11/13/14 Lucha Underground Pushes Wrestling in a New Direction

 

On the second episode of El Rey’s Lucha Underground, Matt Striker proclaimed that, “This is not the wrestling you’re used to seeing.”

At first, it sounded like grandiose self-promotion, but he’s fundamentally right. He did not make a claim that LU  is “the best wrestling on the planet,” or “real wrestling.” He also did not default to the more conventional idiom, “this is not your father’s wrestling.” He simply said that LU is different from the other major wrestling promotions on TV. He’s right, and I thoroughly appreciate what Lucha Underground is trying to do.

For those who have not seen the first three episodes of the show, LU is a still a wrestling TV show, but it looks very different from WWE, TNA, or ROH. It is set in a dingy, poorly-lit warehouse with a few hundred (predominantly adult) fans seated on a stair case that runs around the outside of the well-worn ring. To this point, there has been no discussion of championships or official honors. The promoter, Dario Cueto, offered $100,000 to whoever impressed him most in the first episode, but even that conceit quickly gave way to a personal beef between Cueto and Johnny (Morrison) Mundo, one of the top fan favorites on the roster.

It’s not the in-ring action that makes LU so distinctive, although that is definitely a strong point. The mostly Mexican or Mexican-American roster has plenty of recognizable names- Morrison, Chavo Guerrero, Ezekial “Big Ryck” Jackson, Ricochet (“Prince Puma”), Ricky “Cortez Castro” Reyes, and several famous luchadors. While the roster sounded moderately impressive while the names initially trickled out months ago, they have so far been greater than the sum of the individual components. There are no weak links on the roster and everyone has his or her own form of unique athleticism. There is a strong lucha influence that does not overwhelm the distinctive fusion of styles from many different backgrounds. LU has even experimented with some innovative concepts like intergender matches in the first few weeks. Still, the wrestling itself would be recognizable to someone who watches wrestling on American TV.

Similarly, the storytelling and themes have been enjoyable and fresh, but are not an overwhelming departure from what we see from other wrestling promotions. In the first few episodes, the stories have largely revolved around greed and retribution, temptation, and the desire to make a name for oneself. Konnan has functioned as a sort of advisor who has planted the seeds for a culture war by telling Prince Puma that Mundo’s battles are not his. Guerrero has viciously attacked everyone in sight to make a name for himself outside of his family’s sizable shadow. The stories are simple, believable, and mature enough not to insult anyone’s intelligence. Even the sight of the mercenary Big Ryck counting cash and smoking a cigar at ringside is twist on the modern wrestling tropes.

Although the wrestling and the storytelling are necessary components for LU or any wrestling promotion, the element that has most distinguished it to date has been the presentation of the show. With Survivor’s Mark Burnett as an Executive Producer and Sin City’s Robert Rodriguez as a Producer and occasional Director, the show has a unified and professional aura that far outpaces its budget. The show is presented as a self-contained season rather than a sporting event that runs year round, which presents all kinds of storytelling flexibility. Stories are told through artistic backstage vignettes with an emphasis on camera angles, lighting, and music that I have never seen on a wrestling show. The spoken promos are typically short and to the point. The narrative is driven by the taped segments, and they are so well-done that the show never drags when the story develops.

In a way, LU has taken the next step in the progression of professional wrestling that Vince McMahon spearheaded 30 years ago. McMahon moved away from the carnival/sporting event model to emphasize the entertainment value of pro wrestling. LU is the first sincere attempt I have seen to tip the balance away from the presentation of a sporting event and to present wrestling as a TV show. The unified feeling created by the set, the lighting, the camera work, the music, the commentary, and the characters removes the impression that wrestling is a broadcast of a sporting event. Above all, that makes LU different from any other wrestling production I have seen, and that is very exciting.

In spite of these glowing comments, there is plenty not to like about LU. The commentary can be grating at times, particularly from color commentator Vampiro. The frequent chair shots to the head are an ominous sign that the wrestling side of the promotion is not as progressive as the production side. Furthermore, only time will tell if the movement away from the championship as the center of storytelling will have legs. It has worked for three weeks, but it could become tired very quickly if there are not thoughtful writers with creative ideas to inspire on-screen rivalries. Moreover, LU has trafficked heavily in wrestlers’ outside reputations- Mundo’s status as a “free agent” and the Guerrero family name are the heart of the two biggest plots-, so it is unclear whether they can generate their own intrigue, let alone their own wrestlers. These will be challenges for the rest of the first season and will largely dictate whether LU and the version of wrestling it is molding can have a future.

The first few weeks of any TV show are not supposed to determine its long-term viability. The first few weeks need to mark out some territory and attract eyeballs. On both of those accounts, LU has succeeded with flying colors. As Striker said, LU has established an entirely different version of what a wrestling show can look like. In spite of my personal preference for the Japanese strong style over Lucha Libre wrestling, they have captured my attention. I also believe that the distinctive approach could broaden the pool from which it draws its fans. To that end, LU has done something that every other wrestling promotion in America has tried to do for generations. Now that the vision is actualized, it will be exciting to see how it develops.