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Palmer: Wrestling as seen on TV

Mark Palmer

3/11/2014
Mark Palmer, InterMat Senior Writer
mark@intermatwrestle.com, Twitter: @MatWriter

How often does amateur wrestling appear on TV?

Right now, those who are passionate about the sport are saying in one loud voice, "Not often enough!"

The wrestling community -- wrestlers, coaches and fans -- rightfully complain that the sport just doesn't get the coverage it deserves ... not just in terms of live coverage of dual meets and tournaments, but also in terms of reporting during local and national sportscasts.

One could also argue that real wrestling is an even rarer sight on TV entertainment shows, whether it's played for laughs on a sitcom, or as a story element on a dramatic series.

Let's take a look at some specific examples where entertainment TV rolled out the wrestling mat, with an eye to how the sport is generally depicted on situation comedies and dramas, and why.

(Note: This discussion is limited to amateur-style wrestling as shown on entertainment series, not made-for-TV movies or documentaries. It does not include analysis of depictions of professional wrestling or guest appearances by WWE stars -- nor anything related to mixed martial arts matches or MMA fighters -- on sitcoms, dramas or reality series.)

Wrestling, Played for Laughs

"Modern Family"

The idea for this story came to mind after seeing recent commercials promoting an episode of the popular ABC-TV sitcom "Modern Family" which showed Luke, the only son of Claire and Phil Dunphy, one of the three branches of the "modern family" depicted on the series, in a wrestling singlet and headgear ... a seemingly out-of-blue development, as, over the five-year life of the series, there has been nothing pointing to the Luke character being a wrestler.

A scene from "Modern Family"
The episode in question, titled "The Feud" which aired Feb. 26, featured a trio of separate story lines (typical for the "Modern Family" series), including a story thread featuring Luke Dunphy (Nolan Gould) as a high school wrestler, slated to wrestle the son of his father Phil's rival in real estate sales, Gil Thorpe. Early in the episode, there was a scene in the gym where the dual meet was taking place, showing the two fathers' different attitudes about the match -- Phil vacillating between being nervous, and wanting to be supportive of his son; the opponent's dad being full of bluster and bravado (bragging about his son's record) -- in contrast to the pre-match attitudes of the two wrestlers (Luke being almost serene, while his opponent seeming wound up).

After this set-up scene, the episode focused on the other two non-wrestling storylines ... only to return to the mat in the closing minutes of the show. Back in the gym, the two young wrestlers shook hands (with the Luke Dunphy character being coached by former Michigan State wrestler now actor Curran Jacobs), the opponent took Luke down and pinned him in not much more than a nanosecond.

The payoff to the wrestling storyline came at the end of "Modern Family" when Thorpe and his son were celebrating their victory in a diner, while the Dunphy men were licking their wounds a few tables away. Then a waitress yelled, "Fight! Fight!" as it appeared that Luke was choking his opponent in the restaurant ... however, viewers were told that Luke was actually saving the life of his rival who was choking on some food. In another twist at the very end of the show, Luke told his dad that the rival wrestler had been making a "you choked" gesture to Luke, so Luke settled the score by putting the other guy in an actual chokehold.

Nolan Gould played Luke Dunphy
The episode clearly used the sport of wrestling as a comedic vehicle; it's highly unlikely it's a new facet of the Luke Dunphy character and the start of more mat-centric stories. In fact, it would not be impossible to imagine that this will be the first and last time we see Luke in a singlet and headgear.

Even before the Feb. 26 episode of "Modern Family" was broadcast, I had started to think about the various fictional TV series that have shown the sport over the years. This article takes a look at some of the ways wrestling has been shown on entertainment TV. It is not meant to be an all-inclusive list of "TV episodes with wrestling" but a representative sample of the sport's portrayal in one entertainment medium.

"Saved by the Bell"

For an entire generation of TV viewers and wrestling fans, the first TV series that comes to mind for its portrayal of wrestling is "Saved by the Bell," a long-running NBC Saturday morning sitcom in the late 1980s and early 1990s. One of the principal characters in the series, A.C. Slater, was written as a high school wrestler ... played by actor Mario Lopez, an actual high school wrestler at Chula Vista High School who placed second at 160 pounds in the San Diego Sectional, and seventh at the California state championships in 1991.

Actor Mario Lopez, a former wrestler in California, played Slater in "Saved by the Bell"
Slater-as-wrestler became a major plot line in at least a couple episodes. In the episode "Pinned to the Mat" shown in the first season, Slater gave up wrestling for cooking class ... which caused problems for his bud Zack (Mark-Paul Gosselaar), who bet his dirt bike that Slater would easily handle the big bruiser from a rival high school. Ultra-nerdy classmate Screech (Dustin Diamond) stepped in for Slater, finding himself the victim of an airplane spin over the rival wrestler's head. Slater jumped in, made short work of the abysmal brute (who's shown lying dazed and confused on the mat, animated stars circling his head). Slater quickly comes to the conclusion his place is indeed on the mat, not in the kitchen ... assuring viewers they'll continue to see more of Lopez in a singlet, not a chef's apron.

A couple years later, "Saved by the Bell" returned to the wrestling mat for an episode titled "Hold Me Tight" that found comedy in a subject that still remains touchy more than two decades later away from TV: girls wrestling boys. In this episode, Kristy, new to Bayside High, earned a spot on the wrestling team ... but finds herself in a predicament when wrestling a boy from a rival high school. Would-be boyfriend Zach yells, "Do that move you did at The Max!" (the characters' after-school hangout) which, of course, is illustrated in every how-to-wrestle book and DVD (not!). Kristy not only won the match, but the hearts and minds of her classmates, some who doubted a girl could find success wrestling a boy.

Both of these episodes play on notions held by the general public (non-wrestling fans) about what wrestling looks like, and that allowing girls to wrestle boys leads to unintended consequences (like jealousy among girls who don't wrestle). The on-screen wrestling action is over in a blink of an eye, and does not resemble anything you'd see in a high school or college gym. In other words, it's very much over the top, and played strictly for laughs.

Another aspect of how wrestling is portrayed on "Saved by the Bell" -- the high school wrestlers' uniforms. The singlets worn by Slater, his teammates and rivals were the kind that revealed more of the chest and back, like those worn in international competition more than a decade ago, or by some high schools and colleges (the Iowa Hawkeyes, for example) in the late 1950s and early 60s during the transition from shirtless wrestling to requiring shirts. To viewers whose only exposure to wrestling is once every four years during the Olympics, this style of singlet says "wrestling" more clearly and loudly than the kind most wrestlers actually wear in high school.

"The Wonder Years"

Running during the same era as "Saved by the Bell" -- but with a much different vibe, and, presumably, with a different audience in mind -- was "The Wonder Years" -- a prime-time ABC series broadcast in the late 1980s into the early '90s that was a nostalgic look back at growing up in suburbia in the 1960s. The main character of the series (which had comedic elements, but didn't look or sound like a traditional sitcom, i.e. no laugh track) was Kevin Arnold (played by Fred Savage). The series had started with Kevin being a cute grade-school boy ... but, towards the end of the series run, Kevin had grown into high school.

In the sixth season of "The Wonder Years" an episode titled "Hulk Arnold" predated the notion presented in the recent "Modern Family" episode where a high school boy suddenly becomes a high school wrestler, seemingly out of the blue, with absolutely no advance notice or warning.

Fred Savage (right) played Kevin Arnold in "The Wonder Years" -- a prime-time ABC series broadcast in the late 1980s into the early '90s that was a nostalgic look back at growing up in suburbia in the 1960s
In "Hulk Arnold," Kevin had demonstrated some talent for wrestling in gym class, and was recruited for the team. However, once in the wrestling room, Kevin quickly discovered how tough the sport is, deciding it wasn't for him, and, instead of working on getting better, bellyached to his tough-love coach. Sitting on the sidelines during a dual meet -- with his friends and family in the stands -- the coach made Kevin a last-second substitution to go up against the defending state champ. Kevin assumed he's being punished for his half-assed attitude ... but, as he's worked over by the champ, he rediscovered some of the talent -- and fight -- he showed back in P.E. No, he didn't pin the champ, but he managed to hold his own by not getting pinned, and, in the process, won the admiration of his teammates, coach, friends and family.

Unlike the depictions of wrestling in the sitcoms previously mentioned in this article, "The Wonder Years" match was not over in less than five seconds. Nor did it employ some WWE-inspired acrobatics that provided laughs on "Saved by the Bell." Kevin's match with the champ looked more realistic than the portrayal of wrestling in most sitcoms. And, perhaps just as importantly, it's one of the very few examples that captured the notion that yes, wrestling is a tough sport, mentally and physically, but it has rich rewards for those who work hard and don't give up. (Sadly, "The Wonder Years" was yet another example of a series where a character suddenly becomes a wrestler, without any set-up, then, presumably, hangs up the headgear and is never seen in a singlet again.)

Wrestling for dramatic effect

From searching the Internet -- and my own memory -- it seems the vast majority of TV shows that have shown wrestling as a comedic element on a situation comedy. Despite the drama that is inherent in two athletes battling for supremacy on a mat, depictions of wrestling are rare in serious TV programs.

One notable distinction was "I'll Fly Away," a one-hour drama on NBC in the early 1990s set in the small-town South in the early 1960s, during the civil rights movement. The series -- which draws its name from the title of a Negro spiritual from the early 1900s -- told the intersecting stories of a white, widowed prosecutor and his three at-home children, and the African-American woman who cared for them and their house, as well as her own home life with a young daughter and father. More than one TV critic compared "I'll Fly Away" to "To Kill a Mockingbird", the 1960 Harper Lee novel about a white attorney/father of two young children, defending a black man against rape charges, which was made into a movie starring Gregory Peck. A number of elements -- the setting, black-white tensions, the father-as-attorney, use of woman as narrator -- are consistent with both.

In at least a couple episodes of "I'll Fly Away" (which lasted only two seasons), the eldest son Nathan (played by twins Jeremy and Jason London) was shown as a high school wrestler. The depictions were played straight, not for laughs. (Though there was a scene in which the rookies were presented with their wrestling gear while standing out on the football field naked, in front of their coach and teammates, which seemed more odd than either comic or dramatic.)

Cast from "I'll Fly Away"
In one scene, Nathan was sent out on to the mat to do battle with a (presumably) top wrestler from a rival school. The action was straightforward and familiar to any fan of the sport (no airplane spins here). The camera zoomed in close to the two combatants ... and, as tension grew, all sound other than the exertions of the wrestlers in action was eliminated. Even when the camera cut away to show fans and both teams cheering on their guy, there was absolute silence except for the grunts, groans and breathing of the two on the mat, presumably to emphasize the intense struggle of the evenly-matched athletes. After considerable on-the-mat struggle, Nathan cradled his rival, got the fall, and, as the gym erupted in cheering, "normal" sound returned.

The only element that I remember to ring somewhat false (I have not been able to find the scene -- nor the series -- available for viewing online, or available for purchase on DVD) was the gear. "I'll Fly Away" had both wrestlers in singlets; back in the early 1960s, singlets were extremely rare in high school wrestling, and, in fact, were against the rules in most states as well as the NCAA. To be completely accurate, Nathan and his opponent would have been wearing trunks, perhaps tights, with sleeveless shirts optional. (In many parts of the country, wrestlers competed bare-chested.) Back then, headgear was optional in most places; the NBC series got that right by having the wrestlers compete without earguards.

Another "I'll Fly Away" episode played on racial tensions of the time, as an African-American student new to the school (perhaps through integration) challenged Nathan's best friend for a starting position on the squad. Rather than wrestle a black -- and run the risk of being humiliated by losing his starring role on the team and as a top jock in the school -- Nathan's teammate simply gave up wrestling, which ultimately sent his life on a downward spiral.

Again, this situation of a white high schooler refusing to wrestle a black may be difficult for young people today to understand, given greater inclusion of athletes of all colors in wrestling nowadays. However, 50 or more years ago, it was rather rare to see wrestlers of color in action on the high school or college level. A number of states that are now considered to be wrestling hotbeds -- including Illinois, Iowa, Oklahoma, and Pennsylvania -- did not have their first African-American state champ until the 1950s or early 1960s. During this time, it was also rare to see a black wrestler in college. Look at team photos from the era and typically might be one wrestler of color amid a sea of white athletes. To cite the two schools with the greatest number of NCAA team titles: University of Iowa's first black starter was Simon Roberts in the mid-1950s (who went on to become the first African-American NCAA champ, in 1957); Oklahoma State welcomed Joe James to the Stillwater campus in 1960. (James won the heavyweight title at the 1964 NCAAs.) From looking at their college team photos, Roberts and James were pretty much alone as wrestlers of color at their schools at the time ... as was the case at most major college wrestling programs of 50-60 years ago, where there might be one black among an otherwise all-white team.

Why wrestling on TV

Even though amateur wrestling may not be often depicted in TV sitcoms and dramas, the same can be said for most other high school or college sports. Think about it: How many TV series have shown football or basketball? (The TV version of the Texas high school football series "Friday Night Lights" aside.)

So why would some TV writers and producers incorporate the oldest and greatest sport into their shows? For starters, because the very nature of wrestling can be manipulated for comedic -- or dramatic -- effect. The one-to-one competition can lend itself to potentially humorous or serious situations, such as the examples already cited in this article.

There are other reasons that may have to do with the "mechanics" of the sport. Wrestling takes place in a relatively confined space, especially compared to football, basketball or baseball. Unlike outdoor sports such as football or baseball -- or even space-demanding sports like basketball -- wrestling easily fits into a typical film/TV studio. The "compact-ness" of wrestling makes it much easier to capture the action on a wrestling mat -- including close-ups of the wrestlers and their faces -- than other sports. The close-up, confined nature also lends itself to capturing sounds such grunts, groans, bodies hitting the mat, even conversation (wrestlers in TV shows tend to do a lot more talking while wrestling than their real-life counterparts) much more readily than in other sports. In fact, that ability of TV cameras and sound to provide a close-to-the-action perspective helped make professional wrestling and boxing popular programming in the early days of television 60-70 years ago.

What's more, it's easier for scriptwriters, directors, fight coordinators and choreographers to plan out and stage an amateur wrestling match for TV cameras than other sports. The show's creators and crew are working with (usually) two wrestlers and maybe a referee, instead of five basketball players or eleven football players on each team.

Finally, the one-to-one nature of wrestling is a natural for good storytelling. Ever notice how team sports football or baseball are promoted as one-to-one battles -- for example, quarterback vs. quarterback, or pitcher vs. pitcher -- as if the contest outcome were based solely on the performance of these two individuals. Wrestling is one school sport where this aspect is true, and not a matter of promotional license.

Leaving out the essence of wrestling

Most TV programs that incorporate wrestling into their series don't sweat the details when it comes to providing accurate depictions of the sport. They are seeking to entertain an audience, not striving to show a textbook double-leg takedown or good chain wrestling, let alone be 100% accurate in terms of the gear the wrestlers are wearing.

More significantly, however, fictionalized depictions of wrestling on TV usually overlook many of the fundamentals that make the sport truly great. Elements such as long hours in the practice room, hard work, sacrifice, and dedication are often hard to portray in any entertainment medium, and, therefore, usually don't make their way to sitcoms or dramas for the small screen.

Comments

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Jepatterson (1) about 8 months ago
Good article with very good points. An additional example i would mention was on the big screen in the movie the Pacifier wtih Vin Desel. Vin (who actually looks like he could have been a wrestler) challenges the bully head wrestling coach to a match in front of the whole school. This embarrassing and totally inaccurate portrayal of a wrestling match included such ridiculously fictional moves as the nipple twister, a ridiculous standing chicken wing, the pacifier (putting coaches hand in his own mouth) and ultimately a pin with a kid coming out of the stands to slap the mat three times. So bad, I was embarrassed just watching it.
mrussell515 (1) about 8 months ago
Not to mention, I believe the pin was recorded by pinning the opponent's stomach to the mat!
Jeffss528 (1) about 8 months ago
My all time favorite is the South Park Episode where the kids all joined the school wrestling team and thought it was WWF style wrestling until the wrestling coach put them in a bottom/top position. It just got funny from there.
smead429 (1) about 8 months ago
The Adventures of Pete and Pete was a great one.
flynnkf (1) about 8 months ago
The full nelson was the super move in Saved by the Bell.
Although it is not a TV show, Born on the Fourth of July is a movie that is often shown on television. It is a non-wrestling focused movie that features a wrestling scene. Tom Cruise's character is a wrestler in high school.
doubleleg11 (1) about 8 months ago
The show "The Fosters" on ABC Family actually has wrestling as part of an ongoing storyline and while it is still TV wrestling has actually promoted the sports beneficial points of and discipline and hard work and has been pretty fair in showcasing the sport.
mpm415 (1) about 8 months ago
Never got my T-shirt last year for providing all the "saved by the bell" episodes that depicted sports -_- MPM415@aol.com if you wanna follow up

-Matt
Kadt (1) about 8 months ago
Not a TV show, but the movie Win Win does a good job of portraying wrestling. Wrestling is not the main storyline for movie, but it does play a significant part.