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23.4.11 2020
The 7 - Guest Columns - The Obtuse Angle: Learned Disappointment
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Wolfram J. Paulovich
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#1 Posted on 27.12.02 1634.03
Reposted on: 27.12.09 1638.38

Learned Disappointment
December 24, 2002

by Jeb Tennyson Lund

Television shows tell us how to watch them. Even in the earliest episodes of the X-Files, viewers could tell that they should take commentary with a grain of salt, delight in witty banter, get chills from seeing strange creatures and (of course) not expect a grand unifying solution. Wrestling, even though it is a mixed bag of phenomena, tells us how to watch it. Recently, it has told us to be disappointed.

This sort of thinking had not occurred to me until recently. A friend of mine, who is a long-time wrestling fan (and who got me into wrestling), hit me with a stumper of a question: what do you get out of watching wrestling?

Well, I... uh....

His example for himself was perfect: he grew up watching it, and it always provided a release from a busy or troubled mind. At one rather grave and upsetting point in his life, watching a tape of Wrestlemania VIII calmed him down and helped him to put a lot of his frustrations and worries on a back burner. The seriousness of life was drowned out by announcers hawking the wares, silly promos and silly moves.

I began to ponder perhaps too searchingly for something as frivolous as wrestling about what I sought when watching the WWE. What part of me was drawn to it, and what part of me needed to be entertained by it? The answer, now, is pretty simple. I watch wrestling so I can write a column about wrestling. I enjoy writing; I enjoy being able to explore my little ability with language: the WWE is an excuse. If I were not writing a column, I would still watch, albeit less often and with less focus. I would probably tell you that I did it for the humor and occasional unpredictability.

Two years ago, however, I could have given an excited and passionate explanation. Primarily, I loved Mick Foley, Chris Jericho and their promos and matches. Triple H was a great heel; although I hated him, I respected what he was doing. The Rock's schtick hadn't become wearisome. Stone Cold and the Undertaker would be coming back to wrestling soon, offering me new stories and established characters. The Radicalz debuted. Everything was fresh and vibrant. Stories, though far from being as labyrinthine and well-executed as good Victorian literature, had good twists, good execution and good continuity.

For the next year and a half, wrestling, as a show, taught me that watching wrestling was a rewarding multifaceted experience. There were great matches to delight in just for the pleasure of their existence. There were great stories whose ambiguities and eventual solutions were, if not gripping, then at least exciting. Sometimes these two engaging strands were connected, and great stories were furthered or finished by great matches. For example: the Kurt-Stephanie-Triple H love triangle and the matches that followed; then Jericho's haranguing of Triple H, Angle and Stephanie and the matches that resulted.

And, of course, there was all that great behind-the-scenes "smark" stuff to read and hear about. When wrestling wasn't amazing, all the stuff that went on "behind it" was. Now, however, I feel like a child who has demanded to know the truth about Santa Claus vindicated because I have become aware; sad, because all the newness and mystery are gone.

Many fans who started watching wrestling in the "Attitude" era probably feel the same. We were reared on a dynamic, peaking product. We watched it at the top of its form, while the veil of secrecy about wrestling was also slowly being lifted. As such, we have seen it at its best, and we have no mysteries about the reality of wrestling to transfix us during the lull of the product.

These are circumstantial disappointments. A bigger problem, however, is that the current state of the WWE product instills in viewers an instructed disappointment. Cheering hard often seems a waste of breath; watching regularly, a wasted exercise. When the big moments/angles end with small results, we learn to expend less energy and devote less of ourselves to those moments/angles, because that is our natural defense against a feeling of sadness, or loss, or betrayal. Fiery passion has burned us: we are wary of it.

Our disappointments are threefold: "booked" disappointment, "sloppy" disappointment, and "unoriginal" disappointment. The sloppiness is hard to accept. The programmed disappointments are miserable. Unoriginality is wearying. The only natural disappointment is from purely accidental factors: for instance, Eddie Guerrero dislocating his elbow during his WWF debut.

Booked Disappointment, or;
"The Fake Triple H's Colonoscopy: Through an Ass Darkly"

"Booked" disappointment is when an exciting angle is bungled into something anathema to the audience and good sense. It may not be the most hurtful of disappointments, but it is probably the most infuriating. Simply put, it implies that no one "in charge" is trying to amuse, entertain or grip the viewers. In fact, it can seem like a campaign against them. The easiest example of this is the Katie Vick angle.

Even if you were not a Kane fan, you certainly could not disparage the storyline the WWE had created for him. Simply put, he was a freak and outsider sick of trying to fit in. (In mainstream society, most wrestling fans are perceived as freaks for simply liking wrestling: what better way to tap into the viewers's consciousness?) Rather than seeking mass approval, Kane sought approval within himself and boldly asserted his individuality and shortcomings. Moreover, nothing seemed to stop him, as he captured the Intercontinental and Tag Titles.

Enter booked disappointment.

Confronted with a legitimately compelling storyline, the booking committee sidelined all the emotion and drama by trying to increase it subsequently spotlighting an absurd revelation about necrophilia that had no business either in the ring or in the realm of logic. Fans, left feeling foolish for investing any emotional stake in Kane's quest for the gold and for self-actualization, turned away, muted their voices or just said, "Screw it," and booed.

The booking committee, pinning responsibility on anything but themselves, gave Kane a kind of implied censure by taking the tag belt off him. Immediately, this signaled to the audience that Kane was doomed at the pay-per-view. Having him capture the World Title, the Intercontinental Title and the Tag Title would have been something. It would have been daring. And having him lose the World and Intercontinental titles while possessing two titles going into the match would have been dangerously suspect. Hence, they took the pressure off themselves by taking one belt off of Kane. Unable to cry "do-over!" on the Raw following the necrophilia story (without looking like a pile of greased weasels), they cried "do-over!" roughly a month later by having Shawn Michaels ridicule their angle long after their angle had buried Kane.

The disappointment inherent in all of this is fivefold: we see an emotionally appealing storyline sabotaged by creative (though abominable) writing; we see management cowardice in regard to personal responsibility, as the asinine storyline is continued and deepened; we see management trying to coerce us into liking what is broadcast, by brazenly hyping the wretchedness; we see management cowardice through the punishment of a wrestler already punished by the storyline; finally, we see a cowardly apology for the storyline coming from someone benefited by it (i.e. Michaels, who would have been in a program with the belt-less Triple H, instead of being the champion himself).

What are the lessons?
Lesson 1: Don't care too much, because the more you care, the more it will hurt when your caring is proved irrelevant.
Lesson 2: Give any one booker too much success and he will hang himself with it.
Lesson 3: No interesting or moving Kane-related storyline has lasted more than four weeks often less.
Lesson 4: All wrestlers's backstories are subject to as much variation and indifference as Undertaker or Triple H selling a leg injury during a match.
Lesson 5: The booking committee will listen to the audience only after audience objections have no impact on storylines, and they will apologize only when an apology has no practical impact other than "saving face" for people whose faces the audience never sees.

Disappointment Through Sloppiness, or;
"Good Gawd Almighty, We Thought of This an Hour Ago"

Sloppy disappointments are those created by inattention and a lack of logic. These are by far the most wounding, as they tend to hurt the casual or non-"smark" viewer the most.

Basically, anyone who considers himself a "smark" watches any new development in wrestling and responds with the same sentence: "I'll wait to see what they do with it next week." Many viewers are not nearly so jaded or protective of themselves. When a different kind of match happens, they are excited. They think that maybe it signals a change for a wrestler's fortunes.

A fine example of this could be garnered from any of Big Show's matches from, let's say, October. In one match, he squashes a mid-sized wrestler with head-butts, punches, bear hugs and a chokeslam. In a match in the following week, Jeff Hardy or someone similarly small pins him cleanly. Oh, I say, dashed rotten luck, fans of the Showster.

Other examples can be found in the Dudleys's reunification and the Jericho/Christian tag-team. In the case of the former, no promos or explanations have been given for why they are together again. The average fan knows that they had partnered before (and are "brothers"), but does not know why they would partner again. Sure, the "smark" knows that both were sucking wind in singles competition, but how obvious is that to someone who actually likes both guys just because, well, he or she likes them?

The Jericho/Christian team suffers similar problems. A casual fan really has no reason to see these two paired, especially because Jericho continually asserts that he is the main-event wrestling "King of the World." A "smark" knows that they are paired to be given something to do, but everyone else wonders why Christian puts up with Jericho. Why is Christian just forgetting about that chair shot? Why is this happening? Why should someone love it?

These disappointing circumstances arise not when the booking committee says, "Hey, we've got a great idea involving a pommel-horse, RVD and some spatulas," but rather when they say, "Two people need to do something, for some indeterminate purpose, for a small amount of time, to satisfy an obscure quota that we have established for arbitrary reasons."

The sad result is that a casual fan who loves or hates one wrestler becomes excited by one event, then discovers that it meant nothing. They hate that Jericho hit Christian with a chair, then feel robbed when Christian teams with Jericho without any real hard feelings. They hate that the Dudley's would be separated by a brand draft, change characters, never try to reunite, then inexplicably reunite. The casual fan is given nothing for his emotional or empirical investment of affection or analysis. The next week is just as arbitrary.

The lessons are:
Lesson 1: This week and next week occur in different universes. The wrestler for whom you have some devotion is not one of the privileged six wrestlers who are allowed continuity. There is no story for your wrestler: tune in randomly and without enthusiasm.
Lesson 2: Don't cheer or celebrate too loudly this week; next week a friend can humiliate you for being pleased with what had happened.

Unoriginal Disappointment, or;
"With a Pedigree, It's All Over!"

In some ways, this is the "smarkiest" disappointment of them all, but it still can depress a regular fan who has not tapped in to online columns or dirt-sheets. Basically, this is when no matter what JR speculates to the contrary what has always happened happens. A good example might be Jericho v. Triple H... or Austin with the kick-wham-stunner.

This disappointment is usually augmented by a lot of booking misdirection. Like an exercise in magic or pocket-picking, the audience is told to focus on unpredictability or variants in storytelling, all the while being set up for that about which they should know better. Just as you should check your pockets after bumping into someone on the subway, you should also check through your "wrestling brain" when something contrary to history happens.

Essentially, no matter how many times Jericho savaged Triple H with a chair, or focused offense on his knee, you should have known that it would come to nought. Jericho has never beaten Triple H cleanly, and the WWE advertised that extensively, all the while touting Jericho as the first Undisputed Champion. The misdirection, however, should not have prevented anyone from seeing that Jericho won no pre-Wrestlemania X-8 match cleanly, and that Triple H often did.

Triple H had a knee injury going in to Wrestlemania X-8. Imagine how incredible it would have been if Jericho had systematically attacked the knee... and had Triple H sell it? Also, he could have been so ruthless that Stephanie could have emotionally intervened on Triple H's behalf, making Jericho punk her out and toss her out of the ring. He could have come off like a full-bore heel, keeping the gold at Wrestlemania, as Triple H did in 2000. If, indeed, Triple H had to go over him at Backlash (setting up a confrontation with Hogan at the next pay-per-view), he could have done so "fully healed," thus minimizing Jericho's Wrestlemania victory to some degree. The result, however, would not have been the total emasculation of Jericho that we have seen at Triple H's hands in three pay-per-views.

The kick-wham-stunner situation is just as bad. Can anyone remember a time when Austin was summoned to the ring to sign a contract or join a force/group/company when he did not wind up stunnering all within his reach? How odd, but how oddly wonderful, would it have been if Austin had kicked McMahon, lifted him up, given him a bearhug, then the finger... and then done the same thing for Flair? He could have looked grateful but contemptuous, interested but not desperate; plus, the restraint of his power would have demonstrated just how much he could have done, had he chosen to.

The problem with the scenarios I have proposed is their total unbelievability. And the cause of their total unbelievability is a relentless repetition of the contrary. No one expects Jericho to defeat Triple H because, all jabbering hype aside, they have never seen it happen. No one expected Austin to leave the ring without stunnering a "boss" because he never (or so rarely as to approach "never") did that.

The fault lies and lay not in our hopes but in our lack of deliverance from the higher (booking) power. The bludgeoning repetition of circumstance doled out by bookers might have dulled our wishes, but it has not eradicated them. Our impulse and yearning for difference remains blunted and, of course, disappointed. The more the WWE adheres to a one-sided non-dynamic tradition, the more it might appear that they are serving continuity. Instead, they are serving up the stultifying, and alienation, and disappointment, and cowardice... and a program that only reinforces entrenched desires to not believe anymore.

For a form of entertainment based on deep faith and willful ignorance i.e., we know it's fake, but we cheer in hope that it makes a change, in fun... in, well, anyway this is not only a dangerous but costly form of fear and arrogance.

The Economics of Disappointment, or;
"Ladies and Gentleman, It's a $40 Show No Matter What!"

When we learn that Brock Lesnar, or Big Show or Triple H defend their titles on free TV without consequence, we learn that those matches are inconsequential. When there is no prospect of a major title changing hands on free TV, free TV becomes less important. Furthermore, when lesser titles change hands without important stories, we learn that those titles are of less importance... a condition that also lessens the wrestlers who aspire to them.

Basically, when we no longer "buy it" that a title match on TV will change anything, we stop caring. We don't "buy it" that lesser titles change the world. And when booking decisions make pay-per-view title changes predictable, unimportant, part of an unchanging process, purely random or etc., we stop buying the claim that: "It's such a momentous occasion, folks!"

In short, we stop buying anything.

These comments reflect some I have made in a previous column, but they are worth reiterating. Certainly: when TV matches are nothing more than the prelude to other TV matches that are no more than huckstering for a $39 paid event, they are worthless to all but the most dedicated viewers. Considering that this is the current state of WWE TV, the low-but-solid ratings are easily explained: wrestling devotees will eat up whatever they can get with their cable package. People who aren't wrestling devotees want a show that changes more than "Always-Wins-Man defeats Other-Man for Match That Costs a Lot." Basically, they will go looking for a struggle that is barely a tad more dynamic.. and also free: "Will Ross and Rachel finally stay together?"

The explanation for the lack of higher ratings is simple. Compelling storylines that can appeal to an average person are sidelined by "shocking" developments and stories of more concern to censors and PTA meetings than an actual fanbase. Non-main-event wrestlers are booked and handled with a degree of idiotic whimsy that virtually prohibits any affection or devotion for them, lest the devotee be exposed to public ridicule or personal ("lazily booked") betrayal. Finally, long-time viewers are presented with unchanging situations that would provide extraordinary delight if they were overthrown; yet the pattern remains, allowing the faithful to mutter match endings before they happen and comfort themselves only with wisdom, instead of entertainment.

If the WWE worries that no one cleaves to their product, they should look to the presentation of the product. It is formulated in such a way that it disappoints all of the marketable groups that watch it those who are outright ignorant of wrestling's doings, those who have watched long enough to gauge what might happen, and those who devotedly read the backstage reports and wrestling columns. To lose any more audiences through their hubris and lack of dynamism, WWE bookers would have to change the WWE's appeal, then change it again. The prerequisite would, of course, be change. And that troublesome option does not seem to be on the table. Until then, the ratings will remain in the basement maintained by a fanbase that is too loyal, too stubborn, too lazy or too stupid to walk away.

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#2 Posted on 30.12.02 1112.58
Reposted on: 30.12.09 1114.43

    Originally posted by Jeb Tennyson Lund

    The fault lies and lay not in our hopes but in our lack of deliverance from the higher (booking) power. The bludgeoning repetition of circumstance doled out by bookers might have dulled our wishes, but it has not eradicated them. Our impulse and yearning for difference remains blunted and, of course, disappointed.

I couldn't agree more. This is why Brock has gotten over, fans are yearning for ANYTHING that's different from the same six main-eventers that we've gotten for the last few years. What's the harm in adding a few more to the rotation? If they don't, and they've shown that they're very reluctant to, it will mean the death of the company.
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#3 Posted on 1.1.03 2222.33
Reposted on: 1.1.10 2224.04
I think you hit the nail right on the head with the "booked dissapointment." Too often in the past few years has WWE tried to flex their creative muscle to create some elaborate storyline when in reality, the same handful of angles have worked and will work until the end of time.

I can think of some major examples in the past year alone how the writers trying to get too cute or too "creative" has hurt angles. Take The Rock and Hulk Hogan. They had that dramatic segment where they went back and forth. The nWo punked out The Rock with a weapon, that should have been enough. But no, they get all "creative" and have The Rock run over by a 15-wheeler. Sure Rock-Hogan still worked in the end but that was a totally unnecessary angle that just insults the fans intelligence. Somebody needs to show Vince his own promise to the fans in late '97 where he said they would no longer insult their fans intelligence.

The second example would be Triple H and Shawn Michaels. Great old school storyline, the prodigy turns on his mentor as he tries to break out of his shadow. But then they get all "creative" on us with the video footage being descrambled. Again, a totally unneeded angle.

Wrestling fans just want to be able to lose themselves in an angle. A nice and simple angle that they can easily suspend their disbelief. The more that WWE tries to be "creative" the more it hurts the feud. Just think of some of their best angles of the past few years.

The renegade employee bucking the system and refusing to cave into the evil owner's demands with Austin and McMahon.

On his last legs, Mankind morphs back into Cactus Jack in a desperate attempt to take out the young World Champion, Triple H. He doesn't suceed (puts over HHH) but goes out in a blaze of glory fitting of his legacy.

All the incarnations of Rock-Austin worked because it was just so simple. The blue collar working man against the cocky, charismatic, smack talking youngster.

When Vince and Linda talk about going back to the basics and rebuilding, I really hope they mean it. There's no quick fix other then to really just stick with the basic storylines that have worked throughout the history of wrestling. They seem to be doing that with Brock Lesnar and Kurt Angle. But will Lesnar & Angle make it to WrestleMania without being struck by the "creativity" of the WWE writers?
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