However, one little-known fact about me (that I planned to reveal as number 33) is that I attended about a dozen professional wrestling shows throughout the 1990s. The last one I attended was probably in 2001 and I can't imagine going to another one; I've seen just about all the wrestlers I want to in person and don't have much interest in finding out what the state of the art is, even on TV. Nevertheless, there is a part of me that will forever remain a wrestling fan in principle. No justification required, obviously, but the attraction is comparable to watching stuntmen or gymnasts: in general, it's fascinating to watch bodies do things that you don't expect to see them do.
Nevertheless, I have taken interest in the recent "Celebrity Wrestling" TV series here on ITV 1 in the UK. Quite possibly it has come about as a response to the BBC's ongoing "Celebrity Boxing" specials, where sundry (male) actors, comedians and other people vaguely in the public eye are trained up in amateur boxing for a few weeks and fight against one another.
The reason why a straightforward analogue for wrestling is impractical is the gulf between professional and amateur wrestling; the two look nothing alike and the spectacular moves you see in pro wrestling just would not occur without the (at least partial) co-operation of the submissive wrestler who is prepared to suffer them for the benefit of the spectacle. Amateur wrestling only ever makes it to British television during Olympic and Commonwealth Games, and rarely even then. If you want to see what real wrestling looks like, watch mixed martial arts ("no holds barred") bouts - the Ultimate Fighting Championship family and its ilk.
So the options for a putative "Celebrity Wrestling" show seem to be either to train celebrities as pro wrestlers or to introduce amateur wrestling to TV. The former option is unappetising, for it takes an awful lot of practice, as well as natural attributes, to be an effective and entertaining pro wrestler. Sturgeon's Law of "90% of everything is crap" is an underestimate when it comes to pro wrestling, though I imagine I could probably find an hour or two's worth of matches that most people on my Friends list, even those who have no time for pro wrestling, would enjoy as a spectacle. Probably not four hours, though!
Accordingly, they've headed more towards the latter option. They've created a number of games, most of which involve elements of amateur (legitimate, unscripted) wrestling, crucially keeping them bite-size to a point where the pure grappling does not tire. They are playing them apparently for real (without predetermination of the outcomes) and the show presents them using many of the trappings and conventions of pro wrestling. I think it works rather well in context.
(Old-school "Read more" lj-cut for tromboneborges, there; I reckon you've probably read enough outside the cut to know whether you want to know more about the show or not.)
A number of celebrities - initially nominally twelve, but with an indeterminate number of alternates training to replace injured contestants - have been divided into two teams, the red-themed Crusaders and the blue-themed Warriors. Neatly, the show's own logo is made up of abbreviated versions of the team logos - a red C and a blue W. Each team has a trainer with legitimate pro wrestling experience (D-Lo Brown and Joe Legend) and a roster of three male and three female competitors, with alternates replacing team members as appropriate in the case of injury. Each celebrity is known as a sportsperson, TV personality, actor, model or other miscellaneous minor entertainment public figure, but each additionally has a fighting name and persona, mostly in the style of the 1980s WWF, as was. Examples: The Vixen, The Brawler, Tigress, El Diablo, Inferno...
Pro wrestling depends upon stories; at its heart, it symbolises the struggle between good and evil, crystalised into encounters between those who are respectful (of the rules and the fans) and those who are disrespectful. (This distinction has rather weakened over the last ten years, but that's another story.) If you go to a pro wrestling show, not knowing anything about the wrestlers involved, it's the wrestlers' function in each match to give you a compelling reason to favour one over the other, whether this is through their appearance, their wrestling style, their attitudes (to the fans, to the ref, to the rules) - heck, often enough, just how similar they are to you, whether by age, by ethnicity, by size, by home town and so on. If you don't have reason to care that one wrestler wins and the other loses, you won't keep watching to find out what happens.
Game shows benefit from strong contestants to root for or against, too. Why did Jeopardy! leap in popularity when Ken Jennings won mumblety-mumble games in a row? What is the fundamental appeal of most personality-based voting/elimination shows? (Ones with discernable and interesting game - The Mole, The Amazing Race - kindly step aside; also, if your answer is "I like to see people suffer", kindly move on.) When it comes down to it, why did the game shows of the 1950s borrow techniques from pro wrestling and predetermine their outcomes? If you don't care about the contestants, you may not stay for the game - unless the game is just inherently interesting in the first place, but that's another story.
There is a subtle element to which the Crusaders are being depicted as worthy of support and the Warriors as unworthy. The team names are deliberately chosen; if someone is on a crusade, they have a purpose to fight for, whereas generic war represents chaos and destruction. The Warriors consistently demonstrate less affection for the fans and even the viewers during their introductions, simply by the expedient measure of smiling or not smiling. There is a distinct difference between the coaches in the reverence they demonstrate for the fans. Even the pre-match build-up and interviews can be picked apart to show respect and disrespect and provide a rooting interest.
Anyway, the first six weeks of the show are being built around an ongoing competition between Crusaders and Warriors. Each male Crusader faces each male Warrior - so three matches apiece - and each female Crusader faces each female Warrior. (The Scheveningen system there, marvellous.) Each show features three matches, alternately male and female, with MFM / FMF parity switching from week to week. Each match is fought between a Crusader and a Warrior over three rounds (different games), with a point scored by the winner of each.
The points accrue not only to the individual competitors but also to their team. Accordingly, after six weeks, we will have a result declared between the Crusaders and the Warriors, with a trophy given to the winning team, and we will have built up league tables of winning ladies and gentlemen. The last two weeks of the show remove the team distinction and see the top four men face off against each other in semi-finals and a final, ditto the top four ladies, with the winning man and woman each earning a championship belt.
So to the games. There are a roster of fifteen games; the game design credit goes to a female name and one with which I am not familiar, but it's not unknown for game designers to claim anonymity (see Wanted, passim).
Incidentally, as a whopping aside, I discovered the other day that the game designer for (at least the 1999 and 2001 series of) Cilla Black's The Moment Of Truth was floppy-haired media-whore chess grandmaster Daniel King. Daniel, if you ego-surf the blogosphere, nice job and good for you; a man's got to make an honest buck and chess isn't going to pay the bills if you're outside the world's top 100 or so. Incidentally, can anyone remind me what the 2001 format for The Moment of Truth was? Unless I'm more confused than usual, there was one season where they changed away from their fundamental one-shot all-or-nothing format, but I can't remember whether they reverted back after that to the original format. Quite possibly they did to the extent of bringing back the original game designer, too.
There have been accusations that all fifteen games are essentially the same, which is a little strong, but there are definite themes running through the game line-up. One family of games is based on the Sumo principle of "deposit your opponent out of the ring", which is the closest concession to pure wrestling, though optionally with an obstacle (a big swinging pendulum ball) or weapons (soft quarterstaffs or soft clubs). Another family of games is based on the principle that the competitors are attached by a chain and must pull each other around; a game where the competitors aim to reach the four corners of a square wrestling-ring and press buttons in their colour is particularly entertaining.
Other than that, there's a game about wrestling your opponent into a corner of the small square wrestling-ring so that you can hook their wrist or their ankle to the corner. (Sometimes this gratuitously takes place in a steel cage.) There's a game where contestants grapple to push a giant ball to the edge of the stage and knock an opponent's pins off it. There's a game where male contestants grapple to try to put a five kilogram medicine ball inside their opponent's goal. There's a game where female contestants try to rip loosely-attached clothes off the other, which always ends up in a tug-of-war trying to pull a sleeve off the opponent's arm.
All credible athletic stuff; many of these have been criticised in the wrestling purists' camp for having far more to do with (American) Gladiators than to do with wrestling, but the games are short, sharp and interesting, which sets them apart from the likes of those of The Grudge Match and Simply The Best at a stroke. The games have caused a reasonable degree of injury to the contestants, with something like four or five wrestlers having to go to the doctor and being replaced, sometimes for the duration of a fight, sometimes for the length of the series. Again, the pro wrestling pretentions suggest you take the injury claims with a pinch of salt, but if these injuries are being claimed for storyline reasons then they probably harm, rather than help, continuity on balance.
Other trappings of wrestling are the elaborate introductions that each participant gets as they enter the arena, a spectacular and elaborate theatre in the round. The action takes place on a circular island in the middle of the arena, which neatly focuses the eye and sets the contestants apart. It's unusually good set design, though theatre in the round has been mainstream for Saturday night TV since Millionaire. The production values at large are worth positive mention: good use of graphics, correctly falling on the side of overuse, good editing involving lots of exciting fast cuts, good aggressive camerawork.
Each week, one of the pull-your-opponent pure strength-test games is against a Masked Celebrity in the style of the traditional masked Mexican luchador, though the celebrity's identity is revealed regardless of the result. (Could these Masked Celebrities be drawn from the same pool as the alternate competitors, I wonder?) There are videos previewing each match with contestant interviews before and afterwards; the Warriors do seem a little less respectful in these, though one has to wonder whether the celebrities are truly happy about this - the disconnect between a wrestler's character and a person's character is clear for wrestlers at large, but the confused might judge a celebrity poorly simply because they were on the disrespectful side.
The show is hosted by Kate Thornton, though she really is restricted to a thin shell of introduction. Her co-host is "Rowdy" Roddy Piper, wearing his habitual kilt, though little is made of the purported Scottish credentials which are presumably the reason for his selection; Wikipedia reckons he's really as Scottish as Saskatchewan. Wikipedia also reminds us that he won the industry-wide award for "Most Hated Wrestler" in 1984 and 1985; considering the source, I think this legitimately translates to him having been among the most hated wrestlers and one of the biggest box-office draws at the time. It's fun to think about what someone who hated him in those kinder, gentler years before the "MTV / Rock'n'Wrestling / Hulk Hogan / Wrestlemania" era of wrestling might think of him and his job twenty years down the line.
Piper also dots the show with colour commentary - the show's main commentator is remarkably understated in the circumstances. There is a tradition of excited, enthusiastic commentary for physical game shows that goes back to John Sachs on Gladiators through Jonathan Pearce on Robot Wars (and arguably further back to Stuart Hall on It's A Knockout); either of those would be preferential by far to the non-event giving the most cursory descriptions of the action with not nearly a suitable level of passion or style in his voice.
Additionally, as is traditional for big shows such as these, there's a spin-off fanzine/magazine show on secondary channel ITV 2, entitled "Bring It On" because this is the time that Piper declares it to be before each bout. As catchphrases go, this is more laboured than most. I haven't bothered watching this, though comment only that it's hosted by Jack Osborne, son of Ozzy, and someone called Holly Willoughby. It'll be cheap for ITV to produce, is fine cross-promotion, fills a gap and isn't a repeat.
At the start. the show felt rather tentative - the wrestlers weren't really into it, they couldn't believe they were wrestlers, they didn't know what wrestlers did, the Warriors weren't really comfortable trying to work against the crowd. Needless to say, the true wrestling veterans (coaches Legend and Brown plus co-host Piper) were fully into it straight away; the show was clearly at its best when they were in full flow, doing what they know how to do, and rather suffered when the celebrities knew they were playing at being wrestlers rather than fully throwing themselves into it.
It's definitely improving over time, though, particularly as the Warriors get more comfortable in,their roles. There's scope across the board to improve still, though; wrestlers should be allowed to rant at the ref, at the coaches, at Kate Thornton, at the fans, at whoever they like. The show needs to have an atmosphere of danger, of "anything can happen", of anarchy in a way that straight-up physical game shows like your Gladiators do not. The sanctity and authority of the referee need not be respected.
I want the fans to get firmly on the side of the Crusaders. I want the storyline elements of the show to be developed. Heck, I want the Warriors to even start deliberately cheating in the meaningless bouts. If this is meant to be wrestling, let's go with the wrestling side of things rather than the reality side of things: let's predetermine some of the outcomes if it's going to make things more interesting! Why not?
(If you saw tonight's episode, did you detect a dubbed-on crowd chant? I thought I very vaguely heard the faintest "(mumble) Brawler, always cheating", sung to the first eight notes of the Big Ben chimes. Adapting chants from football terraces to spontaneously erupt from the Celebrity Wrestling audience is so improbable as to be obviously far from spontaneous, but it's a wonderfully creative notion!)
The biggest question that the show poses, though, is who its intended market is. Much as Game Of War, a war-game-inspired game show, failed to capture real war game fans, I get the impression that people who habitually watch wrestling these days would tend to regard this as a pale imitation of the real thing. The target audience must be the edgy-yet-wholesome-family-fun one that attracted millions to Gladiators in the early '90s; I'm convinced that was in part novelty, in part due to its unhesitant, consistent over-the-top nature which Celebrity Wrestling doesn't match. (Would simply showing WWE programming in prime time on a Saturday night draw more than Celebrity Wrestling has done? Hard to say, but I'd bet the demographic would be awfully skewed.)
The tradition of wrestling on terrestrial television in this country is as a Saturday lunchtime feature, typically at the start of ITV's "World Of Sport", up until around 1986 or so. Perhaps the show is meant to appeal to that audience; if so, they have aged almost twenty years now - and they were an audience who skewed fairly old in the first place - so they will really be struggling to know or care about the celebrities, who are only known to those who follow mainstream and cool popular culture.
However, that Saturday lunchtime slot may yet get wrestling back; ITV have announced that today's fourth episode will be the last in prime time as the audience figures have dropped too far; the premiere received a 3.8 million rating and a 21% share, but episode three was down by a third. (ITV would hope for twice that.) We'll see if the remaining episodes are simply canned altogether like some of those of ITV's unnecessarily nasty huge-money quiz Shafted, but I suspect the Saturday lunchtime slot may prove a good fit. If not, there's always Monday mornings during the summer holidays - the old Scavengers fate, to name another high-concept ITV over-the-top-but-not-over-the-top-enough big miss.
And much like Scavengers, despite the show's considerable and obvious faults and lack of mass-market appeal, I am willing to put up with all the shortcomings for something that I can get into and happily, well, geek about. For me, this is the first game show I've been able to get into since (at completely the opposite end of the spectrum!) BBC 2's Crisis Command: Could You Run The Country? and for me this is an 8/10 show.
Mind you, it had better be an 8/10 show for me, because it's exactly the sort of thing I am predisposed to like; consider me the softest of marks...