By Cory Barker and J Walker
Welcome back to The Squared Circle, a recurring feature where Cory and J Walker discuss pro wrestling as television.
Cory: In our introductory piece, we discussed a number of the elements integral to wrestling as a television story. Over the next few conversations, we look to break some of those elements down in more detail. Today, we begin with serialization. You’ve heard the comparison before, even from us, but wrestling’s serialized storytelling does in fact mirror the storytelling of the soap opera: stories and histories can drag on for years, interweaving dozens of characters, relationships, and events. When done well, wrestling’s long-term story planning provides surprisingly moving, shocking, and even cathartic results. When done poorly, wrestling fans are left scratching their heads and “fantasy booking” past mistakes on message boards for years to come. Although I will always defend wrestling’s ability to tell a fascinating story (even when the stories are terrible and problematic), I cannot say that the serialization regularly works. Writers get bored, stories get too unwieldy, wrestlers get hurt, etc. Just like in scripted television, it’s challenging to keep the story above water for an extended period. J., what are your thoughts on wrestling’s serialized nature? Do you wish that companies like WWE would do it better, or do it less often?
J: Honestly? I think the programming in general might actually be better if they did it less often, but only because it so often is screwed up. As you alluded to, wrestling storylines can get unwieldy very quickly. The bookers might plan out months of programming in a storyline, but one of the wrestlers blows out his knee, or is a flake who quits without notice one night in Louisville, your plans are worthless. (True story: that’s how virtually every storyline in the ’80s and ’90s involving the Ultimate Warrior ended.) However, I wouldn’t want them to try to give it up. Without the stories, it would just be an athletic exhibition. And while I certainly admire the athleticism, the stories are what always brought me back.
When I was a kid, I always wanted the stories to move faster. I wanted Bret Hart and Mr. Perfect to have their showdown now, tonight, who wants to wait two months for SummerSlam? In those late-eighties/early-nineties times, there were only three or four big pay-per-view events per year, which meant the stories were dragged out for months on end—months of watching the wrestlers circle each other and trash talk, all in service of building to that one, far-off showdown. Then, in the mid-nineties, the raw amount of wrestling on television exploded. There were three or four television shows a week, and at least one pay-per-view every month. This was exactly what I’d wanted as a younger fan—no more waiting months for a big show when there’s one happening every few weeks.
However, the new glut of programming didn’t make the stories move any faster; the two-month build we used to get stayed more or less the same length. What happened instead is that the writers found all new ways to fake the audience into thinking the story was moving at a faster pace while not letting anything happen at all. More episodes to fill didn’t make the story speed up—it just made the writers break it into more and more pieces. Worse, it allowed them to exploit the single greatest weakness of serialized wrestling storylines: they never seem to end.
From the perspective of a wrestling booker, if you’ll spend money to watch a match once, there’s no reason you won’t pay to watch it twice. So instead of building to a showdown and moving on, wrestling feuds just tend to linger. Wrestlers will get into some sort of disagreement, and they’ll fight each other for as long as it’s profitable. The blow-off match at SummerSlam doesn’t end anything; it just provides a reason for these two guys to wrestle each other again next month. Bookers have all sorts of tricks in their bag to make sure the fans don’t get the ending they want—the bad guy somehow cheating to win is always the most popular—and they use them indiscriminately.
If they’re so bad at telling these stories, why did they always draw me in? Because sometimes they’d get it exactly right. A well-built setup, perfectly timed reveals and twists, and a payoff that provides legitimate resolution: when it’s done well, it can be amazing. So, what about you, Cory? Do you think the evolution of how wrestling is televised has affected the way the stories are told?
Cory: I love that you suggest that television created the illusion that serialized stories were moving at a faster clip, or progressing in a more complex fashion. As you mention, the reality is that increased television wrestling made one of the industry’s not-so-secret secrets more public: It’s all repetitive. Even today, if you go to two non-televised wrestling shows in a row, they are going to be very, very similar. The matches are going to work the same, the results are probably going to be the same, and the agreed-upon idea is that no one is going to be much the wiser, because the promotion packs up and heads to the next state over. John Cena is going to wrestle a bad guy, he’s going to win with his finishing move, and then he’s going to tell everyone to drive safe. Television constructs the illusion that things are changing, and specifically relies on the idea that anything could happen at any moment, but that’s not true at all. This isn’t a knock on the promotions or the art form; it’s just the way wrestling has always operated.
Nevertheless, when we think about televised wrestling, serialization is both an element of innovation and problematics. Wrestling has always tried to build long-form stories, but increased television coverage meant that those stories had to have more individual beats and developments to keep the audience interested (or at least satiated). Therefore, instead of a year-long build with performers slowly moving towards one another like two old ships in the sea, post-1996 wrestling leans more heavily on shorter-term long-term planning (if that makes sense) by simply trying to get through an episode of Raw or Nitro first and foremost. It’s sort of like the difference between the cable and broadcast television episodic models, wherein it is much more difficult to stretch a longer story across 22-24 episodes than it is 10-13 episodes. In theory, the additional television allows wrestling promotions to take diversions and deepen characters along the road to larger narratives about championships and the like. The problem is that so much of mainstream wrestling in the last 15 years didn’t actually do that. Only a few characters in the Monday Night Wars era were particularly complex, even when compared to the earlier eras of WWF, WCW or the territories. You can look at someone like Stone Cold Steve Austin, or even Diamond Dallas Page, but those are notable exceptions among a lot of cluttered, rushed storytelling built on swerves, cliffhangers, and false resolution.
To illustrate some of the challenges of wrestling’s serialized storytelling, why don’t we take on a couple of the more notable examples from two different eras: The rise and fall of the Mega Powers, Hulk Hogan and Randy Savage (WWF, 1987-1989) and the much longer and more confusing trajectory of the New World Order, or nWo (WCW, 1996-2001; WWF, 2002). What do you remember about both stories, and how do you think they reflect different approaches to serialized stories in very distinct eras of pro wrestling on television?
J: The Mega Powers storyline happened right around the time I first starting paying attention to wrestling, so my memories aren’t crystal clear; I’ve seen most of it from decades out, in clip shows and old videotapes. But what I do remember is how epic it felt. Hulk Hogan and “Macho Man” Randy Savage were the two biggest stars in the universe (of wrestling, anyway), and were presented as the best of friends. In my recollection, they circled each other for years before finally meeting at WrestleMania V, but that isn’t at all true—the feud really began only a few months before, when a tag team match went south and Savage blamed Hogan. But the story developed in pieces: first that tag match went bad, then Savage’s manager, Miss Elizabeth, saved Hogan from a beat-down while no one rescued Savage, and then the friendship disintegrated into an all-out conflict, which reached its peak in the main event at WrestleMania.
The Mega Powers story, at least that initial part of it, was quite masterfully constructed, because it retained one of the cardinal rules of storytelling: ensuring that the villain’s motivations are, if not sympathetic, at least understandable. At this point, Savage was the WWF champion, a title that he’d gained by winning a one-night tournament at WrestleMania IV. He had the managerial services of the “First Lady of Wrestling,” Miss Elizabeth (his in-real-life spouse at the time). However, Hogan was clearly the biggest star in the WWF, and it became a source of frustration between the two men, allegedly both on- and off-screen*. Through the fall of 1988, Savage and Hogan worked as tag team partners on many occasions, and Hogan always came out looking like the hero. Hogan started acting a little too protective of Elizabeth and started bringing her to the ring for his matches, and it finally became too much for Savage to bear.
*In retrospect, there were an awful lot of Hogan stories in the 1980s in which the heel was driven by jealousy of Hogan’s success and stardom, including his feuds with Paul Orndorff and Andre the Giant. Not sure what that says about Hogan, but if he had a hand in writing those stories, it doesn’t look good.
In keeping with our discussion on serialization, this turn of events was helped along by Savage’s backstory. Prior to converting to the church of Hulkamania and becoming a good guy, Savage was a nasty, vicious heel, one personified by frequent bouts of ruthless and (ahem) savage violence. Throughout the Mega Powers days, it seemed like Savage was doing everything he could to keep that craziness bottled up, and Hogan’s perceived betrayal was the tipping point. In addition, years of pitting Hogan as the hero against a tidal wave of villainy made it easy for the audience to take his side when he protested his innocence, as Savage accused him of trying to steal his wife and his championship. (This is one of the touches of the story that’s actually decent writing, wrestling or otherwise: Savage processes his clear and obvious envy by burying himself in denial and projecting that jealousy back on Hogan.)
This feud is a great example of how the 1980s wrestling serialization model worked: slow build, then explosion, then one big match at WrestleMania to end the tale. And that last bit is pretty critical: the tale ended. After WrestleMania V, the Mega Powers story was all but finished. Hogan and Savage faced off again in a main event tag team match on another pay-per-view a few months later, but Savage’s involvement was less an attempt to keep a finished story limping along than it was to cover for a lack of skill on the part of Hogan’s other opponent, actor Tommy “Tiny” Lister. With Hogan’s victory over Savage at WrestleMania, all parties considered the feud a settled matter, and both men moved on to other things. It reminds me of the way standalone dramas or sitcoms incorporate serialized stories into their narratives: draw on the audience’s character knowledge, push stories along to their logical climax, and then pick up the next thread. The steady build helps the story retain its momentum, and the focused and definitive ending smooths the transition to the next story.
WCW’s New World Order angle, on the other hand, is an entirely different kettle of fish. If the Mega Powers story is the way a standalone show might serialize, then the nWo is that hyper-serialized drama with a far-out concept, one that starts with a gangbusters pilot and then descends into lethargy and madness as it becomes clear the writers have no clue where to go next or how to get there. It was a story built for the 1990s model of wrestling television, one that inched along week-to-week and drew it out its revelations at an insultingly slow pace.
The tale of WCW’s battle with the New World Order is long—very, very long—so it’s probably not a good idea to try to summarize the whole thing. In essence, a group of former WWF stars “invaded” WCW, led by none other than Hulk Hogan himself, with a stated goal of destroying the company from within. They interrupted matches, sprayed their logo graffiti-style on anything they could find (including other wrestlers), and “bought” advertising on WCW television to sell their own merchandise. It was all very meta and well ahead of its time in presentation, and grew immensely popular, driving WCW ahead of the WWF in the ratings and cementing them as the “hip” wrestling company. The famous reveal of Hogan’s duplicity at Bash at the Beach 1996 is, for my money, up there with some of the most shocking and memorable moments in television history.
But unlike the Mega Powers, the New World Order story retained neither momentum nor focus. Even though the nWo were the bad guys in the angle, they were considered “cool,” so every wrestler in the company started lobbying behind the scenes to get in, eventually resulting in something like thirty or forty guys on the roster running around in nWo t-shirts. They kept staging massive tag matches for the two forces to “collide,” but nothing ever got resolved. Wrestlers started switching sides more or less at random, and anything approaching a conclusion kept getting pushed farther and farther back.
At the time, I was more of a WWF fan, but I kept up with WCW, too. However, the endless nonsense of the nWo finally drove me away completely. Without an end in sight and a massive roster, the nWo eventually split into two groups, nWo Hollywood and nWo Wolfpack, one good and the other evil, rendering the entire point of the nWo (which was to destroy WCW) moot. By the end, the company was hemorrhaging money and talent while swapping out head writers on practically a weekly basis, and the whole thing ended up petering out to nothing.
This is wrestling serialization at its very worst—the New World Order started so brilliantly, but the need to cater to performer ego and to keep the money and ratings coming in deprived the story of any sort of understable arc or development. It just limped on, seemingly forever and ever. If WCW hadn’t gone bankrupt in 2002, I wouldn’t be shocked if it had continued to today, frankly.
But what do you think? Am I being too kind to the Mega Powers? Was there actually some brilliance in the New World Order that I’m forgetting? And did you ever GO BUY THE SHIRT?
Cory: Those are fantastic descriptions of both events, and I love the comparison to different types of “typical” television storytelling. I think what made the Mega Powers story work, and what drove the nWo story right off the cliff is that the former never let go of the history, while the other never had any real allegiance to continuity. Continuity’s role in serialized storytelling cannot be underestimated and frankly, continuity has never, ever been one of wrestling’s strong suits. As we’ve both said, wrestling tension between scripted performance and the presentation of “real sport” often pushes the writers and bookers (or in these two instances, Vince McMahon and Eric Bischoff) to focus more on RIGHT NOW than any sort of longer plan.
As we’ve said, the Mega Powers story had the benefit of not needing to play out across multiple live televised shows/episodes a week, but it also knew how to use slow-moving storytelling to its advantage. Neither Hogan nor Macho were particularly complex or complicated characters (in that era, those were even fewer and far between), but Macho’s long-simmering anger and jealousy and Hogan’s egomaniacal self-absorption guised as heroism were enough to carry the story for nearly a year. In WWF, Hogan was king, so Macho’s title reign was always in the shadow of whatever feud the Hulkster happened to be involved in (circumstances that would manifest almost identically in 2011-12 when CM Punk dominated the title picture but John Cena’s mediocre, cartoonish feuds regularly finished the show) and thus his jealousy was both understandable and believable. That version of Hogan would never go over as well today because fans see through that kind of faux-hero bullshit (see again: Cena, John), but WWF did a good enough job to convince us that Macho always felt inferior and he sort of deserved to feel that way because Hulk Hogan is the Most Important Person in Wrestling.
But again, the story was so simple that it didn’t really need to worry about continuity. The story built over a year, but there wasn’t a particularly advanced level of backstory or history necessary to understand the developments. In a number of ways, the formation and dissolution of the Mega Powers was just like most other tag team stories: team gets together, has success, one member grows jealous of another, and eventually, they turn on each other. The difference (and appeal) here was that WWF tried a simple, recognizable story with characters who the audience already knew and had a lot of investment in. The stakes were higher, the stage was bigger, but the story followed the playbook to a T.
The nWo story, on the other hand, never intended to be simple. That’s what made is so groundbreaking and enthralling at the jump, but that’s also what quickly turned it into a convoluted, unnecessary mess. Whereas the Mega Powers story is a perfect relic of a time before live television became the singular place for wrestling stories to happen, the nWo storyline came right at the cusp of the sea change towards more television—in fact, it might have been the instigating factor in that sea change. Bischoff’s (and I think Kevin Nash and Scott Hall’s) decision to craft this fourth wall-breaking story about recognizable WWF figures “invading” WCW turned wrestling’s storytelling into a model based on shock value and big twists (or in industry terminology, swerves), not on character development, relationships, or continuity.
Nash has gone on the record noting that Hogan’s involvement in the nWo sort of killed it from the beginning, despite the financial successes Hogan brought the storyline, because he limited the nWo’s cool factor. I would also say that the reveal of Hogan’s involvement at Bash at the Beach 1996 (which is, admittedly one of the greatest moments in wrestling history) automatically dedicated that nWo stories were all about the swerve. From there on out, Bischoff and WCW kept trying to top themselves with one “shocking” reveal after another, but nothing could top Hogan’s decision, no matter how many WCW stars eventually joined the nWo (and it was most of them, by the way).
Consequently, almost every episode of Monday Night Nitro in the 1996-1998 era involved either the nWo beating up a WCW hero, or one of those heroes joining forces with them. It became swerve for swerve’s sake, while the nWo became a black hole of storytelling and character development that swallowed up one interesting performer after another. The one chance WCW had to make the nWo storyline work was with its longest hero Sting. After Hogan’s turn, Sting found himself fed up with WCW, and his cowardly and untrustworthy peers. Instead of joining the nWo, Sting declared himself a free agent and spent the tail end of 1996 and almost all of 1997 hanging in the rafters and remaking himself in The Crow’s image.
After months of “speculation” over whom Sting would choose, the moment he made his choice at Uncensored 1997 is still one of WCW’s best moments. Eventually, WCW built to what we always knew was coming: Hogan vs. Sting, Icon vs. Icon, nWo vs. WCW. Yet, in what should have been Sting and WCW’s first of many triumphs against the intruders turned into one of the dumbest, anticlimactic pieces of wrestling storytelling I’ve ever seen. Instead of letting Sting pin Hogan clean (i.e. with no interference), WCW crafted a lame story involving a poor swerve and the newly signed Bret Hart. That moment was the nWo era in a nutshell: in a time where powerful resolution is near, WCW tricked us simply to trick us.
From there, the story lost all momentum…and then continued for another three years. Character was never a part of the nWo story, but after that moment, neither was continuity. Membership swelled and contracted on a given week, different factions split off and came back together on whims and people like The Giant joined, left, and/or were booted from the group more times than I can count—and all of it was done in the name of the swerve. If I can return to the realm of comparisons, the nWo story eventually felt like the latter seasons of 24: lots of double-crosses and end-of-episode cliffhangers and surprises, but absolutely no consistency or weight.
These are two of the more famous examples of long-term storytelling in wrestling, but we both know that few companies pull off even the shorter-term arcs and developments. As get closer to the end of our conversation, I want to return to a few things you said earlier. Is TV really the primary reason wrestling storytelling got all out of whack? And, if let’s say WWE ditched it completely, what would standalone wrestling stories look like?
J: Well, just to make sure I don’t sound like some old grump who longs for the good old days, I can say that television has actually improved the storytelling in several respects. When the amount of TV time that needed filling increased exponentially* in the mid-’90s, WWE and WCW suddenly needed to tell a lot more stories. Needing more stories lead to needing more characters, which meant a whole lot of one-note gimmick novelty acts vanished almost overnight. When I was a kid, any given episode of Superstars would be replete with wrestlers whose in-ring careers were apparently in such sorry shape they needed to hold down day jobs to pay the bills: there was the wrestling garbage man, or the wrestling police officer, or the wrestling clown, or the wrestling race car driver, or the wrestling contemporary country music artist, etc., etc. But sometime in 1995-96, all of those guys disappeared, either retooled as actual characters with motivation and backstory or simply tossed to the curb altogether. As the focus of the product shifted from selling tickets to pulling in ratings, the old ways of building up angles had to shift, too, and I’d say most of that shift was in a positive direction.
*I’ve mentioned that a few times without really providing any numbers for reference. In the 1980s, WCW had one hour a week of real TV time to fill, not counting syndicated “recap” shows and the like, and one pay-per-view event roughly every three months. By 1998, it was seven hours a week and a pay-per-view special every single month. (WWE followed a similar pattern.) Just imagine what would’ve happened if the writers of, say, ER had suddenly had to start airing seven episodes a week, plus a theatrical film every month, and you can see the difficulties.
In addition, a focus on the televised product really did allow for more complex characters and stories. It may not have ended up happening that often, true, but the potential was there. In fact, the time period we’re talking about, 1996 through 1998 or so, was probably my favorite era of wrestling. While WCW was running their groundbreaking nWo storyline, on the other channel the WWF was also staging a bold experiment, though admittedly without a lot of planning. Driven entirely by honest fan reaction, they turned one their most celebrated good guys, Bret Hart, into a tragic villain to do battle with their first real anti-hero, “Stone Cold” Steve Austin. Theirs was a story that could only have worked in the inch-by-inch years, as the two men started on opposite sides of the good/evil divide, and over the course of a few months, episode by episode, they passed each other until they discovered they had switched places. It was a complicated story, one that grew in complexity without becoming convoluted, and the way it drew upon the backstories of a dozen characters allowed for rich storytelling that engaged the audience in a remarkable way. (Of course, Bret Hart’s story ended somewhat anticlimactically, but that wasn’t exactly the fault of the writing.)
No, the real failing was that the stories didn’t evolve with the medium. With the two companies battling it out for every ratings point they could, the writers were forced to focus on micromanaging the shows segment-to-segment, and the overall picture often got lost. Around this time, Vince Russo took over as the WWF’s head writer, and he became infamous for his utter lack of long-term planning. According to legend, he would write every show himself, alone, literally on the back of a napkin, mere hours before the live broadcast was set to begin. When he abruptly quit the company in 1999, all of the major storylines had to go into Lost-season-three-style holding patterns because no one else in the organization had any idea where the stories were supposed to be going. (Incidentally, Russo holds the distinction of being hired and fired as head writer of both WCW and WWE, twice each. But anyway.)
And what would wrestling look like if they abandoned serialized storytelling? My gut reaction is to say, “I have no idea,” but I do, actually. I once wrote (briefly) for an independent wrestling company that ran shows every other month or so out of a tiny convention hall. With shows so far apart, a lineup of performers that was unreliable at best (unlike the WWF’s wrestling garbage man, our guys really did have day jobs), and a fan base without much carryover from event to event, any sort of long-term storytelling was a futile effort. (Though we sometimes tried, to little avail.) In order to get the crowd reaction needed, characters had to be very broad, with no allowance for nuance or complexity. We relied heavily on color commentators to essentially tell our small audience, “Boo this man! Now cheer this guy!” It was up to the wrestlers themselves to tell their own stories in the ring. You’re the villain? Better make sure the crowd sees you trying to cheat to win. At the end of the night, all the scores were settled, evil was vanquished, and everyone could go home happy. In some ways, it was a refreshing throwback, like a wrestling version of a Saturday morning cartoon.
That’s great for a convention hall in the middle of nowhere every two months, but that would never work on WWE’s level, and it certainly wouldn’t work on TV. For starters, that setup would make it difficult to sell pay-per-view orders, but it’s also just not how an audience engages with television. The NBA playoffs, for instance, certainly have a serialized narrative, even if it isn’t one cooked up by a roomful of writers. The audience brings everything that came before to what’s happening now, and an attempt to “reboot” wrestling and do a bunch of standalone episodes would inevitably get us back to where we are now, a massive nest of continuity. However, I’ll say this for the NBA: when the NBA finals are over, we’ll have a champion. And we won’t be teased and tricked into waiting for a rematch a month later.
Ooh, bold theory: after WrestleMania every year, the WWE should take four months off, to regroup and plan their next season, just like any other television series. Thoughts?
Cory: The idea that WWE should embrace its television connection even more and take time off after WrestleMania is one that I’ve heard from a lot of people, and it’s such a great idea, and not just from a story perspective. The wrestlers work far too often, in relatively terrible conditions, and they could use the break. When the story usually comes to a natural conclusion at the Grandest Stage of Them All, it would make a lot of sense to take a break, reboot the stories, and move forward with continuity still in the background. The problem is that there’s too much money to be made; WWE wouldn’t even want to take a Monday night off. However, I think your personal tidbit provides us with a possible way around the WWE’s financial concerns while still solving the serialization problem. If there’s not going to be a break, what about a few month period where the stories aren’t as serialized? Just a string of TV and PPV where the matches are simple and straightforward, and maybe where a few performers can get some time off? What’s interesting is that WWE sort of follows this model by giving some of the older performers a break post-Mania, but the stories in that period are all about Mania retribution and burn-off (see next month’s PPV title, Payback). If the company was willing to push the serialized storytelling aside a bit and just allow the performers to tell in-ring stories disassociated from a larger narrative, it could work. The indies do it with big weekend events (King of Trios comes to mind).
However, it’s never going to happen and we both know it. Contemporary major wrestling is so attached to and reliant on television that serialization will never go away. Vince McMahon and USA Network want us to come back after every half-hour act-break; they want us to come back every week. The best way they can think they can do that is to string stories along and hope the conclusion seems fitting and powerful. Most of the time, it isn’t, but I think companies like WWE know that wrestling fans are so desperate for those serialized threads to culminate in something big that we will just keep watching.
Previously on The Squared Circle: Thinking about Pro Wrestling as TV