ICYMI: Why Lucha Underground Is the “Game of Thrones of Professional Wrestling”Photo: El Rey Network TV Features Lucha Underground
“Olé! Olé, olé, olé! Lucha! Lucha!”
That is the battle cry of Lucha Underground, which, for the uninitiated, is a professional wrestling program that combines (and, at times, improves on) the wrestling spectacle of WWE and the “TV show with wrestling” aspects of GLOW. However, Lucha Underground doesn’t take its audience, which it calls “the Believers,” behind the scenes: Instead, it takes them into a mythical, magical world where dragons, spirits, time travelers and much more are absolutely real. Lucha Underground is part classic epic—it takes (and warps) Aztec mythology for its own purposes—part B-movie—making it perfect for the El Rey Network—and part underground fighting—a mortal combat, if you will. Only the fighting comes in the form of professional wrestling.
The premise is simple; it’s everything that happens after the premise that gets intense. “El Jefe” Dario Cueto (Luis Fernandez-Gil, one of the handful of professional actors the series enlists, including Lorenzo Lamas and comedian Godfrey) is an unscrupulous promoter who extends an open invitation to his Temple to anyone who wants to fight. He’s a campy, B-movie villain who loves violence—which he tells anyone and everyone. All men, women, and creatures are created equal in Lucha Underground, since Cueto ultimately considers all of them pawns in his violence. There’s no men’s division or women’s division; it doesn’t matter if you’re four feet tall or seven feet tall: If you come to the Temple, be prepared to fight. Or at least be prepared to represent someone who fights. It’s also a world where metaphors don’t exist: the jacked dude saying “I’m not a man, I’m a machine” isn’t just hyping himself up, and the character in the dragon mask isn’t just some “character in a dragon mask.”
Cueto is technically the Big Bad, but he’s also an agent of chaos in a world of heroes and villains. In the first three seasons, the main hero is arguably Prince Puma, a sort of audience/Temple proxy with all the talent in the world, and billed as the hometown boy from East L.A.’s Boyle Heights—where the series was filmed and set through Season Three. As the face of Lucha Underground, Puma has the most human struggles of the series, trying to find a proper mentor and cement his legacy. With Puma’s departure, Lucha Underground’s heart and soul is up in the air, with a darker and deadlier feeling with each passing week. The current face of the Temple is technically Pentagon Dark (née Pentagon Jr.), a character who has the commendable attitude of being all about “Cero Miedo” (“Zero Fear”)… but also the insatiable desire to break anyone and everyone’s arms. Not exactly the “heart and soul” of anything.
Lucha Underground answers the common (and bizarre) question, “You know it’s fake, right?” by fully embracing “fake” storytelling elements that are deemed acceptable in popular series like Game of Thrones, Westworld, and The Walking Dead. Perhaps that’s why you don’t even have to be a wrestling fan to fully appreciate what Lucha Underground is doing. As Sami Callihan, who wrestles on the show as Jeremiah Crane, told me when I interviewed him at a Season Four taping, he even considers Lucha Underground “the Game of Thrones of professional wrestling.” Because of that, it can get away with things the typical wrestling show can’t: “We can have time travelers, we can have dragons and we can have snakes. We can have people come back from the dead.”
Though professional wrestling demands the suspension of disbelief, it’s not typically been in concert with the realm of fantasy: WWE characters like The Undertaker and Kane are very much the exception, not the rule, and even they have had moments where the illusion was shattered, as when The Undertaker went through his motorcycle-riding, Limp Bizkit-blasting American Badass period. Lucha Underground, by contrast, exists within a world where everything is in the realm of fantasy. The mythology on which that fantasy is based involves seven Aztec tribes: Deer, Jaguar, Eagle, Moth, Death, Reptile and Rabbit. (You would think the Death tribe would be the scariest, but honestly, the Moth tribe is nothing to laugh at.) As the series delves into the tribes, it drops hints and clues as to their nature; for anyone who likes a good mystery to crack, as in Lost or Westworld, trying to uncover the truth about these tribes and what certain things mean for them is a large part of the fun. With Lucha Underground, it’s apparent that a lot of care and attention to detail has been put into the overarching story by showrunner Eric Van Wagenen and head writer Chris DeJoseph, even when plans have to change because of injuries, travel mishaps, talent contracts running out, or real-life behavior leading to a character being written off (see: the difference between underdog heroine Sexy Star in Lucha Underground and Sexy Star outside of it).
Lucha Underground,’s ability to stay on narrative course is impressive for a wrestling series, perhaps because it looks at itself as a TV series first. In Season One, the unlikely team that became the tag-team Trios Champions suffered a setback when one-third of the team, Ivelisse, broke her ankle between tapings. But instead of writing her out or changing the story, she continued to compete alongside her partners, cast, crutches, and all—a creative choice that was perfectly in line with her badass character, as well as in line with Cueto’s jackass character making her compete in such a state. It helped transform the team into beloved underdogs for the audience to get behind.
The real meat of Lucha Underground’s storytelling comes from its vignettes (think cut scenes in a videogame), which explain nearly everything that happens in and around the wrestling ring. As in a TV drama, but not the typical wrestling show, the audience at home learns of secret relationships, or the supernatural origin of a specific character, from these vignettes—set in the locker room, Cueto’s office, etc.—but none of it is common knowledge among the characters until it’s revealed in the Temple. (The rare, self-referential exception comes in the form of the comic Famous B, whose low-budget commercials for his managerial services—423-GET-FAME, a real number—started popping up on Lucha Underground in Season Two. These commercials turned up on El Rey Network itself, between promos for Bruce Lee and Kaiju marathons as well as in the vignettes, watched by the series’ talent—another part of its ever-growing world.)
This may sound like a daunting amount of serialized content to catch up with—professional wrestling as a whole is arguably incompatible with the completest mindset, since there’s so, so much of it—but Lucha Underground, for all of its lore, is also impressively concerned with making sure new viewers can follow along. (Nor does it take itself as seriously as it sounds: So far, this season has featured homages to both Flashdance and Indiana Jones.) From the moment the commentary team of Matt Striker and Vampiro welcome the TV audience into the Temple, they make sure to explain the characters, their individual motivations, and even the more general reasons a fighter fights. Striker calls the physical moves of the in-ring action, but he defers to Vampiro for explanations of the fighters’ mindsets. In theory, that’s run-of-the-mill wrestling commentary, but Lucha Underground’s commentary is so welcoming to newbies because Striker and Vampiro, while they understand acts of vengeance, jealousy, and other common wrestling fuel, they aren’t privy to much, if any, of the greater mythology. In the logic of Lucha Underground, the only way they know the whole story is if they witness it firsthand. Their commentary is based almost completely on what they see and hear at ringside in the Temple—making them effective stand-ins for viewers themselves. And while there’s a mythological storm always brewing in the background, Cueto plays most of it up to the Believers as a capitalist gimmick: See his bastardized, commercialized Gift of the Gods Championship, which uses the framing device of the seven Aztec tribes in a way that amounts to the wrestling version of “the commercialization of Christmas.”
The current season, the series’ fourth, begins with a major reboot of sorts: The Temple moves from Boyle Heights to an abandoned ice house in downtown L.A., certain characters’ arcs have been put to an end, and a major death caps off Season Three. (Although, because this is Lucha Underground, there’s still a question whether that death actually happened or if it was staged by the “deceased.”) Coupled with “Previously on…” segments that provide necessary context for each episode—sometimes reaching deep into prior seasons, as is often the case with long-running, serialized dramas—this underscores that you don’t have to be one of the faithful to enjoy Lucha Underground, though as with any other TV series, it can definitely enrich the experience.
Chavo Guerrero, Jr.—who you may know as GLOW’s wrestling coordinator or as Chico Guapo in its second season—is also a producer and wrestler on Lucha Underground. As a member of a prestigious wrestling family, Guerrero has a unique perspective on the wrestling business and how Lucha Underground comes at it from a different perspective, carving out its own legacy: “I tell you what, we’re unlike any other wrestling show out there,” he said when I interviewed him during the Season Four taping I attended. “And I almost say it’s like wrestling in a Robert Rodriguez movie slash Breaking Bad, almost because we shoot it so much like a [comic book]. We colorize it like a comic book, and it’s very, very comic book-y. But the way we do it, it’s just unlike any other product. I always say, put our show against any other wrestling show out there. I tell you, ‘Watch theirs first, then watch ours and tell me which is better.’ Nobody else will tell you that, believe me.”
Lucha Underground airs Wednesdays at 8 p.m. on El Rey Network. Seasons One and Two are now streaming on Netflix, and all episodes to date are available for purchase on Amazon Prime and iTunes.
Despite her mother’s wishes, LaToya Ferguson is a writer living in Los Angeles. If you want to talk The WB’s image campaigns circa 1999-2003, LaToya’s your girl. Her writing has been featured in The A.V. Club, Indiewire, Entertainment Weekly, Complex, Consequence of Sound, and Flavorwire, among other publications. You can find her tweets about TV shows, movies, and music you completely forgot about @lafergs.