Last year, WGN America surprised everyone by entering the cable competition with two pretty great scripted series: Salem, a twisted take on the real-life Salem witch trials and Manhattan , a beautiful but underrated drama loosely based on the Manhattan Project. Both series ended up better than expected, though largely went unnoticed by most viewers and critics. Tonight, the network will expand into reality programming with the one-hour premiere of Wrestling With Death. On the surface, it fits in on WGN because of its pure strangeness, exploring something we certainly haven’t seen on any other network — the show centers on a family who are morticians by day and professional wrestlers by night. Unfortunately, the show is more boring than seems possible considering the premise, marking WGN’s first big misstep.
Wrestling With Death follows the Lathams, a large family who own and work at The Wilson Funeral Home in Arkansas. They also own and work at the Mid-Southern Champion Wrestling arena. That’s the entire draw of the show: Six Feet Under meets WWE Raw in a reality series that, considering my own love for both, should be my favorite show. The problem is that it’s bafflingly bland, with no exciting storylines or anything of consequence to say, and populated by characters who are clearly acting up their roles (and not doing a very good job of it).
There is nothing and no one to root for, not because the Lathams are terrible people, but because there isn’t much at stake. Every possible angle is played up for the screen — the mother (Sandra in the mortuary, “Ms. Sandra” in the ring) is currently getting over cancer and gets upset when her husband schedules her for a match that she didn’t agree to; another family member injures himself and is angry when everyone worries more about his health than his desire to wrestle, etc. None of it really adds up to anything.
It’s also unclear what toneWrestling With Death is trying to create within these first two episodes. Poor videography gives it an amateur look. Family patriarch LaFonce (ring name: “Big Daddy”) does his talking-head interview segments from a church, sitting at a pew half-backwards in a “cool guidance counselor” pose while wearing a leather fringe jacket, but never says anything memorable. When he narrates the action occurring on screen, such as an oh-so-exciting cattle auction, his voice drones, “There’s so much about buying cattle…,” but don’t expect to learn what buying cattle actually entails, because his explanation is so boring that you drift off in the middle of the sentence.
The show tries to play up the juxtaposition between the characters’ careers for shock value. First, there is a scene of a triumphant wrestling match (in front of an unenthusiastic crowd), and then there’s a quick jump cut to a funeral for someone unrelated to the match. Wrestling With Death employs plenty of close-ups of embalming and corpses in coffins during funerals — so much so that the series even opens with a disclaimer.
But there is nothing that can save Wrestling With Death, even for viewers like me, who are already fascinated with mortuary practices (again, blame Six Feet Under) and have a lifelong love for wrestling. The Latham family lives a double life, sure, but it’s one with no conflict or suspense. (Plus, the WWE has already done the wrestling/mortuary combination before — remember when Undertaker tried to embalm Stone Cold? Even that was more gripping than the entirety of this series!)
At its core, Wrestling With Death is nothing more than another terrible entry into the Southern hillbilly genre of reality television. And it’s a big step backward for WGN America, a fringe network whose ambitious first forays into scripted programming suggested it was looking to compete with the likes of AMC and FX.