There probably was a time when WWE boss Vince McMahon, and his counterparts at All Elite Wrestling (AEW), dreamed of being the only parties providing new, live television in this era of shelter-at-homes and shutdowns and burning through all of “Schitt’s Creek” and needing something as keenly silly (or close, as no one will ever be as keenly silly as Eugene Levy nor should anyone without space-age training). This was the real life version of Krusty the Clown broadcasting from the emergency broadcast shed. It would appear, however, that at least the former has given up on that somewhat cracked dream
Over the weekend, not only did it come out that Wrestlemania will be a two-night event hosted by Rob Gronkowski in a simply nightmarish scenario, but that it will be pre-taped and filmed this week. There are clearly a lot of firsts here. (Gronk being involved brings on its own host of issues, but I can’t sum them up any better than one of my favorite writers Brandon Stroud does here)
At the top, it must be said that WWE is in just about an impossible position. That doesn’t mean they’ve gotten a lot right lately, or anything right, but it is a herculean task. Live wrestling with no crowd is always going to be at-best awkward and at worst...this. WWE has the added problem, and just about the biggest one possible, that this pandemic, and measures to combat it, have come right in the heart of what is their biggest “season.” Having to take your biggest show, and the biggest show of its kind in the industry, into the studio is always going to be on the same level as bathing a pitbull with your hands cut off.
There’s a lot to unpack here. And at the end of it, there could be some positive changes for WWE to consider. First, making it a two-night event. Many have been calling for Mania to be two nights for a while now, especially after last year’s seven-hour Mahabharata that left thousands stranded in New Jersey in the rain, otherwise known as modern-day Hades. New Japan Pro Wrestling, the only other company that has any show near the scale of Wrestlemania with its Wrestle Kingdom at The Tokyo Dome, split that into two nights for the first time this year. That only heightened calls for Mania to do the same.
Perhaps the decision to do so this year is that there won’t be much competition. In its usual Sunday night slot, there’s generally only one baseball game, and one or two NBA or NHL games to compete with, as long as most networks signature TV programming. That is an easier landscape to negotiate than Saturday night, which also has far more people out of the house. None of this is a concern this year, and WWE is perhaps counting on the significantly increased number of people stuck at home with nothing to do and being stir-crazy enough to check out the show on Saturday night than might have normally. Again, by the time Mania rolls around on April 4, a lot of people will have burned through a lot of Netflix and HBO Now. If nothing else, Mania will be different.
As far as the pre-taping aspect, there could be a slew of reasons. One is that they feel a shelter-at-home order is coming for Florida or nation-wide soon, and want to get everything in they can as quickly as possible to send all their employees home from Orlando (which they probably should have done already anyway). They’ll also be taping the next two episodes of Monday Night Raw and Smackdown this week as well, so it certainly feels like they want to get everyone out of there for a bit while still having content.
Secondly, perhaps WWE feels that if they can’t do the live show with a football stadium crowd, they might as well go to the complete other end of the spectrum and get everything exactly as they want it. Pre-taping means they can control every aspect, shoot things as many times from as many angles as they want, and get every story told exactly how they see fit. No refs demanding moves be redone from better angles, or botched spots, or awkward finishes to what’s supposed to be the best show they have to offer.
Which does open up the possibility of...well, just about anything. Under this method, WWE could make every match look like a movie, and an epic one at that. Then again, that could lead to stuff like this, which was cringe-worthy enough to pull a muscle or two in your face and neck. But as Matt Hardy has proved, pre-taped and weird can turn out to be its own art, as long as you lean fully into it. Or film the thing as one movie with various subplots and tales. For instance, one would expect at least one match to spill out into the parking lot or beyond (within social-distance reason, of course). They could use effects in any number of ways, and ones that my admittedly limited brain and scope can’t imagine. You could basically set these things anywhere if you’re just using what is essentially a soundstage. That doesn’t mean WWE is capable of making the Andre The Giant Memorial Battle Royale look like the climactic scene of “Avengers: Endgame”, but let’s not limit our imagination.
Of course, with that comes greater risk, and WWE is risk-averse, as silly as that sounds for a company built on the idea of fake fighting, and whose biggest stars have been a barely mobile giant, a man who is dead, and currently a children’s show host’s demonic split personality. All that said, WWE (and really just McMahon) have only seen stories in a very narrow light and rarely strays from that. And when he has, it’s more often than not been a disaster. The more creative WWE gets with this once-in-a-lifetime show, the more likely it is to be panned, which is something they desperately want to avoid.
Still, it’s hard to see what WWE has to lose here. A soundstage-based Mania with no crowd was always going to be weird as hell and awkward. There’s no way to pull it off “straight”, as it were. We’ve seen matches on Raw and Smackdown with simply silence in the background and even if you’re at home alone you keep looking around for confirmation from someone or something that yes, this is weird as fuck, like when someone rambles on about aliens at the bar. How much more uncomfortable can it really get?
You might as well miss long instead of short. People will be talking about it either way as “Hey, remember when they had to do that shit?” for years to come either way. Never know what might hit. After all, two Carolina yocals (Matt and Jeff Hardy) made one of the more memorable pieces of television, not just wrestling television, with a drone, hilariously bad accents on purpose, and whatever they had lying around.