There is CM Punk’s Joseph Campbellian “heel’s journey,” and that's great. There's the all-encompassing fight for “control” of Monday Night Raw between current GM AJ Lee and former ECW & Smackdown GMs (respectively) Paul Heyman and Vicki Guerrero, which is much more fun than it sounds. But unquestionably WWE's best, most refreshing and shockingly subversive storyline is the unlikely pairing of former World Heavyweight Champions Daniel Bryan and Kane.
The partnership, recently christened Team Hell No!—a play on Kane’s role as “The Devil’s Favorite Demon” and Bryan’s “NO! NO! NO!” catchphrase, henceforth referred to as THN!—began their courtship through a series of “anger management” vignettes. These were preplanned short films, all shot and set outside the arena, that managed to be both funny—on the WWE's sliding scale, naturally—and push storylines and advance character development. This is about as rare a feat as there is in wrestling, and not an easy trick even in kinds of storytelling not driven by men in underpants pretending to harm each other.
The Bryan/Kane combo truly blossomed when the pair were forced to “hug it out” as part of their “therapy”—and, this being the WWE Universe, because a Twitter poll demanded it—in front of a surprisingly raucous crowd. Notice the fans chanting “hug it out” and then losing it when the results are announced:
With the fan's reaction to the segment, WWE changed long held plans to put the tag team belts on a very talented (and very young) team called the Prime Time Players after being squeezed into the Night of Champions Pay Per View on the "go-home" show on the Raw immediately preceding the event. Their match the next Sunday, against champions R. Truth (better known as the guy who gets Randy The Ram to relapse in The Wrestler) and Kofi Kingston was a master class in storytelling and showmanship. Every bit of the match—and most importantly, the escalating, heated confrontations between Kane and Daniel Bryan—paid off in a Rube Goldberg-ian finish, wherein Bryan expressed that he felt “unappreciated” by Kane by kicking him off the top rope onto a prone Kingston, who remained prone (and with Kane on top of him) for the entirety of the decisive three-count.
What resulted was a sort of cosmic “Dusty finish”, as both claimed individual victories—Daniel Bryan for putting Kane “in position” to win the match and Kane for, you know, actually winning the match—and began immediately declaring that “I AM THE WORLD TAG TEAM CHAMPIONS,” grammar and logic be damned. Who is “actually” the World Tag Team champion(s) is now the driving narrative force in their “feud” and has propelled them, quite literally, to the main event (or, more accurately, the go-to-the-credits segment for Raw -- pictured above --which is essentially equivalent).
THN!’s meteoric rise, while unexpected and unexpectedly rapid, makes a sort of sense: Daniel Bryan and Kane are, by any measure, two of the most gifted performers in the history of the company. Their physical gifts, understanding of psychology and performance and appreciation for the subtleties of “putting on a good show” permeate everything they do, and they have a fun, prickly chemistry. That two consummate professionals can work so well together is still remarkable, though. As the tension that now defines their storyline implicitly reminds us, such pairings rarely do.
The Rock-and-Sock Connection with Dwayne and Mick Foley and pairings such as Show-Miz & Jeri-Show have achieved great success, but such teams were more or less just that: teams, in which neither member of the duo seemed to want anything but to win matches, together. Put two superstars on the same team, though, and you don't necessarily have a team at all—instead, you get something like Kane and Bryan’s parallel and individual quests to be Tag Team Champions, singular.
The best modern example of what can go wrong is the main event of a little-remembered, and even less enjoyable, PPV: the 2007 edition of the No Way Out series. It was, frankly, a shitshow— "highlighted" by a poorly planned cruiserweight gauntlet match and a truly putrid street fight between an Irish stereotype named Finlay (who “loves to fight”) and an idiot named “The Boogeyman” (who ate worms). Because there is no God, their pocket-sized companions, Lil’ Bastard and Lil’ Boogie—who also ate worms, though presumably smaller amounts—were also prominently featured. The cherry atop this room-temp poop-and-worm sundae was one of WWE’s most convoluted main events ever, as both pairs of opponents at the following month’s Wrestlemania—John Cena and Shawn Michaels, and Batista and the Undertaker—were forced to participate in a tag team match.
Both the build-up to the match and the match itself were paint-drying-by-the-numbers affairs. While, the contest was sold on the alleged first-time-EVER uniqueness of two Wrestlemania main events competing against each other, the build-up was anything but unique: commonplace complaints about fairness from the combatants, loud maunderings from commentators regarding the “difficulty of working together”. The match itself ended just as predictably. In other words, World Heavyweight Champion Batista attacked challenger/partner Undertaker before leaving him in the hands of Cena and Michaels, who were at that point the shammiest of sham tag team champions. The team would break up almost immediately thereafter, when Michaels eliminated Cena in an over-the-top affair so convoluted it may has well have been called the John Cena/Shawn Michaels Break-up Battle Royale. Even when taking into account the later payoff of Wrestlemania 23—which was, until this year, the most successful in the history of the event, thanks mostly to the Hair vs.Hair match involving Vince McMahon, Steve Austin and Donald Trump’s toupee—how the winners got there was both reekingly dumb, and boring.
The “how” of getting there invites questions about the why, as in "why do such talented performers wind up in these predicaments?" and why do bad storylines happen to good wrestlers?
The answer lies in the fundamental nature of storytelling, in general, and wrestling's use of tropes in particular.
Tropes are used in wrestling by performers and promoters alike, and can be as specific as in-ring sequences like the Five Moves of Doom or as broad as storytelling tactics like Loser Leaves Town matches. When used correctly, they can create an atmosphere of familiarity, without taking the fun out of finding out what’s going to happen next. As any viewer of Community can tell you, this sort of thing doesn't work without a basic knowledge of the elements of storytelling used consistently within a genre, though the damage is mitigated by a fundamental understanding of how stories work. The other, bigger challenge is using these tropes without abusing them, and it's the most common and problematic trope-related pitfall in wrestling.
Predictability, in wrestling and storytelling and in general, is not necessarily a bad thing. Knowing what's coming next delivers a different type of tension, and the comfort of these rituals, in wrestling as elsewhere, helps maintain continuity and context and, not unimportantly, the payoff of actual fun. Moments like Shawn Michaels “tuning up the band” in preparation of delivering Sweet Chin Music—well-worn though they may be—give the viewer a comfort similar to the kind that comes watching a point guard tossing up an alley oop on a fastbreak. Just because you've seen it before doesn't mean it's any less thrilling.
This unequal distribution of information—viewers know more than the participants, and can see further into the future—can create what are most succinctly referred to “Don’t You Watch Wrestling?” moments. Don’t You Watch Wrestling? Moments—a concept created a long time ago in The Vault with the help of our trusty internet technician Daron Jackson—occur in nearly every match and, as the name implies, are telegraphed enough to make any hardened viewer of the sport scream those very words as another oblivious victim falls prey to a seemingly easily discovered trap. Screaming aside, it's much more fun than it is infuriating.
The definitive Don’t You Watch Wrestling? Moments can be found in any match involving Hulk Hogan. The moment comes almost immediately after Hulk begins to "Hulk Up"—when, after the Hulkster starts convulsing and is physically shaken by the “power of the Hulkamaniacs” (steroids) coursing through his veins—his apparently unsuspecting opponent will, in a fit of frightened confusion, rear back and hit Hogan in the face. This is the moment, the Don’t You Watch Wrestling Moment, where things take a turn for the worse for the other guy.
Immediately after taking the punch, Hogan becomes Hulkified, and the crowd pretty much comes completely unglued. Finally, with Dikembe Mutombo swagger, Hogan wags his finger, points at his foe and—along with literally everyone else in attendance—yells “YOU!” before pummelling his opponent into oblivion or, depending on the era, back into the mid-card.
Taken on its own, it's a beautiful bit of showmanship that excites the crowd and is what Hogan will forever be known for. But, because it's impossible to take something that has continued to happen for decades on its own, Hogan currently reigns as the best example of how the overuse of tropes can push past familiarity and into the dully predictable. Hogan’s insistence on keeping himself at the top of the heap, and Vince McMahon’s insistence on using the same sequence to end every match in which the Hulk participated, very nearly led to the end of the business.
It definitely led to its modern nadir—the Day Job era—where tropes from real life found their way into the product. Character began springing up who claimed to have jobs, and wrestling was awash in garbagemen, tax accountants and repo men. This was supposed to be a larger-than-life approximation of a warped reality, but wound up a badly written cartoon—the standard caricature of wrestling come to loud, limp life. This predictability, unlike the comfort found in things like familiar taunts and individual sequences, tips the delicate balance between wanting to feel comfortable and needing the excitement of not knowing what’s coming next.
Matches and storylines like the ones that defined the latter half of Hogan’s original run in the WWF—and like 2007’s Shitshow at the Staples Center—are fundamentally repackaging exercises: trying to sell pay-per-viewers on the same sort of experience, or the same exact experience, that they enjoyed last week, or last year. This is easier than trying to sell something new, and the profits are hard to argue with. But it's problematic for wrestling fans that are in it for the long haul, and who must trust that the company into which they pour their leisure hours and disposable income has their interests at heart. Wrestling fans understand that the WWE's goal, ultimately, is to run a successful business. It's just that we'd appreciate that the more cynical calculations behind that be kept behind the curtains, instead of being shoved into our faces, repeatedly.
As Daniel Bryan and Kane continue their journey together—or at least in its current singular-plural parallel—this will be their challenge. They will have to tell us a story we already know in a way that we haven't already seen.