Like many of my friends and colleagues, I was pretty excited when I heard about the launch of TNA three years ago. All WWE and nothing else makes anyone a dull wrestling fan, and with a busy work schedule that prevented me from attending any live indy shows to fulfill my wrestling fix, I was desperate for something different, something new. The Jarretts’ venture sounded promising to me, so I decided to give it a try.

That turned out to be easier said than done. The Wednesday night time slot combined with having to pony up money to watch it every week — and as a wrestling fan/writer on a budget, that was a big deal — meant not following TNA as closely as I would have liked. I enjoyed what I did see, enough to recommend the product to friends who were in the same straits, but they faced the same logistical hurdles. The coming and going of certain performers thanks to the promotion’s “open door” policy added to the challenge of following along as a part-time viewer.

So despite the excellent in-ring action and the fact that a big part of my being as a wrestling enthusiast was going unfulfilled, I drifted away. My local cable service archives a series called TNA’s Greatest Matches that is available via on demand video, so I’ve been able to catch some of the bigger matches of the past year or so. But I haven’t ordered a TNA pay-per-view since its first year of existence, and I didn’t catch a single episode of the syndicated Xplosion show once that hit the airwaves. My lone method of keeping tabs on TNA has been to read the excellent work of my colleagues here at SLAM! Wrestling, who have given the promotion the most thorough and professional coverage I’ve seen on the ‘Net.

Of course, everyone loves a second chance, and for me, that came once Spike TV bid adieu to Raw and said hello to TNA Impact. Despite the brutal late Saturday night time slot (and those of you who get Spike may have also noticed that the show doesn’t always re-air late Sunday night like the network claims), I figured there was really no excuse not to check in and see what’s changed. Much has been written about the show’s debut, but now that we’re a few weeks in, I feel like Impact has had a chance to establish the tone and flavor it’s shooting for.

That makes this the perfect time to share what I think the current product has going for it. I’m not going to recap any of the episodes since Chris Sokol already handles that, or get in-depth about any of the performers since our site features oodles of interviews and features that I’m sure you’ve already clicked on. I’ll also stay away from the most obvious strength of TNA: like reader William Hatfield said in a recent SLAM! Speaks feedback piece, it’s solid professional wrestling instead of the WWE’s “sports entertainment.”

If you’re already a huge TNA fan, I’m preaching to the choir, and you know a lot more about it than I do. But if you’re on the fence about giving up a Saturday night out to check out Impact, or if you’re looking forward to the day when you’ll be able to watch it on your cable system, this is for you. Consider it the couch-eye view of why it’s worth watching.

Improved production values

Compared to the pay-per-views of the first year or so, this is a night and day difference that you’ll notice immediately. Everything from the opening montage to the lighting and effects in the arena to the wrestler entrances to the camera work during matches has improved dramatically. It may not seem like that big of a deal, but believe me, it adds a lot to the broadcasts. Still not quite at the level of the industry leaders in Titan-land, but light years ahead of, say, where ECW was when they first got a crack at national TV. And speaking of ECW, the energetic and loyal crowd at Impact tapings, while not technically a production value, reminds me of the heyday of Extreme and is a real plus.

Cool gimmicks

The six-sided ring is a great visual, and no doubt makes Spike TV happy because it looks similar enough to the UFC Octagon, but I haven’t really noticed any times the extra two sides were crucial to any spots or segments. Maybe the SLAM! Wrestling intern can check to see if six guys have ever come off all of the turnbuckles simultaneously. If not, you can bet it will happen eventually. That’s because TNA continues to tinker with new gimmicks, and things like Ultimate X are sheer craziness — in a good way. There will always be a place in wrestling for old stand-bys like the cage or ladder match, but TNA will be bringing us the staples of tomorrow.

A real tag team scene

Which should make my editor, Greg Oliver, smile if nothing else. Remember tag team wrestling? The WWE may have forgotten, but making the tag belts a priority was an early TNA strength that seems to be continuing. The America’s Most Wanted-Triple X feud was good stuff, and with AMW vying with teams like The Naturals, and Sonny Siaki and Apolo, there looks like there’s more to come. Crowds still pop for a good doubles match. There’s even a title bout week on Impact.

The best announcers

Granted I may change my mind if Joey Styles shows up to handle play-by-play tonight on Raw. But with J.R. out of the picture for now and The King having beaten his jokes into the ground long ago — and let’s not even start on Jonathan Coachman — Mike Tenay becomes the top announcer on TV almost by default. It could be I just have a soft spot for him from my days as a Nitro reporter, but I find his straightforward approach satisfying. He’s knowledgeable and gives the matches a bit of a straight sports feel. And Don West… well, he’s Don West. Say what you want, but the guy brings a lot of energy to the color spot, and he never lets you forget about upcoming matches or shows.

A better mix of old and new

This is the area where TNA needed the most time to feel its way through. I’m not crazy about Jeff Jarrett versus Kevin Nash for the NWA Title at the upcoming pay-per-view, but over-the-hill veterans and publicity stunt booking seem like things of the past. Performers like A.J. Styles and Christopher Daniels have become bona fide stars, and the pipeline has brought along others like Samoa Joe, Matt Bentley and the members of Team Canada. Even Monty Brown has grown on me. Bringing in guys like the Dudleys, uh, I mean, Team 3-D, has always been a part of the formula, but the balance between the past and the present, between familiarity and potential, seems to be a lot more stable now.

And that, as they say, is that. It may be next year, three years from now or three days from never when TNA is ready to pose real competition to the WWE, but I’m not sure that’s really important. What matters is that Impact is carving out its own enjoyable niche so far, and if the wrestling fan inside you is hungry for something, that might be enough to tune in to give it a try or to bug your local cable company to pick up TNA programming.

Or if you’re like me, to give it a second chance.