What I do on Fridays, and why I'm not (that) ashamed

Days mean nothing to me. I’ve been trying to drink more, so I run out of money faster, so I have to get a job sooner. But there’s only so fast I can drink. The sole reason I actually do keep track of days is because, in lieu of an internal clock, my life is governed entirely by TV schedules, and I need to know what shows are when.

Fridays, as a rule, aren’t the best days for television, because so few people stay in on Friday nights to watch. In fact, there’s even a term for it: the Friday Night Death Slot, the time where shows go to die. But Friday is my favorite day of the week, because there is one Friday demographic that doesn’t have anything better to do, and is eager to suck off the TV tit for two blessed hours of self-abnegation.

That, dears, is the professional wrestling demographic. Every Friday, I take as much of whatever drug I have on hand as I safely can and watch Friday Night SmackDown!, the only professional wrestling event that’s aired on network television. Now, this is not, by any standard, a good show. The genius of the show is the remarkably low overhead. You can do almost everything wrong, and as long as you have two guys in tights fighting each other, one good and one bad, and a stable of chicks so gaunt and plastic and shameless that they’re hideous in spite of their flawlessness, you can get away with murder. From costumes that look like they were designed by Project Runway also-rans designing fall lines around the premises of Fellini films and seedy porn, to plot twists so thin and acting so bad that they hardly even qualify as "plot twists" or "acting." The production values are embarrassing. The lack of star power and charisma is startling. The creative direction is appalling, the storylines all but non-existent. The commentary is homophobic, amateurish, churlish, reactionary, and hateful. It's a disgusting enterprise, reprehensible on almost every level.

Did I mention that, when I’ve got myself substantially fucked up, it’s the easiest two hours to watch on television? If you can allow the quantification of something like this, I don’t think it would be a stretch to say that, when I’m watching wrestling, there’s less of me there, less of me in me, than at any other time. I vanish a little from my own scrutiny. Sure, you can “deconstruct” wrestling if you want. It might be the easiest thing to deconstruct. But there’s always a part of you that will want to watch it, not up on the horse of liberalizing humanism, but reveling in your prejudices. Watching wrestling and liking it is irresponsible on every level. And irresponsibility is cool.

Compared to wrestling, other sports take on the rococo complexity of fluid mechanics. As boring as baseball looks, the theories that go into, say, situational pitch selection, or small-ball sacrificial infield play, are remarkably complex. Soccer and tennis require preternaturally deft changes of direction and velocity on a relatively vast area, in comparison to the tiny little balls, and you have to make thousands of calculations before you even have time to think. Basketball is almost algorithmic in the way it places players as functions on top of functions until, eventually, one side’s execution breaks down, and the equation equals zero, two, or three. Football? Don’t get me started. It’s as beautiful and terrible as war, one-on-one eleven different times at once.

In every other sport, what just happened dictates what’s going to happen next. Wrestling, by merit of being “fake,” is more discrete and more desultory. One guy does a move to another guy. They both stop. The other guy does a move to the first guy. They stop. The tide changes, for no reason, several times. This continues until one of them, at an arbitrary point, chooses to do a “finishing move.” Then, he pins the guy. The audience of inbreds and malcontents cheers wildly, or chants a swear word. That’s it. That’s the whole deal.

Roland Barthes wrote a wonderful essay in 1957 about professional wrestling. His basic claim is that the people who love professional wrestling don’t love it for the ostentation of competition (the fair fight factor – even fifty years ago everybody knew it was fake), or the balletic / acrobatic quality (some of the greatest and most fearless chemically enhanced athletes in the world), or the promise of brutal violence, even if it’s simulated. What people love is that professional wrestling is one of the few forums we have where justice is possible, and even inevitable. It’s the only place I can think of where the balance of power is continually tipped on the side of the good, and “the good” is defined by the ability of “the people,” the spectators, the petit-bourgeois to identify with whatever is presented. It’s interactive theater at its stupidest, most cartoonish, most wonderful.

Of course, as with every system of exchange, it operates on the principle of tension. If there was equilibrium, if good ultimately won, if evil was exterminated, if betrayal was rooted out, if the only power was power to the people, the system would crumble. We'd have no fun watching, heckling, and hate-hooting.

Five years ago, people – journalists especially – started talking about how we had adopted a “bleak” and “nihilistic” Post-9/11 vision. It was maybe the stupidest example of collective ball-dropping we’ve seen since Mira Sorvino won an Oscar. As much as ever, if not more than ever, what people demanded was simple morality tales. They needed a Larry the Cable Guy to rail against “towelheads.” They needed a president who could see us through. Or, alternately, they needed a David Cross to preach about how stupid Republicans are, and a President to play pariah for all the world’s shortcomings. And good lord, he played it to perfection.

More people attended Wrestlemania this month than attended the Super Bowl in February – and they were held in the same facility (Ford Field).

Just because people were crestfallen in late ‘01 doesn’t mean they were staring at their shoes all the time. As a nation, we’ve spent the last five years, all of us to a man, looking for something to fight. And it’s good, I think, or at least inevitable. Let’s face it, for a minute there, the Bush administration looked like it had the chance to stage an incredible coup on the global scale. Neoconservativism, as far as I’m concerned, is a gambit that came within a hair’s breadth of working, at least for a little while – pretty much like National Socialism did and still does. For six months there, every liberal in the country was sucking in his gut thinking, “Holy shit, these assholes might actually pull this off. Are they going to liberate the Arab world?” Of course they didn’t, but for a minute, it really looked like they might. Liberals were almost pissed! “God damn it, if they’ve found Saddam, people are going to think they’re doing something right, but they’re not! They just can't be!”

So much for the afterglow, but we’re still a far cry from collective nihilism. We, on both sides, are drifting around in a bizarre landscape of heavily symbolized romanticism, where “This is Our Country” is used as a rallying cry to sell Chevys (!) and consolidate the blue-collar power base, while Jon Stewart and Stephen Colbert are lionized as patron saints of slacker ambivalence and “Ho ho ho, isn’t it easy to give a shit when you don’t have any answers.” Nihilists will always be on the outside looking in, like the homeless guy who stares at families eating Thanksgiving dinner, at once furious that they could lie to themselves about the world like that, and being eaten alive by jealousy.

SmackDown! was the first major televised sporting event to be broadcast after 9/11. They made the ring ropes red, white, and blue, and displayed an American Flag on their jumbotron. Wrestling is, as Mad! Magazine pointed out in the late 80s, the only way you can get a stadium full of people to cheer “USA! USA!” while two guys, one from Texas and one from Michigan, go at it. It’s violent, solipsistic, immature, and angry, and like Sergeant Slaughter, who was both a GI Joe character and a professional wrestler, it operates under the auspices of the principle that might makes right. The idea is, if you get an arena full of assholes who are all dressed the same way to scream at the top of their lungs, you pretty much feel like you’ll be able to yell down anybody. It’s nationalism at its most elemental, "our crowd versus your crowd, let's get it on." And while it makes me feel no sense of solidarity, neither does it allow for any sense of existential crisis. It’s the best analgesic in the world. Except, like all analgesics, it throws off the unaccustomed immune system, and by the next morning, you’re left with a wicked moral hangover. Or maybe that’s just the Jim Beam.

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