It is the night of Survivor Series as I write this, five hours before the start of the event whose single match – Team Authority versus Team Cena – has dominated WWE programming for the last month without the rest of the card getting much of an airing at all. This is a great shame, as Dean Ambrose’ red hot push throughout the month of October came to a wet fart of an ending at Hell in a Cell when his show-stopping feud with Seth Rollins was put to bed with some Bray Wyatt interference. Apparently Ambrose no longer cares about getting revenge on his former Shield “brotha”, and is hell-bent on beating Wyatt instead.
Unfortunately for Ambrose – though I may be proved wrong in five hours’ time – I suspect a Wyatt victory. After-all, the “Eater of Worlds” was, himself, red-hot in WWE once upon a time, only to succumb to the WWE booking department’s ineptitude following his go-nowhere feud with John Cena. Gone from our screens for a month to freshen up the character and free himself from his followers, Harper and Rowan, Wyatt is back to being creepy and intense, and it is clear they are desperate to revitalise the character and bring him back to the future main event player he was pre-Wrestlemania. Sadly for Ambrose, for this to happen, it is likely Wyatt will defeat him, making this the second feud in a row in which the Lunatic Fringe finds himself staring up at the lights.
Worse – the match itself is a match I’m finding it very hard to care about. While Team Cena versus Team Authority has a very clear buy-in (if Cena’s team wins, it is the end of The Authority – scourge of WWE for years now; if The Authority wins, Team Cena is fired), instead of giving me logical booking for Ambrose/Wyatt (Ambrose wants revenge on the man who stole away his chance at retribution on Rollins, Wyatt wants to destroy another hero the WWE universe are cheering in his quest to bring darkness to the WWE), some ludicrous narrative has been written about Dean Ambrose’s daddy issues – a drunk and abusive father, apparently jailed, whom Wyatt is invoking to push Ambrose’s buttons. Buttons he didn’t seem to have a month ago.
Let’s be clear: I know, you know, EVERYBODY knows that wrestling is fake. But so is Sons of Anarchy. And the reason I care about Jax Teller’s daddy issues on that show and don’t give two shits about Dean Ambrose’s on Raw, is because in Sons of Anarchy, the daddy issues have been logically introduced to us in a meaningful way over time. The writing is better and the story has been carefully plotted to give it maximum impact.
For me to care about Ambrose’s father, I need to first know Ambrose has a father, and that there are issues there. Not the same day it becomes suddenly important, but before that. I need to believe it. Perhaps by having Dean Ambrose talk about his dad months in advance on Fathers’ Day, or cut earlier promos about how abusive and awful he was. However they do it – for me to feel emotionally invested in this idea, I need to know what power the idea has for the characters I’m watching. Then, when Bray Wyatt makes reference to Ambrose’s dad, I understand and believe in the significance of those words.
This is why we care when a character insults Stephanie McMahon to Triple H, or Daniel Bryan to Brie Bella – we know that these people are married in real life, and that the words have an impact. When you instead invent a fake problem, just for the sole purpose of the storyline, it reads as a fake problem immediately and nobody cares.
Case in point – when Stephanie McMahon insulted Daniel Bryan to Brie Bella and the storyline grew between these two women this summer, the drama was exciting enough to make the match one of Summerslam’s main events. When the obviously fake storyline of Nikki Bella turning on Brie replaced it, we all lost interest. No one cares that Brie is Nikki’s personal assistant for 30 days because we all know she’s not. They’re sisters, they love each other, and you can see this over on Instagram if you want to know the truth. Just like we knew that the Big Show wasn’t really broke and didn’t have to do The Authority’s bidding a few years ago when he punched Dusty Rhodes…or, for that matter, that Shawn Michaels was broke a few years before that, when apparently he had to work for JBL! These sorts of storylines insult the intelligence of viewers who are looking for storylines they can believe in because they so clearly shoe-horn in all kinds of new character elements that serve only the purpose of that storyline and have no established credulity.
I mentioned Bray Wyatt’s decline earlier. The main cause of this was the driving force of his feud with John Cena was some incredulous nonsense about destroying Cena’s legacy. Apparently, if Cena lost to Wyatt at Wrestlemania XXX this would end The Champ’s legacy. Yet it was never clear why. Cena has lost before, to much higher calibre wrestlers – The Rock, for instance. No legacy was lost, and not a single person watching ‘Mania this year believed that if Cena lost, his legacy would be ruined forever. WWE gave us no reason to believe that it would be.
On the flip-side, we all cared like crazy that Daniel Bryan got his title shot and became champion after Wrestlemania XXX. This is because the entirety of that storyline was played out on-screen, for months and months, slowly building to a crescendo that had us on the edge of our seats. From comments about Bryan’s “B+” status, to being screwed out of victory after victory – every little action added to the story so that when it was finally articulated (most likely not even planned, but simply in reaction to the WWE Universe’s fervour for Bryan), it was completely believable.
If you want to tell me that The Big Show is broke – don’t just tell me that one day as if I have to accept it. Think about how to introduce the idea to us in a convincing way over time. Subtle hints, months in advance – Show talking about his investments, Show’s ring attire starting to look shabby, Show’s rental car seeming a little cheap compared to others. Nothing needs to be overtly said, but these visual cues stick in our heads, so that when we are told that he has lost everything in a bad stock investment, it seems plausible.
But what do you expect from a company who thinks it plausible that a man can feud with a bunny, teaming with him one week, turning on him, then teaming and turning repeatedly with no explanation or consequence at any point?
It is interesting, as I watch Dean Ambrose’s fire start to sputter in the mire of WWE booking, that the replacement man-of-the-moment is the rehabilitated Ryback, returning from some time away and re-packaged with his old “feed me more” gimmick. You remember – the gimmick we all loved a few years ago and wanted to see become WWE champion, until loss after loss made his monster-status unbelievable and he got buried in the undercard in a joke team with the unremarkable Curtis Axel?
Again – we all know that wrestling is fake. So therefore “winning” and “losing” is not a real indicator of ability, but rather a reflection of the creative team’s planning. However, it remains true that if the premise of our fiction – wrestling – is that it is a competitive sport, based on wins and losses, then the writers have to remember that for an audience to buy-in to that fiction, they have to convince themselves that winning is important, and that winning matches means success. If that is not true, then the entire edifice falls down. So it therefore becomes imperative that a wrestler you are trying to push as a hero cannot continue to fall short every time they have an important match. Ryback lost and lost and we all gave up. Wyatt couldn’t beat Cena in his biggest feud of the year, and they had to send him away and reboot him. And Dean Ambrose could be the next big thing in the business, if only we could actually believe he had the potential to win a big high stakes match.
When Survivor Series ends tonight, the results will start to set the scene for the Road to Wrestlemania which begins in earnest at January’s Royal Rumble. However, the success of that event – and all the events before it – will depend on how much fans invest in the stories being told and the characters which embody them. We need clear and believable reasons for Person A to want to fight Person B. We need believable stakes and we need logical consequences.
It is worth noting at this point that a perfect example of WWE’s lack of understanding when it comes to the importance of believable storyline and logical narrative is the glaring omission of Brock Lesnar from WWE TV since September.
It is not the absence that is the problem, and I fully believe that having a part-time champion is fine, if done correctly. The problem is that Lesnar has just vanished, with no explanation. Previous 30 day compete clauses that have seen former champions stripped of their titles for failure to defend them have mysteriously disappeared from the WWE consciousness. More disturbing is the fact that all these WWE superstars who have told us for years that being the champion is their number one ambition in the world, have been utterly silent on the matter. No one is asking for their title shot. No one is pointing out that there is no champion to fight. Even Mr Money in the Bank, Seth Rollins, is wondering around with a briefcase which he has no way of utilising even though its very point is that he should be able to call for a title match any time, anywhere. Lesnar is gone, and so is any mention of the belt.
And none of it needed to be this way. A very simple Paul Heyman promo would have set the scene: “my client has advised me that having defeated so easily every top contender the WWE has to offer he will not defend his championship again until he has some real competition.” This, at least, would explain the absence. It could be revealed that part of The Authority’s deal with Lesnar to bring him in to topple Cena was to allow him a part-time schedule, and no 30 day defence policy. Then people like John Cena could blame The Authority for the lack of a champion on WWE TV and PPV and add fuel to that feud whilst keeping the importance of the championship alive. He could talk about the cowardly champion, too scared to defend his belt, until Lesnar is goaded back into the ring; or if Team Cena win at Survivor Series and a new authority comes to power, the part-time contract can be revoked, leading to Paul Heyman fronting “breach of contract” stalling tactics until Lesnar is contractually ready to fight. Seth Rollins could demand a title shot and Heyman could show up and point out that part of his client’s special WWE contract with The Authority was that he could veto any possible challenger, even the Money in the Bank winner.
However they did it, the point is that they needed to keep the title alive in the story and use Lesnar’s absence with the belt to develop what was still there, all the while building up to a huge return that would mean something when it finally happened. Instead, as it stands, we have John Cena owed a title shot as number one contender in waiting (yet again), which he has not spoken about since and seems to have forgotten the importance of, which I assume he will remember only when Lesnar is ready to do TV in December, making it just another title match in the calendar rather than something special.
This stuff is basic, and yet increasingly WWE is dropping the ball when it comes to developing new characters and giving us compelling television that makes us want to spend money – $9.99! – on the product. Speaking of which, November has been a terrible month for UK fans despite the WWE making their annual visit to these shores to film Raw and Smackdown. The long-promised WWE Network was minutes away from finally launching in the UK when suddenly the launch was cancelled with no explanation. So while the rest of the world got to experience November for FREE on the WWE Network, including the Survivor Series pay-per-view, UK fans were shafted.
This is not surprising. A victim of their own inherent lack of logic, WWE seem to think that offering the WWE Network to UK customers for just $9.99 a month will not piss off their TV partners at SKY, who currently make UK wrestling fans spend £25 a month for Sky Sports, plus £15 for a Pay-Per-View. Having only recently renewed their TV rights deal with SKY, why they think it will not be met with anger to completely undercut them with the WWE network is beyond me? All I do know, is that the UK branch of the WWE Universe was fuming at the aborted launch (not the first one to happen over the WWE Network here), and I think we should watch this space to see if either WWE or SKY can do anything to appease them. Certainly it is a bitter pill to swallow to be paying £15 for Survivor Series tonight when it should have been free. DM