OF COURSE THERE WOULD BE a third act. Dark Side of the Ring had been a certified two-time hit and a well-deserved one. Though the pro wrestling expose has long been a staple of cable TV programming; nearly always a way for a network with an “elitist” agenda to mock a form of populist entertainment embraced by “deplorables”, sensationalizing it all the while, Dark Side of the Ring(henceforth shortened to DSR) broke enough from the prior mold.
It was more than having pro wrestlers past and present narrate the episodes. More than just rehashing some past tidbits while also unearthing some admittedly shocking revelations. DSR has the organic feel of authentic wrestling fans behind the scenes producing the actual series. Previous incarnations of the wrestling expose program nearly always centered on exposing pro wrestling as “phony,” as opposite of what sports are supposedly about. The producers of such fare were zealously intent on disrupting any notion of the form having any “authenticity.”
DSR is probably the first true pro wrestling show of the social media era which is hardly concerned with the “old” concerns of those take-down artists of yesteryear. It takes as an absolute given that “modern” fans already not only possessed this knowledge but are a-ok with the storyline manipulations. They comprehend that the fans are in the “know.”
What drives each episode of DSR is the modern fans’ obsession with the “work” and “the shoot.” Both are jargon for a pro wrestler breaking “character” and violating “kayfabe” in order to confess something “real” and behind-the-scenes to the audience. Pro wrestling companies have always liked to “work” elements of their talent’s “real” life into their fictional storylines, details likely known to the audience. But the “shoot” is more an unscripted settling of grudges a wrestler has against “the promotion” usually after leaving one promotion for another. Shoots were unsavory tweets and Instagram stories before the invention of social media.
Furthermore there’s an almost hoary romanticism in nearly every episode of DSR. This koan is the sound of an adult fanboy asking “how the fuck did our past hero really have time to wrestle when he was doing all that shit?!?”
DSR doesn’t tut tut over the past exploits of a wrestler. And while there isn’t a “cancel culture” mentality here, there isn’t much handwringing morality, either. Astonishment is the more prevailing feature.
The first two episodes from s03 continues the formula yet mesmerizes via the storytelling. I was prepared to care about Brian Pillman; I was surprised by my reaction to an episode involving NIck Gage.
Pillman was a given addition to the show’s library. Not only did he wrestle for both WCW and the WWF(brilliantly playing both of them off for a better contract) during the so-called “Wrestling Wars,” Pillman’s career on TV centered on “the work” before the industry thrust itself in this direction for its stars. Other pro wrestlers have built careers in appearing mentally unstable, but being “unhinged” electrified Pillman’s performances and appearances like perpetual kereosone applied to a porous surface. He started his main TV career on the WCW roster as a tag team partner of Steve Austin. Both would leave the promotion disgruntled with their careers but blossom over at WWF. Austin, first to depart, began making his bones into superstardom with an unforgettable and unparalleled storyline which centered on him turning heel on his old partner. A hallmark of the RAW “Attitude Era,” to watch it in real time was to witness a churning muscle bound opera irresponsible, hilarious, exhilarating, dangerous, unpredictable, kayfabe shattering and enormously entertaining.
This and other angles made “Stone Cold” Steve Austin a superstar. It’s reasonable to assume that Pillman would have joined him —if he had not tragically overdosed. Pillman was made for the “Attitude Era” and it’s not an unreasonable speculation to also assume he was a more resourceful wrestler and personality than he appeared to be.
I was unprepared to be swayed by any depiction of Nick Gage. I am as hostilely indifferent to “backyard” wrestling and its commercial offshoots as I am to the world of MMA. Happily I ignore both. Honestly, I have a snobbish contempt for both, yet I would never wish for either to be banned or even popular among their constitutents. Neither one is for me and I’m okay with that.
Concerning episode 3, “The Ultra-Violence of Nick Gage” I had planned to watch a few minutes and then move on. I had missed the trailer when it aired. But all the while I had comically misread/misheard the trailer and arrived at a startling misunderstanding. I somehow convinced myself it was a bio about one of the Ganges. I wouldn’t quite ascend any Gange to one of the “First Families” of pro wrestling, but they aren’t unimportant, either. I had never found Verne or his son Greg remotely interesting before, certainly not on the order of the Hart family dynasty or the Flairs or the Rock’s twin origins. But what if some Gange I had never heard of had wandered from one side of the aisle to the other? What if “Nick Gange” had been Verne’s grandson, who had chosen to compete in something called “death matches?” That’s an interesting, compelling documentary.
Alas, it was not meant to be. Nick Gage! “UNPROMISING!” I could hear myself upon seeing the tease. Just some lowlife from New Jersey I had never heard of and couldn’t bring myself to care about. But my laptop was acting up and there was nothing else on television…The crusty bastard bit(and I ain’t talkin’ about Nick Gage) and a sucker was reeled in. Sometimes boredom is as effective as sympathy/empathy as a response to material your biases are eager to dismiss.
Did I warm to Gage, his narration and biography? Absolutely not. I could sympathize with elements while being repulsed by others. Still, Gage was not the cypher I would have predicted. I disliked him but wasn’t intolerant. An hour of my time was more than enough. I wasn’t turned off by the “real” violence of his profession nor did the mayhem turn me on. The so-called “highlights” were hard to watch, even more than I expected.
The storytelling and formula sucked me in. At least for one hour. I may never watch a repeat of the episode and can’t imagine I will ever plunk down a penny to watch any death match promotion or anything similar. I have to admit the presentation was compelling enough at least for a one time viewing. Believe me I’ve watched far, far worse.
The next episode involves a bizarre real-life event in which American wrestlers encountered more than they could have ever planned upon entering a tournament in the Democratic Peoples’ Republic of Korea. I must confess to having very little if any interest in North Korea from any angle, let alone the pertinent geopolitical reality of a “rogue” nation which could start World War III at any time. When it comes to my favorite communist countries I’m more inclined to be curious about China, Vietnam and Cuba. (I’m being a little sarcastic.) So why do I have the feeling I’ll be watching the damned episode anyways?!?