Total Divas: Sundays at 10 p.m. Eastern on E!
One of the more intriguing stories in entertainment over the past decade has been WWE chairman Vince McMahon’s attempt to move from undisputed king of pro wrestling into other media outlets. While many of these moves have not ended particularly well for the company (with the XFL being the most notable failure) McMahon has not stopped trying to put some diversity into the E (for Entertainment) of his flagship company. Sunday night, he partnered with a different E! (the network) in a much smaller jump that could help build some credibility for his non-wrestling ventures.
Total Divas is a reality-style (it’s tied to pro wrestling, so I’m willing to take a wild guess and say the majority of it is likely scripted) show following the lives of it’s women’s division, also referred to as the Divas division. Headlining the show are the Bella Twins (Brie and Nikki), whose on-screen characters often have them being catty and manipulative. However, in real life they each date one half of this Summerslam’s main event in WWE poster child John Cena and former indy sensation Daniel Bryan. Also heavily featured are Natalya Neidhart (daughter of Jim “The Anvil” Neidhart) and tag team the Funkadelics (Ariane and Trinity, who also double as valets to male tag team “Tons of Funk”).
Our opening episode touches on a lot of areas. Our first main plot involves the run-up to Wrestlemania, where the Bellas and Funkadactyls are slated to face off in eight person tag action. However, we also focus on the relationship sub-thread, after Cena buys Nikki a Range Rover well before he buys her a ring, making Nikki insecure about the future of their relationship. A storyline plot line sets up Natalya with two new Divas, Eva Marie and JoJo Offerman, leading them around the town and mentoring them while dealing with the disappointment of not having a match at the big show.
On a positive front, the show is incredibly well produced, full of slick production work and well designed video packages. These packages are a key part of an exposition heavy full segment, as the show has to introduce two new divas to the audience, but also focusing on giving sufficient backstory to the Funkadactyls, whom do not typically see a ton of TV time (the Divas usually only see about one to one and a half segments of a 3 hour episode of RAW), while ensuring that Natty and the Bellas are properly introduced to an E! target audience that probably runs scared from sports entertainment. That being said, I was quite irked by the fact that they couldn’t be bothered to refer to Jim Neidhart as anything other than “Natalya’s Dad” when they introduce Natalya by bringing up the fact that she comes from a strong wrestling pedigree.
That being said, the show tends to have a little bit of an identity conflict. On one hand, it seems like half of the time the various Diva’s are acting in character, but then the other half of the time you peel back to see the person inside in a more human and fourth wall shattering manner than your average reality show. The end result is some degree of muddying of our characters, which seems disorienting for someone who follows WWE’s other products, and has to be even more confusing for someone who doesn’t follow the product. This is made even worse by the fact that they tend to flip pretty regularly between stage names and real identities of almost every character on the show (most notably Ariane and Trinity, whom for the longest time have gone by Cam’ron and Naomi on WWE TV respectively) with minimal rhyme or reason.
The show seems to shine most in those moments where it lets the Divas be more honest. As wildly entertaining as it is to see Brie and Nikki get stuck performing their arrogant, alpha female shtick in other settings, it seems like we truly get to know Nikki best when she’s being both optimistic but also a little preoccupied about her relationship with Cena. Similarly, the Funkadactyls arc (which gets wrapped up a little bit too abruptly) ends up becoming the strongest line in the episode due to how much less scripted it feels as the two close friends get into a heated discussion over a mishap backstage, both being equally justified over the situation.
The Final Verdict: Total Divas does not totally commit to any of the roads it could have taken. On one hand, the show could have easily been scripted to excess and played out the way the first quarter of the show did: as a weekly hour-long pro WWE puff piece. On the other hand they could have just as easily taken the opportunity to pull back the curtain and learn more about the people that inhabit the characters. Instead, we got a little of both, creating an uneven, if fairly unoffensive hour of reality-ish television with a little bit of soap opera thrown in for good measure. It’s actually pretty funny that the show possesses as many shades of gray as it does, because the WWE has been avoiding such dynamics in it’s actual wrestling programming. It’s the sort of show that I would wait-and-see on, since the ratio of over-packaged and rehearsed to natural really will affect how entertaining the show becomes.