THERE’S A SAYING that goes: “In America professional wrestling is a joke, in Canada it’s a tradition, in Japan it’s a sport, and in Mexico it’s a religion.”
As an American I grew up in on the joke, I became familiar with the tradition by way of Canada’s Hart family, and I came to love the sport through the gateway drug of Jushin “Thunder” Liger, but in the case of Mexico’s religion of masks and the avataristic powers they bestow, I’ve always felt like an appreciative outsider looking in.
It’s never been due to a lack of interest in Mexican professional wrestling, but more due to the fact that I’ve had my hands full elsewhere. While I’ve certainly appreciated the odd Triplemania or Anniversario show here and there, not to mention the Mexican wrestlers who made such an impact in ECW and WCW during the 1990’s, lucha libre has always been the cultural form of pro wrestling that’s remained the most opaque to me.
But now, thanks to the El Rey Network, for the first time ever, non-Spanish speaking fans and/or those who didn’t grow up with/know all the ins and outs of the lucha world have a chance to get in on the ground floor of a lucha product with the one-hour, weekly television show Lucha Underground.
Coming from someone who’s watched pro wrestling in a variety of forms for decades, Lucha Underground is one of the more refreshing, innovative, and accessible approaches to the genre I’ve seen in some time. Lucha Underground has the wrestling cred necessary to appeal to hardcore wrestling fans, but brings new bells and whistles to that table that make it stand out from the usual televised wrestling fare.
Pro wrestling TV shows typically present themselves as the result of a real world pro wrestling promotion putting on a televised event, but Lucha Underground is decidedly a TV show about a fictional pro wrestling promotion. Lucha Underground’s creators have established an internally consistent, intensely stylized world in which a dingy Boyle Heights warehouse has been commandeered by a shadowy, Spanish promoter and turned into a temple of lucha libre.
The storyline of Lucha Underground revolves around said promoter, the weasely Dario Cueto (depicted by actor Luis Fernandez-Gil) as he gathers the best fighters from around the world to compete with one another, Enter the Dragon style, and attempts to manipulate the outcomes from his position of authority.
While the “evil authority figure” has been a played out meme in pro wrestling ever since the success of the Mr. McMahon character in the 1990’s, it works here in a way it hasn’t elsewhere. Dario Cueto is such a unique and nuanced wrestling villain that he brings none of the usual comparisons to Mr. McMahon, and stands alone as a vital component of Lucha Underground.
Calculating, but sometimes overreaching, domineering, but sometimes vulnerable, Dario Cueto keeps the viewer wondering what his ultimate motives are, what the key he wears around his neck unlocks, and who the caged figure he’s sometimes seen speaking to actually is.
All of this is aided and abetted by the phenomenal quality and production of Lucha Libre’s backstage/between-match promos and vignettes. As befitting a venture boasting executive producer credits from Mark Burnett and Robert Rodriguez, Lucha Underground’s cinematic scenes are top-notch.
Whether it’s Dario Cueto cutting backroom deals in his office, wrestling legend Konnan training his protege Prince Puma (Ricochet, of Dragon Gate fame), or origin stories of the various luchadores who’ve thrown their hat into the ring to compete, Lucha Underground’s cinematic scenes are a brilliant mashup of grindhouse films, telenovellas, Ryū ga Gotoku (Yakuza) video game cutscenes, super hero comics, and the original Japanese Iron Chef tv show.
That isn’t to say Lucha Underground doesn’t offer a compelling in-ring wrestling product as well. For the first eight weeks of the program we’ve been served a steady diet of wrestlers from Mexico’s Asistencia Asesoría y Administración (AAA) promotion, alongside some familiar faces from the American indies and the WWE. Each of these wrestlers are given a simple, succinct, and effective origin story/reason for fighting in the temple prior to their debut, and thus far have then been placed in feuds that make sense and progress logically from week to week.
In the case of former WWE wrestlers John Morrison and Ezekiel Jackson (known respectively as Johnny Mundo and Big Ryck in Lucha Underground), both performers have already come across as exponentially bigger stars than they were in the WWE, not as a result of Lucha Underground’s smaller stage, but because of Lucha Underground’s much more effective form of presentation and story progression.
Lucha Underground has been on hiatus for the last two weeks due to holiday programming, but returns tonight with an episode that will see the inaugural crowning of the promotion’s champion by way of a 20-man, “Aztec Warrior” battle royal. Do yourself a favor and tune in. It’s one of the best hours of programming currently on cable TV, and I hope to see it stick around.
As a postscript, it’s worth noting that Lucha Underground’s airing on/being a product of the El Rey Network made me familiar with the network as a whole. The El Rey Network needs a post of it’s own, but for now let me say that it’s a Robert Rodriguez conceived channel airing kung fu movies, grindhouse flicks, kaiju, stylized TV shows (Dark Angel, Miami Vice), and interviews between Rodriguez and directors like John Carpenter and Guillermo del Toro. And Lucha Underground. Basically, it’s the best network ever. Check it out if you’re inclined toward any of the above.