Jan 8, 2020
The Dark Order Of AEW
"We're going to offer a sports-centric product that focuses on the athletes and work."
With this statement, in May of 2019, Tony Khan set my expectations of All Elite Wrestling.
I wish I had interpreted that statement as broadly as possible rather than immediately invest in the deeper implications of "sports-centric".
It set an impossible-to-meet expectation, ensuring dissatisfaction. So frustrated with WWE and so excited by the prospect of a new promotion destined to be its antidote, it wasn't hard to imagine Dynamite would be everything I ever wanted it to be.
All I heard was "sports-centric" and my eager imagination filled in the blanks.
That was my mistake, not Khan's nor AEW's.
To be fair to frustrated WWE-fans, though, the phrase "sports-centric" is a dog whistle that roughly translates, "Gone are the days of Sports Entertainment bullocks! No hokey crap! AEW is going be serious and respect pro-wrestling!"
I'm not suggesting Tony Khan didn't mean what he said. Nor do I think his promotion should be forever judged according to what it isn't. I simply recognize, especially after watching the latest Dark Order YouTube video, that I have a very different understanding of “sports-centric".
It turns out AEW is a lot like all other pro-wrestling (which is by no means the end of the world and, in hindsight, unsurprising). It has strengths, it has weaknesses, sometimes it’s great, sometimes it’s bad…and sometimes you hope no one knows you watch it.
The Dark Order falls into the latter category for me.
It's a little bit Right To Censor, a little bit Straight Edge Society, a little bit Wyatt Family, and a lot of what professional wrestling doesn't need anymore. They’re a dated, cheesy, black-leather-clad collection of heels who, while not supernatural, move to the lame rhythm of supernatural-wrestling.
They’re not helped by the existence of The Butcher, The Bunny, & The Blade and The Nightmare Collective (Brandi, Awesome Kong, a mysterious bald man, et al), two other AEW factions who fit the same description: they wear black, they threaten people but it's not clear why, cut off hair, climb out of "hell" (the center of the ring), and their aesthetic is stuck somewhere between early aughts softcore porn and goth Attitude Era.
While The Dark Order's soft reboot as a cult of jobber-incels was inspired, it continues to manifest as goofy skits, cheap-looking costumes, and creative paradoxes (things that should matter on weekly prime-time television).
Ignoring aesthetics, and considering only Dark Order's narrative trajectory, we're meant to trust AEW's creative process. We’re not supposed to feel "been there, done that". We're meant to be sincerely teased by The Dark Order, and curious about their true intentions. We're not supposed to watch it ironically, and yet I fear that's going to become the only way fans end up enjoying it (a cynical process AEW must avoid). Not only is it difficult to be teased and curious about something painfully familiar, it's difficult to place once’s faith in a process that, in Dark Order’s case, hasn’t yielded positive results.
AEW's unwillingness to give up on The Dark Order is certainly admirable. The attempt to ground them in reality and flesh out their identity via vignettes offered a brief glimmer of hope. Then, on December 18th, they came out from behind the comfort of their vignettes to close an episode of Dynamite.
Seeing and hearing them, in the flesh, was a blistering reminder of how inherently antiquated their gimmick is.
The promotion's heart may be in the right place, but the promotion's head is making all the same bad sports-entertainment decisions.
And that’s where my real concern lies.
Before long, the company’s admirable unwillingness to give up on The Dark Order will read as stubbornness.
You will like this whether you like it or not, pal!
Pro-wrestling fans have had enough of that. If a promotion (especially one that regards itself as "The Alternative") doesn't sincerely consider audience reactions or, worse yet, doesn't comprehend why fans reject an act and then, worse still, quadruples-down on a creative gambit purely out of spite, it's not delivering on a promise for which there is no room for interpretation: to be entertaining.
Modern wrestling fans don’t need Dynamite to be everything they specifically want it to be. Not even me, a regular live Dynamite-viewer who has enjoyed more episodes than he hasn’t.
Modern wrestling fans just need wrestling to be good.
The same way other television is good.
What does that mean?
It means not grading wrestling on its cooky curve, allowing for cheap nonsense as a result of lowered expectations. It means gradually removing those parts of pro-wrestling that embarrass us: gimmicks, angles, aesthetics, tones, philosophies, policies, and concepts best left to the past.
When I see an act like The Dark Order, in 2020, it confounds me. I know the minds who created it have seen the same wrestling I have. And yet, because the act persists, it doesn't seem like those minds also know where it's all going.
Short of taking their story in an increasingly meta-direction that gets out ahead of their demise, wherein the Dark Order is revealed to be an example of "terrible-creative" perpetrated on wrestling fans by a rouge EVP, Dark Order will not exist in another year.
They're an experiment fans will one day reminisce about with wry “What were they thinking?” grins on their faces.
And that's okay.
The Dark Order is one iteration of a particular group of performers who will eventually find their way.
I’m not suggesting AEW immediately erase The Dark Order and pretend the group never existed.
I’m only suggesting AEW accept it and move on when The Dark Order fails.
If the promotion truly wants to be an alternative it will embrace the audience's unmitigated rejection of an angle, a gimmick, a policy, or a business decision.
And it will do so as quickly as it embraces praise for unscripted promos, win/loss records, and two-hour run-times.