Shining a Spotlight 10.18.12: Payoffs
Posted by Michael Weyer on 10.18.2012
From the identify of Stone Cold Steve Austin's vehicular assailant to the Raw Anonymous GM and more, many wrestling angles have been ruined by the lack of a proper payoff. 411's Michael Weyer takes a look in this week's Shining a Spotlight!
Bound for Glory has gotten some talk already with the possibly risky decision to give the World title to Jeff Hardy, other title changes and more. However, the big talk has been the revelation that Devon is the leader of Aces & Eights. The revelation led to the already infamous "This is awkward!" chant from the Impact Zone crowd and some folks in the IWC upset over this being a letdown. Myself, I'm giving it time as "Impact" will explain it more and I'm already in the camp of how Devon might just be the front man for the real mastermind. But it shows once more how creating the right payoff is important to any angle and something few guys can make work right.
When the ABC series Flash Forward premiered in 2009, the producers made a lot of talk over how they had a five-year plan for the series. However, it seemed they were more interested in the long-range than making that first season work right, leading to its cancellation. It's happened numerous times, lots of TV shows the last few years trying for long-range storytelling but never getting the chance to pay off on them. The recent San Diego ComicCon even had a panel of producers and writers of canceled shows talking about their plans and network interference. However, it also had a great line from Javier Grillo-Marxuach on how "anyone who claims he has a five-year plan all set is full of shit."
It happens a lot in comic books too. Marvel in the 90's was infamous for setting up strange long-range mystery plotlines with writers (especially Scott Lobdell in the "X-Men" books) really having no idea of what they were when they started out. This often led to ugly messes in the end as the payoffs were never as satisfying as what the initial mystery promised. Far too many stories went this path, showing that you needed to have some sort of end in mind before you started something like this.
It sounds so simple but you'd be amazed just how often wrestling bookers/writers fail to get this obvious bit. We've seen it time and again, especially in the last several years, storylines begun that clearly have no real payoff in mind, the bookers are just coming up with it as it goes. Sure, it happened a lot in the 70's and 80's but it got really bad as the 90's began. The first major example would have to be the Black Scorpion. Rather than have Flair and Sting go at it in rematches, Ole Anderson invented this masked guy talking through a voice filter, a mystery man from Sting's past to threaten him. All well and good but Ole really had no idea who would be under the mask when it started. The talk on a shared past obviously had fans thinking the Ultimate Warrior and there's rumors WCW really thought they could lure the WWF champion over. You know, sort of like how the Cleveland Browns would completely redo their entire offense plan just in case Eli Manning decided to leave the Super Bowl champs for one of the worst teams in the NFL. They kept it up with the Scorpion attacking through masked imposters and doing whacky magic tricks. It built to Starrcade at which point it finally sank in to Ole they needed some huge name to pay this off so, after spending the last six months shoving him aside, Flair was brought back and forced to be the Scorpion, ending a horrid angle.
WWF was no stranger to such things, especially in late 1999 when, to give Steve Austin time off for neck surgery, they had him run over by a car at the Survivor Series. It was put on the backburner for nearly a year until Austin returned, at which point they realized they needed to come up with an answer. Rather than someone logical like HHH, they instead had Rikishi (who wasn't even wrestling in late '99 yet) confess to doing it for the Rock as a point of "Samoan pride." Of course, it was hard to top Russo's insanity in WCW with stuff like Vampiro and the Kiss Demon going after Sting and Ric Flair in an insane asylum. The issue there was that Russo, while creative, had the attention span of a six-year-old and was constantly dropping stuff as soon as it started in favor of "shocking swerves." The idea of he and Bischoff working together for a Billionaires vs New Blood feud was fun but never got going before it was dropped, a problem that would plague the company until its end. Then, of course, we got the Invasion, ruined by Vince's inability to put WCW on an equal level with WWF but also the fact that they weren't sure what the end game would be, leading to bad truns and such. So many times, the storylines will drag on but never get to the proper conclusion. Quite often, however, it's less due to the planners than the plan itself.
Wrestling is an unpredictable beast. Injuries and suspensions happen constantly, which throws plans completely out of whack. Many more examples and easy to slam the bookers so much. But to be fair, they have to run into issues that can undermine many an angle and plan, factors that even the best-laid scheme can't overcome. A key example is the 2007 bit of Vince "killing" his character on TV, a story that everyone agreed was in bad taste to begin with but was made worse when the Benoit tragedy happened and even Vince knew they had to end it immediately. They followed that with the "secret child" bit which was reportedly going to end with Kennedy as Vince's "son" but then he got suspended so they went to the cheap reveal of Hornswoggle. Just to show how things repeat, poor Hornswoggle was made the face behind the Mystery GM on RAW. Seriously? Over a year of this figure interrupting people with e-mails on matches, built up as some mysterious mastermind, fans expected a big face and instead it's the midget just fooling around? It was one thing when the GM was new but you build something like that up and fans expect some real pay-off, not just it thrown out. But at least we know who it was while the mystery behind "GTV" is still unsolved. Another example of real life interfering too much was the Brawl for All, which was meant to elevate Steve Williams only to have Bart Gunn knock him out for real.
Some stuff is bad off the bat like the 1990 Survivor Series as WWF spent months on TV shows discussing the giant egg and what was in it, fans excited, expecting some major new talent to arrive. Indeed, the Undertaker was supposed to be in it but they decided to use him for a match instead. So after all that, the egg cracks and out comes the Gobbledy Gooker for a bit fans loathed. And there was WCW using David Arquette as World Champion with Arquette (who hated the whole idea) bolting the company just after turning heel and dropping the belt, ending any future plans. That happens a lot, the guy planned unable to be used. Supposedly, when they started the "Higher Power" in 1999, they planned for Jake Roberts to be revealed, which would make sense given Roberts' past with Austin and darkness. But he couldn't come (either due to money or personal demons) so they had to put in Vince, despite it making little sense.
Of course, even when you have the guy involved, you still get some crazy stuff. Take the entire Katie Vick storyline. It's interesting that on the 2006 McMahon DVD, Vince chuckles it was a fun idea while every other person (including HHH) says it was absolutely stupid and served no real purpose to the HHH-Kane feud. By far, the all-time blown payoff has got to be Starrcade '97. After spending over a year building up a Hogan-Sting showdown, the only logical conclusion was Sting kicking Hogan's ass to win the belt. Instead, we had Hogan dominating to pin Sting cleanly despite claims of it being a "fast count" by the announcers, Bret Hart interfering, the match restarted and Sting going over but nowhere near as well as he should have. That payoff may have been even worse given how brilliantly well done the build had been, making Sting bigger than ever and a huge payday but sadly, WCW dropped the ball at the one-yard line. WWF was as guilty after building up Lex Luger as the big face to take on Yokozuna only for Luger to win by count out at SummerSlam and not get the belt. It wasn't the first time for Luger, of course, as he seemed all set to beat Flair for the NWA title in 1988 only for it be botched with a horrible "blood stoppage" decision. It continues to happen with the Summer of Punk falling apart and the Nexus failing to nail the landing after a great start. Then are times things are just totally out of a booker's control such as when Stampede had a bit of Bad News Allen beating on the "son" of Stomper Gouldie to set up a major match. However, the attack was so realisitc and brutal that the promotion had their license pulled and banned from several cities. Indeed, if an angle is built up great, it just makes the payoff poorer if it doesn't land right and can often overwhelm all that was previously done, a sad state that can also mar some careers as well.
It's easy to blame the bookers and writers for not taking the care to plan these out but as I mentioned before, there are factors in their way. If a guy were to suddenly get injured or suspended, it upends a lot of plans and you have to fill it in fast. Also, there's the fact you just don't know how some of these will be reacted to by fans. As the old but astute saying goes, the wrestling angles that look perfect on paper bomb while the ones that sound incredibly stupid go on to draw huge money. That's probably why you've seen so many stupid stories and characters over the years, you never know what will stick. It's why so many of these things are started off, fans expect surprises and a lot of bookers leap to that, throwing out a major twist without thinking through the fallout.
On that, the fan reaction is another thing that can undermine a payoff. Let's face it, whether in TV, movies or wrestling, we tend to build things to a level that anything less than sheer perfection is going to come off wanting for us. Star Wars, Indiana Jones, even The Avengers, they all have slams against them from guys who basically think "it's not what I wanted so it has to suck." Wrestling has instant judgment as so many times (and I'm as guilty of this as anyone), we'll run down angles before they even get going so no surprise the actual payoff is seen as terrible. It's rougher now with WWE in a "throw out anything to see what works" mentality and TNA showing that the revelation of Aces & Eights' leader not going over well. We tend to be incredibly judgmental, perhaps too much so. But then, that's no excuse for writers not to at least take some care with these things.
I'd like to think we've moved past the era of Russo's "instant push" of stories with no payoff in mind when they began. But we still see it like with the "Mystery GM" when they obviously had no one in mind when they began it, showing again how we haven't moved on that much from the Black Scorpion. It's sad that so many angles fail to succeed in the end as you'd like but all too common for the business. In a time when instant results are expected more and more, patience is something fans and bookers alike lack. And hoping for the right payoff to things may be a faint bet to say the least.