November 27, 2011
It's been a little while since I've done a text column, mainly because most of the big talking points have already been covered by other writers at TNAsylum and anything else on my mind was usually covered in the weekly iMPACT WRESTLING review. But after suffering through the last 2 painfully dull and uneventful episodes of Raw (which is really saying something, considering one of them featured the return of the Rock), I was feeling a renewed appreciation for TNA, so here I go again.
The big topic of discussion for the last several weeks has been Bruce Prichard and the changes he's made to the product since replacing Vince Russo as head of creative. And the very fact that I didn't feel the need to put creative in quotation marks just now shows you what a positive change this has been.
While I haven't agreed with every single call he's made thus far, Prichard has been nothing less than a godsend to the television product. Under Russo's (and Hogan & Bischoff's) direction, the iMPACT WRESTLING TV show had become really hard to watch at times. Sure, every once in a while he'd Forrest Gump his way into a good feud or angle, but that's the same thing as giving a monkey a bow and a thousand arrows, and telling it to shoot an apple off someone's head; sooner or later it might hit that apple, but that doesn't mean you won't have a dead body on your hands.
Bad metaphors aside, Prichard has brought some things to this product that have been extremely lacking for a very long time now: logic, common sense and, dare I say it, a little bit of badly needed intelligence. He hasn't been trying to reinvent the wheel booking-wise, but after witnessing Russo, Hogan and Bischoff's ill-concieved attempts to do that, maybe this is a good thing.
Hogan & Bischoff's main contribution to creative had been the Immortal takeover angle, a horribly executed, paper-thin rehash of (surprise, surprise) the NWO. And considering it hadn't been that long since we'd had to endure the pro wrestling equivalent of a root canal that was the Main Event Mafia -- another NWO rehash -- this didn't go over well with a lot of people.
In fact, in many ways, the Immortal takeover was far worse than the MEM. For all its inherent flaws and counterproductive booking, at least the MEM storyline was fairly straightforward. But the Immortal takeover started with a complete bullshit premise and only got worse, spinning off into 100 different directions that never went anywhere, with swerves and character/story developments that made no sense at all. If you wanted proof that the Russo/Hogan/Bischoff gestalt didn't work, look no further.
Then there were all the other baffling decisions these people made. We've been over most of these ad nauseam, but one that really stuck in my head was what was done with AJ Styles early on. Recently AJ did an interview where he said that it had been Hogan's idea for him to adopt the Ric Flair gimmick last year, that he should have frosted tips in his hair, arrive at the show in a limousine, strut around with a girl on each arm, etc.
This does not surprise me at all because it was obvious at the time that whoever was responsible for that gimmick had absolutely zero understanding of who AJ Styles is as a performer and a character. Thankfully, the gimmick was short-lived. But when Hogan gave his take on the situation in an interview of his own and tried to indirectly blame AJ's refusal to roll with it for why it didn't work, I just had to laugh. The TNA fans know AJ Styles, they know when he's not being himself, and that sure as hell wasn't AJ Styles.
Anyway, fast forward the clock a year and a half, now Bruce Prichard is making the creative decisions, and suddenly the state of things is looking a whole lot brighter. As far as we know, Hogan and Bischoff's positions haven't changed, but at least now the TV show is being guided by someone who has their head screwed on straight.
The most noticeable and welcome change has been how the show is structured. Russo tried to blast through 50 different things at once every single week with no regard to how this effected the actual quality of the show overall, whereas Prichard prefers the opposite approach. Prichard paces the show more slowly, using generally longer segments that play out in a more natural way. Individual segments actually have a chance to breathe and resonate now because it doesn't feel like the show is in a huge hurry to get through everything. Also, unlike Russo, Prichard seems to have no problem with letting certain storylines sit out for a week here or a week there, so as not to cram the show with too much content and allow the storylines that are featured enough time to be properly showcased.
After that, the biggest change -- one I have throughly enjoyed -- has been the treatment of the opening segment each week. Under Russo, the first 20-30 minutes of the show were usually reserved for talking, talking and... you guessed it, more talking. Damn near every week for the last year, we'd have to sit through one never-ending Immortal promo after another, most of which consisted of Hogan and Bischoff just repeating the same tired old crap we'd heard from them countless times already. With Prichard, not only have these opening segments been tightened up significantly (the first show after BFG being the exception), but they don't waste any time and still manage to get far more accomplished. Whether their purpose is to advance feuds or set up matches, generally you see a lot more stuff happening in the first 20 or so minutes of the show when, a few months ago, it would have been Bischoff and Hogan front and center, sucking up TV time and flexing their egos while Immortal stood in the background like complete non-entities.
Something else that we've seen hints of so far that bodes well for future angles, especially if they intend to continue with long drawn out storylines, is simply this: Prichard seems to want things to make sense. Perfect example: if you watch my weekly reviews of the TV show, then you know I was wondering why Immortal members Eric Bischoff and Karen Jarrett were allowed to keep their jobs after Dixie Carter took the company back from them. Why is Bischoff still on TV every week, why is Karen being allowed to continue terrorizing the Knockouts, and so on.
Well, not long after I said that I was not expecting the writers to bother explaining this plot hole, Prichard actually explained it! Bischoff said in a backstage segment with Sting that the Immortal members had ironclad contracts and could not be fired. Now, thanks to that simple explanation that only took a few seconds to impart, they can continue to appear on the show without me having to scream my lungs hoarse about how their very presence makes no damn sense.
If Russo were still running things in the writer's room, he would not have even thought to explain this. Hell, he never bothered to explain how Hogan & Bischoff got away with stealing the company from Dixie Carter when their crime was committed on national television with millions of eye witnesses; I think it's safe to say a detail like this probably would have escaped him.
Also, we've seen significant changes in the various championship divisions. Following BFG, the current tag team title feud practically vanished from television. At the time, I assumed this was because Prichard was simply not a fan of Mexican America, but given how things have turned out since then, I'm guessing his distaste extended to the entire state of the tag team division in general. Frankly, I can't really blame him. It's hard to imagine a time when the tag team scene in this company meant less.
Mexican America were appalling champions and their run accomplished nothing but dragging the tag titles down with them. And it seems now that the reason why Ink Inc didn't win the belts -- as I suspect was probably the original plan -- was just to keep the titles in a holding pattern until Crimson & Matt Morgan could be put together. While I'm sympathetic to Ink Inc and lament the fact that the British Invasion have apparently become lepers to the writers, I won't complain about this. Prichard hit the reset button here and, all things considered, that was a great call. The tag division needed a big shot in the arm, and until the Motor City Machine Guns are ready to come back, this was probably the best option. Plus, it has the added bonus of giving Crimson & Morgan something different to do, which was needed since both had kind of stalled after BFG.
I'm not sure how much of this next change can be attributed to Prichard so much as the reintroduction of Gail Kim, but another reset button was hit with the Knockout division, and I, for one, couldn't be more relieved. After Russo spent the better part of a year grooming Velvet Sky of all people for a run with the Knockouts title and actually having her win it at BFG, Prichard quickly hit the brakes, took the title off her at the first opportunity and put it back on the returning inaugural champion of the division. Thank you.
Make of this what you will, but there is nothing anyone can say or do that will ever make me believe that Velvet Sky was championship material. She is simply not good enough, her gross limitations as a wrestler are on full display every time she sets foot in that ring, and damn it, that should count for something!
Say Velvet got screwed over all you want, but the fact of the matter is the Knockout division is better with Gail as the centerpiece than it was without her. Did they focus on her too much during her last run? Yeah. But there was a reason for that. This division is just a different animal with Gail in it; she makes every match she's in better. And mark my words, if Velvet had held that title for very long, she would have been exposed to the point where you would have been begging for them to take it off her and give it back to Gail. All Prichard did was save us the trouble.
One area I really wish Prichard would hit the reset button on is the TV title picture. We have seen changes here, but I'm honestly not sure if they've made the situation better or worse. Instead of Eric Young treating the TV title like a meaningless prop for pointless comedy angles involving D-list celebrities, we have Eric Young feuding for the TV title in a truly painful program with Robbie E, who is little more than a cartoon character himself. I suppose the only real difference is that now the TV title feud takes place in a wrestling ring instead of on a golf course, but that changes very little in the long run. The TV title is still being utterly wasted. A championship that should be used to groom up-and-comers for the main event scene remains a worthless comedic throwaway. If I have one major point of contention with the job Prichard has done so far, this is it.
The X-division is the only division that seems to have been wholly unaffected by the creative shakeup. Thankfully, Prichard was smart enough to know the title was already in good hands. Though it is becoming tiresome that the division remains so completely focused on only 4 guys while many of the other exciting new talents (and Alex Shelley) remain on the shelf, Austin Aries remains the X-division champion and that's absolutely fine with me. If it ain't broke, don't fix it.
And as for the world title picture, I have just one thing to say: Bobby Roode is the world champion and top heel, James Storm is the top face and anyone who has anything bad to say about that can kiss my ass. Granted, not all of us agreed with how it came about. Personally, the way they turned Roode heel never felt quite right to me, but I'm passed that now and I'm certainly not going to argue with the results. The focus on these 2 has been an enormous breath of fresh air to what had become a very stale and uninteresting main event scene. Bobby Roode has made a terrific heel champion, and the only real thing you might be able to complain about regarding his performance thus far is that he's still being regularly outshined by how freaking awesome James Storm has been lately.
Whether this has to do with Prichard or whether this was executed from plans set in place before he took over creative is anyone's guess. But one thing that's certainly not up in the air is that I've been enjoying the show more in the few weeks since BFG than I was in the last few years before it. Storylines are more logical, matches are longer and have clean finishes, gimmick matches are actually announced ahead of time. Sure, there are points of contention here and there, but I'll gladly overlook those if the tradeoff is the overall quality of the show rising so dramatically. I get to look forward to Thursday nights again and that's just fantastic.
In fact, the one and only thing I can't forgive is that, since the product has been so much better lately, it's given me a lot less to bitch about when I review the shows every week. Damn you, Prichard, you magnificent bastard.