So, what have we learned from WWE Tough Enough?
The sixth season re-vamp of WWE’s reality television show, Tough Enough, is in the can. Two winners, one male and one female, have been chosen and each awarded development contracts in the company.
The latest version of the show broke away from its past incarnations, incorporating new elements which borrowed from popular reality “talent show” formats like American Idol and The X Factor. For the first time, which contestants would stay and which would go were selected by votes tabulated from live voting conducted via mobile app.
With the season behind us, what observations can be made on these innovations? What problems were encountered, and how might they be avoided in the future? What worked and what failed?
What exactly have we learned, and what should the show’s producers learn from this adventure?
The Live Segments
The most dramatic difference separating past seasons of Tough Enough from season six was the inclusion of a live format, filmed in front of a studio audience and using master of ceremonies Chris Jericho, Rene Young, and a panel of judges (Daniel Bryan, Paige, and Hulk Hogan – later replaced by The Miz). At the end of each episode, each judge selected one contestant to be ejected from competition for whatever reason, and the audience at home would be asked to vote on which contestant they would like to save.
In most reality talent shows, a classic example being American Idol, the live audience is made up of an amphitheater full of screaming fans. The idea is to put the auditioning amateurs into a situation replicating that of a professional performance artist.
The reason for doing so is obvious: it’s one thing to sing well in a room with normal acoustics in front of a few people, it’s quite another to be on elevated stage, under the hot lights, a thousand or more faces looking expectantly up at you. It tests your nerves and your ability to perform under pressure, the normal conditions for any professional singer.
On Tough Enough, the contestants were hardly asked to do such a thing. For the most part, the live audience was merely employed as a live version of an applause track, clapping mechanically as Chris Jericho welcomed viewers to the show, introduced the judges, introduced the contestants who stood by and waved, and threw either to pre-taped segments or to commercial break.
Barring the odd, rare occasion when the contestants were asked direct questions or challenged to cut brief promos by the judges, the only time they performed for their live audience was in the season finale. The final four put on jobber matches against WWE superstars Cesaro and Alicia Fox to show the ring skills they learned in training.
If the purpose of the live audience was to truly follow the template set forth by shows like Idol, the contestants should theoretically have been placed in the ring at Full Sail University in front of an average NXT television audience and given challenges which they would then perform live. Based on their performance under these stressful yet real circumstances, taking into account the reaction from the crowd, the judges would then offer criticisms and suggestions. In the end, the viewers at home would be asked to vote on who they felt performed the worst (or best).
It is a commendable public relations move to place the fate of those vying for a contract into the hands of the WWE Universe. It adds an interactive element which continues on with the theme of modern-day professional wrestling that pushes the importance and value of the average fan.
However, if the live studio audience is not integral to the show, then their presence comes across as superfluous. With no actual interaction with the competitors, and with their reactions bearing no actual influence on the direction of the program, one begins to wonder why they even bothered to fill the house.
If producers continue incorporating live audience segments into future seasons of the show, it would behoove them to find more ways to involve said live audience into the fabric of the program. Live Q&A segments, applause-o-meters, and regular live challenges are possible additions they may wish to consider.
The Pre-taped Segments
Away from the studio and its audience, the show resembled the typical format which viewers of Tough Enough and its MMA equivalent, The Ultimate Fighter, are familiar. So much of that past formula yielded gold that the producers were hesitant to let it go entirely in favour of a completely Idol-framed live format.
The result was a show consisting of live book-ends and segues built around pre-taped vignettes. These segments featured training montages, challenges, but mostly footage of the contestants interacting in various cooperative or competitive ways, often with heated disagreements or even fights breaking out, which of course was expected to heighten the tension of the show.
Unfortunately, unlike The Ultimate Fighter, the WWE wannabes-in-training weren’t shown doing an awful lot of training.
Aside from the occasional, brief glimpse of Billy Gunn taking the amateurs through squat drills or jogs around the block, the day-to-day routine adopted by development talent at Full Sail University was poorly fleshed out.
How early did the crew get up every morning? How many hours a day would be spent running drills? How often would they hit the gym? Were they allowed out to socialize? Did they have to do laundry or cook meals?
Anyone who watched the show because they were honestly curious about the training regiment of a professional wrestler would become quickly frustrated and ultimately disappointed.
Instead, the majority of time between studio spots and challenges was spent watching as the contestants engaged in awkward flirtation in the spa, gave each other pep-talks around the pool table, bonded heart-to-heart in the conversation pit, or bickered about each other’s looks or attitudes across the kitchen block.
This is the raw matter which makes up nearly every reality show, from The Real World to Big Brother to Survivor. The problem here is that the setting never changes.
Usually, to provide fodder which can incite some kind of interpersonal conflict, the producers will take the folks out of their house and plunk them down in a bar on karaoke night, or force them into some other awkward situation, usually with alcohol present, and watch the sparks fly.
But on Tough Enough, the folks just seem (at least to the viewer) to be sitting around all day, making up reasons to fight with one another. To be blunt, it’s boring.
There is also the tendency for contestants, particularly the female ones, to attempt forming alliances with one another in order gain some kind of edge.
The problem is, there is nothing to be gained by forming alliances. This isn’t Big Brother or Survivor, where alliances are key to making it another week.
To the objective observer, there was literally nothing to be gained by forming a rivalry or some kind of exclusive partnership with anyone else in the group, it offered no strategical advantage whatsoever.
The most compelling moments came when participants were shown communicating with fathers, daughters, or spouses.
These spots were touching, emotional, and allowed the audience to connect with the competitors. Sadly, segments like this were very few and far between.
Perhaps if each member of the cast was granted a moment or two each week which showed them as anything but spandex-clad applause fodder, audiences would care more.
Simply put, the challenges did not matter.
In a show that is supposed to be a competition of ability, the fact that the winning of challenges does very little to secure ultimate victory breaks down the entire validity of the program.
The proof that challenges matter precious little can be seen simply by taking a close look at who ended up in the final four.
ZZ and Sara Lee, throughout the entire program, were constantly being chided over their performance in physical challenges. They would finish last or even not at all, the coaches would be disappointed with their performances over and over.
In the final episodes, Tanner put to ZZ a question that was difficult to answer: “Have you won any challenges, at all?”
Tanner, by the way, won more challenges than anyone else and was eliminated.
Josh and Amanda didn’t do so badly, but if you were to put together a montage of greatest hits form these two throughout season six, it would be a veritable grasp at straws.
Amanda barely shined until she received attention from the Miz, and Josh didn’t start standing out until every other big, athletic man on the team was gone.
A big way the producers could have prevented such a devaluation of the weekly challenges would have been to keep that stable of reality shows: immunity.
If a competitor wins that week’s challenge, they win immunity and are safe for another week. Its elimination from the Tough Enough format made any accolade gained from coming out ahead of the pack purely symbolic and practically meaningless.
The Guest Superstars
Some of the most iconic moments which stand out in the memories of classic Tough Enough enthusiasts are the encounters the young, wide-eyed hopefuls enjoy with established, big-name, big-reputation talent.
Who can forget when a younger and much more edgy Triple H blasted into baleful faces, who quivered in their sneakers as he spoke of the sacrifice, blood, sweat and tears shed by great men and women for the sport of pro wrestling? His impassioned rant carved an indelible lesson of respect and honour into anyone hoping to pursue a future in the WWE.
What about Stone Cold Steve Austin’s countless great moments where he tore into contestants when they showed the slightest lack of knowledge, acumen or appreciation for the path they were undertaking?
Hardcore Holly took a cocky upstart to school the hard way, showing him exactly what it’s like to get potatoed.
The Big Show bullied the Tough Enough cast near to tears when they were invited to join the superstars’s locker room during a taping of Monday Night Raw.
These interactions with established talent left a definite impression on the casual viewer: wrestling is not a casual undertaking. It is a hard life, where you have to be mentally, emotionally and physically tough in order to make it.
One would not get such a message from season six. When wrestlers came by, it seemed to be for no purpose other than to say hi and good luck.
“Oh yeah, and to be a superstar you have to be tough, and stuff. Bye!”
Seth Rollins was the only guest star who showed a bit of personal interest in helping the contestants along.
Natalya bore a heart-felt lesson about humility, but it lacked any raw conviction.
John Cena gave a heroic speech full of substance, but delivered to a live audience instead of face to face to the competitors in an intimate setting it felt more like an impersonal television promo than inspired insight.
The days of coaches laying digs into flagging amateurs in attempt to either harden them up or make them quit are over. The days of Triple H telling hopeful recruits to take their shit seriously or they run the risk of pissing on a cripple’s memory are done.
Big Show only comes on the program to smile and wave at the people, instead of letting the rooks know where they belong and where they have no right to stand.
The Bill Demott controversy, along with various allegations of locker-room bullying, trainer abuse, sexual misconduct and behind-the-scenes, barely legal rough stuff has plagued the Fed for decades.
In attempt to improve their public image, WWE has contributed a considerable amount of money and publicity towards spear-heading anti-bullying campaigns.
It would be counter-productive, in this age of “PG Era” pro wrestling, to make people believe that the world of sports entertainment is a world of wolves.
Finally, we come to the judges. Three superstars, all finding themselves at different stages of their career, are appointed as experts to offer professional and subjective critiques on the performance and character of the contestants. Their ultimate goal and purpose is to select three contestants each week who will be placed on the chopping block.
They are not, however, responsible for the final cut. The decision who will stay is left up to the audience, and therein lies the catch.
It seems almost contradictory to give half the responsibility to certified, trained, respectable experts and half to the general public with no qualifications whatsoever. It almost seems to undermine the input of the judges altogether.
Such nullification of expert opinion comes into drastic relief when you consider that both ZZ and Sara Lee were hounded by the judges since day one of season six. Paige, in particular, called Sara Lee out time and time again for not having what it takes to be a Diva in the WWE.
A professional Diva in the WWE is saying adamantly, emphatically, week after week, that Sara Lee does not have what it takes to be a Diva in the WWE. And week after week, the WWE Universe votes overwhelmingly to keep Sara Lee on the show.
ZZ, as well, finished last in challenges, showed poor physical progression, lacked discipline and passion, and was constantly chided for not taking wrestling seriously. Because of his kind-hearted, loveable nature and off-key quips, however, he was time and again saved by popular vote.
The WWE Universe’s vote, more often than not, seemed to completely go against the expressed opinions of the expert panel. The result was that Sara Lee, the female competitor singled out as having the least amount of talent and ability, won a quarter-million-dollar contract to be a WWE superstar.
What are we, as viewers, supposed to take away from this? What have we learned?
The lesson is that you don’t have to be the strongest, or the biggest, or the most athletic. You don’t have to win first place in skill tests or physical competitions. You don’t have to prove yourself worthy among your peers. You don’t even have to impress your superiors. As long as the people like you and cheer, even you can become a WWE superstar.
Maybe that is the lesson we were supposed to take away. Maybe that was the point all along.