With their debut event in May, AEW made an unflinching declaration of war. They have money, they have an eclectic talent pool, they have some fresh ideas, and most importantly; they have already amassed a cult following. The first show, Double Or Nothing, was energetic and memorable, with seemingly everyone working with a chip on their shoulder.
With June’s Fyter Fest, they had the unenviable task of following themselves, and proving that they could be more than a high-production super indie – especially as their shift to episodic television is looming.
The results were mostly positive, but as the promotion chugs along, with two fully fledged events and dozens of ‘road to’ videos under their belt; their identity remains muddled.
So much of what drives them seems to be a modernization of old school pro wrestling ideas; wins and losses mattering, a varied mix of talent and styles, feuds feeling heated and personal, and an attempt to bring aged concepts like blood and chairshots back in vogue; for better or worse.
Yet, thus far, both shows have been marred by tacky, tonally-off comedy skits. The dueling librarians, Leva Bates and Peter Avalon, not only come off as something fans would bemoan seeing on Raw; they come off like something fans would bemoan seeing on mid-90s Raw. Obviously a huge part of what spurred this movement is the success of the cutesy, meta-comedy antics of Omega, Rhodes, and the Young Bucks on Being The Elite – but it’s important to remember this is a new pro wrestling organisation, and not a feature-length adaption of that YouTube show. And I don’t say that to bemoan the show; despite it not being for me. But what people look for in YouTube shows, and what the pro wrestling landscape needs right now, in the face of a stagnating WWE, are two entirely different things.
Similarly, the comedic hardcore match between Alex Jebailey and Michael Nakazawa got a good reaction out of the live crowd (this event was taped at a fighting game convention, of which Jebailey is the organiser), but would border on embarrassing were you to watch with a casual or non-wrestling fan. As non-wrestlers go, I’ve seen a lot worse than Jebailey, but when there wasn’t a prop involved his strikes were just bad enough to be offensive without circling around to being funny.
As the name implies; this show had an overarching theme parodying the ill-fated Fyre festival which was the subject of Netflix and Hulu documentaries this year, which brings about the final instance of me being an Old Man Yelling At Comedy. The pre-show saw, ostensibly, an extended Being The Elite skit where the Young Bucks and Kenny Omega struggled to keep things together as the show fell apart. Moreso than just not being funny, the issue I have with this is that it feels like something that should be beneath Omega, in particular, as a top guy. He’s a unique figure and comedy is a significant part of his persona, and that’s fine, but doing sketch comedy on the preshow of an event where you will also be involved in a violent pull apart brawl as things fade to black is a bad tonal mishmash.
What’s most fascinating about this dichotomy is how much of the really goofy stuff is restricted to the preshow; almost like there’s been some internal strife resulting in the compromise of it still being featured, but not during the actual event.
Once things switch over to the ‘real’ show, it’s typically all business. Sure, there’s some comedy here and there, as you’d expect. But there aren’t any ‘skits’ in the traditional sense, and the tone is much more straight-laced. Wrestlers square off in matches with minimal interference or other cliche heel antics as they wrangle for heavily-emphasised wins. Commentators and performers alike work hard to get newer personas over to an audience that might be new to them; like the endlessly charismatic Darby Allin. There’s a greater emphasis on violence than current WWE programming, with copious amounts of blood on both shows, and this one featuring divisive spots like steel chairs to the head, and a quasi-deathmatch in the main event.
To that end; as a wrestling show, Fyter Fest once again delivered. There were pitfalls here and there, sure. Without the personal drama driving the Cody match, it felt plodding during his control segment. The six-man tag felt a little over rehearsed despite its spectacular nature. But these are all little gripes that didn’t stop it from being a fairly breezy watch, with tonnes of variety in the matches, and lots of clever match-making that let basically everyone on the card shine.
So, the question becomes; which is the real AEW? Because regardless of whether or not you think the comedy is funny, it’s going to be jarring for viewers if, when the TV show launches in October, hour one features Kenny Omega stealing a pie that Cody Rhodes left cooling on a window, and then hour two features Kenny Omega and Jon Moxley rolling around in thumbtacks*. Moreover; flicking back and forth between C-tier comedy and high-flying action is only going to draw negative comparisons to their largest competitor.
*For what it’s worth; Tony Khan has clarified that the levels of violence seen on this show will be reserved for pay-per-view and not a weekly feature on TNT.
Watching AEW form its identity is all the more interesting because we still have a few months to go before they debut their episodic TV show. They are running shows, but in a way it still feels like preamble; a prologue of sorts. Kinks need to be worked out, decisions need to be made, and ideally improvements as the next few months roll on. Episode one of AEW weekly TV is going to be the real debut; the real shop window for the promotion – something for fans to mull over and decide if it’s for them. I hope the company knows what it wants that window to display; because the cut-throat world of television in 2019 doesn’t allow for too many do-overs.