SPOTLIGHTED PODCAST ALERT (YOUR ARTICLE BEGINS A FEW INCHES DOWN)...
On the season premiere of “Total Bellas” on Wednesday night on E!, John Cena was portrayed rather terribly. As a viewer, I was left wondering if he was really like this and thus totally unaware of how he comes across (or aware of it, but with a sense that others should conform to his meticulous house rules because he is who he is), or if this was amped up somewhat (or quite a bit) for the sake of manufacturing drama on the reality show. I genuinely don’t know.
I’m not writing this to come down on Cena for his odd list of strict guidelines for his houseguests (such as requiring no shoes except during his weekly attendance-required formal dinner or that they must fix their beds every morning no exceptions), or his implication that Brie Bella and Daniel Bryan’s little dog should be sent away because it nipped him. I’m writing this point out how much more fun it is to not know for sure that it was just Cena “playing a character” in order to “entertain the audience.”
Compare that to the previous night on “Talking Smack” on WWE Network. On that episode, Dolph Ziggler began the interview with Daniel Bryan and Renee Young by saying about his on-air personal, “My character, I work hard, but I don’t win too much.” Ziggler outright indicated that what you see on WWE TV isn’t really him, it’s created by writers.
Just a few minutes later he veered into kayfabe land by saying he decided to “put his career on the line (at No Mercy) to show if he’s as good as he thinks he is.” He said if he’s not contributing, he doesn’t want to be there. So one moment, he says that on Smackdown he is just playing a character on TV who works hard, but doesn’t win much. The next moment, he’s decided in real life to put his career on the line because if he can’t really win on Sunday, he doesn’t deserve or want to remain in WWE. He talked about “having a back-up plan,” which implied he isn’t sure whether he’s winning or losing on Sunday, you know, like it’s not scripted and he’s really fighting to win.
The narrative structure with Ziggler was all over the map, which didn’t seem to go unnoticed by Bryan and Young. With Cena on “Total Bellas,” the narrative was consistent – Cena is a self-entitled priss who demands even of family and friends that things will be “just so” if you want to stay in his house.
The argument I hear when it comes to defending wrestlers breaking character on social media is that “everyone knows wrestling is scripted so who cares?” My counter argument is that pro wrestling has a lot to learn from reality TV. Reality TV doesn’t feature the characters on TV shows going on social media talking about the “character they play.” Sure, maybe a disgruntled former reality TV participant will talk about some producers steering them a certain way or of being poorly edited, but no star of a reality show goes on social media right after a show airs and jokes about “storylines” that are orchestrated on an episode, or joshes around in a friendly way with people they were feuding with on the just-complete episode.
The way reality TV does things is better for viewers. It gives them something to believe in and doesn’t openly break the narrative “reality” set forth on the shows. Pro wrestling (perhaps most egregiously Charlotte and Sasha Banks, among other WWE women, gushing effusively about each other on social media while feuding on TV) doesn’t get this.
You’d think pro wrestling would be better at “faking it” to fool the fans (to their benefit) than anyone, but somewhere along the line they mistakenly started to believe it would be “insulting” to pretend that their on-air characters actually reflect what they’re like in real life. I’m more invested in Baron Corbin as a heel because on Talking Smack he acted like he didn’t want to be there, couldn’t wait to leave, was exasperated at the questions, and was eager to join his buddies clubbing and womanizing. I’m less invested in Bray Wyatt and Charlotte as heels because they, in the midst of playing convincing heels on TV, have done radio interviews for WWE p.r. talking about how they hope to give fans their money’s worth and hope to create great memories for young fans.
Paul Heyman didn’t respond on Twitter this week to rumors of a Goldberg vs. Brock Lesnar match by talking about the box office appeal or saying he thinks they could have “a better match” this time around. He wrote: “Dear Goldberg, I respectfully suggest you don’t confuse the fantasy of WWE 2K17 with the reality that is Brock Lesnar!” He gets it.
Reality TV is getting it right. They give viewers a convincing story without sending out contradictory signals that otherwise serve no purpose. WWE, and pro wrestling at large, is getting it wrong by being flippant about and dismissing the notion that the more consistent their public image off TV, the more easily fans will be drawn into either booing heels or cheering the babyfaces who wrestle them.
I know as a viewer I’m curious what’s real and what’s not, but I’m more satisfied when the possibility remains that what I’m seeing is mostly or totally authentic, and I’m less invested in a reality show when it’s thrown in my face how truly orchestrated and manipulated and fictionalized the characters are. Pro wrestling has a lot to (re)learn when it comes to giving its viewers a story to believe in and having an across-all-platforms policy to protect the projected images of their wrestlers and not needlessly contradict them.
NOW CHECK OUT YESTERDAY’S KELLER’S TAKE: Why Al Snow is right that wrestlers should eliminate virtually all punches from wrestling matches
(PWTorch editor Wade Keller launched the Pro Wrestling Torch Newsletter in 1987. Over 1,400 weekly issues have been published and millions have been sent worldwide over the last 30 years. He hosts the PWTorch Livecast at www.pwtorchlivecast.com every Monday right after Raw, every Tuesday right after Smackdown, every Wednesday for the Mid-Week episode with rotating cohosts at 1 ET, and everything Thursday at 1 ET with special interview guests, with tens of millions of downloads since 2009 and counting. He was inducted into the George Tragos/Lou Thesz Pro Wrestling Hall of Fame with the “Jim Melby Excellence in Journalism” award, Class of 2015. Email: firstname.lastname@example.org. Twitter: @thewadekeller.)