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Fall '99: "WWF Smackdown!"

For those of you who have precious few moments for reading Websites between airings of RAW IS WAR, Monday Nitro, Thursday Thunder, LiveWire, Saturday Night, and Sunday Night HEAT, here is a one sentence review of WWF Smackdown!:

More of the same.

If you've seen any other wrestling program on cable in the last two years or so, you have a pretty good idea of what this show is about. If, however, you've been living under one of a very select few rocks for the last century, allow me to explain the concept of professional wrestling: Impossibly large, stunningly athletic men beat the crap out of each other at the service of plotlines both less rational and more entertaining than the worst soap opera. Sample plotline: Wrestler's younger brother, so hideously scarred from the fire that killed their parents that he must wear a leather mask, returns to wreak vengeance upon his sibling whom he blames for their parents' deaths. Vengeance, for some reason, involves winning the heavyweight championship. Second sample: Wrestler who embodies Good must fight the forces of Evil -- men who have shown their evil ways by jeering at fans and being rude to referees. Also, they hold the heavyweight championship belt.

But make no mistake: Professional wrestling has rarely, if ever, been as much fun as it is these days. Vince McMahon, owner of Titan Sports -- the parent company of the World Wrestling Federation -- had a stroke of genius a few years back. This would be his second stroke of genius, the first being when he pretty much invented modern professional wrestling in the early '80s. This second stroke was his realization that a whole segment of his audience enjoyed wrestling, not just for the feats in the ring and for the obvious plotlines, but for what knowledge they could gain of what was going on behind the curtain. This segment learned the lingo -- face, heel, kayfabe, angle, work, jobber -- and longed to learn about the backstage world of wrestling, the real world behind the one presented to the audience.

So Vince McMahon moved the real curtain and built another one. And he let everyone behind the new curtain. And the audience was thrilled to see what was going on in this "backstage": The president of the WWF maneuvering his favored wrestlers into championship positions. Matches being fixed. Adulterous affairs. Cross-dressing. Cult fostering. Country music singing.

Of course, that small segment remains, and they long to see behind the curtain again. And they still get their tidbits of information, their little secrets, their rumors and innuendos. And, although I am an intelligent and discerning viewer, although I have tried and strained and stretched, although I have studied and dissected, I still can't be sure that McMahon didn't move the real curtain again and build yet another curtain for us to see behind.

Wheels within wheels. How deep does the conspiracy go? That's what keeps me watching.

That and some of the most amazing athletic displays the world has to offer. You can keep your prepubescent stunted girls running through their tumbling runs to the strains of Mozart; I'll take Stone Cold Steve Austin falling off a thirty-foot steel cage through a table.

But back to WWF Smackdown! in particular: If you've seen RAW IS WAR, you've seen Smackdown!. Jerry Lawler, unfunny as he's been since Andy Kaufman was taunting him, provides colorless color commentary over the equally bland inanity of Jim Ross. Large men yell at each other, then beat each other up. You can tell the two programs apart by their color scheme: RAW IS WAR is red and yellow, Smackdown! is blue and white. Also, Smackdown! will not feature commercials for La Femme Nikita and Pacific Blue -- it will feature commercials for Star Trek: Voyager and Shasta McNasty.

If you haven't followed wrestling for a while, now is a good time to tune to the WWF. Mankind and the Rock have a deeply amusing comedy sketch developing; Chris Jericho, until recently working for the WWF's competitor, is endlessly inventive and hilarious; Chyna is making impressive headway in wrestling men on her own terms despite the handicap of having enormously enlarged funbags; and the Undertaker is going on ten years of taking himself way too seriously. All this and Al Snow slowly devolving into a deranged madman before your very eyes.

Of course, if you're one of those pundits who slithers out from under the porch every time network television goes back to airing professional wrestling -- as they have since their inception -- and bemoans this as the final sign of the collapse of Western Civilization, then I suggest you watch something else. Something uplifting. Something of cultural value. Something like Jesse.

That ought to make even D-Lo Brown look good.


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