Wrestle Review Wednesday: Wrestling is Theater

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Thursday marks the return of Netflix’s critically and audience-acclaimed comedy GLOW, a fictionalized retelling of the 1980s television series Gorgeous Ladies of Wrestling.

Sitcoms of the 1980s and 1990s were keen on producing a wrestling episode, like the time Carl Winslow and Urkel battled the Bushwackers. Leon White — the man famous for portraying the monster heel Vader — passed away last week, and among the many tributes was a touching memorial from Danielle Fishel, the actress who played Topanga on Boy Meets World.

These were ultimately campy, throwaway stories in which wrestling could easily be supplanted by, say, baseball. Wrestling serves as a cornerstone of GLOW, obviously, but it isn’t necessary one be a fan of the genre to love the show. My wife is entirely ambivalent to wrestling, but watched the entirety of GLOW Season 1 in two days last summer.

However, loving the medium enhances the GLOW experience. Sure, the writers show deference for the genre that is sometimes lacking in more mainstream pop culture. There are also plenty of Easter eggs for fans, like a Joey Ryan cameo. Former standout grappler Kia Stevens also co-stars as a GLOW wrestler, demonstrating charisma and comedic timing that has me wanting a Tamme spinoff series. But the overtures to wrestling go beyond casting choices, and are woven into the narrative.

Without revealing spoilers to those who may not have watched the first season, the show introduces a heel-and-face dynamic both in the wrestling ring and outside of it between the show’s main characters. That dynamic’s flipped on its head, giving the storyline a layer of complexity when presenting the two lead characters — Alison Brie’s Ruth and Betty Gilpin’s Debbie — in classic romantic-drama protagonist/antagonist roles. Those roles are then reversed, with the assertive blonde Debbie playing the sympathetic babyface and the mousy, insecure Ruth as the heel.

Presenting the story in this manner could only work when juxtaposed against the very straightforward backdrop of 1980s Good Guy vs. Bad Guy wrestling storytelling.

The humanity and complexity of what might otherwise seem like breezy, summertime programming reflects the genre itself.

Over dinner with a friend last week, we got deep into discussion about the drama behind the ongoing Johnny Gargano and Tommaso Ciampa feud on NXT. Forget Game of Thrones; for tales of friendship and betrayal, violence and scorn, told over the course of several seasons, there may not be a more robust narrative on TV.

The duo arrived on the scene together as newly acquired talented and entrants into the Dusty Rhodes Tag Team Classic in Summer 2015.

After a year of teaming together, they were competitors in the opening round of the Cruiserweight Classic. Theirs was the best match of the tournament’s first round — and one could argue, the entire Classic — as well as the most physical. The seeds for their friendship devolving into bitterness were planted.

But the beauty of this story was that those seeds weren’t rushed into bloom.

DIY continued to team, enduring both heartache and triumph as the most exciting tandem of 2016. Their series of matches against The Revival teased DIY’s breakup…

…until it marked the culmination of their hard work.

I was at Freeman Coliseum for NXT Takeover San Antonio with the same friend who prompted this discussion. The match of the night saw DIY outmuscled by the destructive Authors of Pain — though it was a moment of hubris that ultimately cost the team. A miscalculation in the same vein as the loss to The Revival at Takeover Brooklyn cost DIY tag team titles — titles they never recovered.

The ladder match defeat at Takeover Chicago was a classic, but the bout itself has become something of an afterthought to what followed.

Betrayal. Shakespearian betrayal.

A hallmark of a great story is when it can turn misfortune into good fortune. Ciampa sustained a knee injury during that bout, which sidelined him for almost a year. His absence arguably enhanced the drama, however. The temptation to “hot shot” this enthralling angle, e.g. move the story along in sequential order, would have been strong, and in line with modern wrestling’s typical narrative direction. 

Ciampa’s absence — expertly detailed through Twitter — became part of the in-ring drama, and a central tenet of Gargano’s character development.  

Everything about the storyline was done brilliantly. Behind-the-scenes writers/bookers deserve credit for crafting the arcs. Much like Alison Brie and Betty Gilpin on GLOW, however, the story concepts fall flat without talented performers giving them life.

Gargano and Ciampa have done that, while adding their own layers through social media. No feud in wrestling has capitalized on the direct reach of Twitter as effectively, blurring the line between fiction and reality. 

And kudos to the creators. This drama would not be so compelling without the meticulous attention to details. There’s even symmetry to be gleaned from the location of various milestones. Gargano’s first loss to Almas came at Takeover Brooklyn III, one year after DIY’s stunning defeat at Brooklyn II against The Revival. The second was a title match in which a momentary misstep cost Gargano the championship — much like at Royal Rumble weekend a year prior vs. the Authors of Pain as part of DIY. 

Mirroring Ciampa’s betrayal in Chicago one year later, the Sicilian Psychopath again caught Gargano off-guard. And he did so as a result of Gargano losing focus and control. In a crystal-clear Good Guy vs. Bad Guy dynamic, Gargano’s obsession with inflicting violence against Ciampa showed depth; a shade of gray, if you will. 

Like Ruth and Debbie, the Face-Heel relationship in the Gargano-Ciampa saga has a complexity to it. Ciampa’s alluded to a darkness in Gargano, fueled by insecurity and jealousy, and Gargano’s failures are the result of these traits. 

The Gargano-Ciampa feud is as much a classic Good Guy vs. Bad Guy morality tale as it is a Hero’s Journey of self-discovery. Johnny Gargano cannot achieve his dreams and overcome his past until he conquers his inner demons. Gargano’s character arc isn’t all that different from Ruth’s on GLOW.