TV Review: WWE Monday Night Raw (7/24/12)

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At times, last night’s episode of WWE Raw felt like it was being piped in from several alternate universes, which, I suspect, is just the nature of the “family reunion” style of show the company is fond of putting on when it meets and eclipses certain milestones. If, like me, you have an oddly (sadly) precise memory for the goings-on of World Wrestling Entertainment, things like the Degeneration X reunion—which saw Triple H and Shawn Michaels join forces with X-Pac and the New Age Outlaws for fifteen minutes of passable, PG jokes about how old the quintet has become—are head-scratching affairs due to giant, gaping holes in continuity. Yes, the Triple H/Shawn Michaels configuration of the group wore the same t-shirts as the Triple H/X-Pac/New Age Outlaws iteration, but Michaels had considerable beef with those dudes once he was ousted from the group, and said beef was never satisfactorily resolved.

Of course, all of that happened 14 years ago during the companies Attitude Era, and the men in charge of World Wrestling Entertainment don’t trust their audience to remember what happened a week ago, let alone something from before most John Cena fans were born. Raw 1000—which was, as you may suspect, the 1000th episode of the show—was essentially the company slamming its fist down on a gigantic reset button, hoping that a heady dose of nostalgia would help wash everything down. Sometimes it worked: There were enough winks and nods to the company’s often-lurid past (the resolution of ancient storylines like GTV and riffs on the time septuagenarian Mae Young gave birth to a hand, the appearance of former broadcast personalities that ran the gamut from the great Jim Ross to the justly-mocked Sean Mooney) to give diehards something to cling to.

Most of the time, however, it felt like the WWE was trying to shoehorn legends like Mick Foley and Bret Hart into four minute matches of no real substance so the company could make room for video packages, awkward plugs, and puzzlingly long stretches of exposition. In a USA Today article covering the event, Triple H—speaking in official capacity as Paul Levesque, WWE executive—said that the nature of running a live show like Raw practically necessitates that the script change, sometimes just before a wrestler is set to do something. One moment on the show—the hastily thrown together but much hyped wedding between AJ and Daniel Bryan—felt that way, with the WWE delivering on virtually none of the angle’s expected payoffs when, of all people, Vince McMahon interrupted the proceedings to announce that AJ had been named the new General Manager (essentially a storyline matchmaker) of Raw. This was meant to act as two things: A knife in the back of Bryan, who’d been planning to cart AJ to the looney bin, and the culmination of a weeks long search for the new General Manager, a position nobody knew AJ was even up for. On paper, it may have looked great. In execution, it played as if those responsible hadn’t been paying attention to the importance placed upon this angle by even the most jaded WWE fans, and the end result was silence.

But abortive wrestling angles are nothing new, and AJ should recover well, assuming she is not another in a long line of milquetoast authority figures in a post Vince McMahon power structure. Daniel Bryan, on the other hand, may be headed to a brief feud with Charlie Sheen, whose brief moment of wide cultural currency in the wake of his firing from Two and a Half Men evaporated minutes into his first stage show. Sheen was brought in as the WWE’s Social Ambassador for the evening, a big stunt pandering for a trending topic on Twitter on a night the microblogging service is usually dominated by WWE-related hashtags and observations. Sheen, who quit Twitter a week before this gig, appeared via Skype using a low-grade web-camera to give his thoughts on the show. Mostly, he appeared to not be watching, repeating lines that were fed to him by Michael Cole and pointing to a baseball cap emblazoned with the logo of his FX sitcom, Anger Management. When asked about comments Daniel Bryan made about him earlier, Sheen said that he’d gladly fight Bryan (in the ring, at his house, at Bryan‘s house, wherever) the next time he’s in LA. That happens to be in August, for SummerSlam, the second largest pay per view of the year. While it’ll obviously garner a ton of mainstream attention, Daniel Bryan is perhaps the best in-ring performer the WWE has, and it’ll be a shame if he’s wasted in Sheen. Given that Snooki has a Wrestlemania victory and Kevin Federline once beat John Cena, one knows exactly how a match between Sheen and Daniel Bryan will end, with the wrestler playing the fool to the actor’s tough guy machismo. Even on a night dedicated to celebrating wrestling, one gets the feeling that the WWE is somewhat ashamed to be part of the industry.

Other than the Daniel Bryan/AJ wedding (featuring a cameo from Slick, undervalued 80s manager turned reverend), the night was given over to a confrontation between Triple H and Brock Lesnar, and the return of The Rock. The Triple H/Lesnar issue has been simmering for awhile, booked around Lesnar’s limited-appearance contract, and tonight, a bit of smart thinking on the part of Triple H’s wife Stephenie McMahon got Lesnar’s manager Paul Heyman (probably the best talker in wrestling, to this day) to agree in principle to a clash between Lesnar and Helmsley. Heyman did much of the heavy lifting, insulting Triple H’s family from behind the shield of punitive lawsuits, looking with contempt at his adversary with a “Who, me?” expression. When Lesnar came out to fight Helmsley, the brawl that ensued was nice in that it gave away practically nothing about their upcoming SummerSlam match. The storytelling may be basic, but it’s worked for decades. The names involved will sell the match. Everything else—even Heyman—is garnish.

The show’s real hook was Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, making what feels like his tenth return to wrestling in two years to announce that, in January, he’ll be receiving a shot at the WWE Title at the Royal Rumble. If it seems weird that The Rock can just drop in and declare himself the number one contender to a title he hasn’t fought for in eight years, know that he is a mega-successful movie star (for a wrestler) who helped set a pay per view record at the last Wrestlemania, and who the WWE has practically christened as the best of all time. A match against The Rock is huge for both men vying for the WWE Title later in the show, as CM Punk had issues with The Rock’s ability to waltz into the WWE, and John Cena lost one of The Rock’s two matches since returning. The promise of a Royal Rumble encounter with The Rock, it seems, was enough for Punk to turn his back on the crowd, as he merely stood back and watched as The Big Show interfered in his match with Cena to lay the man out with a knockout punch. When The Rock came to save Cena, Punk—in the show’s one surprise moment—drilled The Rock, taking him down with his signature GTS maneuver. It was a startling moment, one that, should a Punk/Rock match materialize, a generation of wrestling fans will likely remember forever. It was also brilliantly executed, with Punk selling a leg injury until he got what he wanted (The Rock’s appearance), at which point, he struck. Turning a guy as popular as C.M. Punk heel is risky, but it worked. Walking up the ramp, Punk was showered with boos from a united audience. Punk’s silence and the crowd’s rancor spoke volumes, and, assuming Punk can keep the WWE Title until January, interesting things are afoot.

The most notable thing about this episode, aside from the fact that it’s the 1000th, is that it marks a permanant transition for the show from its traditional two hour block to three hours. The WWE has had three hour special editions of Raw in the past. Those efforts—and the one tonight—suffered from an almost abysmal sense of pacing. Segments were long. Wrestling matches were short. This is usually the way of WWE Raw, but stretched across three hours and padded by in-show advertisements for a new line of WWE dolls and Sonic drinks and anti-bullying campaigns and social media networks, the thinness of the gruel being served does not pass without notice. The kinks this week can perhaps be attributed to the show’s celebratory mood, but if too many weeks go by where Brodus Clay’s choreographed entrance runs longer than any individual match on the card, WWE’s grand three hour experiment could be short lived, indeed.