Arrested Development

Raw Regurgitated, 12/28
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Last night, while discussing the show with a friend, I described WWE in a way that felt so right I felt the need to share it publicly: Empire with (slightly) more punching and (slightly) less clothes. Which is to say that this show -- not professional wrestling or even sports entertainment, but Monday Night Raw specifically -- is a primetime soap opera above essentially all else (even a variety show), and as such, they will occasionally experiment with the type of pushing of decency boundaries that their competition does. And, boy howdy, did they come right up to the edge of good taste last night, then immediately jump off.

While Roman Reigns and Vince have a lot of good chemistry, this segment was not helpful to either of them, for reasons that go beyond “this was about as tone deaf as is humanly possible without looking to be actively offensive”. Vince faking an injury to try to get Roman “arrested”, only to be hoisted by his own petard when the “police” didn’t comply/saw directly through his plan had all the makings of a segment for which the crowd could get hot and the heels could get their heat. But the lack of heat on the person they wanted -- the idea of Stephanie being arrested appeared far more intriguing to the Brooklyn crowd -- made both McMahons kick it into overdrive while not totally making Roman Reigns aware of the shift in intensity. This led to Roman appearing to underplay (or anti-sweat the McMahons) even harder than he did last week, requiring Vince and Stephanie to go as big as possible. Which led to the UGH moment of the year, just a week too late for the Slammy Awards:

A rich white woman and her billionaire father openly complaining about police brutality against them when the latter was peacefully arrested despite physically attacking a police officer in public. While Tamir Rice’s name was trending on Twitter. NOT a good look, and an even worse idea.

Yes, they are supervillains, made out to be monsters from the very beginning of time/this episode extra specifically, with Vince McMahon calling Reigns a savage (which, holy crap racist) and making light of the exploitation of wrestlers including Reigns’ father. But while at least partially attributable to bad luck/timing and poor execution, it was still an impossibly dumb thing to do, and an even dumber thing to say, as it added nothing to the segment and just made viewers angry or cringey.

Perhaps the very best thing to come out of this situation will be that little bit of kayfabe permeable reality seeping through, as the very embodiment of white entitlement on television, the McMahons, might finally learn their lesson this time.

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*** WARNING YOU ARE NOW ENTERING A WRESTLING NERD DISCUSSION ZONE *** PLEASE KEEP ALL EYES AND EARS INSIDE OF KAYFABE AT ALL TIMES ***

As wrestling fans, we spend a great deal of time talking about “heels” and “faces”. We talk about not just as though they interchangeable with “good guys” and “bad guys”, but entirely static in its conceptual evolution. But long gone are the days when Hulk Hogan was telling children to eat the prayers and say their vitamins, replaced with people like Stone Cold Steve Austin flipping his boss the bird and CM Punk calling the same boss’s son-in-law a doofus.

Our lives and culture have changed, nearly as much as the way we consume media. The expansion of the WWE Universe, and the fleshing out of characters behind the scenes with things like Total Divas, Breaking Ground and even Xavier Woods’s WWE approved UpUpDownDown YouTube channel has created an entirely different storytelling paradigm. This, along with the splintering of the crowd, has led each individual performer (or tag team/stable) to be the star of their own on-going series like so much Howard the Duck.

With so much content, viewers can become fans of performers. As their “stories” interact with one another the way crowd reacts to performers *relative* to each another -- because there’s a hierarchy, much in the same way that relative to Darkseid and Joker, even Lex Luthor is a “good guy” -- is what determines the more than anything else.

For performers like Sasha Banks, who was given an almost shocking amount of time in her match with Becky Lynch, it can be a serious problem for the kind of acceptance her character needs to succeed. She has to actively push against her natural reaction in places like Brooklyn, where they love her not just for what she’s done there, but what she represents to them -- a sea change in an entire division of the company.

She has to work twice as hard to make fans hate her, pulling out gimmicks like Pats hats and “Boston-is-better-than-Brooklyn” business E&C style. Even when working with someone who is so actively playing into the tropes of being a hero and a “good guy/girl” like Becky -- who is so whitemeat that she’s feuding with her best friend over how much they cheat but won’t stop being friends with her because she’s too nice of a person -- the reaction is mixed.

But guys like Kevin Owens and Dean Ambrose have managed, in their own weird ways to finally transcend that, and more importantly, do so together.. People want to root for Dean Ambrose nearly as much as they want to boo Kevin Owens, but for whatever reason, until last night, it never quite felt like they were able to synthesize the two.

However, between this segment, and the one later in the evening (where the above picture comes from), it finally feels like Kevin Owens has reached a place of audience awareness where he can start build up his “badassery” without it seem like he’s gilding the lily. This makes him the perfect foil for Dean Ambrose’s in-character inability to know when to give up or move on. Now, if they can just figure out what to do with Dean’s hairline, they’ll really be in business!

*** YOU ARE NOW EXITING A WRESTLING NERD DISCUSSION ZONE *** WE HOPE YOU HAD A PLEASURABLE STAY. PLEASE ENJOY A COMPLIMENTARY SONICTM CHILI CHEESE MILKSHAKE  ON YOUR WAY OUT ***

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This was, without question, my favorite New Day segment since the last time they were in Brooklyn, with the three of them in perfect harmony to create magic. While there have been "better" groups of recent vintage, like The Shield, they are the first to really have the potential to be transcendent television characters. And, for once, they have a legitimate reason to mess with the WWE Universe because of their Slammy beef. With a reason for their season and a song in their heart, while next year is going to be important in the WWE for a lot of reasons, if 2016 isn’t the year of New Day, I’ll eat a hat.

Kofi Kingston, a longtime favorite and perennial Royal Rumble in the Palace of Wisdom, has really turned into everything he should have become after his feud with Randy Orton, and in doing so, has changed the direction of not just his career but those of Big E and Xavier Woods. As the elder statesman, or as X explicitly called him, Patriarch of the New Day, Kofi lends a political gravitas -- as in the politics of the WWE, not the country -- which gives them creative freedom that a group like Team BAD doesn’t quite have yet and no group has really possessed since DX had glowsticks and dick jokes. 

However, Kalisto and Kofi soured me on the Brooklyn crowd more than anything else. A well-told and relatively fresh story -- or at least one distinctly told through the language of lucha libre and not sports entertainment -- the reaction from the crowd, who chanted “boring” during the decidedly fun and interesting (if not perfectly executed) Sasha/Becky match, left a ton to be desired. Even Big E couldn’t get the crowd going to nearly the level it should have, which is just SHAMEful.

SHAME on you, Brooklyn. SHAME.

***

This MizTV segment, and the subsequent match, was one that was obviously played for laughs, but made me super sad. Not because I was particularly offended, or because it ended with a Big Show match like some sort of cosmic WWE Universe-specific punishment for all the times I publicly defended him as “not nearly as bad as you make him out to be, guys.”. But because I really, genuinely, wanted to hear Miz go through his Year in Review and we never got past January 3rd. Now, I’m aware wrestling is fake, and that the goal is to leave me wanting more, but I didn’t even get to find out which yoga center The Miz took his first bikram class and, real talk, that’s just some serious ass bullshit.

Speaking of serious-ass bullshit, the League of Nations is pretty much the poster child for that at the moment. They are simultaneously one-dimensional foreign menaces and the most “dangerous” faction in the company unless the match is happening in an orchestra pit. But they also serve as cannon fodder for the champ, and more often than not find themselves barely scraping by with a victory or winning because of the kind of cheating that makes them look weak but not that smart. It’s a weird group of guys I absolutely love who genuinely seem to love working together/what they might be potentially building, but right now, they have to do less telling and more showing about how powerful and dangerous they are.

Thankfully, while it was slow going in the beginning, the main event match between a returning John Cena -- who, speaking of gilding the lily, made yet another reference to the manhood (both literal and physical) of his opponent in a way that is just the sad kind of gross -- and mi corazon, Alberto Del Rio, played against this idea. Much better than their first match, and in a way that seems like it bodes extremely well for their inevitable PPV match for the belt, in retrospect, this was precisely the type of match John needed to come back to.  And, outside of the backstage segment with Zeb, it was also the best Alberto has sounded on the mic since he came back. While there were obvious logistical reasons behind Sheamus being the de facto leader of the League of Nations as well as the team meber who is actively feuding with Roman Reigns, Alberto Del Rio is -- at least to these eyes -- the best performer in the group, and helping to build segments like this with top stars in a way that worked much better than what happened after the match is exactly why.

HAVING SAID THAT, Roman Reigns -- who, SHOCKINGLY, ran all over the LoN, including completely punking out their spiritual leader despite their spiritual leader having a very tangible chair in his hands -- is really starting to build himself up in the eyes of the crowd to where the WWE actually books him. While he’s not quite back to where he was before the Shield breakup, he has developed into a character that nearly everyone wants to see, and see punch things hard. This feud with Sheamus & Co. may not be long for this world, but it seems like he and the McMahons have some fuel for quite the barnburner down the road.


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