When Tough Enough debuted on MTV in 2001, it was a product of a very different time for both reality television and the WWE (then the WWF).

While Survivor had premiered in 2000, this was before “reality competition” programming became a true commodity. Tough Enough was more a product of MTV’s other reality output, shows like The Real World or Road Rules or even Jackass. It was a simpler time: The cast of The Real World (which coincidentally included future WWE superstar Mike “The Miz” Mizanin in 2001) had jobs, Jackass was in two dimensions, and Tough Enough was a fairly subdued series that focused on the grueling nature of working in professional wrestling. People got injured, people dropped out because they couldn’t physically or mentally handle the rigorous schedule, and most of all, people learned just how real professional wrestling is.

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It was a different time for the WWE as well. While I argued in my review of Monday Night Raw that the product has changed less than one might imagine, one thing that has changed is Vince McMahon’s opinion of wrestling from a business perspective. Effectively, Vince McMahon is no longer in the wrestling business. He is, instead, in the business of Sports Entertainment. Now, this is not a new term, as it has been a part of the WWE brand for as long as I can remember. However, “Sports Entertainment” was always a broad umbrella term that emphasized the convergence of wrestling and spectacle that separated the World Wrestling Federation from regional promotions.

Now, however, it has been used to push out the very idea of wrestling entirely. A run-in between TV Week reporter Chuck Ross and a WWE publicist recently revealed that the WWE is “no longer a wrestling company but rather a global entertainment company with a movie studio, international licensing deals, publisher of three magazines, consumer good distributor, and more.” In a further phone conversation, the journalist was corrected when using the term wrestler. As he reports it, the publicist corrected him by suggesting that the WWE doesn’t have wrestlers but instead, superstars and divas. In addition, according to reports, the company met last week to clear up this issue by removing “Wrestling” from their name altogether by having WWE stand for nothing at all, so as to better reflect their current business model.

USA Network’s revival of Tough Enough is a product of this WWE and a product of a reality climate far less interested in the perils of taking a bump. On the latter point, the show is very clearly influenced by reality shows like The Biggest Loser: The contestants are there to follow their dream of becominga  part of the WWE, leaving behind their families and taking advantage of their “last chance” to make it big, and the show has moved from what looked like an abandoned warehouse (in other words, the kinds of training facilities that the WWE actually uses) to a Biggest Loser-style ranch (complete with horse stables plastered with the WWE logo). And on the former point, the show is very careful: Contestants are not competing for a wrestling contract so much as they are competing to become a superstar or a diva.

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On paper, Tough Enough seems to be committed to a certain degree of legitimacy from a wrestling perspective. A large number of the competitors have some level of independent wrestling experience, and there’s good diversity in skill sets to keep things interesting. The three trainers (Booker T, Trish Stratus, and a returning Bill Demott) are well respected and entertaining in these types of settings. And while one could argue that there are better uses of Stone Cold Steve Austin’s time, his character’s fundamental lack of bullshit looks like a great way to break down traditional reality show stereotypes.

In practice, Tough Enough is an unfortunate mishmash of every reality show stereotype in the book. Nothing differentiates the Tough Enough workouts from those on The Biggest Loser, especially since the show never bothers to explain what’s going on. Of course, wrestling fans know that the basic moves being tested (rolls, bumps, running the ropes) are what one might first learn in a wrestling school, but there’s no sense of why these moves might be important or particularly challenging beyond a couple of shots of rope burn. While it may seem odd to be asking for more handholding in a reality show, nothing is done to clarify why training for the WWE is different than training for anything else. What makes it more challenging or grueling than working on the independent circuit? What does actually separate these workouts from those on The Biggest Loser?

The show spends most of its time focusing on those who are “not tough enough,” sort of just whistling by those who have some level of actual experience and who are in a position to win the show (and yet might still find the training challenging). I think the producers felt that the toughness of the training would be evident by Erik’s failure to complete the endurance challenge without looking like he was going to die, Michelle’s struggles to shake off her ring rust, and Ariane’s belief that being “divalicious” is enough to make it in the WWE being shattered before her very eyes. But because the show never properly contextualizes the challenges they face, they don’t look as though they’ve been beaten by the challenge. Instead, it just looks like Eric didn’t bother to get in shape, Michelle has a hilarious definition of “experience,” and Ariane spent more time pulling up her pants than displaying any sort of physical ability. These were not people who were beaten by the challenge; these were people who were never tough enough to begin with.

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Seeing the show pick off contestants who are absolutely unprepared for this challenge is not engaging, and neither are the mansion theatrics that exploded early in the episode. Once you cut the cast in half and find yourself left with a show about different wrestlers from different backgrounds all competing for the same prize, training sessions and mansion drama might actually be worth watching. In the meantime, though, this is just an assortment of reality competition clichés without much else to differentiate itself.

Well, except for Stone Cold Steve Austin. You see, for the majority of the show’s running time Austin seems as though he’ll be subsumed by the reality show monster: Hearing Stone Cold give voiceover narration explaining the weekly skills challenge was excruciating, the kind of moment that just sounds wrong. Even during the training sessions, Austin seemed as though he was being deployed as a stock angry reality judge, yelling and screaming as one would expect someone to yell and scream in such a scenario.

But then he stepped into the ring with the three contestants up for elimination, and the magic happened. It was the moment where the reality show melted away, despite the ridiculousness of those spinner championship belts that are the show’s equivalent to the Survivor torches, and the show embraced its sports entertainment roots. Austin was basically giving an extended promo, riffing with the contestants as they tried to explain why they should stay. It was as if Jeff Probst got up from the fire and actively heckled the castaways, deconstructing their justifications and in the process revealing some more details of their personality. That scene is what Tough Enough brings to the table that a show like The Biggest Loser does not, and Austin’s reaction to Ariane revealing her favorite match to be this Divas title Lumberjack match between Melina and Alicia Fox featuring 30 Rock’s Judah Friedlander as a special guest ring announcer was simply tremendous television. As uncomfortable as Austin sounded throughout much of the premiere, he could not have been more comfortable in that moment, and it gave me some hope that the show might eventually break out of its formula to become something more than a passable reality show aimed at wrestling fans.

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The goal of Tough Enough for USA Network is turning its strong demo numbers for two hours on Monday nights into strong demo numbers for three hours. For the WWE, meanwhile, it’s another opportunity to expand the brand into new (if also old) territory and potentially create a few new talents with an instant story for fans to latch onto. It is not, you will note, an attempt at improving their skills as wrestlers: Based on the current skill level of a number of the “Divas,” the show is unlikely to be expanding beyond the most basic of moves for quite some time, and the fact that half the challenges will not even involve wrestling indicates that the person (or persons) who emerge from the show will not necessarily be the ones who are most technically skilled.

Austin clarified early on that they are testing two things: in-ring performance and strength of character. On the surface and for the sake of fitting into the “lifelong dream” inspirational narrative, “strength of character” means Eric’s autistic brother, Andy leaving his pregnant wife and infant daughter behind, and the struggle to balance partying and training. However, on another level, “strength of character” means catfights, divaliciousness, and whether or not they’re someone who can draw audience attention, thanks to being very attractive and having won a beauty pageant. The show thus becomes a mashup of heartwarming reality show narratives and the wonders of Jersey Shore, with the actual wrestling caught in no man’s land in between.

And if the WWE has taught us anything, it’s that one great episode-ending promo isn’t enough to save a messy hour of television. This could find itself by the end of the season, like many reality shows, but it’s going to have to overcome the odds early on to get to that point.

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Stray observations:

  • I caught Raw beforehand, and the “meet the contestants” segment was a fascinating demonstration of their skills or lack thereof. No one actually has a fully formed character, but seeing a few of the pretty boys play at being heel, only to have Miz show them up after the fact was a nice wakeup call that the Tough Enough success stories are few and far between (although Josh Matthews is still kicking around after all this time). Shocked that Jeremiah was the first to play to the crowd’s location, though. What were the rest of those people thinking, given how hostile the crowd was to that point (at least to the men—the women got catcalls)?
  • Rima Fakih, who in case you missed one of the dozens of references is the reigning Miss USA, really should have gone home for actively cheating, but Booker T all but admitted that she got through because she bothered to show up. Having a “celebrity” with a compelling narrative and a short temper in your competition is always suspect, given that the producers can keep her in as long as they want to, so I definitely call shenanigans on her not even ending up in the bottom three.
  • What’s weird is that the show is moving into the family hour (that’s 8/7c) starting next week, so I wonder how much of the drinking/partying/etc. will be prominent. It makes me think that they’re going to remain more focused on the inspirational side of things in the future, but maybe I’m overestimating the meaning of the early timeslot. Just doesn’t seem like USA’s vibe, especially at that hour.
  • I’ll give Austin a pass on claiming that Yokozuna weighed 700 pounds considering that he was caught up in the moment, but I liked how his story about shitting his pants tied back to Skid Marks. Demott’s nicknames were an early highlight, and I would have loved to have heard them all.
  • So they’re really going to build Rock and Cena for an entire year? That’s…ballsy.
  • I'm curious: If Austin had asked you what your favorite match was, what would have been your answer? And could any answer be more embarassing than Ariane's? I vote no.

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