If you haven’t been watching TNA, you’ve missed out on some suprisingly sophisticated commentary on the wrestling business. Actually, I should hesitate to use the word ‘surprisingly’, since TNA has been the more sophisticated of the two major companies since I started watching. It has long treated wrestling as a business, never shy to break the fourth wall every so often in an effort to make a larger comment within the standard face-versus-heel plotlines. (See: any TNA Rough Cut segment.) That is one of the two main reasons why I watch TNA every week and encourage others to do so (the other reason is that, in general, the wrestling itself is more believable — believe it or not).
To update the non-viewers of TNA, Jeff Jarrett has returned during the climax of a long-brewing feud between the young wrestlers and the veterans. Any wrestling fan is well familiar with this trope — young punk(s) are accused of not respecting the old guard, while the old guard is accused of being out of touch and/or unwilling to step aside for superior talent. Alongside pride and women, it’s one of the oldest stories in rasslin’. Lately, though, TNA has made it more interesting than usual.
Last week, J-E-double-F came out in plainclothes and addressed the crowd as the founder of TNA. Acknowledging Sting’s yay-veterans complaints, Jarrett defended the “young” wrestlers by giving us all a brief history lesson of the six years of TNA. He said that he founded TNA in order to give good, young wrestlers their big break. He told Sting that they were there when WCW collapsed, and he blamed it on the veterans’ unwillingness to give up their paychecks and step aside for the good of the business. As you can tell, this was my favorite kind of mic segment — the kind that blends kayfabe with a frank discussion of the business. Jarrett made an excellent, nuanced argument about how wrestlers like Samoa Joe and AJ Styles became the face of TNA precisely because they were given the chance to show how young and exciting they were.
This week, Christian Cage appeared on Karen’s Angle (which, for the second straight week, unfortunately didn’t end with the destruction of Karen’s set). Karen asked Christian what he thought of this battle between Sting and Jarrett, between Styles and Kurt Angle. This is where the debate reached a level that I don’t think Vince would ever consider — one of thoughtfulness and mild ambivalence. Christian said that he could see both sides. Sure, TNA is exciting because of its homegrown talent and unique approach to wrestling, but it wouldn’t have half the attention is has if it weren’t for folks like Kurt Angle, Sting, Christian, Booker, and now Mick Foley coming into the fray. He rightly pointed out that without Angle coming in two years ago, TNA wouldn’t have two hours of national basic-cable time every week, and it wouldn’t bring in the PPV numbers it does.
In the end, Christian declined to take sides, even though Karen insisted that he should. I actually hope that he never takes a side, since Christian the man and Christian the character both have the understanding that rookies and veterans alike have a symbiotic relationship. No matter how contentious the debate may be (in real life or onstage), both sides need each other, and Christian is the one character who seems to appreciate that.
This level of thoughtfulness isn’t unique in TNA. Currently, TNA has Abyss, who is a classic deranged character — mask, jumpsuit, and all. TNA’s twist: he’s recently reformed, the therapy at the institution apparently working. As a result, his formerly violent ways have swung to the other extreme, so now Abyss rescues faces in distress and has completely eschewed the use of weapons. It’s ridiculous and silly, but it also might be wrestling’s most interesting exploration of mental illness ever. Think of previous “crazy” characters — did any of them show as much depth as what I described in this paragraph?
Or how about what TNA has done with the women’s division? I’ve said this before, but the WWE would never make heels of its hottest Divas. TNA did just that, creating The Beautiful People. I think decades of WWF has reduced the image of a wrestling fan to one who roots only for the white, honorable American on the men’s side and the hottest babe on the women’s. TNA has shown that not necessarily to be the case: the most popular Knockout right now is ODB, who could be described by saying, “Now imagine if Stone Cold Steve Austin were a thick broad with fake tits…” She’s not the standard pretty face. If she were under Vince’s employ, she’d be ignored, maybe given occasional contender status alongside Natalya and Victoria. Then, two weeks later, it’s back to losing in ridiculous manners to Maria, Kelly Kelly, and Brie Bella. TNA is different — it cares about the performance in the ring and less about whether its fans are masturbating while watching.
In a word, TNA is sophisticated… well, at least as sophisticated as professional wresting can get. It makes decisions that I find refreshing and interesting, and it refuses to be as safe and predictable as the WCWs of the world. Consider this my official endorsement — even if it means watching less of the Federation, please set aside some time for TNA. It’s on Spike TV on Thursdays at 10/9 PM and they re-air it a couple more times over the week. Watch it if you come across it, TiVo it if you can, or if you live in Phoenix, come over to my house so we can have beers and watch it together. It’s worth it.