Top-Down Smackdown: I Like Tough Enough, but Not the Version on USA Network


I really enjoy the new Tough Enough. I just don’t enjoy the version of it that’s on USA Network. And that’s a problem.

It’s a problem because the USA Network show is all that a casual viewer will see, yet it’s all but incomprehensible to anybody but a diehard. I also watched the season premiere of Big Brother this week, and the differences were instructive.

First, backing up, for those of you who don’t know – WWE Tough Enough is a reality show in which aspiring pro-wrestlers compete for a contract. I love behind-the-scenes looks at lives spent in wrestling, as it’s a really hard career path, and the triumphs and tragedies involved in getting to the big show (no pun intended) are often more compelling than any of the scripted drama the participants will be involved in once there. It’s why there are so few good fiction movies about wrestling (The Wrestler is pretty much it) yet so many great documentaries.

Previous iterations of Tough Enough had a simple formula – competitive challenges, big-name WWE coaches who were usually retired or semi-retired, celebrity cameos, and winners chosen by WWE. The focus of the show was on the aspiring talent, and this is what the new show gets wrong – watching the USA network episode, I learned very little about the contestants, but saw a lot of WWE superstars jockeying for position and airtime. It wasn’t enough to get Billy Gunn, Lita and Booker T as trainers this time – we now also have to have Chris Jericho as host, and Daniel Bryan, Hulk Hogan and Paige as judges.

Now, I’d be a fool to tell you those names don’t bring entertainment value. But you’d be a fool if you thought they’d do anything but hog the spotlight. Based on what aired on basic cable, I learned that one female contestant is engaged and maybe not serious, another is kinda vain and bitchy, one of the dudes is an MMA guy with fancy hair, and another is a Cajun alligator wrestler. There are like 13 competitors, and that’s my take-away. compare that to Big Brother – which actually features a former WWE NXT star named Judas – where I learned all about each contestant via vignettes. Who are you trying to get over, WWE? And you do realize Hulk Hogan doesn’t need any help, right?

And then I watched the WWE Network add-ons – the casting special and the post-show. If you have not, these are transformative. This is where the real action is.

When I first saw there was going to be a post-show called Tough Talk, I laughed. Mainly because if you are WWE and you want to spoof Chris Hardwick, the Miz is the perfect guy to do it, as he is also an MTV veteran with a slightly douchey comedic persona. And let me say this – Miz transcends the typecasting. In the interviews he did with every aspiring talent, making sure to give everyone their time and egging on potential feuds, he was brilliant. As a guy who (in part) does interviews for a living, I was impressed by how well he worked his subjects and brought out their personalities. We learned more from Miz about the contestants than we did from the show itself – and in their own words, too. On the day he can no longer wrestle, give the guy a talk show.

Then there was the casting special, also on WWE Network. I wish I’d seen that first. From the one-legged war veteran who finally quit to the lesbian contestant coming out on national TV, this was a dose of personalities sorely missing from the main show. Even watching it knowing who made the cut, it was a moving drama, as all TV should be.

The USA version of the show, however, has no clue what it wants to be. If it’s just a way to keep Daniel Bryan on the payroll while he heals, or keep Hulk Hogan’s name alive for merchandise, put them in Legends House instead. The point of making a new superstar is to get them over, but if your show is more concerned with selling leftover T-shirts, it will never create the star you need. The WWE Network extras are the only place I can really get to know the new talent, and that is why they work.

Let them compete. And as much as I like audience voting, let people who know what the real profession is like pick the winners. Because if you screw up the journey, you risk preemptively destroying the winner. And that’s not what’s best for business.