Sunday, January 11, 2009

Visual Storytelling in Wrestling

I hate the JBL/HBK storyline that's going on on Raw right now, but probably not for the reasons you might think. Yes, I'll concede that it's stupid for us, as viewers, to be expected to believe that Shawn Michaels is so broke that his multi-million dollar salary can't sustain him and his family. Yes, it's stupid for us to be expected to believe that JBL is that rich that he can afford to pay Shawn so much more than his already multi-million dollar salary as to make it worth it to him to compromise his principles.

But that's not why I hate the angle.

I hate the angle because aside from two in ring occurences (HBK slaps JBL, thereby getting Rey Mysterio DQ'd from his Fatal Fourway qualifying match, and HBK takes the Clothesline from Hell without defending himself, allowing JBL to win the aforementioned Fatal Fourway), the entire story has been furthered by talking. JBL talks to the crowd, Todd Grisham talks to HBK, HBK talks to the crowd, HHH talks to HBK, Jericho & Orton talk to JBL, JBL talks to HBK, HBK talks to Cena... STOP TALKING!

Much like in my "Visual Storytelling in Videogames" essay, I want to clarify that I do not hate promos and backstage vignettes. Promos have a function, and have since pro-wrestling began, even moreso since pro-wrestling began on TV (which is not long after anything began on TV), but until the late '90s, they were used much more sparingly. The late '90s were the heyday of the promo, featuring editions of both Raw and Nitro that did not have so much as an arm drag until 45 minutes in. Thankfully, those days are over, but there's still some holdover.

Holdover like the HBK/JBL storyline. Now, HBK and JBL are two of the best "stick men" (i.e. guys who cut good promos) in wrestling today. In fact, I would argue that JBL's at his very best when he's cutting a promo, and he could make a great manager when he decides to leave the ring for good, but that doesn't change the fact that having a storyline play out almost exclusively in the realm of the promo is just lazy storytelling.

It was even revealed that HBK was in JBL's employ in a promo. Can you think of a bigger waste? He could've screwed Rey by slapping JBL before anyone knew he was working for him, then explained in a brief promo that he did it to save JBL's title chances because "blah, blah, blah, I'm a broke millionaire."

He could've saved JBL from a beatdown. He could've done something as simple as putting JBL's foot on the rope when he was being pinned during a match, any match, really. What did WWE's brilliant writing staff come up with instead? "Shawn Michaels works for me now."

Wow. That's some riveting television, that is. Nothing like a goof in a cowboy hat telling me he hired another goof in a cowboy hat. Puts me right on the edge of my seat, that does. How come these guys didn't win any Golden Globes tonight?

On the flip side, let's look at the Jake "The Snake" Roberts/"Ravishing" Rick Rude feud of 1988. It starts with a promo, but one with a good hook. Rude hits on a pretty girl, she turns out to be Mrs. "The Snake." Simple, short, to the point, right? Right. Roberts runs out, punches Rude (Action! How novel of a concept!), a bunch of "enhancement talent" runs out and pulls them apart.

Following that incident, Rude gets some tights with Mrs. Snake's face on them, Roberts warns in a very brief promo that he shouldn't do it again, Rude does, Roberts comes to the ring and pulls them off in front of a live audience following a match. The two have a match at Saturday Night's Main Event in October, Roberts wins, starts a feud with Andre the Giant.

Now, of course, that's a simplification of the events of that feud, but a simplification of this one would read "JBL and HBK talk about HBK working for JBL. HBK slaps JBL, then takes a dive to him in a Fatal Fourway for a title match at the Royal Rumble."

The point is that visual storytelling is not the difficult, especially in a media that are so given to it in the first place. Aural storytelling is not effective in wrestling, it never has been, and it never will be. The crowds are too big and putting lapel mics on the wrestlers would be impossible unless they all dressed like Rick Martel (yes, he is a model).

Wrestling is pure visual storytelling. A great match will always be a great match, regardless of context, because the two (or four or six or sometimes ten) guys in the ring will tell it. A great promo, though? Well, no matter how great it is, without context, you won't know what the guy is talking about, even if he sounds good doing it.

1 comment:

  1. This is exactly why pro wrestling lost me as a regular viewer. Guys who could tell a story in the ring (Flair being at the top of that list) always held my attention, and last time I checked, a lot of those guys were pretty good with a mike, too. Unfortunatley, in-the-ring storytellers seem to be a dying breed. Guys may be good on the mike, but severley lack in the ring.

    Like you said, the promo was there to set up the conflict...short, sweet, and to the point. The 45 minute promo killed me as a home viewer, I can only imagine how painful it must be to actually witness one live.