When I wrote about USA’s Tough Enough back when it premiered, I found myself hedging my bets. While the show had some strong elements, like Stone Cold Steve Austin’s promo-style eliminations, it also felt like your typical reality show when it was still focusing solely on the most basic of wrestling maneuvers.
However, as the series evolved, it gained a bit of grit: Multiple contestants were forced to exit with injuries, the most out-of-place contestant (Rima) was summarily dismissed when it was clear she wasn’t measuring up, and a number of tough eliminations were made with people who may have been better than others but weren’t living up to their potential. It was never quite transcendent reality fare, and it was unfortunate that one of the injuries was to a perceived frontrunner in Martin, but the show did an admirable job of making the final two of Andy and Luke into a passable narrative and delivered a satisfying season on the whole.
Mind you, Andy is not a particularly inspiring finalist, given his generic big man status, and I really think third-place finisher Jeremiah would have been a far more interesting comparison for Luke (who has been a logical finalist from the very beginning). The fact that they cut Jeremiah when they did indicated that they weren’t in this for the best story at the expense of in-ring ability: They felt that Jeremiah was too green to win this competition, and so they chose not to give him the opportunity to do so. There’s something very pragmatic about that decision that I found almost refreshing, an acknowledgement that Jeremiah might have to wait a bit longer (and train a bit more) before getting his shot.
The closer the show has gotten to its conclusion, however, the more my mind has turned to what happens next. Although Tough Enough concluded this evening with its one-hour finale, the actual result was part of Monday Night Raw. In truth, this is what I found most interesting: While it was nice to see both Luke and Andy have an actual match with an actual crowd, the real story is in how the victor is framed in the context of the weekly WWE narrative. While the show has gone to great lengths to establish that these are real people, especially with Andy and his young family, their appearance on Raw for the live results hastens their elevation to the status of “WWE Superstar,” which is a very different role. Andy doesn’t leave that ring as the winner of Tough Enough; instead, he leaves it as a WWE Superstar, which is a whole different monster.
When someone wins a reality show, there’s always that question of what happens next. However, generally speaking, the question is how they will be able to operate in the “real” world. American Idol contestants are incredibly popular within the competition, but will they be able to survive as real recording artists? Project Runway contestants can make a dress out of candy wrappers, but can they design a Spring collection that doesn’t get lost in the madness of Fashion Week? It’s one thing to be able to win a reality competition, but can these winners actually cut it in the actual business that they’re competing to be a part of?
What makes Tough Enough unique is that this question is sort of turned on its head. Yes, on the one hand, we wonder how Andy will be able to handle the rigorous training and road schedule that come with the WWE, especially given his young family. However, on the other hand, we wonder how Andy will be able to transition from the real to the fictional, the opposite of most reality winners. My biggest question heading into the finale wasn’t whether these two will be able to cut it in the business as individuals but whether either of them could become the larger-than-life personas that define WWE Superstars.
The series has treated the contestants like real people in an effort to make them easier to relate to, but “real people” are not the WWE’s business. Although a few of the challenges began to speak to questions of persona and Andy even dubbed himself “Silent Rage” during the competition, this was largely a contest based around regular people with a dream. Tonight’s finale begins with the traditional visit with the contestants in their hometowns, visiting Andy in Florida and Luke in Maine as they trained for their final chance to impress the WWE executives in charge of making the decision. We see Andy talking about how he’s doing this to provide for his family, while we see Luke crying as his mother slyly uses the show’s title to help describe how proud she is. These moments are meaningful in terms of the long-term arc of the reality show, but they seem out of place with the cocky and intense personas that the two put on once they get into the ring live later in the episode.
I was curious going into the episode just how much time they were going to spend live in Virginia, and the answer was a fair amount: The last 25 minutes were live in the ring, with the previous contestants marched out and the trainers each offering their opinion on who should win. And yet it seemed odd to be dealing with the live crowd when the show has done some strong work with its tense and intimate eliminations, and it seemed even more strange to more or less turn Steve Austin into a moderator when he has done so well on his own throughout the season. Jerry Lawler and Michael Cole were even on commentary, explaining details (like the meaning of the championship belts) that anyone who had been watching the show would be able to understand. It was as though they were pitching the show to those who would normally be watching Raw, despite the fact that only the final reveal ended up airing within Raw’s normal timeslot.
It’s a consequence of the fact that it is in the WWE’s best interest to take over at this point in the process. From everything I’ve read, they were hands off on the day-to-day elements of the series, given that it was being produced by an out-of-house company, but this is the point at which they want creative control of the way this was going to play out. And so it is staged as a giant promo in front of the live crowd, with both Andy and Luke feeding off the energy and Vince McMahon even making an appearance to help crown the victor. There are parts of this that worked very well: The live crowd helped draw out the rivalry between the two competitors, with Andy getting a fair deal of crowd support and Luke getting treated as the heel. However, it still seemed like an entire series was being sublimated into a different world: This was no more clear than when both McMahon and Austin initiate Andy into WWE with a slap to the face and a Stone Cold Stunner, respectively.
Given that they were holding the finale live at Raw, I had wondered if they were going to run an angle, but the fact that the angle basically put over (as in elevated) everyone but the winner is a bit strange. Placed in the context of other reality series, it would be as if the American Idol judges interrupted the winner’s closing performance to perform a song of their own. However, perhaps it makes sense: With that Stone Cold Stunner, “Andy Levine” becomes just a winner of a reality contest, and when he returns to the ring again, he’ll be a true “WWE Superstar” with a character instead of a man with a dream.
That’s all in the future, of course, but I really think that “May the Best Man Win” struggled with how to bring this series to a close. By spending so much time on transitioning into the WWE Universe, we got to spend very little time on the contestants’ matches with Bill DeMott, which was particularly frustrating given that this is what the WWE allegedly made their decision based on. It seemed odd to show us only brief moments of the matches when they were so integral to the final result, and I never quite understood why Andy won out over Luke. I didn’t think Luke was particularly impressive or anything, and Andy certainly showed more intensity later in the competition, but the matches were so rushed that we have no way of really knowing why the decision was made. For a show that toward the end did a nice job of focusing on substance over spectacle and seemed to take the details of wrestling very seriously, that this was all lost amidst an elaborate in-ring angle made for a somewhat disappointing finale as far as the show itself goes.
Of course, perhaps it was the bridge they needed. Perhaps some non-wrestling fans who have been watching Tough Enough enjoyed their taste of Monday Night Raw, and perhaps those who haven’t been watching Tough Enough got enough of a taste of Andy to become intrigued at what he might do in the future. While the show does depend on ratings (which were solid if not spectacular), this is one reality show where the real value won’t be known until we see what Andy (and any other contestants signed to development contracts) actually do within a WWE ring. Regardless of how things end up, I think the Tough Enough revival evolved into a solid little reality show, but the finale drew attention to the fact that “reality” and the WWE don’t always mix.
And I’ll be curious to see how they manage it when Andy makes his true WWE debut.
Finale Grade: B-
Season Grade: B+
- One of the reasons I thought Luke would win was that he is already a living caricature: The first part of his home visit, labeling himself as a redneck rockstar and dancing with girls in bikinis on a party boat, was just laughably broad.
- Now that I think about it, Andy really does remind me of the late Andrew Martin. And, you know, about 15 other guys like him. If Andy comes in as anything other than a bodyguard, color me surprised.
- Sad we didn’t get to spend more time with Ricky “The Dragon” Steamboat. That week went by without any sense of what kind of training was offered, and Steamboat got lost in the process.
- I was all ready to lament that Martin wasn’t able to take part in the finale, and then he showed up with that ridiculous beard.
- Andy was wearing the T-shirt, but I really don’t think that “Silent Rage” is going to sell as a catchphrase. But that’s just me.
- It was maybe a bit complicating, but I really do love seeing Vince McMahon playing “Vince McMahon” in a setting like this one.
- I don’t think there are any official plans for another season: I doubt it would premiere until 2012, either way.
- Always love catching details on Raw when I haven’t followed wrestling for a while. Suddenly, Cole and Lawler are back to being civil with one another, as if nothing ever happened! Wrestling really is like a soap opera in that way, instantly familiar and yet just different enough to raise some eyebrows.
- Also, regarding Raw, kind of nice to see two strong wrestlers having a feud based around actual matches: CM Punk/Mysterio seems like it has a lot of potential.