Spoilers below for the series premiere of Heels, so be warned if you haven't yet watched!
With its first episode, Starz's Heels walked the difficult line of presenting the world of pro wrestling as a celebration of athleticism and as a source of personal drama, both in and out of the ring. The show's central conflict early on is between Stephen Amell's story-driven Jack Spade and Alexander Ludwig's emotionally impulsive Ace Spade, two brothers attempting to keep their family legacy, the Duffy Wrestling League, afloat after their father's death. And the best way to do that, at least according to Jack, is basically to change the fans' opinion about Ace...by cheating.
Yes, the big climax in Heels' series premiere, titled "Kayfabe," featured Jack using a submission move to legitimately hurt Ace's arm, thus forcing the referee to call the match early, leaving Ace to suffer through both the physical pain and also the indignity of crying over that pain while inside the squared circle. Since, as viewers saw, wrestling fans are not very quick to forgive an athlete's real-world tears, which was definitely in Jack's mind when he came up with this off-book plan.
While real life doesn't bleed into storylines from the WWE and other wrestling federations that often, it definitely happens. And arguably the most infamous example is the Montreal Screwjob at Survivor Series '97, in which WWE head honcho Vince McMahon and superstar Shawn Michaels double-crossed the soon-to-exit champion Bret Hart, who lost the match and the belt via his own Sharpshooter finishing move, even though he never actually submitted or tapped out. So when I had the chance to talk to Heels creator Michael Waldron about the show — as well as about his other show, Loki — I had to ask if Jack and Ace's match in the premiere was inspired by the Montreal Screwjob, and here's how he answered:
For many fans, the Montreal Screwjob (which was showcased in Season 2 of Vice's Dark Side of the Ring) marked perhaps the darkest corner-turn for Vince McMahon, whose career is certainly full of them, as he (allegedly) devised a hush-hush plan to shame the highly respected Bret Hart while also tarnishing his championship legacy. That's obviously a more devious situation than Jack and Ace's situation on Heels, but there's also another connection.
The reason why Vince McMahon decided to go against Bret Hart's wishes (to not lose the belt to Shawn Michaels during the match) was partially because Hart was leaving the WWE for the WCW, which didn't sit so well with McMahon. Similarly, Alexander Ludwig's Ace was being vetted by Chris Bauer's Wild Bill Hancock to potentially jump ship to a different wrestling promotion, and the thought of losing Ace is part of what drove Stephen Amell's Jack to bring a little real world animosity into their showdown in the premiere.
As Michael Waldron teased, Jack and Ace's big match in the premiere definitely isn't the only way Heels will be inspired by real-world pro wrestling moments from the WWE and beyond. Fans can already look forward to seeing former WWE superstar CM Punk popping up soon, though we'll have to wait and see what other iconic moments and persona will be referenced next. It's probably too soon to start hoping for Heels' take on Mick Foley's Mankind, but I'm hoping anyway.
Having won over a lot of critics with its early episodes, Heels will debut new episodes on Starz every Sunday night at 9:00 p.m. ET. So be sure to keep watching, and to stay up to date with all the other new shows hitting the 2021 Fall TV schedule.
Nick is a Cajun Country native, and is often asked why he doesn't sound like that's the case. His love for his wife and daughters is almost equaled by his love of gasp-for-breath laughter and gasp-for-breath horror. A lifetime spent in the vicinity of a television screen led to his current dream job, as well as his knowledge of too many TV themes and ad jingles.
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