New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #2: Lucha Underground and Scripted vs. Unscripted Promos

I don’t talk about wrestling all that often on this anime and manga blog. Pro wrestling hasn’t been a staple part of my pop culture experience in over a decade. That being, said I do maintain a curiosity towards the state of its industry and its viewers. Who are the popular heroes (faces) and villains (heels)? What wrestling promotions are currently out there? What do the fans think? It’s this desire to keep a finger on the pulse of wrestling that prompted me to attend the Lucha Underground panel at New York Comic Con 2016, despite the fact that I had seen less than 30 minutes’ worth of material.

Lucha Underground is a current American television program that focuses on the high-flying acrobatics style of Mexican wrestling called lucha libre. The panel featured both writers and performers for Lucha Underground, most notably Rey Mysterio, Jr., the man who has become the icon of lucha libre itself in the United States. The panelists discussed what it’s like to work on the show and what Lucha Underground does differently compared to other promotions. Of these various comments, what stood out to me most was the fact that Lucha Underground is produced more like a traditional television series. Storylines are plotted out, many characters are created well in advance (with wrestlers having auditioned to fulfill those roles), and a lot of post-production is utilized to create a more cinematic experience. In other words, Lucha Underground is neither “live” in the traditional sense nor “live to tape.”

The reason I find this notable is that if you ask many current wrestling fans (and I imagine even fans of Lucha Underground) what’s wrong with WWE today, it’s that the show is too scripted. Individual wrestlers have their promos written for them, and only a select few are allowed to go off the cuff. This is a very different world from where wrestling was in eras past, where things like “Austin 3:16” and Macho Man’s “cream of the crop” were their own creations. It makes sense, given that wrestlers are in general not the greatest actors, but that they can be very good at crafting their own characters based on their own personalities, or taking a gimmick given to them and going the distance with it. The fact that Lucha Underground goes even further in the direction of being scripted (not just in outcomes, but also in long-term story planning) seems to fly in the face of this criticism.

However, I wonder if the issue is that promotions like WWE are caught in the middle, such that it lacks both the improvisational feel of old and isn’t refined enough in its narrative elements to really make sure its scripted elements are as tightly plotted as possible. This might just be a symptom of still being a live show on top of being the biggest wrestling show on air today. There’s a desire to avoid taking too many risks at the same time they understand that new blood and new opportunities are necessary, and if something awry happens they can’t just make it so that it never happened (even if wrestling storylines are always incredibly fluid). At the Lucha Underground panel, they mentioned how not having the show be live allows them to do multiple takes, and try crazy and untested ideas because anything that isn’t effective can go on the cutting room floor.

Given that this is how Lucha Underground is made, I find that this format ends up veering closer to sports anime, such as the current wrestling series Tiger Mask W. They can emphasize emotion and power in ways that don’t have to adhere to the semblance of realism (kayfabe) that still persists in other places even though everyone knows wrestling is “fake” now. By using creative camera angles, by making sure the mystic or occult elements of their universe don’t require you to suspend disbelief any more than you would a late-night drama, it perhaps allows Lucha Undeground to create an experience where its luchadores are truly “characters.” And by being characters, they can feel even more real.

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2 thoughts on “New York Comic Con 2016 Essay #2: Lucha Underground and Scripted vs. Unscripted Promos

  1. The question of “scripted vs unscripted” is an indirect address of the core issue, which is “are the characters distinct from one another?” The overly-scripted feel of WWE programming arises from the fact that almost everybody is written using the exact same “voice” which itself is very unnatural due to its predilection towards using buzzwords that no human being in the real world would ever use. On top of this, everyone is conditioned to wrestle in the same uniform style (this is difficult to explain, since the “style” has less to do with the moves used than when and how they are placed), so their “voice” is the same on a physical level as well. Though characters may come and go this “voice” remains the same throughout, and it sends the implied message to the audience that “these people don’t matter, they may as well just be sock puppets on opposing hands of the same person.” And that voice, that show format, hasn’t changed in nearly 20 years. This is by design. In WWE, the wrestlers are all expendable; the McMahon family–the true stars–is not.

    So while it’s true that Lucha Underground is even more heavily scripted, the writing is at least to a level where each of the major characters are allowed to act and sound differently from one another in meaningful ways. The characters simply have unique “voices.” This is better for the wrestlers and for wrestling in the general sense, but worse for the “Lucha Underground” brand unto itself.

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    • I think those are some really good points. I hadn’t really thought about the issue of the WWE style being too formulaic and unchanging despite the fact that different wrestlers will have different strengths and weaknesses. A few years ago I wrote a post about fanservice and sex appeal in comics, and how one of the issues is just the sheer lack of variety in some titles that narrowly confines all of the girls to the same sexiness template. I could see it being similar for wrestling (though this might be an even better description of the Divas era of WWE).

      I think the fact that Lucha Underground is so heavily scripted might be what encourages them to create more unique characters with unique behavior, but I’d have to see more.

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