By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
All the way back in November, I called into question the extracurricular web series that so many wrestlers have started over the last few years. It spawned from noticing that Kip Sabian and Sammy Guevara started their own series, creatively titled “The Kip & Sammy Show.”
Somewhat ironically, a quick YouTube search this weekend warranted results that suggested the two AEW stars haven’t been all that consistent with the uploading of episodes since then. The most recent one came three weeks ago, though if you turn toward the third most recent installment, you’ll find it published three months ago.
So, perhaps I wasn’t entirely wrong when I wondered aloud about the validity of such a series launching. BTE will most likely forever be the gold standard for wrestlers goofing off on cellphone cameras, and to be anything else means you have to spin forward the formula, which doesn’t appear to be an easy task.
Either way, while those were designed to connect with fans and humanize the wrestlers who produce them, there’s now a completely different animal creeping onto whatever screen is in front of us.
LOOKING AT A LIFE
Documentaries. Not “let’s see how funny someone thinks he or she is” documentaries. Not 13-minute programs that feature little more than a still camera on someone playing a video game documentaries. No. These are real documentaries. So real, in fact, that the highly regarded A&E Network is behind one of the series.
Indeed, “Biography: WWE Legends” has officially launched wrestling’s most synonymous brand into the Very Serious section of mainstream popular culture. It’s one thing to watch a 38-minute piece on the history of Booker T on the WWE Network, but it’s another to actually sit through two hours of something that has extended commercial breaks and comes with the clout that A&E has earned through the years.
The result thus far has been a mixed bag, which is to say that you probably won’t learn anything new if you watch them, but watching them still beats the hell out of watching another episode of “The Office” for the third time. Plus, as so many insiders and experts have pointed out, WWE appears to have a strong say in how these things turn out. If Titan Towers doesn’t want you to remember something, it’s going to do its damndest to make sure you don’t remember whatever that is.
Naturally, the only real needle-mover thus far has been the episode produced about “Macho Man” Randy Savage’s career, which, to be fair, turned out to be just as much about his personal life as it did his in-ring work. Do I think it was the hit job that so many people were so angry about? I do not. But I also came to it late, after the outrage commenced and I was more than likely influenced by all the gripes that arose in the wake of the airing. I mean, really. By the time I sat down with the episode, I thought I was going to get two hours of Hulk Hogan explaining how crazy his former frenemy was before insisting how impossible he was when it came to working together in front of the camera.
Instead, I got Bubba The Love Sponge, too.
Anyway, I’d love to tell you this is the only (kind of) hard-hitting docu-series about wrestling currently airing on television, but if I did, I’d be lying.
THE DARK SIDE
Enter “Dark Side Of The Ring,” the much more edgy, infinitely more credible series currently airing on Vice TV in its third season. Not only has it gained such a can’t-miss reputation, it also provided Vice TV with its most-watched show ever. The first two episodes chronicled Brian Pillman in a two-part season premiere while last week featured the king of the death match himself, Nick Gage. This week is set to examine the infamous Collision in Korea, while episode five plans to take a look at the Ultimate Warrior.
Perhaps the series’ biggest victory — and that series has many victories — is its ability to get better with age. Creators Evan Husney and Jason Eisener have learned from mistakes through seasons, adjusted what they needed to in order to get better with every episode and created some of the most compelling non-fiction professional wrestling pieces in at least the last 20 years, if not more.
And to think: I’m saying all this having consumed only the first two seasons.
Don’t get me wrong. I want to watch the first three episodes of this third season. It’s high on my priority list. In fact, I’d venture to say that not only is it high on my priority list, but it’s also a more desirable product than A&E’s “Biography” series is to me. I loved those first two seasons of “Dark Side” so much, I listened to every episode of the podcast companion that Husney and Eisener produced with Conrad Thompson during season two.
So, then what’s the problem? Glad you asked.
A GOLDEN AGE?
It’s all too much. Like, really. Way, way too much. Too much documentary. Too little time.
Which is the centralized notion here: Are we living in the Golden Age of wrestling documentaries? Or is it possible that because there are so many so often anymore, we find ourselves unable to consume these films and/or television shows because of a lack of time, energy and effort? And, perhaps more concerning, are both of the answers to those questions “yes,” and if they are, does that mean we are doomed to be deprived of some really great stuff as wrestling fans?
Make no mistake about it. This is based in the FOMO mindset (“fear of missing out,” or at least so I hear). I’ve yet to catch up with the Booker T episode of “Biography,” which means it might take a couple weeks until I get to Shawn Michaels’ piece, which aired Sunday night. And if it takes me a couple weeks, that’s because the allotted time I have to watch any of these things has to go to “Dark Side Of The Ring” because I am beyond eager to watch the Pillman episodes.
But if I do that, how will I have time to watch the mainstream weekly wrestling television shows, which I kind of need to do if I’m going to keep this column going? And if I make sure to do those things, then do I have room in my life to consume anything else, like, say, a movie?
I know, I know. It sounds like I’m whining. I’m not, really. I’m only saying that there are so many intriguing documentaries about wrestling currently circling through the world, and they happened to come out at once, which means some might inevitably be lost between the cracks for some of us. And that’s a shame, because there was a time when things like this felt like an anomaly. Or even an impossibility.
Think about it. Could you imagine a “Day Of” for WrestleMania III? How about a “Broken Skull Session” with Sgt. Slaughter after WrestleMania VII? That exposure wasn’t even an option back then. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy seeing documentaries about wrestlers I hold near and dear to my heart — some 20, 25 years after the fact — but it is to say that I think we can all agree that due to the sheer volume of wrestling podcasts and documentaries, it’s hard to feel like a lot of these things are fresh.
Which leads me to this …
OUT WITH THE NEW?
If we don’t have time to enjoy the new stuff chronicling the old things, how are we supposed to have time to enjoy the new stuff chronicling the new things?
At this point, to me, anything on Peacock/WWE Network isn’t even on my radar, which is a shame because I know there’s good stuff on there. But with the amount of “Chronicles,” “Day Of’s,” “24’s,” “Untolds” and everything in between, I long ago gave up hope of trying to keep up with it all. I thought the introduction of the “Icons” series might force me to be a little more insistent and judicious with my viewing habits, but after Yokozuna’s episode, I find myself behind the eight-ball yet again.
Keep in mind: That’s just WWE’s portion of the pie, and when you have your own network, you’re bound to oversaturate the market with more products than your fans can handle. But think about the other guys. The folks in AEW do some great work with their video packages whenever they decide to put their minds to it. Speaking for only the very few I’ve seen, “The Road To” series are nothing short of fantastic, as they depict a big-fight feel for whatever event they profile. Plus, when the series zooms in on highlighting a single wrestler, it provides insight into characters about whom we might know little about in a fascinating, revealing way.
Ring of Honor, meanwhile, has its “Week By Week” series that is somewhat similar to NWA’s “Powerrr Surge.” Both recap the action that was while also offering up a fresh match or two. No, these aren’t documentaries, but they are designed to be peripheral content that extends the respective brands’ reach beyond the traditional weekly wrestling show. Or, in other words, these companies don’t have the resources that AEW or WWE have, so these series could be perceived as an alternative to the more traditional documentary road their larger competitors travel.
Either way, they’re still impossible to consistently view as long as time is a living, breathing thing. That’s not to say they aren’t valuable programs; it’s just to say that they walk into a room that’s already breaking fire code with how crowded it is. Which, in turn, brings us back to the key question …
A BATTLE FOR WHAT’S ULTIMATE
Is this the best era of wrestling documentaries? Or is this the excessive era of wrestling documentaries?
One has to think back to “Beyond the Mat,” the 1999 documentary that for so many of us served as the first time we saw the curtain of the wrestling business pulled back live and in color. Or even “Wrestling With Shadows,” the ’98 documentary that profiled Bret Hart’s eventual and tumultuous exit from WWE. Those were novel for their times, yet either or both of those would serve as little more than just another episode of “Dark Side Of The Ring” these days.
Is that a good thing? I really don’t know. The quality of the docs in the modern day have increased greatly, if for no other reason than you have more prominent, more knowledgeable people willing to go on the record to talk about the professional wrestling business. In turn, that makes a lot of what we see now feel more credible. You weren’t going to get “Stone Cold” Steve Austin to wax poetic about the Montreal Screwjob in “Wrestling With Shadows.” These days? Well, at least there’s a chance.
To me, what highlights everything we’ll need to know is coming in only a handful of weeks. Remember when I noted how the fifth episode of “Dark Side Of The Ring,” taking a look at the Ultimate Warrior, is slated to air on May 27? Well, according to A&E’s website, the season finale of “Biography” will also, somewhat serendipitously, profile the life of the Ultimate Warrior. To be able to view two different products spotlighting the same very complicated career should at least establish the barometer of where we are in wrestling documentary lore.
Will we learn more from one than the other? Will one feel like a puff piece? Will one feel like a hit job? Will we ultimately learn nothing new from either episode? And if so, does that mean we need to take a step back and reevaluate this increased interest in pro wrestling documentary pieces?
I guess we’ll find out in a month or so. In the meantime, you’ll have to excuse me as I attempt to clear my schedule for the next three weeks in order to catch up on both series in time for the Warrior premieres. Suffice to say, sleep won’t be coming soon.