Static characters are the enemies of storytelling. If nobody ever changes, then nothing of consequence can occur in a narrative no matter how many things “happen” in the plot. Herein lies one of the main flaws of WWE storytelling in the twenty-first century. New acts are introduced, given an initial push to establish who they are and what they stand for, and then they simply continue being that person for seemingly ever.
The first half of the two-part fourth season finale of Bob’s Burgers (“Wharf Horse”) displays exactly how a show in a genre built on well-established characters can still present dynamic, character-driven stories. The show’s principal protagonist, the titular Bob, is a long-established babyface, a decent guy who loves his wife, dotes on his kids, and does the best with what he’s given. He’s a character you can’t help but root for because he represents both the values and struggles that we as Americans project onto the working class. However, by the climactic musical number of “Wharf Horse,” (this is a post-Family Guy prime time cartoon after all) sympathetic babyface Bob has become the willing agent of chicken heel Felix Fischoeder.
How episode writer Nora Smith, responsible for many of the show’s strongest installments, gets there involves numerous tropes that will sound familiar to wrestling fans. Fanny, Felix’s new girlfriend, plays the pro wrestling manager role. She both motivates Felix to be as selfish as possible and promotes his message of greed to others. Like Heyman to Lesnar or Gary Hart to Muta, she is more fundamentally evil than her charge but needs him because on her own she lacks the power to make her corrupt vision come to life. She is even tied to arguably wrestling’s greatest manager, Bobby Heenan, when she proudly boasts that her fake eyelashes are made of weasel fur.
When first presented with Felix’s scheme to turn the moldering wharf into high-end condos, most of the characters are instantly enticed by the promise of money. However, much like Bret Hart, Bob isn’t “greedy for money; [he’s] greedy for respect.” For him, the draw is that the development would allow him to open a new restaurant where his high-concept burgers could be appreciated. To get high school English class Aristotelian, this is Bob’s hamartia. He is a likable, hard-working guy, but also irked by his lack of success and recognition. His ambition leaves him open to corruption, and before he realizes what’s going on, he has betrayed his family (as embodied by his daughter Tina’s love of the wharf’s carousel) and his fundamental values.
That is exactly what you don’t see on WWE television. Babyfaces are overprotected as “good guys” to the point where they never falter in their virtue until they make full-fledged heel turns. Even when he joined the Nexus, John Cena never did anything that contradicted his stance of “Hustle, Loyalty, and Respect.” That kind of stubborn, static, non-development of characters is what has kept WWE merely entertaining and not compelling.
Next week, in Part 2, we’ll look at the second half of Bob’s Burgers’ season 4 finale “World Wharf II: The Wharfening” in which we find our hero in peril, a spirited team of babyfaces working together, and heels getting their comeuppance.