By Will Pruett, ProWrestling.net Co-Senior Staffer (@itswilltime)
There is a lot to like about All Elite Wrestling. On a weekly basis, there is no television show I look forward to more than Dynamite. It is compelling, fun, and logical. Wrestling is a better place because of AEW’s existence and the last three years have been a more enjoyable time to be a wrestling fan than the decade before them.
AEW seems to pride itself on long-term storytelling. We’ve seen some great stories and payoffs from them over the past few years. At the same time, we’re beginning to see some troubling patterns in Tony Khan’s booking philosophy. AEW wants to emphasize long-term stories, but they do not keep those stories moving forward. Stories are left for weeks at a time and then return, often out of nowhere.
Let’s begin with last night’s puzzlingly bad Varsity Blondes promo. I’m disappointed anytime I see Brian Pillman Jr. and Griff Garrison on Dynamite. They’re an unpolished act that has been emphasized far too often in AEW. Them entering out of nowhere and trying to reignite a long-dead feud with House of Black did nothing to add to this show. While I appreciate the follow up on the long-teased Julia Hart turn, AEW is expecting us to care about something that happened too long ago and was one-sided to begin with.
The Varsity Blondes and House of Black is not a triumph of long-term storytelling, it is merely bad storytelling. Telling a bad story over a long period of time does not make it better.
This brings me to AEW’s women’s division. AEW has made strides, in both talent acquisition and match-making to improve a women’s division that was their biggest weakness two years ago. At the same time, AEW is stuck filling a quota of one women’s match per show instead of organically telling stories.
The failure of AEW’s quota system is evident in the never-ending backstage segments between Britt Baker, Jamie Hayter, Ruby Soho, and Toni Storm. Since Toni Storm’s debut on March 30th, she has been standing backstage talking (or rather, being talked at) for over a month. She has yet to have another match on AEW TV (she does have an advertised match for the May 6 episode of Rampage).
Toni Storm felt like a major star entering AEW and a major talent acquisition fresh off of WWE television. Why has she been doing nothing for over a month? Why not have Storm win a couple of squash matches on TV in the middle of April? Why did we need a full month of pointless backstage interviews that did not make anyone look good?
Storm is in a worse spot today than she was when she debuted. She is less over and less compelling.
It might be easy to see this as merely a Toni Storm problem and a coincidence of timing with the Owen Hart Tournament qualifiers happening, but it isn’t. AEW spent over a month building up a cold challenger in Marina Shafir for Jade Cargill’s 30th match. There were never-ending backstage interviews. The match finally happened and it was mostly meaningless. Jade is still over, but it’s in spite of this build, not because of it.
What about the Serena Deeb and Hikaru Shida feud? They had five matches over the course of months and the intensity of the feud ramped down with each encounter. While it was a long feud, it was not a good feud. I can’t say Serena Deeb is a better act coming off of winning it than she would be otherwise.
With the Owen Hart Tournament coming up for AEW’s women, will we only see one women’s match per show? Will Thunder Rose and Jade Cargill, AEW’s reigning women’s champions, take a month off of wrestling because Tony Khan refuses to feature two women’s matches on Dynamite?
AEW tells long stories and does not abandon stories with no followup. I appreciate this and definitely prefer their method of storytelling to the alternative. At the same time, AEW tells too many long stories and runs into massive pacing issues, particularly in their women’s division that has a self-imposed one match per show quota. While stories and characters may not be abandoned long-term, they may disappear for weeks at a time, only to pop up again like nothing has happened. This might be better storytelling than WWE, but it is also bad.
Tony Khan also has the additional complication of weaving Ring of Honor stories and championships into his TV shows. Adding four new titles and new divisions, along with new wrestlers, is a massive challenge and both Dynamite and Rampage are buckling under the weight of the constant action AEW tries to force into them.
Perhaps the issue is not AEW’s long term storytelling, but the sheer amount of stories AEW is trying to tell with too little time to do so. The solution here is better-paced stories and a more direct focus on talent. I’d also argue for more than one women’s match most weeks on Dynamite, giving those wrestlers less time to stand around backstage and more time to be featured.
Some might argue that AEW does maintain many of the stories I’ve mentioned, but solely does so on Dark and Dark: Elevation. This does not count. While I understand how AEW uses these shows, a small fraction of their audience is tuning into YouTube to watch. They are shoulder content and should never be core to the AEW experience.
My hope for AEW, as they launch into year four of their existence after Double or Nothing 2022 is for the continued improvement of Tony Khan as a booker and storyteller. I have seen Khan improve massively over the past three years and believe continued evolution is possible. Hopefully my belief is not misplaced and AEW can continue to create the best wrestling shows on TV.
Will Pruett writes about wrestling and popular culture at prowrestling.net. Of interest to him are diversity in wrestling and wrestling as a theatrical art form. To see his video content subscribe to his YouTube channel. To contact, check him out on Twitter @itswilltime, leave a comment, or email him at email@example.com.