Mooney was apparently on honeymoon this entire time. Stories left unfinished and forgotten—some as old as 20-odd years—are being sewn up.

Even savvy reporters mostly failed to mention the new bumper that began the show, concluding with a new moniker. WWE has always placed a reminder of their overall goal right here. They were once ‘what the world is watching’, filled with ‘attitude’, loaded with ‘entertainment’, and reminding you that ‘the power is back’ (never quite got that last one). As of Raw 1000, WWE’s intro states this: ‘Then. Now. Forever.” It’s the most aggressive and confident statement they’ve ever put in that spot.

If ‘Then’ is the first word you see, WWE’s gradual recovery from contextual amnesia begins to make sense. I remember when we were all very impressed when they told a story between CM Punk and Randy Orton early last year that harkened back to a plot point from 2008. Details like this have increased in number, scope, and attention to detail ever since. John Cena vs The Rock was a year-long story that called back two very long careers, the fallout of which we’re still feeling as Cena tries to recover from such a loss.

‘Now’ is, of course, the product as is. WWE is in constant—if very slow—flux, but right now I believe they’re incredibly confident about the quality of their product. Lengthy title reigns, lengthy stories, planning ahead; all telltale signs of a stable wrestling environment. In 2012, We’ve had two blockbuster PPVs in Wrestlemania and Extreme Rules, and they’ve promised at least one more in Summerslam. Now, they’ve promised that next year’s Royal Rumble will be massive. Name any other year where the wheels have spun as smooth. I don’t think you can.

But what about ‘Forever’? I’m taking that to mean two things. First, it’s a promise of managed expectations that pro wrestling (and all serialized narratives to an extent) will always be there for you, in some capacity. It’s a good thing to remind people of: WWE has been on the air for a long time, far longer than the lifespan of the majority of its viewers. It’s easy to imagine WWE as having been around forever.

But the other thing I’m taking it to mean is something different. How does WWE guarantee that it’s going to be around ‘forever’? They know they need to find a new audience. Read The AV Club’s review of Raw 1000 and you’ll understand exactly what I mean. People who ‘used to like wrestling’ is not a sustainable source of new cashflow, and nostalgia will only take a company so far. Neither is the current adolescent fan, no doubt sick of the status quo, eager to use WWE as a reason to bitch on the internet. ‘Forever’ is a mission statement, and a challenge to themselves. They need to adapt, grow, and find a new generation of wrestling sports entertainment fans. I struck wrestling off that sentence for the same reason WWE has been striking wrestling off Raw: people who aren’t wrestling fans don’t like wrestling, but maybe they like exaggerated characters, over-the-top storytelling, and boatloads of barely-rehearsed drama with barely-qualified television personalities. If that sounds like reality television, then you’ve also put together that WWE is inching closer to becoming like it. It makes sense, since reality TV is essentially the only competition WWE has.

John Siracusa, in his Mountain Lion review, said this about Apple moving away from pleasing the hardcore fanboy and instead targeting all users, everywhere:

The fact is, we are not the center of the market, and haven’t been for a long time. Three decades ago, the personal computer industry was built on the backs of technology enthusiasts. Every product, every ad was created to please us. No longer. Technology must now work for everyone, not just “computing enthusiasts.”

WWE wants to become a show that everyone can watch, even if that means it’s no longer the show for wrestling fans.

❖ For we wrestle not with flesh and blood but with principalities

It was 2002, and I’d been in University for two months. Winter was approaching, and I was spending essentially all of my time in my small den room, either studying or procrastinating. One of the ways I procrastinated was by watching wrestling. I don’t remember specific episodes, matches, or plot lines, and I don’t remember exactly when I asked myself a common enough question. All I remember is that I asked it. Why? Why was I watching this? Why was I enjoying this? What drew me to this show, week in and week out?

I had a simple answer for it in high school. Enough of my friends were into wrestling that I felt having less than perfunctory knowledge wouldn’t cut it, so it became a hobby. I went to high school during the late period of the Monday Night Wars. One didn’t need to explain being invested in this colossal story, because so many others were. But I was sitting alone in late 2002. I was supposed to be studying academic-level work, something I figured wrestling had no truck. I had no social excuse, and I had better things to do. What was I doing with this stuff on my TV?

I first asked myself this question ten years ago. It was five years before I ever wrote a wrestling article, and eight before I began taking it seriously. I knew I was into it, and I knew I didn’t want wrestling to leave my life. I knew that even if I never told another person that I watched it, I’d continue being a fan. But I was incredibly uncomfortable with not knowing. I had to know.

I’ll jump to the end, here. I still don’t know. I’ve spent the last 4 years digging, and I’m still not there. I don’t have an answer that I’m satisfied with. I’ve become more comfortable with the not-knowing, and with that I’m able to sleep on the issue and leave it for months at a time. But I still like to pick it up again, every now and then, and dust off the file to see if I need to add anything. And when I pick it up, I find myself troubled.

I think what’s confused me most about my fandom is how wrestling makes me feel better about almost everything else in my life. It’s constancy is comforting, even when its quality is questionable and rewards thin. For sure, its soap opera tendencies hook in and are tough to cut. But it isn’t just the plot of it, because I’ve seen what happens at the end of every plot (spoiler: it’s the beginning of a new plot). The constancy helps because I know it’s there. Even when I’m not watching, as I am not currently (I’m sure I will come back to this period and wonder how I could voluntarily miss so many good episodes, but so it goes), I like knowing that it is there for me, waiting for me to finally accept the futility of stress and veg out like old buddies. It is somewhat nice to know that my exhaustive pleasure is one that never shows repeats and produces 10 hours of new content every week. This is also infuriating, for other reasons.

There are many more reasons than that, of course, but it would be a waste of time to spend too much time on them. The fact is, they’re not enough for me. They keep me going, searching, prodding, but nothing has come close to an overall clean summary of what it is about this messed up, misunderstood, sloppy art form that keeps me in orbit. I’m sure it has something to do with the title of this piece, just as I’m suspiciously certain I’ll never really find it. I think it’s important to ask, and to keep asking, even if it’s just a personal thing one does in their private time, what am I doing here? What am I getting out of this? Is this informing my life’s work? Is it a healthy or unhealthy distraction? If it’s unhealthy, am I okay with that? What does it say about me that I’m totally okay with that? Why do I gravitate towards time wasters that are bad for me? Does that mean I’m on the right track in my regular life, my career choices, the person I live with, and other major concerns? Or is it a warning that I’m doing it all wrong? I mean, I watch wrestling. How much can I be doing right?

Every now and then I just want to torch this website and go forward pretending I’d never looked into it. I always talk myself out of it, because I believe I’ve helped some people, even if I haven’t necessarily helped myself. The question of wrestling becomes larger than just WWE, or TNA, or whoever. It becomes the wrestling itself, and what that means to each of us. I end up grappling with deeper things, and that is equally interesting and terrifying, simultaneously awakening and depressing.

About two months ago, I scrawled “Wrestling is an Art Form. That makes it more complicated” in giant letters on the front of the site. I know it’s annoying, but it’s there to constantly remind me (and you) of this truth. It’s something that’s got to be hammered in, to crush the current platitudes. This isn’t easy. I need all the help I can get. And I need to keep asking. It’s all I can do.