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The rapidly devolving state of WWF programming leads me to meditate on the nature of storytelling. It's a phrase which gets thrown around a lot, storytelling; but for my money it's something rarely glimpsed in wrestling programming, and on those rare occasions when it is seen, something to be treasured. There's something qualitative which separates the Austin/Hart story of 1996-1997, for an example, from the sorts of "series of events" (which nicely acronyms to SE- how 'bout that?) which constitute the bulk of federation programming today. Storytelling is in fact a very distinct and special thing, one which, when broken down to component parts, is actually fairly easy to identify. Before I call something a true story, here's what I look for; and to illustrate better why I'm so deeply hating current WWF programming, I'm going to measure Austin/Hart and Austin/Undertaker on these criteria:

  • A Beginning. This is really the easiest part of the formula, such as it is, to fulfill. This can be as simple as "I want your title" or as complicated as you want it to be, just so long as it rings true as a legitimate psychologically motivating issue of conflict (or, alternately, agreement). It's really not so hard. Austin/Hart and Austin/UT both succeed at this basic task: Austin/UT began more or less over the simple issue of the belt, while Austin/Hart began over Austin's calling Hart out, eager to prove himself against the departed legend. Both make sense, though UT/Austin is hampered by the fact that anyone paying attention to the basics of wrestling promotion understands that there is precisely zero chance of UT winning. It's not Austin's time to lose yet, not now, and not until the Rock returns at Wrestlemania 18 if they truly want to maximize the potential revenues from this angle, or make it a true story.

  • A Middle. Austin/Hart's beginning ended with Austin's fluke pinfall loss to Hart at Survivor Series 1996, on a reversal of his own Cobra Clutch. This demonstrated three things: first, that Hart still had it and could hang with the young gun Austin; second, that Austin was at the level of Hart and could go toe-to-toe with him for a full 20:00+ minute match; and third, that the feud was to continue given the essentially inconclusive ending to the first match. Simultaneously, it created a natural flow out of The Beginning into something else, while at the same time providing a legitimate payoff to the promises already made- read "clean finish". Characters were developed with the insanely obsessive aspect of Austin's character emphasized, and eventually with the vaunted Wrestlemania 13 double-turn, which has been extolled and repeated ad nauseum since then, so great was its success. Austin/UT hasn't had a middle; what we've been given in its place is a succession of isolated events which have done virt. nil to actually advance anything. UT takes over Austin's locker room; nothing comes of it. HHH and Austin beat down Kane, repeatedly; nothing comes of it other than an excuse for more beatdowns and something for HHH to go after on Sunday. UT's wife is "in a car wreck"; I will guarantee nothing comes of it. None of these events have any larger meaning as development either of characters or events; they're all little more than short term "heat building" techniques designed to beak up the otherwise monotonous flow of 20-minute promos, and, theoretically, provide a quick jumpstart for a PPV with no other innate source of interest due to mediocre main event matchups and no continuing storyline interest, owing largely to the evolving failure of Steve Austin's heel turn. The essential problem is that everything now is essentially the same as it was at the start of this feud, and nothing is likely to change anytime soon. No characters are substantially different, and the grounds for contention are the same; the status quo ante is maintained, and that is a condition fundamentally opposed to the nature of the storyline, which is grounded above all in evolution and change.

  • An End. Austin/Hart never really had one; sadly, the planned end blowoff of Austin beating Hart for the title at Wrestlemania 14 was negated by the events in Montreal. Even without that though, several satisfying ends were created. First, the double turn match was among the best in WWF history, and any time a match of that caliber is delivered it constitutes a payoff of some sort on the promise of confrontation made in any feud. Second, the duel turns in that match represented the natural evolution of the plotline, as Hart was consumed by bitterness and turned against his former supporters, who now were cheering Austin for in essence out-doing Hart at his own game. The story of Hart's fall from grace and Austin's assumption of his position as champion of the people was neatly tied up here, and the never-completed final role reversal was hinted at in the forgotten third match in their 96-97 trilogy, as Austin had Hart beat cleanly at IYH: Revenge Of The Taker, before the Hart Foundation ran in. it never had the end it deserved, but it came close enough to satisfy. Austin/UT, by contrast, will never have an end, I wager, though it hardly matters since it's had no meat either. It will simply spin out into some sort of associated secondary feud, probably Austin, and, perhaps, Jericho or Benoit, and Taker paired up with perhaps the big show. Either way, there's no way for the baby face UT to go over, a double turn is out of the question, and the WWF has shown little interest in clean heel wins in even situations on PPV; hence, the betting pool is open on what form of screwjob they'll employ this month. And that, by no means, constitutes a proper end for a true storyline, unless it's been properly set up to have meaning when employed, as Austin-Hart III was.

  • Progressive character development. As written above, the characters of Austin and Hart underwent a radical role reversal in their feud, as Hart's baby face hero decayed into the bitter husk of his heel character, and Austin's workingman's hero evolved into what he was until his recent turn. It was a psychologically authentic portrayal of two men passing each other on different sides of the career mountain, each trying desperately to reach for what they thought was their due, what was owed to them. It was as close as wrestling can get to true top-notch drama. For Austin/UT, what can I say- it's beyond obvious that both characters will be the same at the end- UT doesn't even have much of a character to change, and Austin was showing the signs of his current cowardliness during his steel cage match with the Rock on RAW.

  • Acknowledgment of the past. Austin and Hart's storyline was carefully crafted to evolve from one incident to the next- proper understanding of each section of their feud is dependant on having a functioning knowledge of previous developments. That's what creates a true story- recognition of the past and the way it affects the future. It's an utterly elementary concept, but one overlooked routinely by lazy and burned out writers working from show to show, just trying to come up with enough material to fill two hours. UT/Austin is, sadly, a prime example of this; things happen each week, but none of them are really interrelated to previous events, and none are particularly likely to affect anything happening in the future. It's a series of events going nowhere, designed just to fill time week-to-week. And the failure to play off of four years of UT-Austin matches on PPV, and the failure to work off this as their first ever face-heel matchup in this alignment, is inexcusable.

    Evolution And Change Simply put, something important must be different at the end of the story from the way it was at the beginning. With Austin/Hart, one of the WWF's most popular baby faces was a heel for the first time in nearly a decade, and a new superstar was minted in Stone Cold Steve Austin, the character destined to lead the WWF to it's greatest heights. When UT/Austin'll be June.

    Basically, then, my point is that much of the malaise afflicting the WWF currently is due to the abandonment of true storytelling. Obviously, this is most apparent at the main event level, but it's an affliction which extends to the whole of the card. How many Insta-Feuds(tm) have we seen started in the WWF over the last year or so over nothing- Jericho/Kane over coffee and "me no like pretty boys", Crash/Spike over "I was just trying to help", 10,000 Dudly Boys feuds over "that theyah heifah shore would looka better through a taybel", the E&C/Hardys/Dudleys feud that never ends over...what precisely now? And god only knows what other horrendous dreck designed to fill the first hour of a PPV (any given X-Factor, T&A, or X-Pac and Roadd Dogg match occurs to mind as well). I hate Russo and all he represented with a passion, but I'll say this for the man- at least he attempted to interject stories into the midcard, even if they all did suck voraciously. Frankly, at this point, I'd almost take his stupidity back, if it meant at least some relief from the aura of meaninglessness which pervades the WWF at present.

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