I canceled my WWE Network subscription a few days after the 2016 election—maybe a facile and foolhardy stance for someone who co-hosts a podcast that relies on Titan Sports’ old tape libraries. I mean, whatever: vegans eat vegetables from fields purged of indigenous wildlife, teetotalers eat pastries or drink soda with vanilla flavoring. We all have to make choices that are congruent to the person we want to be and prioritize that congruency over whether it makes sense to the outsider looking in.
All of this to say that I wasn’t expecting much from Southpaw Regional Wrestling, the comedy mini-series WWE released this past Friday. I thought it was a cheap shot at all the territorial markets shut down by the then-WWF, a tie-in to some fast food promotion that I, for all my love of KFC, wasn’t going to eat because I live in Oakland and am quite spoken for when it comes to fried chicken and soul food.
And lo, there’s even less wrestling in Southpaw Regional Wrestling than in the actual WWE. Not even an opening montage of highlights dubbed over with stock electric guitar solos. Or a few seconds of someone warming up in a dingy wrestling ring. We don’t even get a backstage beatdown, that staple of padded out weekly wrestling shows.
The whole show builds up to a wrestling event that SPOILER: ends up getting canceled because it was chronologically impossible.
It’s just promos. Promos and no wrestling: the very thing that ruining WWE’s flagship shows.
And yet, with zero wrestling content, Southpaw Regional Wrestling is gonna go down as one of the best wrestling programs in 2017. After the first episode, I felt that same kind of dilated-pupil-oh-shit-this-is-gonna-be-big faux clairovoyance I had when I saw my first CHIKARA event.
Southpaw Regional Wrestling is going to get casual or lapsed fans back into wrestling, in the same way Lucha Underground did and the upcoming GLOW Netflix show will. It speaks to the joy, humor, and turmoil of wrestling, in the same way a lot of the supposed “number two” promotions in the business have consistently failed to.
In fiction and interactive media, it’s called world-building—you create a reality unique to the viewer’s own and invite them to pass between realms.
It’s what allowed the original GLOW to run for multiple seasons and even go on tour, despite most of the performers being actresses and models with only fundamental wrestling training. It’s what allowed a bunch of guys in matching t-shirts and jeans to beat WWF in the ratings for a year and a half.
Failure to build a compelling world is why TNA consistently fails to get its footing, after 11 years of having its pick of any talent not currently with the WWE. It’s why Ring of Honor can’t attract a casual fanbase despite helping create the brands of CM Punk, Daniel Bryan, and Samoa Joe, and having Dalton Castle, one of the best gimmicks of all-time and a no-brainer for leading wrestling’s gender politics into modernity.
Paul Heyman has been rightfully critiqued for cultivating a fanbase that chanted for the product itself—”ECW! ECW!”—at the cost of putting individual talent over. But the effects of disparate booking—shuffling titles within your midcard without rhyme or reason, managerial figures being booked to wrestle top talent—are fermenting disaffection among fans of WWE and NJPW, just as the latter plans to come to the US and challenge the former’s status as the worldwide promotion.
Southpaw Regional Wrestling is a primer on some of the basics of pro wrestling worldbuilding—
- stupid gimmicks that are fun to watch and perform
- shallow attempts at mimicking mainstream culture
- conflicts that have consequences that extend outside the ring; back in a time before each promotion had 20 titles, sometimes you had to put up your career, your hair, or a family heirloom to put the fear of God in the casual viewer
- some characters are bad just because they enjoy being bad
- other characters are mysteries even to the promotion itself; not everyone gets a slew of catch phrases and in-jokes
- facilitating tension and alienation of larger-than-life people and situations through a deadpan insistence on legitimacy and normalization
- no, seriously, bitterness is a big one
- wrestling has always struggled with classist dismissal by mainstream society
- John Cena and Chris Jericho’s performances are parodies only in that they make us laugh; their frustration and heartbreak speak truth to countless people who endured humiliation and ostracization for being in the wrestling business
For all it’s Tim & Eric and Reno 911! comic sensibility, Southpaw Regional Wrestling works with tried and true formulas for creating a wrestling product that captivates casual viewers and reignites a long lost love in ardent fans.
WWE is striving for a product where every talent under their mantle is reality TV star who wrestles, occasionally, for the sake of tradition and respecting the company’s origins. I know when I say this I’ll get a bunch of smarks who point out that there’s more wrestling on the Network than there’s ever been, and then they’ll probably call me a “head-ass faggot” like that one writer for Wrestling With Words told all their followers to. Whatever: we’ll see who’s “head-ass” when an hour of promos gets added to 205Live and NXT gets a hidden camera show. I mean, I will still probably be a head-ass, because I gather that’s something you are and not something you do.
But somewhere within the vast self-hating machinations of WWE, there is a glint, a scintilla of that esoteric uniqueness of wrestling, preserved in the eternal form of a guy with a turtleneck and comb-over vomiting on himself as John Cena prays for death.
Author: Jetta Rae
Founder of Fry Havoc. Can be found on twitter at @jetta_rae