Lutz's Blog: WWE's casting and acting in its centerpiece story line is helping to cancel out some of its problems

Posted in: Blogs, MUST-READ LISTING
Sep 23, 2013 - 03:10 PM

By Jeffrey Lutz
The Internet Wrestling Community has spent much of the past month poking holes in WWE's main event story line revolving around Daniel Bryan, Triple H, Randy Orton and the Big Show, along with The Shield. Every week brings new criticisms or elaborations on the old ones. Most are unhappy with the emasculation of babyface characters that should have begun last week's revolt against the Triple H regime long before, but even minor plot holes are being heavily examined.
There should be no complaining, however, about WWE's casting within the angle. The angle itself may leave something -- or much -- to be desired, but if this is the direction in which the company wants to go with its top program, it couldn't have picked better characters or personalities for it. Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, Big Show, Orton and Bryan are all playing to their strengths from an acting standpoint. That might be part of what is making the story so frustrating for fans -- it's making them upset from a writing standpoint, but the believability of it, due to the acting and the characters involved, offset some of the lack of continuity.
This isn't an across-the-board strength for WWE, but it's getting close. For every odd casting decision, such as pairing Ricardo Rodriguez with Rob Van Dam or turning The Miz babyface in the midst of a wildly unsuccessful heel run, there are multiple instances of WWE's writers giving characters plausible personalities that accentuate the performer's most marketable traits. Alberto Del Rio is the latest example, as WWE quickly corrected its decision to turn him babyface by re-casting him as a villain and bringing out the best aspects of his character.
Within the centerpiece story line, essentially all of the characters appear comfortable in their roles. One possible exception is Triple H, who has been a stronger heel than hero throughout his career yet is still searching for his true voice as the evil head of the company. It's a difficult line to balance on for Triple H as he attempts to pull off being the most hated character in WWE without turning off the investors and sponsors he deals with on a daily basis from his corporate office. Vince McMahon could stretch himself as an actor as Mr. McMahon in the late-1990s because sponsors were largely geared toward teens and there were no investors to answer to because WWE wasn't a publicly traded entity.
Still, Triple H is at his best in this angle when he's cold and ruthless, not when he's trying to gain popularity when matched with other heels such as Paul Heyman or when he's mocking the lower-card members of the roster, like Heath Slater. Triple H shouldn't try to be cool, and he doesn't have to look outside of his own marriage to see how to pull off true evil while still maintaining one's subtlety. Stephanie McMahon does it brilliantly.
There are nuances to Stephanie's character, but for the most part it's straightforward as the character manipulates and cons characters such as Big Show, who recognizes the motives for Stephanie's actions but is powerless to stop them. Stephanie has at times been effective as a babyface, like when she first became an on-air character and was cast as Vince McMahon's innocent daughter, or when she was opposing her father in the early 2000s. In those cases, she could play off another more established character and wasn't relied upon to draw money as a real fan-favorite.
Stephanie's most recent babyface appearances, to put it mildly, have been disastrous. She can't remove the edge from her character and it's clear that she's most comfortable in her current role. I don't know what kind of real-life person Stephanie McMahon is, but she plays a villain so effectively and believably that one could presume that she isn't straying too far from her actual personality. Whatever the reason, Stephanie has been the star of the angle so far. Her appearances lead to the most uncomfortable moments in the story, and that's exactly what WWE wants fans to feel.
A less-than-optimal use of Big Show's character has taken focus from his natural ability to play it. So much time has been spent wondering why Big Show is being made every week to look like a gullible fool with no integrity that he's not getting as much credit for his acting as he deserves. We have known Big Show has dramatic and comedic tendencies since he appeared on Saturday Night Live in support of The Rock in the late 1990s, but rarely has he been allowed to display his skills in WWE.
Facial expressions are Big Show's primary strength. It can be questioned why "The World's Largest Athlete" is crying on a regular basis, but Big Show can exhibit heartbreak well even if his tears aren't real. His appearances alongside Stephanie McMahon give the angle a feel of reality that WWE has unwisely tried to duplicate with worked-shoot promos that invoke the real names of the participants. Those are never necessary, but Big Show and Stephanie's performances, which easily allow viewers to suspend their disbelief, make worked-shoots even less called-for.
Even though he's been overshadowed by Triple H, Orton is also beginning to settle nicely back into his heel role. It's obvious and well-documented that Orton prefers playing a heel, but he was a babyface for so long that he needed to make minor adjustments to his character. One was learning how to be jeered again, since fans aren't inclined to boo Orton even when he plays a villain. Triple H and Stephanie demanding Orton revert to the "Viper" side of his personality was a strong addition to the main-event angle, and Orton's character re-gaining his aggressiveness can only enhance the program.
Bryan, of course, is a perfect underdog both because of his size and the way he's been portrayed. This is another case of fans' complaints overshadowing a performer's ability to play the part written for him. It's often argued that Bryan, because he's clearly the most popular superstar at least among fans who attend live shows, should be pushed to the top without reservations, either real or within the story. But due to his energy and the ring and even because of his unique look, it makes sense for Bryan's character to be forced to overcome obstacles, even if many feel none should be in his way.
The absence of John Cena has WWE opting for the familiar. Triple H, Orton and Stephanie McMahon are more preferable heels, Big Show needs chances to showcase his acting chops, and Bryan is the underdog who probably shouldn't be because he almost always wins. The familiar, however, doesn't keep WWE from breaking new ground with these characters and further developing their personalities with subtle changes. Maybe WWE's ex-Hollywood writers are responsible for better casting, or maybe WWE just has strong, versatile actors. Whatever the reason, it works, even when the story always doesn't.

Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at

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