Lucha Underground, WWE and the Importance of Quiet Time

Introductory Note: I am a very big fan of Lucha Underground, the unique presentations it’s given us, and what they are broadly trying to do. I also know that given the near universal acclaim for the federation, aspects of this article could come across as contrarian. Frankly, maybe it is, but that comes from a high standard I have held Lucha Underground to since the first season.

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The explosive finish to Pentagon Jr’s central role in Lucha Underground’s first season. The quiet time between this and the start of season 2 allowed for Pentagon to become even more infamous and made his return to the Temple in season 2 even more anticipated. Credit: cagesideseats.com

As a person who has been interested in writing for a long time as well as enjoying various narrative driven forms of entertainment, I have recently been thinking about pacing, and more specifically, the importance of ‘quiet time’ after re-watching the excellent Super Bunnyhop video on the topic with regards to video games. Naturally, I soon began thinking about quiet time in relation to wrestling, and that will be the main focus of this article. WWE doesn’t – and takes a degree of pride in not – allow any real quiet time while Lucha Underground, split as it is in to seasons, does, but with mixed results.

Though i’m aware there are other federations – Chikara, for instance – who present their wrestling in series, the only one I’ve personally consumed in consecutive order is Lucha Underground. In a period where television ‘box-sets’ are probably the most revered form of visual entertainment, Lucha Undergorund has fit in with that trend by having long episodic seasons with respective ‘Ultima Luchas’ serving as season finalés; and for me as a wrestling fan, this was a new and welcome world. From a starting position of being just another new wrestling product, Lucha Underground used episodes with logical arcs within a unique, pulpy, and somewhat supernatural universe populated by a couple of handfulls of determined, fleshed-out characters to become arguably the most respected wrestling project in the world. This ride culminated in Ultima Lucha, an event where stories were paid off or evolved via fantastic, high-octane matches. Then it dis something almost unheard of in wrestling when the heat is white hot – it pressed pause:

Not only was it objectively beautiful television, but it actively invited you to rest – the phrasing of that tweet saying “Good night.” is no mistake. Series 2 of Lucha Underground didn’t appear for nearly 6 months, and in that time, there was nothing else to do but to reflect on what we had seen, and look forward to a new series. During the series, I loved the wrestling and many of the characters, but it was in the intervening months and discussions with fellow fans that the beauty of it came to it’s highest clarity. I longed for Pentagon Jr and fell in love with his theme music, playing it on endless repeat, I argued the case for LU’s unflinching inter-gender matches, and I wondered at how far LU could go with the signing of possibly the greatest Luchadors ever (and among the greatest pro wrestlers ever, period). I also realised that beyond their matches being great, Lucha Underground was actually built on marquee matches that totally reinvigorated established gimmick matches such as the casket match and the ironman match almost like a calling card, while also providing a strong structure for the first season’s arc. I rooted for the wrestlers and promotion to return, and when it did, it did so with a huge amount of good will and currency to keep trying new things.

That is the essence of the benefits of ‘quiet time’ – when you are enjoying something, it having the ability to pause or slow down provides you with the opportunity to reflect either actively or passively, on what the story is, or what you are enjoying  about it or not. The Super Bunnyhop video of course uses the excellent example of narrative video games, but it applies to any form of narrative-driven entertainment. It’s why ‘special events’ in wrestling usually have a less consequential match or two, sometimes with comic relief, between a marquee match and the main event; you can reflect on the marquee match and get it out of your system, take a breath, and be ready for the main event. It’s also why fantasy booking is so prevelent between wrestling fans (and indeed, outside of wrestling under different auspices). It’s because when you are enjoying a storyline or a wrestlers work (such as, recently, The Miz’s Talking Smack promo), you become extra engaged and become keen to join the journey being presented. On the other hand of course, it rears it’s head when fans aren’t enjoying the product. Wrestling engenders loyalty – for it’s sins it embraces fans in to a dysfunctional family, and when you love something like that, you want it to be better. So when the show fades to black, and you’re angry about Cena or Reigns winning (or whatever your preference is), many people thing ‘it would be so much better if…’, and you get to live that fantasy out, if even in your head. Outside of wrestling, quiet time is why season premieres and finales are so significant – they are preceded by or followed by it, which in itself marks it as significant, and provides fans with that crucial time for reflection.

When you’re having your mind blown by a fresh, innovative and exciting federation filled with brutal, high flying, and emotionally charged action set in a supernatural temple, the weekly episode of Monday Night RAW started to really struggle to grab your attention. I have said to many people in private that, for it’s sins, I think WWE ultimately does the best overall job of presenting high quality, compelling wrestling (WrestleMania 30, for instance); however it goes through waves of staleness, sometimes feeling like it’s spinning wheels until WrestleMania season. While some of that can be righteously blamed on lacklustre writing and a business model which clearly favours pouring resources and creativity in to it’s January – April programme, it is notable that WWE programming never stops. Less than 24 hours after the end of each year’s WrestleMania, which is one of the few places where stories are ever conclusively wrapped up, WWE and it’s fans are right back in the saddle for the annual, crazy, Post-Mania RAW. After 4 months of intense build to an insane spectacle though – post-Mania RAW aside – the WWE noticeably slows down, seemingly mailing in a month or two of wrestling.

In a sense, this period is a still a form of quiet time by virtue of how noticeably slower and less explosive it is, but there is still no real opportunity to reflect because the wrestlers you’ve just watched make history are off doing something else and there are new stories to focus on. Not only are the writers and general production notably a gear or two lower in the period, but many of the wrestler clearly are too – still working hard of course and having some cool moments, but taking a natural step back following WrestleMania. At a time when WWE seems to suffer from injury bouts with a degree of regularity, the wrestlers seem to be in need of down time physically as well as mentally, and this has been something I’ve supported for a long time, despite the fact that WWE’s business acumen means that such a move is hugely unlikely.

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HHH’s return from injury in 2002 came with much emotion and fanfare, despite the fact that he was a top heel before his injury. Credit: WWE

The brand split complicates this somewhat as they work on a different calendar, but speaking broadly, I think a ‘Good night.’ moment – admittedly with a much more sports-like, explosive tone – at the end of a WrestleMania could help create a more focused and efficient product. Can you imagine how hyped pretty much everyone would be for the first Monday Night RAW following a 2-month layover? Rested wrestlers, writers who have had time to plan stories in advance and fans who have missed seeing their favourite wrestlers and have missed regular accessible wrestling while reflecting on what happened at a historic WrestleMania event; all of this points to not only ratings and a better product, but a more beloved product. A microcosm of this that does currently occur in WWE is when wrestlers return from long injury layoffs or just time away from the show. Regardless of whether wrestlers are heels or faces, their returns are nearly uniformally – though partly depending on their standing beforehand.- met with huge pops. ‘Returns’ often feature among my favourite wrestling narrative moments, and I think the reason is that it represents an instant change to the landscape (see:’Universe) and usually reinvigorates the show.

On a bigger scale, where everyone essentially returns, the ‘season premieres’ of RAW would be huge cultural events in the wrestling world and maybe beyond. To extend the concept somewhat, I think that with a ‘mid-season finale/re-premiere’ after Survivor Series, for instance, and taking one or two PPVs out of the calendar, I think the pacing of the WWE calendar would be much more effective at facilitating exciting, interesting storytelling and programming more consistently.

Now, to return to Lucha Underground’s Temple, I’m going to, on face value, contradict a lot of what I just argued.

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Joey Ryan was a big coup for Lucha Underground’s second season, and while entertaining, his role on the show was part of a (so far) poorly defined sub-plot that didn’t really amount to anything. Credit: Lucha Underground

Well, not really, but I would like to take some time to critique a slow downturn in quality from Lucha Underground from that Ultima Lucha high-point and do so while cautioning that ‘quiet time’ alone isn’t an automatic benefit for storytellers. Specifically, while the period was great for the fans, the writers and showrunners got ever so slightly out of their groove. The limited roster of carefully drawn characters was populated by quite a few more characters who seemingly received slightly less attention each. Taya entered the Temple and became a well-drawn, easily established character following her match with (they call him) Cage, but compared to that, characters like Daga, PJ Black, Kobra Moon, Maripoza and more seemed directionless and – relatively – unimportant. Of course, as the number of characters grew, the share for each, and for each story’s quiet time, lessened. Matches always came thick and fast in Lucha Underground but initially there was a more manageable array of characters that meant each one could be reflected on.

While the addition of Rey Mysterio, the king of luchadors, made sense, the influx of indie talent untimately damaged the series. My impression of the second series was that it took a long time to get any sort of momentum and shortly after, it was time for Ultima Lucha Dos. The mainstay gimmick matches of Aztec Warfare and Grave(r) Consequences remained, but didn’t seem to add anything fresh like they did in series one. Finally, the impact of Ultima Lucha Dos seemed diminished as the tight booking of season 1 seemed to fade away with Black Lotus’s long awaited debut being interfered in, Pentagon’s journey to the top being spoiled, and the whole thing being spread over 3 ostensibly normal episodes to allow for it all. It felt less special and less impactful, and getting back to the concept of quiet time, I think that if there wasn’t such a long layover, the showrunners wouldn’t have added so much padding to the production and season 2 would have been executed with much more satisfaction. The quiet time could have, and maybe should have been used to help improve the show even more from season 1, but in reality i’m afraid that the devil made work for their idle hands.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile - this was how 'WMD's were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

Marty the Moth brandishes a missile – this was how ‘WMD’s were used in this great match which was spoiled by empty aesthetics.

The matches happen at the same rate as always, but you may not see some characters for a few weeks – but instead of that providing quiet time to reflect, memories of their character and purpose are almost saved over with recency bias for other people you have seen more recently. These cracks have really started to show now that season 3 has begun. Roughly the same amount of talent remains, but everything seems more rushed and less well designed. For me, a great example was the WMD match. As ever, the wrestlers ‘left it all out there’ – objectively, it was a great match with a great finish, but it seemed like much more than ever before, the story elements were skin deep. Marty the Moth had suggested he was ‘done’ with Killshot, but it seems LU bookers liked the idea of an army themed match and so we had WMD. The fantasy universe of LU means it can give it’s gimmicks more (or ‘graver’) consequences. Speaking of Grave Consequences, we know no one really died, but the incredible presentation based on the Mexican ‘Day of the Dead’ and Konnan never being seen again in the aftermath really gave that match mythic status. With ‘WMD’ how do you live up to that? Wrestlers use guns as melee weapons, which is insane, they use 20th C-looking weapons crates which seem at best, as dangerous as other surfaces, and at worst, flimsy. Worse was Matt Striker who just seemed to take it as an opportunity to throw in as many ill-judged war puns as possible, including some incredibly ill-thought-out comments about Syrian refugees and Melissa Santos being potential ‘spoils of war’. This was a great match spoiled – for me – by the empty aesthetics of it that couldn’t live up to the WMD moniker.  It would have been saved to a large degree by calling it something like a ‘Warzone’ match which would set the scene without clipping it’s wings. That is down to the talented by bloated roster not being able to fit in to a 1 hour-per episode season and writers rushing to fit too much in to each episode and not being able to dedicate as much effort to their marquee matches living up to their excellent track record of previous marquee matches.

That seems a lot more scathing than the show – which I still very much enjoyed at times – deserves, but as I say, the stellar work of season 1 raised it’s standards for me. Shortly after the end of Ultima Lucha Dos, it was revealed that Lucha Underground would be back after just over 1 month. Suddenly, it started to seem that Lucha Underground was maybe being rushed through, and the welcome breath that the break between season allowed before seemed to be lacking. Knowing how far Lucha Underground is now taoed in advance, and that large parts of seasons 2 and 3 were taped back to back, it’s clear that while there is still a (much shorter) break between seasons, it is no longer part of the creative process of the show. The break feels like just that, a pause, and not a deliberate point of reflection for the viewer that gives us time to miss the show; and while the diminishing return I have found with Lucha Underground is a slow one, I already personally feel that the lack of quiet time between Lucha Underground seasons has hurt the quality of season 3 which feels like it’s just picking up where the second series finished rather than creating new and interesting story arcs. That may not even be accurate, but the lack of quiet time to stop and smell the roses has masked whatever identity the third season has so far.

Lucha Underground season 1 was perhaps the most successful and noteworthy wrestling achievement, at least in terms of quality, in recent wrestling history, and seasons 2 and what has begun of 3 are certainly still loaded with great, brutal, innovative matches – I just hope it can reclaim some of the attention to detail and efficiency it once had, and continue to be a treat.

 

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