While many things became very clear to me very quickly watching last night's episode of Monday Night Raw, some were much more readily apparent than others. One thing we all learned was that WWE Champion Randy Orton does not understand how an audience participation game works. Another was that COO Triple H cuts pretty much exactly the same promo when leading his crooked corporation as he did as an upstart member of the beloved D-Generation X, right down to the irritatingly abrasive ring introductions. And a third was that the WWE believes, apparently, that what's "good for business" is to watch a WWE Studios favorite, The Big Show, chew more scenery than he ever did during Knucklehead (and that, clearly, is saying something) and visibly emote.
What superseded all of these random and illuminating thoughts, however, was one big monster of an idea. How on earth can the WWE hope to cope without their ex-champ and fan favorite John Cena? With Cena written out of storylines until at least the Royal Rumble, the only way errant fanboys can get their fix is to follow his Twitter feed or watch Total Divas (which, in itself, is rather apropos). Considering how much time, effort, and cold cash has been stuffed into the ballot box to make Cena the most popular guy at the high school dance that is the WWE Universe, what is a huge conglomerate to do when injury removes the ability to maintain the status quo? The answer lies not with the most obvious choice to supplant him temporarily, that being #1 contender and the world's best tie-choker, Daniel Bryan, but with his growing list of enemies.
This is a fascinating time to be a fan of professional wrestling, but even more fascinating to a fan of the WWE. While TNA has veered off into the bizarre, the WWE has once again struck at the heart of the zeitgeist and tapped into the potential goldmine that is reality programming. When the number one show in the country is Duck Dynasty, and more people could recognize Honey Boo Boo than John Kerry, this is not accidental. At its heart, professional wrestling has always been an odd sort of reality programming, way before the term was even a gleam in Mark Burnett's eye. This is the place where the rubber meets the road, and it's on all the time. There is no opportunity to hit the writer's room for an extended stay and let new headlines populate themselves. Other than news programming, there's literally nothing else like it.
Currently, though, the reality has never been more clear. And the public's appetite for said content has only grown larger and larger all the while. We want to know everything about our pop culture stars. We want to know what the royal baby threw up. We're curious as to what drugs Lindsay Lohan is currently either taking or coming down from. And for the love of all that is holy, we want to know what's going on with Miley Cyrus. That's our culture, for better or worse. This innate inquisitiveness has carried over to one of the last bastions of secrecy, the veiled world of pro wrestling. The secrets of the trade have been exposed, the cat is out of the bag, and the chariot back from the ball just turned into a pumpkin again. Nobody is in Kansas anymore.
Traditionalists may decry this occurrence. A man I respect a great deal (and one of the quintessential talkers and minds in wrestling), Jim Cornette, has spoken at length on the topic. While I appreciate what they are saying, I think that with all due respect they miss the point. Wrestling has always been not just about what's hot now but also what will be hot next. They have been on the cutting edge and forefront of almost every major trend out there, in order to keep up with a fan base that is always looking for bigger, better, and more entertaining action. And while there is plenty to dislike about reality television, it does make you feel more involved. While I can't quite wrap my head around the excitement of watching the inventors of a duck whistle party down in a Southern factory, I can definitely figure out the appeal of tried and true good vs. evil. That's no surprise, since just about every good story from the Bible to Harry Potter and everything in between examines it thoroughly. It is the most lasting concept in all of literature, and all of pop culture on top of that.
It used to be a heck of a lot simpler. Wrestling could present the good guy we're supposed to cheer for. Hey, he's got an American flag! Wow, he told us to take vitamins! Awesome, he stands by his friends and won't back down from anyone! Equally evident were the gentlemen (and ladies) we weren't to care for. These were the sort of reprobates that would steal your girl, make your best friend hate you, cast aspersions regarding your country, and call you fat. This is serious business. We could rest assured that at the end of the day, the bad dudes would get theirs, and the guys we were pulling for would set things right yet again. The same story told over and over differently, but still an epic tale. The most epic tale, in fact.
As wrestling went on, that simple story no longer became good enough. The fans outgrew it and demanded that things get more realistic to keep up with the times. This was not boxing anymore; this was MMA and UFC territory. If you're going to tell me the same morality tale you spun when I was eleven, you better damn well get some blood and guts in there to keep me amused. One of the most compelling elements of the Attitude Era in the WWE was this same morality tale, dressed up (again, with the times) as the everyman versus the evil corporation running the show. We were allowed to hate Vince McMahon because we WANTED to hate Vince McMahon. We wanted to hate his stupid cornflower suit and his awful announcing and his ability to get spit on by Bret Hart (actually, I admire that last one).
We didn't just want to hate him for that, though. We hated him because he was the boss. The nameless, faceless symbol of control and authority that most of us fight for all our lives in so many small ways to overcome. While I'm not sure every reader wants to give their boss the middle finger and Stunner him through a table, I'm pretty certain everyone's been at that point at least once in their professional lives. Vince tapped into the bloodstream of concern over politics, world economies, and just having a bad day and turned it into the epic Austin vs. McMahon mega feud that dominated that time period. And, as the true incarnate of PT Barnum, he made himself the arch villain. Never question this man's commitment to a storyline. Method actors have nothing on VKM. While I may disagree with many things before and since, this is an automatic. It was ballsy and it was damn good.
Austin himself commented on this recently, as many have picked up on the eerie similarities between that storyline and the current one featuring Everyman hero Daniel Bryan versus pretty much that same corporation. The names have changed, to be sure, but we're once again treated to a behind-the-scenes big shot and storyline honcho being at the center of a devious plot to tell us fans that they know better as to who we should root for. The difference this time is that Triple H was beloved by many as a wrestler before any of this went down. Whether you were an admirer of the Kliq or not, there is no question he sold a lot of merch in those salad days. I don't think it was very hard to drum up support to dislike Vinnie Mac; Triple H (especially given the way he obtained the role) would be for many a harder sell.
And that is what we're being sold here. Randy Orton is nothing more than a highly muscled lettuce wrap, a decorative vehicle being used to disguise the meaty center that is this villain for our current day and age. Is Triple H good enough to not just follow in Vince's shoes, but outdo him? What a truly sadistically brilliant question. Wouldn't that be Trips's mega-dream to end all fantasy sequences anyway? Where does this reality storyline intersect with true bravado and ambition? I suspect that the presence or absence of the elder McMahon will go a long way to answering that question for us all. Orton didn't captivate us when he was acting far worse than he is now. He certainly will never compete for most stellar man on the microphone. But Hunter, well that's a horse of a different color. This man (rumored or fact, you be the judge) has done his level best to be the center of attention both in front of and behind the camera since the day he stepped foot in the WWE. This is the legendary villain you've been waiting for. The gifted Shield members that form his blatantly-New-World-Order-ripoff-posse? Window dressing.
Cena being absent from the WWE for an extended time is their worst nightmare. It may also be our greatest opportunity to see this group tell a different and more unique story than the one they were preparing. Cena is prepackaged hero material, but he's only as strong as his opposition. While that's true for many people, and not meant as an outright criticism, it's a tale we've seen woven before. The meaning behind the week-to-week shamings and beatdowns of Bryan have nothing to do with Bryan himself. The decision as to whether this man is good enough to be champion is an obvious one and has likely already been made. Whatever door Shawn Michaels broke down was removed the rest of the way from its hinges by CM Punk many fateful days ago. Triple H buys into Bryan. Whether or not that's due to the fans (highly doubtful if you've read your history) is irrelevant. What you are being sold is the other side of the story. In order for Daniel Bryan or anyone else to truly captivate the fans, particularly during this critical period, you simply must buy into Triple H & Stephanie as adversaries the likes of which you've never seen.
I personally have found this storyline tedious, but I'm always waiting for the next twist. I'm not here to sell you on it either way; merely to make you aware of one writer's opinion on the devil in the details. I do appreciate the further injections of reality that have occurred in this regime to attempt to separate it from what was already done brilliantly not twenty years ago. I have no umbrage with revisiting past history, provided that it's presented in a fresh and exciting way. Getting into Big Show's personal history and "firing" Cody Rhodes while discussing his impending nuptials would have been sacrosanct even in the Attitude era. That was in your face, this is in your news. It's intriguing, but it relies on the broad shoulders of Trips to pull it off. Regardless of how long this battle between Bryan and Orton goes on, the real battle is between the evil incarnate that was Vince McMahon and the new boss, the DXer turned director, the crotch chopper turned budget broker, Triple H. Is this foe strong enough to hold up his end of the story? Can this tale be told again, even now, even in the midst of information being old two seconds before you've seen or heard it? We'll see.
* I cannot help but feel that WWE missed a chance on Raw to insert even a bit more realism into one of their storylines. Unlike the Show segment, I found Cody Rhodes extremely believable in his role and felt like it continued his trajectory as a breakout star. His work in the feud with Damien Sandow has been top-notch, and I appreciated the historical perspective he gave in his passionate backstage interview with Josh Matthews. What was missing, though, was the American Dream himself. Dusty is still heavily involved in the WWE, and there can be little question he was available. He's also participated in angles with Cody before. I love when wrestling dips into the past (distant or recent) and gives fans a perspective on where it came from. Having Dusty present to cheer his son on in his potential last match would have been an emotional jackpot that we haven't seen since Mark Henry's brilliant retirement speech. I suppose this could still be an element of what's to come (particularly with the name dropping), but it would have been way more effective if employed here in my view.
* Plenty of reaction to last week's column regarding AJ Lee's tearing down of all things Diva, and an overwhelming amount of it was supportive. I had high hopes going into this week's edition of Raw, and while I'll certainly let my readers be the judge, it seemed tres status quo to me. Ho-hum, a Divas four-way watch at Night of Champions featuring a couple ladies plucked from a Raw Roulette board of who's in the division. Yawn. We also got another brutal Divas "match" which featured exactly one good moment, which was AJ on brief commentary and interfering to end the match before being piled on. I'm still at a loss for who we're supposed to be rooting for here. AJ is a heel attacking WWE's feel-good hit reality show and causing Divas, heel and face alike, to attack her in indignation. And you thought the Ziggler/AJ/Big E storyline was confusing. Regardless, an opportunity to follow up on that great segment last week went by the wayside and we got the same slop that caused many of you to nod your heads with me in unison while AJ was spouting of last week. Business as usual.
* Readers of this space will recall my utter disdain of what's been going on with Ryback. While we actually did get a Ryback match this week, rather than him staring down a pizza delivery guy who forgot the no anchovies rule, it was negated by the fact that his opponent, Dolph Ziggler, had already been demolished in a sneak attack by US Champion (and criminally underused) Dean Ambrose. If this was an effort to get anyone impressed by Ryback, it failed. If it was an effort to continue the storyline that a guy built like Arnold in Predator is at heart a coward, that might actually be worse. If you took away Ryback's illegal move set, I'm pretty sure he did about three punches, two kicks, and a throw. Maybe it at least got the focus off the bad press the WWE's been getting for the backstage bullying segments. We can just get back to the bad press for reviewing a Ryback match. Again I plead: make the guy a monster or cut your losses and let the fans have a larger-than-life character to root for. Imagine the excitement over someone like Ryback taking the fight to the McMahon colossus? A star is born, again.
* The two most compelling characters on WWE programming every week (not named Daniel Bryan) continue to be Paul Heyman and Bray Wyatt. For Heyman, his feud with Punk has been another high point in a year full of them for both men. There's not a person alive that isn't rooting in some way for Punk to get a hold of Paul at Night of Champions. I haven't seen a manager generate this kind of heat in years. His backstage segment with Brad Maddox & Triple H provided a little history while once again giving Heyman a chance to display his truly genius mic skills. Enjoy this for however long it lasts. As to Wyatt, I am fascinated that someone who wrestles barely at all can continue to be at the forefront of buzz. While I would much prefer to see him in the ring, less may be more at this stage. I am more than fine with a slow build here. I think the WWE has a monster in the making with this guy, and his ability to tell a story with seriously creepy vibes is far scarier than paying money to see either Hornswoggle or Brodus Clay in a movie. Well done, sir.
That is all I have for you this week. I as always thank you for taking the time to read the column and appreciate your feedback, input, and chain mail in the space below. You can reach me on Twitter @coffeyfan77 or via email at firstname.lastname@example.org. I hope to see you Friday for the headlines. Have a great week everyone!