Monster Factory, a surprisingly inventive docuseries about wannabe pro wrestlers, is Apple TV+’s best sports docuseries yet. Over the course of its six breezy and beautiful episodes, set at a wrestling farm school in New Jersey, we meet a cast of eccentrics who share a common dream: to throw people around for a living.
They want to become stars, to go down in pro wrestling history. And with cantankerous Danny Cage as their coach, these ne’er-do-wells learn everything there is to know about wrestling — and they teach us, too.
Monster Factory season one recap
In the otherwise-sleepy little burg of Paulsboro, New Jersey, is a famous wrestling school called The Monster Factory, run by former pro wrestler Cage. He was going to make the big times but for one thing: The rules were different back then. There was no one in his life or career to tell him that wrestling could end in tragedy, because everybody just kept chasing bigger and more insane, crowd-pleasing stunts.
As a result, Cage’s body wound up in terrible shape. And he decided to make sure that if anyone ever wanted to follow their wrestling dreams, like he did, that they could do it safely. He wanted the kids coming up nearby to find better fortune than he did.
Cage trains his kids in setting up the ring and keeping it safe and clean. He teaches them wrestling moves (including how to stop on a dime if a match gets unsafe). And he coaches them on charisma, stamina and strength training, physicality and, of course, the art of self-promotion.
Wrestling is more than just moves — it’s show biz
Over the course of the season, we get to know wrestlers Gabby Ortiz, Twitch, Bobby Buffet, The Notorious Mimi and Goldy, among others. Cage prepares them for the big leagues — at least those of them who have what it takes. Mimi, for instance, has a blank, deadpan demeanor, which means her promos don’t exhibit the necessary flair or confidence, despite her being otherwise the strongest wrestler in Cage’s school.
If you can’t sell yourself you’ll never get picked for the big show. “You have to become bigger than your character,” says Cage. It’s very moving to see her finally find that inner reserve of confidence and perform when the moment comes. Mimi’s precociousness already put the fear of god into her peers. She’s younger than all of them and the most promising … what are they doing wrong?
Monster Factory is executive produced by Jeremiah Zagar, who directed Hustle and We the Animals. That was my first clue this wasn’t exactly going to be a boilerplate docuseries. I mean, don’t get me wrong. The show utilizes a handful of very expected formal devices (talking heads for all interviews, etc., scenes of Cage fishing with his family to highlight his life outside of the factory). But the directors (like Naiti Gámez, a documentary cinematographer who worked on Zagar’s film We the Animals, and co-creator/showrunner Galen Summer) never go for the easy angles.
The lighting design looks beautiful. The staged interstitials are dynamic. The angles for the talking heads rely on unconventional spatial usage and blocking. The show feels as indie as the wrestlers themselves, always trying to find a way to take something we think we know and turn it on its head.
The music by Dan Deacon is a great example. His expansive synthscapes elevate the material, turning stories of underdogs learning to love and express themselves into something with a charming, homemade mythic quality. It’s simple enough, and fits the milieu like a glove.
All this works together to build tremendous momentum. When Cage gets unexpected news about his mother’s health, the cameras happened to be rolling. So they capture him at a genuine loss for words, a rare thing for the lovable brute. Stuff like this comes with ethical concerns, but the unobtrusive way they filmed him keeps you close to Cage. You feel for him. He becomes even more human. It’s tough.
The scene of the wrestler Twitch talking about the night he was planning to kill himself before he was inspired by a monologue by WWE star CM Punk is just breathtaking. The way they shoot the TV — and Twitch watching it, reliving his foundational trauma — is designed not to wallow, but to show that something like this could save a life in the right context. Summer and Gámez never forget that they’re dealing with something with a perception problem to a lot of America, but that this is nevertheless one of the most important things in some people’s lives. It’s a hefty responsibility to communicate that and they handle it beautifully.
Monster Factory manufactures winners
That empowerment bubbles up in unconventional places. And the fact that a misfit like Twitch could discover love for himself after exposure to a wrestler going through a crisis is a beautiful thing indeed.
It’s very difficult to go unmoved by that, especially after we hear testimony from Twitch’s loving and concerned mother. She didn’t get wrestling until she heard that story, and now she has CM Punk to thank for his and her happiness.
All documentaries play with the truth, but the truth of these stories is all here, and it’s frequently quite staggering. The things we see, the ways people open up … To mangle a quote from Moneyball, how do you not get romantic about wrestling?
Watch Monster Factory on Apple TV+
You can now watch the entire first season of Monster Factory on Apple TV+.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.