Professional wrestling is no longer unbroken ground either for documentaries or for cinema. Years after Beyond the Mat lifted the imaginary veil of fact versus fiction in the squared circle, Mickey Rourke earned an Oscar nomination playing a washed-up grappler, and, heck, David Arquette refused to be killed, pro wrestling has enjoyed greater, more positive coverage.
In mainstream circles, wrestling has shed a lot of its only-backwoods-rubes-watch-that reputation and enjoys a bit more respect these days. Sure, the yuk-yuk “you know that stuff is fake, right?” crowd still exists, but for more and more people, it’s recognized as the kitschy, mostly silly pretend-fights-as-pseudo-sport art form it is — a one-of-a-kind form of entertainment that has become progressively less shameful to enjoy.
Wrestlers may not convert more of the doubters but it certainly offers another chance to respect, and maybe even root for, the people who climb in the ring in little more than spandex and baby oil, laying all their neuroses and talents out at the same time before crowds of hundreds or thousands of people. This seven-episode docuseries, dropping Wednesday on Netflix, is in many ways is a cookie-cutter documentary that plugs pro wrestling into the formula of a ragtag group of underdogs looking to succeed and hoping to overcome the trials and tribulations that stand in the way.
That’s not a criticism, though. It’s also highly engaging, often gripping and a hell of a lot of fun as it spotlights Ohio Valley Wrestling (OVW), based out of Louisville, Ky. Here, the band of misfits are a group of pro wrestlers headed by former wrestler Al Snow, who was popular during the 1990s “Attitude Era.” He’s considered one of the best wrestling trainers in the business. When it comes to running a business? Not so much.
In the late 1990s and early 2000s, OVW was a WWE-funded training ground where up-and-coming wrestlers would train and acquire local television exposure, experience, and seasoning before they were called up to the dance. Among its alumni are wrestling superstars like John Cena, Brock Lesnar, Randy Orton, Dave Bautista and a couple dozen others.
But when WWE moved its training facilities to Florida (and made it into another branded broadcast on the fledgling WWE Network), OVW became little more than an afterthought. Snow stayed on board to run it like his own property, minus the massive money machine that runs the larger federation.
Without the same resources (read: cash), Snow has made the most of what he had — creating a low-key WWE presentation using mostly local talent. He crafts storylines, outlines matches and broadcasts it all live across local stations in Kentucky and online.
Snow attracted investors, namely Matt Jones, a local sports radio personality who has always been a wrestling fan. Jones clearly looks up to Snow, who seems to regard him as most creatives view the “money” — a nuisance at best. The same feeling applies in the locker room for Matt, who is an unwelcome interloper there most of the time — offering “suggestions” on storylines to the talent (generally frowned upon from outsiders in the business, especially financial backers).
Mix in a few ready-made slivers of dramatic mother / daughter issues, relationships and down-and-out performers holding on hope for stardom, and you have a bona-fide ready-for-TV drama on your hands.
From that angle, Wrestlers seldom disappoints. One of the promotion’s top stars is HollyHood Haley J, a young woman with charisma to spare, an attitude to match and a mother who wasn’t around all that much when she was younger … who also works behind the scenes at OVW.
In true wrestling fashion, that real-life strife becomes storyline fodder, feeding on real-life angst to become part of the show. This is sometimes every bit as toxic as it sounds but also forms a source of strange catharsis for Haley and her mom.
Other episodes focus on other stars, such as the aging but still popular Cash Flo or Eric Darkstorm, who is dating Haley and, for some reason, does many of his interviews while sitting in his beat-up Toyota Camry.
The series’ main thrust, focusing on the promotion’s money woes, leads into a big show where the company shows out all its best angles to close out the summer season. If their summer tour doesn’t make the company profitable, difficult decisions must be made — up to and including shuttering the promotion altogether.
In between, personal problems, interpersonal drama, injuries, and other issues crop up, threatening to derail OVW’s last chance to succeed.
While these are all well-worn documentary tropes, director Greg Whiteley (who helmed previous Netflix docuseries and documentaries like Mitt, Cheer and Last Chance U) expertly mixes tried-and-true documentary tropes into an overarching storyline, sprinkling in some of the rather outlandish characters for which pro wrestling is best known.
Rather than molding the story around the series, Whiteley lets real life dictate what happens. One such moment is when a character heretofore portrayed as a bit of a heel (a bad guy in wrestling parlance) has a medical emergency. It flips the script, giving him some much-needed empathy and revealing his character in an unexpected way.
Make no mistake: This series is not a silly attempt to turn pro wrestling into a reality show. It offers a look behind the characters and into the inner workings of creating a wrestling promotion — how wrestling angles are created, how arenas are filled (or not), and the behind-the-scenes work that goes into creating a silly sideshow that so many people love.
It’s no stretch to say wrestling fans will love Wrestlers, especially those familiar with Snow and OVW’s history. But people just looking for something to watch might be surprised to find they’re cheering a group of people chasing their own silly dreams and seeing what happens after they, in whatever capacity, actually realize them.