Top-Down Smackdown: "Reality" Is the New Kayfabe

By Luke Y. Thompson in TV
Monday, May 19, 2014 at 5:00 pm

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Before we begin, I'm happy to see that Mattel revived its discontinued "Defining Moments" series just to bring us Ric Flair in all his '90s glory - but I can't be the only one thinking that they incongruously used a modern headscan that resembles the hard-drinking, crazy old man Flair more than the cocky, still-got-it "Real World's Champion" era Flair they're going for. The figure can be preordered at Ringside Collectibles, and given that DM figures went for around $22 the first time, their price is surprisingly, abnormally reasonable.

Now onto my actual column...



For the benefit of the casual reader: "kayfabe" is the industry jargon for the aspects of wrestling which everyone used to pretend were real but are not: the rivalries, storylines, win-loss records, etc. It's believed to be derived from "ake-fay," the pig latin for "fake." It used to be that violating kayfabe was a serious sin deserving of a real-life ass-kicking - even asking a wrestler about it was to invite trouble - until Vince McMahon, in an effort to avoid being regulated by state athletic commissions, testified under oath that what he did was not a sport, but a show. Even then, magazines like Pro Wrestling Illustrated kept hotly denying it, saying McMahon was wrong and that he only says stuff like that because he sees it as a show, when in fact all other serious promotions treat it as a real sport. By the time WWE made their first foray into reality TV with Tough Enough, in which aspiring wrestlers were trained in every aspect of the business, nobody bothered to keep up the argument any more. In fact, the pendulum had to be swung back in the other direction a bit by Tough Enough - people needed to be educated that even though most of the show is staged, it is an athletic event that can cause injuries and requires top conditioning.

But now WWE has two reality shows: Legends House, which was filmed a couple years ago, and Total Divas, which is ongoing. And while I know that most of what I see on Raw is for show, I cannot say the same of Total Divas. And I wonder - if you were to go up to Natalya Neidhart and ask her if Total Divas is fake, would she be obliged to smack you as the wrestlers of old used to?

Much like wrestling in the old days, most of us understand that "reality" TV is scripted to some extent - it's just tough to know how much. And now WWE is blurring the lines even further by having storylines from the reality shows cross over into the regular shows. On Total Divas, Natalya gives Nikki Bella a hideous painting as a gift; Nikki is polite about it, but later is caught on camera saying she hates it...they then have a match on an episode of Raw shot months after that Total Divas episode was taped, but a day after it aired, allegedly because Natalya is upset to have heard Nikki's truly candid thoughts about her artwork. More subtly, the Usos become John Cena's best friends all of a sudden, not necessarily for any actual storyline reason - but it doesn't hurt that they're all dating stars of Total Divas, and thus all characters on that show too.

Legends House is a stranger case, and one where the disconnect between reality and the script is more obvious. For the last few episodes, Tony Atlas has been portrayed as the bad guy and the troublemaker in the house by his fellow cast members, and yet what we see of him on camera indicates a laid-back, happy-go-lucky guy who's always smiling. The conclusion I tend to draw is that either the cast are being prompted to make him out to be the villain and he's not playing along, or that he is in fact worse than we're seeing, and WWE, mindful of Dave Chappelle's routine about how the lone black guy on reality shows is always made to flip out, don't want to seem racist (don't be surprised if the next season has two black cast members for this very reason. I'd bet money that Ron Simmons will be one).

To back up the latter theory, Legends House's Hacksaw Jim Duggan, who has explicitly stated he doesn't like Atlas and threatened to beat him up, appeared on Raw to play the patriotic American jobber to Vladimir Putin-loving bad guy Rusev. For no particular storyline reason, Big E. Langston came to the rescue - but it did subtly get across the notion that no, Duggan doesn't hate black people, and they don't hate him either. Never mind that Darren Young would have been a more logical choice, as his openly gay status gives him a real motive to hate Putin fans - we have to show that Duggan's not racist before we move on to homophobia.

So why does it matter how real the shows are? Well, on one level, it doesn't - though the moments with both Roddy Piper and Eva Marie being tempted by alcohol and haunted by past abuse still strike me as playing with fire if they're not scripted. But crossing the streams feels unwise from an entertainment perspective - a different sort of suspension of disbelief is required for a WWE show than an allegedly "real" show about the performers' lives (I'd rather see a distinction between "Shaniqua" and Linda Miles, if you old school Tough Enough fans know what I'm saying). I don't give a damn if Fandango is actually dating Summer, though I think it's hilarious that Total Divas depicts his idea of a "date" as taking her to a sailor's bar to drink heavily. But if they must tie the shows together narratively, Total Divas needs a quicker turnaround time - interactions that are essentially tape-delayed make no sense.

I will, however, congratulate Vince for doing what I thought was impossible in this day and age - making me question what is and is not real in some part of his product.

Talk back about this and/or Raw below.

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