I’m an unapologetic fan of professional wrestling. It’s a pretty difficult media product to defend sometimes, but when it’s at its best, it’s more compelling and captivating than any other form of storytelling. That’s right, bold statements out the gate.
In short, pro-wrestling is a live theatre performance of the body that has been telling meta-fiction stories long before meta-fiction was on trend. Each week they put on several live shows where the main narrative thread is putting on the live show itself. It’s a show about a show, similar to how The Muppet Show featured backstage skits that revolved around the construction of the “on-stage” segments. Each episode of television features a General Manager attempting to put on the best possible show for the live audience and the people at home, what the characters within the show aim to do is either disrupt or go-along with that flow.
Promoters and wrestlers use the word “kayfabe” to describe the events within the show that aren’t real, but that are presented as such. For example; Mark Calloway is a near seven-foot wrestler who has been entertaining crowds and putting on performances for three decades. But in kayfabe, he’s a phenom sent back from the dead to destroy any and all who oppose him, and his name is The Undertaker.
Everything that we see on TV is considered kayfabe, even those parts of the product that appear to break through the fourth wall of television. It’s all an entirely constructed reality that’s presented exactly as it’s supposed to be. The role the fans play is to become so lost in the kayfabe, that we’re convinced these events are legitimately happening. So when pro-wrestling is bad, fans complain because the suspension of disbelief has been shattered. But when it’s good…oh man!
I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately, in regards to the shifting landscape of what remains of broadcast television. I’ve come to the conclusion that pro-wrestling was the original show to have a ‘scripted reality’ format. By scripted reality I mean programmes like Keeping up with the Kardashians, Storage Wars or The Bachelor. These are shows that certainly have a strong level of kayfabe.
Let me expand…
Everyone featured on these shows plays a character, or at the very least an exaggerated version of themselves. This is the exact same character method that pro-wrestling adopts. They are put into situations that are partially improvised as the scene is carried out, but have key points that they must hit and stick to, so as to form a clear and coherent narrative. Professional wrestlers put together their matches in the exact same way.
The key thing is that all of these shows want you to suspend your disbelief for an hour, as they invite you to speculate on the lives of the people in front of the camera.
So there’s a hot helping of preface (gross) that brings me to what I actually want to write about today. I new Korean show that has just started airing on Netflix, called Busted.
I thought it vital to have a one-man discussion about kayfabe and the nature of scripted reality in advance of writing about Busted, due to the next level nonsense at play in this show.
It certainly has a brand new format, it genre-mashes so much that a new monster had to be created. The fact that it’s made in Korea barely factors into the genre aspect, although I suspect the boldness of the genre-pushing is something that could’ve only happened outside of the West.
I’ll try my best to describe it. Here we go…
Busted is a reality game show in which all of the contestants are played by actors who’re role-playing specific characters. All episodes are set to follow the same cast of characters as they try and solve one central mystery. Scripted scenes are shown to us, to help establish the characters and central narrative, but then the contestants are put into situations that they must solve at an improvised level.
It’s sort of like if The Crystal Maze met The Amazing Race at a party, they had a few drinks together and then invited the 1985 film Clue in for a threesome. Nine months later, The Amazing Race gives birth to a beautiful baby that wasn’t planned, but that all three parties welcome in to the world and promise to raise together as a polyamorous unit. Life happens and times get difficult, so at aged six, they take this child to their local ‘Escape Room’ and leave it there to be raised by the owners.
Busted, is exactly what this child would be like at parties, aged twenty-two.
It’s manic, often all-over-the-place and sometimes things are lost in translation, but boy do you want to keep watching.
Now to the kayfabe.
The kayfabe on Busted is regularly broken by the characters, when presented with a situation that makes them corpse or when they follow the wrong line of investigation. In that sense the show is like a live action role-play. Each of the actors are playing a character (a detective), and are happy to accept and play along with the narrative, as they themselves become lost in a kayfabe. The audience enjoys this layer of kayfabe with them, as well as a second layer that emerges whenever the actors break character.
It’s a show about putting on a show, that itself is about telling a detective story!
We’ve done it people! We’ve brought a second layer of reality to reality television and now we can stop making everything else. Wrap it up.
Busted is a lot. It looks as though each episode is going to be around ninety minutes, but it’s a really relaxed and easy watch and sucks you in to the drama of the games. It’s also edited in such a way that you’re allowed time to play along at home, to figure out the mystery faster than the fictional detectives (real actors).
I imagine that American critics are going to lay into this show, and perhaps they’re right to do so. It’s a bold new format made up of several tried and tested forms, with a hint of madness thrown in for good measure.
If you’re like me and you’re sick of seeing the same kinds of shows thrown out onto streaming platforms month after month, then Busted is a show you should at least try. I watch pro-wrestling because there’s nothing else like it on television. Busted is compelling and captivating for all of the same reasons.
“More shows about shows! More meta-fiction!”
Who said that?
Today is Wednesday May 9th and somebody is currently vacuuming my apartment building’s corridor whilst humming a tune I don’t recognise.