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Scene Invasion: LUCHA UNDERGROUND Muscles Onto the El Rey Network

Professional wrestling has been a television staple since the early days of the medium.  But to modern audiences, pro wrestling on TV is synonymous with the acronym WWE: with no serious national competitors since the early 2000s, the company that introduced Hulk Hogan to the masses has been able to define “wrestling” in the popular imagination as sort of macho soap opera/slapstick comedy show with obligatory pauses for athletic exhibition.

Enter Lucha Underground.

A new series from reality TV mogul Mark Burnett, Lucha Underground seems a perfect fit on filmmaker Robert Rodriguez’s fledgling El Rey network, where it’s slated to premiere on October 29.  The show draws heavily from the Mexican wrestling tradition known as lucha libre, a style that spices up the strongman contests of American wrestling with risky high-flying maneuvers and extravagantly-masked characters.  Shot in the predominately Latino neighborhood of Boyle Heights and accompanied by conspicuous – if academically dubious – references to Mesoamerican culture (an Aztec symbol emblazons the center of the ring), Lucha Underground is aimed squarely at the younger generations of hyphenated-Americans that El Rey wants to attract.

As a gringo working from heavily nostalgic memories of a wrestling obsession that peaked in the third grade – and, if I’m being honest, has never fully petered out – my initial response to El Rey’s invitation of a Lucha Underground set visit was mostly one of curiosity.  The entire venture seemed suited to a pro wrestling storyline: the scrappy cable network making a programming gamble in an attempt to steal the big boys’ thunder.

Lucha_Underground_interview
Interviewing Prince Puma and his trainer, Konnan.

Now that I’ve sampled the product, the question of the show’s success or failure seems much simpler: can it provide a viable, self-sustaining alternative to the WWE monolith?  Here are a few reasons where Lucha Underground differs from other upstarts that have struggled:

Out of the Arena, Into the Temple

Lucha Underground is taped inside a 97-year-old warehouse referred to as the “temple” – a purposefully ironic moniker given the edgy, distressed surroundings that have admittedly seen a little strategic de-glamming.  No televised wrestling show is complete without backstage interviews and ambushes, so the set includes a weight room, a practice ring, and a (fully-functional!) locker room shower.  Showrunner Eric Van Wagenen was quick to point out how the show’s look distinguished it from other wrestling content, listing LA’s bygone Olympic Auditorium as a tonal inspiration.  Wrestler and producer Chavo Guerrero Jr. also vouched for the authenticity of the promoter’s office that serves as another location for extracurricular vignettes, comparing it to the one his grandfather worked out of as a Mexican wrestling impresario.

Crossing the Border

The roster is a mixture of independent West Coast talent; free agents with prior WWE experience (such as Guerrero); and imports from the AAA, the “big leagues” of lucha libre.  While this is a clever synergistic ploy – Lucha Underground will be simulcast in Mexico, and having experienced luchadores on the payroll keeps the in-ring energy level high – it’s also quite bold in terms of attracting viewers unfamiliar with lucha culture.  The show features staples of the Mexican wrestling experience: minis (little person wrestlers) and exóticos (male wrestlers in drag) mix it up with your typical macho specimens, as well as the occasional luchadora, or a fierce female grappler who thumbs her nose at the WWE taboo against mixed-gender combat.

I didn’t last long in the ring with Mil Muertes, a former AAA champion.

 A Strong Independent Streak

Anyone who follows wrestling can tell you that the onscreen clashes with authority sometimes aren’t too different from the ones that occur backstage, and nothing tops WWE in terms of draconian behavior.  As Guerrero spoke excitedly of Lucha Underground‘s wrestler-driven creative culture, he admitted that WWE would encourage wrestlers in midcard bouts – where most lucha practitioners invariably found themselves – to have matches that were “good, but not too good” as not to upstage the main event.  Echoing this was another WWE refugee, Johnny Mundo (other known aliases: John Morrison, Johnny Nitro), who spoke at length regarding all the styles and techniques that never make it onto mainstream TV, making his new home seem like the Baskin Robbins to his former employer’s plain vanilla stylings.

“That Was Awe-some!”

Of course, there’s a healthy amount of bluster in all things pro wrestling, so it was at least a minor surprise when the actual matches seemed to back up Mundo’s words.  We were told in advance that audience tapings do not generally include any interviews, monologues, or other storyline-advancing patter (known in wrestling slang as “promos”), but that actually had a positive effect on the show’s pacing.  If the story is half as compelling as the matches we saw – a colorful flurry of outrageous costumes and flying bodies – then Lucha Underground has a good shot at finding a niche.  (That’s not to say the narrative will be a slam dunk.  Much of the backstory appears centered around the fictional “owner” of the promotion, a somewhat cheesy combination of Vince McMahon and Tony Montana.)

In some ways, visiting Lucha Underground felt like stepping back into the days of Saturday morning wrestling on the local UHF station, and I mean that as a sincere compliment.  The biggest challenge will be translating the localized, live-wire atmosphere of the in-studio experience – with wrestling diehards sitting in open bleachers and chanting slogans at grapplers billed from familiar SoCal communities like Tustin and Anaheim – into something that captures the attention of viewers around the country.  If it can continue to sustain its raw, excited energy (and maybe launch a few more compelling characters), it might have a better shot than most people think.  Cómo se dice “underdog” en Español?

Lucha Underground premieres Wednesday, October 29 on El Rey.  Watch a trailer here.

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The Author

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler

Eric Ambler is a film critic and correspondent for Screen Invasion, as well as the founder of Ambler Amblog (http://ambleramblog.blogspot.com/). His parents named him after a Welsh spy novelist they found in a reference book. Someday he will get around to watching all the VHS tapes he bought at Goodwill.