As with Disney’s reliance on live-action remakes of classics which are consistently critically panned but immensely profitable, it seems investors don’t particularly care if the quality of the entertainment is novel in any way at all. Indeed, WWE remains incredibly lucrative—despite widespread critiques of the actual product and a dire ratings crisis—thanks in no small part to their politically repugnant dealings in Saudi Arabia. But the difference is that WWE will soon have new higher-ups to answer to, thanks to the acquisition of Smackdown Live by FOX—meaning that they can’t keep pulling the same tricks without both fans and TV bigwigs taking notice. Relatedly: It’s been widely reported that McMahon himself is mostly to blame for the bulk of WWE’s problems, which have been at least theoretically, slightly alleviated with his handing off of some powers to new Executive Directors Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff. But both Bischoff and Heyman are representatives of the wrestling of yesteryear—it's almost as if hiring younger or more diverse figureheads is completely out of the question.
Wrestling is facing an immense paradigm shift as 2020 approaches, as seen in the growing popularity of Japanese brands in the West, the burgeoning and seemingly progressive All Elite Wrestling brand, and a bevy of courageous indie leagues breaking ground through experimental storytelling that frequently features characters that look starkly different from the grapplers of bygone eras. Wrestling remains a niche hobby in pop-culture writ large, but Netflix’s GLOW has made fans of casual audiences by showing the more tender side of the business. As the world moves on from the outdated aesthetics and ethos that once made WWE such a cultural force in the late '90s and early '00s, the company’s chief executive simply can’t keep up the pace. No wonder it’s been reported that he’s ripping up scripts only hours before showtime.
Currently, WWE has perhaps the most talented roster in the industry’s history, meaning there’s no excuse for the repetitiveness and unoriginality of their booking. At this point, a literal randomized wheel of fortune (as had cleverly been used on Lucha Underground) would create more interesting programming. Instead, the company repeatedly flubs stories, enrages its employees through bureaucratic or incoherent decision making, and backs away from envelope-pushing content. Patently averse to imagination, the only thing they have left is nostalgia.
Nostalgia is a wonderful thing when deployed expertly, as can be seen with sensational pop-culture remixes and revisitations like Stranger Things, The Get Down, and POSE. But if nostalgia is the only card WWE can play anymore, it’s only a matter of time before audiences and executives alike wise up and move on.
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