By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
“Tony Khan has an important announcement.”
Those six words will forever live in infamy at this point because we see them, in fresh bold, fat type, sprawled across our television screens at least once a month. Or, well, so it seems, at least. Just when you think AEW is about to lose your attention and right when a show like Rampage pulls its lowest ratings ever, we know the deal by now. Strike up the band, alert the presses, and spread the news.
“Tony Khan has an important announcement.”
So it went on last week’s episode of AEW’s Dynamite. Nobody knew what the company’s founder had in mind before the show kicked off, but that was OK. The mere prospect of Khan making a “huge” or “important” or “special” or “world-shattering” announcement is enough to get anyone who might even tangentially care about the company to at least pay attention. It happens so often now that the expectations aren’t nearly what they used to be and instead, there’s a morbid curiosity about what AEW will constitute as “important” when these segments are scheduled. We know Khan will not be announcing that The Rock is coming to AEW, so what could it be? Another new belt? One more hour of weekly wrestling? The acquisition of Black Label Pro?
Whatever it was, it worked. Not only did AEW procure its biggest ratings number of 2023, but it also marked only the second time this year that Dynamite eclipsed the one million mark in average viewers – 1.028 million, to be exact. Try as we may to scoff at yet another TK statement, we’re all prone to investing in the gimmick. Shame on AEW for abusing the frequency of it; shame on us for proving we’ll run like dogs praying for a bone each time we hear it’s coming. The stunt’s credibility might be gone, but our interest in it never seems to wane.
Speaking of credibility, though – it’s the very thing that awkwardly sits at the center of Khan’s most recent announcement, and it’s an idiom I find myself struggling with as I think about what TK … or, well, Adam Cole … revealed as part of the most recent world-changing announcement: AEW is going to air a reality show. Indeed, AEW All Access will debut sometime next month and it is said to feature behind the scenes fun from Adam Cole, Britt Baker, Sammy Guevara, Tay Conti, The Young Bucks, Wardlow, Eddie Kingston, Evil Uno, Justin Roberts, Ace Austin, Budd Heavy, each one of the Trustbusters and, of course, Doc Sampson.
OK, so a few of those names won’t be involved. But you get it.
It’s the latest in a pro wrestling trend that dates back to Total Divas, Tough Enough and hell, even Miz and Mrs., which seemed to be doing well for USA (any word on if it’ll be back?). In a lot of ways, it makes sense. What do fans of scripted reality want more of? Scripted reality. Or, at least that’s the train of thought I could see bandied about in conference rooms somewhere at the top of Network TV Land. Pro wrestling, in a few ways, was the first iteration of reality TV (and if you don’t think it was, I think we can agree it was at least reality TV adjacent), so the marriage of the two platforms feels natural.
Me? Not so much. Don’t get me wrong. I am in no way above reality TV. Love Is Blind is wild. Love Island (the UK version mostly) is a ton of fun. I’ll even keep up with seasons of the Great British Bake Off from time to time. Granted, those are more slanted toward competition than they are reality, but … all right, yeah, I’ve watched more Real Housewives episodes than I’ll openly admit to watching as well. It’s all nonsense, but a lot of television is. The rare moments I can spare to turn on the TV are precious. I want to be entertained, damn it, and not everything can be The Wire.
But when it comes to the wrestling world? I just can’t do it. It’s odd because I adore the hell out of good pro wrestling documentaries, so it’s not like I’m against pulling the curtain back. And considering we all know the atypical reality television tropes, it goes without saying that part of the agreement between entertainers and those who are entertained (in this context at least) is that we all know to take everything on the screen with a grain of salt, so it’s not like I feel like I’m getting duped into or out of anything.
I’ve just learned that over time, privacy and exposure is a two-way street. Take Sami Zayn, for instance. I didn’t know a thing about the guy’s life outside of wrestling, and I didn’t realize how much I appreciated that until I saw his wife crying at the sight of Roman Reigns attacking her husband with a chair. Based strictly on Zayn’s pro wrestling character, I thought I wanted to know more about who the guy really was. Now that I do … eh … can we go back in time and maybe pretend none of that happened? Sometimes, the magic is in what you don’t know … you know?
Zayn’s case is actually more kind than what we’ll probably see throughout AEW All Access. Within the fabric of his feud with Roman Reigns and a story that very heavily includes family, a mini vlog on WWE’s YouTube page and a video package or two hyping up the match at the expense of his life outside the ring seems OK. Yes, it’s used to give his program with the Bloodline a touch of realism, but we all know you can’t say you know a person after seeing a combined 30 minutes of behind-the-scenes footage that’s edited and packaged in a way that is manicured ad nauseam.
Still, Zayn didn’t appear outrageously inauthentic as he explained his life. Reality show television characters, on the other hand, are just that – characters. Nobody’s filming you making a ham sandwich while listening to a fantasy football podcast because making a ham sandwich while listening to a fantasy football podcast doesn’t make for good television. Making a ham sandwich without a shirt while bickering with your wife, who’s wearing a bikini, about her parents staying with you for the next three weeks all while interspersed with confessionals about how stressful that upcoming stay is for you … well, to some, that’s good television.
Or, at least that’s reality television. For better or for worse.
My point is that the old wrestling adage that the best pro wrestling gimmicks are versions of one’s self turned up to 11 can be – and is almost always – applied to the reality TV realm. In that case, we’ll be seeing people play skewed versions of themselves in a pro wrestling context only to watch them play skewed versions of themselves in a reality TV context. The lines blur too much. I don’t want to see Wardlow powerbomb the hell out of dudes and then walk to the local Shell Station dressed like he’s about to be photographed for a GQ spread just because … cameras?
For some, the blending of the worlds and characters both in and out of the ring might either work well or simply not matter, but for me, it’s an added layer that feels greedy and unnecessary. It’s kind of like how I’ve come to feel about most of Conrad Thompson’s podcasts (or, to be fair, any other nostalgia-driven pro wrestling podcast out there). Some of his co-hosts are playing some form of some character most of the time and even if there’s a host or two who would dispute that, the amount of “I don’t remember” answers to interesting questions have led some of those shows to become mundane. Each person has their own agenda – be it ridiculing the current product, complaining about “dirt sheets” or telling that same story about Turner executives or traveling with Leroy McGurik for the 12th or 13th time – and those agendas make the shows feel more and more disingenuous each week.
The same thing applies to reality television. There’s always this insatiable desire to impress – so much so that people become caricatures of themselves being caricatures of themselves. The level of absurdity and unbelievability reaches heights I can’t get past and in the meantime, can manipulate (read: damage) a celebrity’s place in our heads. Will whomever shows up on this AEW show have glimpses of being down to earth? Of course. Will that be contradicted by the majority of the actions that person engages in for 90 percent of the time he or she is on the air? Of course. So, why bother?
Really. Again. Why bother? Investing in all that is pro wrestling means you are investing in so much more than headlocks and dropkicks. You invest in stories, in characters, in manufactured drama. To play those tricks on your own mind in order to appreciate and engage with such a world is quite the ask to begin with. Adding reality television on top of that is asking yourself to invest in two versions of a person (and perhaps in some cases, a story) that is also not necessarily the most organic and/or honest version of said person or story. Pro wrestling works because we believe in what pro wrestling is. Reality television, in a lot of ways, compromises our ability to believe in that, if only because it’s asking us to believe in a different make-believe world yet again.
Plus, let’s be honest: Reality TV is a cash grab. It’s relatively cheap to produce, it’s a quick and easy way to launch yourself into a different realm of stardom and it bastardizes the mere concept of perception. Or, in other words, it’s not entirely unlike having the owner of a company announce he’s going to make an important announcement every six weeks in order to make sure fans don’t stray too far from the party. At this point, “Tony Khan has an important announcement” and AEW All Access have about the same amount of credibility to their names – and that’s even before the latter airs its first episode.
One will draw me back to the TV like the hopelessly intrigued pro wrestling fan that I am.
The other? For me, at least, that’s highly unlikely.
They can’t even successfully blend pro wrestling with pro wrestling.
A BTE knockoff may work.
Ignoring the obviously “I don’t care too much for AEW” attitude, I find it funny that people still think “reality” TV shows have any reality in them…..
Let’s just all be grateful that Tony’s announcement wasn’t a women’s trios championship.