Editor’s Note: This review is based on the series premiere, “Memphis: Where Wrestling Was Real”
With Dark Side of the Ring’s fourth season in limbo, the makers of that show have branched out to explore football, comedy, and the entire decade of the 1990s with varying success on Vice. With Tales From the Territories and the backing of Dwayne Johnson, they return to their roots and return wrestling fans to the way things used to be.
Before the prevalence of cable television, local TV stations were responsible with securing original programming and, since the dawn of television, professional wrestling had been a staple. Each region of the country had separate promotors, philosophies, and fan tastes. From Texas to Florida to the Pacific Northwest into Canada, none lasted as long into the WWF/WCW expansion as Memphis.
Similar to the old WWE Legends of Wrestling and WWE Network’s Table for Three, the show’s format seems to be a roundtable of prominent figures from the highlighted territory’s heyday. The audience gets their history lessons from the Tennessee/Kentucky territory from five mostly-retired personalities. Manager, Jimmy “Mouth of the South” Hart, recounts being attacked by fans with everything from bottles to blowguns. Jerry “The King” Lawler lets others tell his stories since he more fondly remembers practical jokes the wrestlers played on each other. Jerry Jarrett and his son, Jeff, were both promotors and wrestlers but only Jerry had been attacked by another promotor with a straight razor in the middle of the ring. Jerry also holds another distinction: The Smithsonian Institute houses a recording of one of his matches against “Dirty” Dutch Mantell. Mantell, himself, is rather insightful and eloquent for a man who once snuck a bullwhip into maximum security prison.
Territories is of a distinctly different flavor than Dark Side. The narration cuts away to show the same out-of-focus reenactments (including an incredibly convincing “Jerry Jarrett”) but the accounts are generally lighter. Fans of wrestling know that the business’ history and reputation is as blurred as the line between “real” and “fake,” but (eye gouging and gunplay aside) the stories are the wrestlers’ to tell and more salty than sordid.
Though impossible to boil down a few decades into an hour, the main theme of Memphis is driven home over and again: entertainment. The backbone of the promotion was matches between the 5’7” Bill Dundee and lifelong dad bod, Jerry Lawler. To make up the difference for the lack of athletics and aesthetics, Lawler, the Jarretts, and others created an atmosphere of spectacle and drama. Stunts like wrestlers getting hit by cars, kidnapped, burned, and even bitten were commonplace and still emulated to this day.
Tales From the Territories is removed from your typical YouTube shoot interviews through format and execution. Editing allows for a quicker pace with less “You know,” “Um,” and “On second thought, I don’t think I’m going to finish that story.” The stellar reenactments (which have starred some of professional wrestling’s great talents going uncredited as their peers and heroes) break up the monotony and give punch to the dialogue.
In all, I’m intrigued. Find a bunch of jocks, traveling salesmen, or entertainers and sit down with them over a table of beverages and nostalgia. You’ll get your money’s worth in the conversations that follow. Wrestlers are a combination of all three. The colorful characters that we’ve grown up watching or watched with curiosity from afar are less than half the story. For every global superstar, there’s a local legend, and for every multimedia franchise out now, there was a dozen of these territories.