We open on a familiar sight for any fan of World Wrestling Entertainment: The Undertaker, the pro wrestling legend who kicked off his WWE career over 30 years ago, playing a character who straddled the worlds of mortal men and the creeping undead (except for those few years he spent as a biker with a Kid Rock theme song). Now mostly retired from the ring, this version of The Undertaker has apparently been holed up in a creepy mansion, toiling in a subterranean metalworking lab, forging keys and whatnot, and also using his ever-mystical urn to ensnare the souls of good men. And so when current fun-time WWE superstars New Day come calling, what follows is a semi-spooky, semi-comedic adventure that asks the audience to choose where each story turn will go next. It's Netflix's latest interactive TV special, it's called Escape The Undertaker, and it's an odd little project indeed.
Conceptually, interactive television and professional wrestling make for a surprisingly fitting pair, at least in the way Escape The Undertaker does interactive TV and the way WWE does professional wrestling. They both offer genuine experiences — a haunted house tale; an athletic altercation — and run them through about fifteen stages of improvisation, suspension of disbelief, and staged spontaneity to put the audience through an experience that is as much about them and their reactions as it is about the entertainment in front of them. That World Wrestling Entertainment would try its hand at an interactive TV special makes all the sense in the world. Whether Escape The Undertaker succeeds depends a lot on how much leeway the viewer is willing to give to the wrestling personalities on screen and the interactive viewing experience as a concept.
Netflix has been trying out interactive TV for a while, producing choose-your-own-adventure episodes of hit shows like Black Mirror's "Bandersnatch" and Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt's "Kimmy vs. the Reverend." In both, audiences were presented with a general story concept, and then, remote control in hand, guided through a series of this-or-that decisions to dictate where the story would go. The idea seems to be to create a TV experience that's halfway between choose-your-own-adventure novels and story-based video games, and certainly there are TV viewers who are fans or one or both of those things who likely thrill at the concept of an interactive TV show. Others, however, have likely discovered during their forays with interactive TV that what works with books (where the reader is able to control their own pace of consumption and can more easily double back to explore different choices) or video games (where the idea of experiencing a story with a controller in your hands is second nature) doesn't always fit their ideal experience of watching TV. In other words, a lot of people might look at interactive TV shows and decide that if they'd wanted to play a video game, they'd be playing a video game. This reviewer might agree with them.
That said, Escape The Undertaker is a fascinating concept above and beyond my own lack of affinity for interactive TV as a concept. Certainly from a brand extension point of view, this is a fascinating move for WWE, which has in recent years expanded to a streaming archive — WWE network, which recently got folded into Peacock — and films produced with their own stars like John Cena. Rather than than just put Hulk Hogan or The Rock or John Cena into a movie where they play characters different from their ring personae, Escape The Undertaker experiments with using the wrestling characters that exist in the ring and placing them as characters in a fictional (in this case horror) story. The closest comparison I can come up with, story-wise, is the Saturday morning cartoon Hulk Hogan's Rock 'n' Wrestling from the 1980s. Structurally, though, Escape The Undertaker feels mostly like the proof of concept for a WWE-themed ride at an amusement park. It even has some of the elements of a WWE-themed escape room.
Which it doesn't have much of is actual wrestling, which may irk some wrestling fans or at least serve as smug fodder for those who find Vince McMahon's fondness for draping the actual athletics of wrestling in — to use a term McMahon himself coined — "sports entertainment." I'm not sure Escape The Undertaker's haunted-house story would have been enhanced by too many digressions into wrestling matches, but it's worth pointing out just how fully this project transitions both Undertaker and The New Day into, simply, characters in a story. It's a pretty obvious fit with Undertaker, whose supernatural character origins have served as fodder for some of wrestlings more macabre and movie-like digressions over the years (ask a wrestling fan about the Ministry of Darkness angle some time), but it's curious to see all three members of New Day just kind of bopping around a haunted mansion in their ring gear. As a trio, Xavier Woods, Kofi Kingston, and Big E have been bright lights in the world of WWE for a while. That their gimmick of radical positivity and good vibes (seriously, that's their whole gimmick, and they sell it like gangbusters with their personalities and charisma) has co-existed for years with the dead-man/high priest of evil gimmick of The Undertaker for years just underlines what a big-tent circus the WWE can be. Their combination in Escape The Undertaker holds some "Abbott and Costello" appeal, a cartoonish and comedic clash of light and dark.
But, again, here comes the real boogeyman: interactive TV and the fact that the purported freedom that this particular medium offers for fans to create their own entertainment path is also a burden on an audience that might otherwise want to watch what this strange tale of wrestling personae is actually offering them. Especially when it comes to characters like New Day, who are, as I mentioned, all vibes. Requiring audience members to navigate their way through this story, remote at the ready, gets in the way of appreciating this strange creative leap WWE is taking. Ultimately it's a relief to escape The Undertaker because your task as an active audience member is over and you're free to just relax and maybe go watch some New Day matches on Peacock.
Escape The Undertaker drops Tuesday October 5th on Netflix.
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Joe Reid is the Managing Editor at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.