Jan 11, 2020
Kenny Omega, Matt & Nick Jackson, Brandi & Cody of AEW
AEW's second Dynamite of the year featured back-to-back-to-back segments with The Nightmare Collective, The Dark Order, and The Butcher, The Bunny, & The Blade.
Short The Librarians joining in to shush an already silent crowd, it watched like a parade of wrestling's worst instincts. Bad timing, awkward delivery, flubbed reveals, cheap attire, hokey gimmicks, authority figures, unclear motivations, and labored narrative reasoning.
As this played out, a word slowly came into focus in my consciousness, floating in the dark like bright balloon letters, “MESS!”
The Nightmare Collective Interrupts Riho vs Kris Statlander
So eager for AEW to fulfill its potential, I've been giving the promotion the benefit of the doubt since I first saw The Creepers crawl on stage. I've been rationalizing the promotion’s mixed messaging, the existence of pre-shows on five-hour pay-per-views, Dynamite’s spotty audio, Dynamite’s WWE-influenced visual language, Dynamite’s WWE-influenced structure, and Dynamite’s general inability to focus on a single wrestler or group with perceptible momentum (Darby Allin, Riho, PAC, Jon Moxley, The Inner Circle).
“It’s a new promotion,” I’ve told myself, “give it time.”
After the latest episode, Dynamite has had enough time. It must no longer be viewed through "the benefit of the doubt" and, instead, constructively critiqued like any other prime-time television show.
I can’t ignore the show’s creative and aesthetic stumbles in an effort to convince myself it’s WWE's antidote, especially when I experienced WWE's antidote, in vivid detail, at Wrestle Kingdom 14.
Swearing off Dynamite after one especially bad episode is unrealistic, of course. Proclamations of changing channels and cancelling networks rarely stick because professional wrestling, itself, is fundamentally good. No matter what promotion produces pro-wrestling, it's inevitably going to create something worthwhile because pro-wrestling is a reliably effective art form.
I know I'll continue tuning in, and I know I'll enjoy something along the way, but I'll be doing so with a proper understanding of the show's purpose.
After three months of dedicated viewership, I see through the alluring fantasy of AEW (that it will save wrestling) to a less exciting reality.
Cody, EVP and performer in AEW
The word “MESS!” has less to do with the aforementioned unsuccessful segments and more to do with the mind that produced them. The fact that such segments were greenlit in the same stroke as genuinely enjoyable segments is revealing.
Dynamite lacks a unifying narrative principle. There is no clear foundation upon which the show’s fictional world is built. As a result, the company's characters, stories, and production values fluctuate wildly from week to week, segment to segment, dependent entirely upon the quality of act being featured.
This inconsistency has been generously defended as “something for everyone”. In theory, that’s a noble pursuit given the variety of wrestling styles and tastes today. In practice…well…it’s not actually in practice. Does “something for everyone” explain AEW’s audio troubles, antiquated gimmicks, inability to book women, and a host of other persistent troubles?
The more I watch Dynamite, the less I see a “pro-wrestling buffet” and the more I see a television show struggling to "get things right".
When we take all of Dynamite’s positives and negatives into consideration, it becomes apparent that AEW is motivated by something simpler than “changing wrestling” or “offering something for everyone”.
Dynamite, in its simplest form, is a show for wrestlers who don’t want to work at WWE.
If it has any recognizable unifying principle, it's that.
Jon Moxley and Chris Jericho in AEW
A desire to not work at WWE doesn’t automatically translate to better, more original television, though.
One must still be good at producing TV.
More importantly, a promotion’s perspective on professional wrestling must be fundamentally different from Vince McMahon’s if it sincerely wishes to produce something different from Vince McMahon.
If the differences are, “Wrestlers should have creative control of their characters, wrestlers should be able to cut bullet-point promos, matches should have finishes more often than not, top-guys shouldn’t need to be big & tall, house-show circuits should be abandoned, Championships should matter,” then you’re going to end up with a different shade of the same color.
You may enjoy that shade more, but it’s on the same part of the spectrum.
When a promotion doesn’t share WWE’s creative guidelines but it does share WWE’s perspective on pro-wrestling, the result is nothing more than slight alterations to Sports Entertainment's incessant formulas. When a promotion does have a fundamentally different perspective on pro-wrestling, it creates something truly different.
"Different" doesn't necessarily mean "good", though. Again, the production team, the booker, and the wrestlers all need to be exceptional at their jobs to produce something equal parts fresh & laudable.
But, when pro-wrestling is in good hands and it's built from a different point of view from McMahon's, it can be remarkable.
Tetsuya Naito wins the IWGP Intercontinental & Heavyweight Championships at Wrestle Kingdom 14
When pro-wrestling is in unproven hands and it's built with the same point of view as McMahon, it can be hit or miss, but it's not going to change anything.
Just look to the closing segment of this week’s Dynamite (a hit).
Jon Moxley baited and switched Chris Jericho in a closing promo segment where he had to choose whether or not he’d join a heel faction. Sure…Moxley’s name was Moxley, not Ambrose. Jericho was Le Champion, not Y2J. Improvisational flourishes dotted the scene, reminding us how charming both men are, and what they can achieve when they don't have to answer to a team of beleaguered writers. But apart from the real-world guidelines informing the scene, what was intrinsically AEW about it?
Jon Moxley announces that he has "joined" The Inner Circle.
Unless you knew you were watching Dynamite in 2020, you’d be forgiven for confusing it for Raw in 2017. It even looks the same.
One could argue that Dynamite doesn’t need to be fundamentally different from WWE, or that its alterations to the Sports Entertainment formula are enough.
That's fine, but it means AEW's EVPs and owner should start accurately describing their product as a WWE-Thought-Experiment.
One could also argue that “backstage segments”, “contract signings”, “closing promo segments”, etc. are all “just pro-wrestling!”
Or maybe pro-wrestling is an art and arts are malleable, reflecting the needs of the audience and the depth of the artists serving them. Maybe pro-wrestling has been so dominated by one mind for so long that it’s hard for others to see beyond it. Maybe the poor taste and bad decision-making of that one mind has created others who inadvertently share his taste and decision-making style...despite their best intentions.
Wrestling fans didn’t turn to AEW to watch a less scripted version of Vince McMahon’s idea of wrestling.
Wrestling fans turn to other promotions to cleanse their souls, to see what Vince McMahon has ignored, discarded, or overlooked.
That’s the appeal of performers like Riho, Darby Allin, Jon Moxley, and Orange Cassidy. Fans know such characters can't exist in WWE, because Vince McMahon won't allow it. Fans also immediately recognize the talent of these performers (otherwise they wouldn't cheer with such passion) and they want to watch a promotion that shares their intuition, foresight, and enthusiasm.
The process by which we’ve fallen in love with AEW's greatest prospects is different than enjoying a less-scripted version of RAW.
It’s a process of true discovery wherein the show isn't just, "As good as you knew it could be". Instead it's, "Better than you ever imagined."
Rather than rely upon Sports Entertainment’s proven formulas, AEW could rely on the enduring power of discovery.
Instead of asking, “What if Vince McMahon gave us what we actually wanted?” AEW could ask, “What does professional wrestling want to become?”
I promise you...the answer to the latter question is more interesting, and it will give AEW the foundation it needs.