Sunday, April 20, 2014

Review: Modern Reality-TV Meets Pro-Wrestling In WWE Network's "Legends' House"


The WWE Network took another step into original programming with the premiere of Legends' House on April 17th.

The show is a reality-TV blend of the low-brow pop-culture smut one finds on the MTV-Network, the relationship-driven, overly dramatic Housewives Series on Bravo, and the history of professional wrestling.


The show begins in a lighthearted, typical reality-TV fashion, introducing each of the main stars and familiarizing the audience with the concept. Each Legend/character even has their own title-card with a catchphrase, not unlike the strangely similar Real Housewives series.







The Chris Harrison of Legends' House, Ashley.

The premise is as potentially insulting to The Legends it examines as it is celebratory, placing a variety of well-known (and lesser known) former WWE superstars in a house together for several weeks.

While this particular episode was rather tame, simply conveying the personalities of the legends, the previews indicate that the age of these men will be played for laughs, and that the potentially interesting insights fans could gain into their lives will be overshadowed by cheap emotional highs and lows, and typical reality-TV contests designed to make us laugh at the old geezers.

The show is hosted by Ashley, who exists as little more than eye candy (which is exactly how Mean Gene Oakerland creepily described her).


She gives the Legends tasks to perform, and this week encouraged the old-timers to go about the neighborhood introducing themselves. The results were awkward and dull, just like much of the episode, though it's always nice to see the effect wrestlers have on kids. Watching Roddy Piper horse around with Hacksaw to the delight of some youngsters was one of a few worthwhile moments.

Piper, who seems to be the star of the show (both by design and as a result of his own, undeniable charisma), injects some much-needed sincerity into the proceedings. He talks (or eloquently rambles) about the power wrestlers have to connect with fathers, mothers, daughters, and sons, and opens up about his demons.


The disparate mediums, the reality-TV aesthetic, and the odd mix of slapstick and pathos results in something that feels disrespectful, but will also likely hold a wrestling fan's attention.

As one of the few original programs available on the Network, I'll certainly tune in each week (if for no other reason than to see what happens with Piper), but I'm not sure how enjoyable or interesting it really is. It's mostly just sad for a variety of reasons. The content is mostly sad, with the wrestlers often discussing their literal and figurative scars. And the style of the show is a sad reminder of the seeming decay of good taste.


 
With each moment that passes, subjected to the cheap lighting and cheap cinematography common to reality-TV, I find myself longing for a grittier, more authentic documentary-style that examines these wrestlers' real lives. Such is more suited to the subject matter, after all, and the personalities present. Much of the episode consists of the wrestlers and ring announcers discussing their pains, struggles, and addictions. The final moments of the episode show several of The Legends drinking. The way it's shot and scored indicates that this is not the kind of lighthearted, party-time drinking that's supposed to make viewers envious.


At the end of the episode Roddy Piper explains that he gave up drinking and drugs in 2009. He is forced to leave the house, walk around the desert, and howl at the moon for fear of succumbing to his old ways.

He says, "You try to find a place of peace. And if we can't find it, then let's fill it with mayhem."


That's a rather serious, potentially fascinating bit of psychology. In fact, Piper disrupts the veil of reality-television camp with his blunt madness. To have this subject-matter presented in such a contrived, disconnectedly bright way detracts from what could otherwise be a novel examination of life after pro-wrestling stardom.

It's as though Mad Men were shot and edited by the people who shot and edited The Jersey Shore and Big Brother. There's a fundamental disconnect that detracts from whatever lighthearted, fluffy entertainment people typically find in reality television, and the more sincere edification people find in psychologically probing dramas.

The blend doesn't really work, except for those viewers indoctrinated into the world of soft-drama, soft-narrative, and soft-humanity modern commercial film and television typically presents.


As a result of this presentation, any sincerity expressed by these clearly tortured men is corrupted, played like a bad gimmick.

Beneath the flashy edits and the obnoxious music, one does get a very good sense of who these people are, however, or at least how they behave with each other. It's bizarre to see Hacksaw Jim Duggan, in particular, humanized, revealed as more than the weirdo who shouts "Heyooooo!" He doesn't come off as the nicest guy either - subdued in his judgment of others, but sneakily confrontational, insulting, and distrusting.


Tony Atlas, Hillbilly Jim, Howard Finkel, and Jimmy Hart seem like genuinely nice guys, eager to have a good time and eat good food, content to talk about the good old days and joke around.

Mean Gene and particularly Pat Paterson don't come off as well, nor does it seem they care to.


I've always found Pat Paterson fairly repugnant ever since the disgusting, juvenile ways in which he and Gerry Brisco were used during the attitude era. I look at him and I listen to him on this show, I observe how he behaves, when he's quietly watching others and when he chooses to toss a barb or start stealing the spotlight, and I'm reminded of every man I've ever hated, every bully that has ever existed. He's particularly standoffish towards Tony Atlas, and generally seems like the sort of egotistical, disinterested wise guy that believes he's God's gift to the world.

Mean Gene seems a little self-important, and as though doesn't much care for the more unstable wrestlers.


And then there's Roddy, the show's saving grace. He's described as a loner, fire mixed with gasoline, and exists as the inevitably combustible element in the group. While most of the other wrestlers talk with an effected air about their glory days, Piper focuses on the connection with the fans, the physical and mental toll the business takes, and how hard it is to differentiate between the true self and the wrestling character.

He certainly has an ego, but it feels earned. He has the same welcome brashness of a Stone Cold Steve Austin or a CM Punk - the kind of guy that might be a jerk sometimes, but you don't mind because they're just that good at what they do and work with sufficient passion, and know when to give credit when it's due.


In the end, this is a mixed bag of bottom-barrel entertainment that certainly knows what it is and makes no apologies for it, but inevitably misuses the subject matter and does more to dishonor than honor the legacy of these men.

I doubt we'll see a change in the projected formula, or that this will become anything more than shock-value, typical reality-television fair.

But I'm hopeful for a few more bits of Hot Rod wisdom along the way.

 

All photos via screen capture on WWE Network.

Follow WWE 2K14 Champion Maximus @MaximusWrestler.

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