The December 14th edition of Raw may as well have been called Attitude Era: One Night Stand. Between a lengthy tribute to classic ECW brawls, an irate Vince McMahon, and a thrilling finale where the finish was juuuust in doubt enough to leave you hanging on each beat in the action, it was hard to complain about much. Considering that the show was in notoriously hostile Philadelphia, the city that ate Roman Reigns alive back in January, expectations were that it’d be a night of defiant chants toward bland action (as defiant as a paying customer can be, anyway).
Instead, it was probably the best Raw of the year, trumping the post-WrestleMania edition that died a painful death as soon as Byron Saxton donned the headset. There seemed to be energized motivation, as well as emphasis on more than the usual characters. WWE could be classified as a production that’s several years behind present day in terms of flipping its internal calendar, and this December 14 show sprung a handful of springs all at once.
You knew it was a special night when Reigns came out on top as WWE World Heavyweight Champion in the same city that booed him as though he’d set fire to both Pat’s and Geno’s Cheesesteaks, except this time they hailed him as a conquering hero. Twenty-four hours have done wonders in resurrecting a can’t-miss that the company geniuses were previously steering into pillars, trees, and other blunt structures out of stunted vision.
Full disclosure: everything written after the jump I had written between 1 and 6 p.m. EST on Monday, before said December 14 Raw went on the air, thus before Reigns won the championship. Nothing written below was compromised by Raw in any way, and so I present my unedited thoughts on how Reigns was presented at TLC, and why it was the right thing to do.
There was no blood shed during Roman Reigns’ hellbent thrashing of Triple H at the end of Sunday night’s TLC pay-per-view, meaning blood was the metaphorical ‘kitchen sink’ from the oft-used phrase. Aside from blood, every sort of violent demonstration potentially allowable under WWE’s green-lit list of such acts was pulled into play. There was a prolonged chair shot beating, a Spanish broadcast table bump (in duplicate), and a particularly vicious spear outside the ring once it seemed like the rampage had already concluded. In other words, it was what an anodyne, family-friendly version of The Red Wedding would look like. All that was missing was Reigns flinging Helmsley’s rotting corpse into Boston Harbor, accidentally-not-accidentally ignoring a perfectly good burning boat.
If you caught Tables, Ladders, and Chairs on Sunday night, or at least read about the events therein, you know that an overplayed hand, caked in hardened grime, was backed by yet another ante. Babyface ‘hero’ has the World title won from nefarious, office-endorsed fiend, only for the one-note allies of said fiend to run interference, setting forth a chain of events that allows for the hero to walk away empty-handed, delaying the inevitable revenge. It’s become such a tired crutch for prolonging an over-told story. If WWE main event storylines of the past thirteen years were composed into a Dance Dance Revolution game, there’d only be an easy level, and there’d be just one routine to conquer. It’d be the first video game since Urban Champion that could be summarily beaten under the influence of industrial-strength NyQuil.
For the crowd in Boston, who had taken to chanting for every absent performer from John Cena (gasp!) to Daniel Bryan to Seth Rollins to Blake Beverly, it was another shambling trudge down that green mile, and even broken ladders and tables didn’t produce the same highs that they once did. Sheamus gets planted through a ladder that inexplicably vomits out wood chips at its breaking point, and the pop is a lone firework rather than a sky-filling display. Fans have become accustomed to viewing an event like TLC as a pit stop before the Royal Rumble, so they’re not expecting a startling turn of events. The WWE-brand hero and villain molds as they existed prior to 10:50 PM eastern time on Sunday weren’t passing the smell test either, so nothing Reigns or Sheamus could do was going to prove substantial. Short of Sheamus getting a baseball bat shoved down his throat like Jake Busey in Identity, the crowd had seen all of this before. And it was all stale.
By now, you know the crowd came to life in the aftermath, supercharged by Reigns doing what Force of Nature Reigns would have done in 2013 under the same circumstances, and that’s obliterate all of the wrongdoers with a steely rage. After beating Sheamus and the interfering Rusev and Alberto Del Rio thoroughly with a chair, the focus turned to peacemaker Triple H. That’s when some basic acting skills came into play, as Reigns’ face turned several shades more hostile (spurring a palpable crowd buzz when his maddened mug was revealed on the TitanTron). He then proceeded to blast Neanderthal-browed Helmlsey back to the Stone Age like a circus bear free from his muzzle. Every ensuing act of malice received those ‘egging-on’ brand of cheers. Do it again, said those same people that scoffed at the Superman punches five to ten minutes earlier.
Why did the crowd turn? It’s not even for the Stone Cold-like levels of sadistic vengeance themselves, but rather the spirit behind them. How many times has a pay-per-view merely faded to black after the screwjob finish? You know the ones, those signoffs where the jubilant heel celebrates while backing up the entrance ramp, gloating and brandishing his belt while the sullen babyface can only stare at him from the canvas. That’s 10:47 PM on a lot of Sunday nights for many viewers, who now have to wait twenty-one hours to see what that fallen hero does for revenge. Usually, if it’s John Cena, it’s crack infantile jokes in a peppy, sing-song voice toward the offenders, and then say something like, “Anywho, I’d like a rematch,” and the heels, under no obligation to comply, become dopey eunuchs and meet him halfway with some type of gauntlet or number one contender’s challenge. Or, sometimes, they just outright give him the match he wants, because they’re upset that Cena called them a ‘nampy-pampy turd brain,’ and they’re gonna show him, by god!
That’s the big point of contention for a lot of viewers – the jokiness. Is there actually a fear within WWE that if Cena goes ten or more seconds without smiling, the stock value drops a full point? That children will run to their bedrooms crying because their hero isn’t happy? That Mattel will end their licensing agreement because they’re afraid WWE is going to ask them to market a Frowny-Face Cena figure? I mean, if *that* were the case, you could see how Mattel would find that unseemly, seeing as they only make dolls that depict positive role models for kids, like impossibly-shaped Barbies with waistbands that twist-ties can fit around three or four times over.
But enough about toys – instead, let’s redirect back to the man that could sell them much more easily in Reigns’ state of presentation in TLC’s main event post-script, and how his actions will be viewed by the target audience.
I became a wrestling fan at the age of five. By the time of my eleventh birthday in 1994, Randy Savage was a week removed from leaving the WWF, a company which I was now old enough to realize was not as fun as it once was. Even at eleven, the age when I was still assembling Lego structures and watching Nickelodeon, my tastes had matured enough to where I could watch an entire baseball or football game without becoming fidgety or bored. My parents trusted that I could handle PG-13 movies (and R-rated ones that they didn’t know about). Maybe not every eleven-year-old today watches TV shows that deftly walked the lines between subtlety and broadness that Seinfeld, Friends, and Married with Children managed to scale (all vital parts of my fifth grade diet), but I’ll bet many of similar kids sought out objectionable content whenever possible. For me, it was Beavis and Butthead, as well as Jerky Boys albums. That eleven-year-old that cackled at Butthead gagging on a piece of chicken while Beavis was blissfully oblivious was the same fifth-grader that thought Todd Pettengill was a dork, that thought Duke “The Dumpster” Droese and Abe “Knuckleball” Schwartz were terrible characters. That kid had to turn to ECW on Tuesday nights to cleanse his palette.
It’s one thing for a wrestling company to coat its production with enough varnish and gloss to reduce any subjective ugliness. It’s another to remove all semblance of grit from the characters, because even kids can get sick of too much sugar. I liked The Ultimate Warrior and The Legion of Doom because they recklessly beat the hell out of people. I wanted to grow up, put on spiked shoulder pads, and become a fearsome vigilante because of Animal and Hawk. Conversely, Lex Luger preaching Americana with a painted-on smile positively bored me. The appeal has to come from the performer, not the machine. Now if Luger had taken an American flag and impaled the end of the pole through Yokozuna’s eye socket, Vince probably would’ve been doing the Scrooge McDuck backstroke through the ensuing windfall. Instead, the enduring image of Luger as Splenda-Sweetened Rambo is him celebrating a count-out victory like it was Brandi Chastain’s World Cup-winning goal, except his shirt was already done away with.
Why wasn’t Luger angry? If his lone title shot were to dissipate unsatisfactorily, he should have raised a little more hell. Granted, the circumstance was caused by him braining Yokozuna with the ‘loaded forearm’ and causing Yoko to tumble to the floor at SummerSlam 1993, so to an honest observer, Luger facilitated his own unhappy ending. Nonetheless, Luger should have been throwing Jim Cornette into the tenth row, and running Mr. Fuji over with the Lex Express tour bus. Sure, he’d be a sore loser, but we could empathize with his boiling rage.
The argument for making someone like Reigns say goofy stuff like ‘sufferin’ succotash’ and ‘tater tots’ is that you’re making him appealing to a Disney-fed audience. That appeal, ostensibly, comes from taking a big scary guy like Reigns, with his razor-sharp scowl and wholly credible physique, and telling kids, “It’s okay; he’s a nice guy! Look, you can pet him!” The frequent smiles and chuckles and soft-spokenness through all of his obstacles makes Reigns less of a kind-hearted half-man/half-monster, and more an unfeeling robot. The aforementioned kiddie phrases are the droid’s attempt to assimilate human speak. ‘Tater tots’ is such an insipid thought, that Joe Anoa’i’s human voice shouldn’t have spoken it – it should have expelled from his abdomen on stock-ticker paper.
What WWE doesn’t seem to realize is that while a 32-year-old would find that kind of Reigns to be lame and stupid, a lot of 12-year-olds would probably concur. It’s the same reason I barely told most of my classmates that I liked wrestling. I don’t think I could defend ‘tater tots’ to the popular girls or the cool jocks that were worth impressing.
When Reigns blew his gasket and began killing everyone in sight, the crowd finally gave him the reaction that had been eluding him for over a year, and that was truly impressive, because Boston is not a nice sports town. Ask Khloe Kardashian’s poor, poor husband Lamar Odom, who once had Celtics fans serenade him with chants of ‘UGLY SISTER’, which is actually pretty funny in its wince-inducing form. It had taken WWE this long to realize, “Hey, maybe instead of trying to make Reigns the new Cena or the new Bryan or the new Rock, how about we make him the new Lesnar? I mean, he looks scary and is insanely powerful, so….yeah?” It’s becoming easier to identify WWE as deaf and blind as they are when you realize that in the eight months since Brock Lesnar received cheers for F5ing Michael Cole into oblivion, that they haven’t tried to book any other babyface the same way. Maybe a Mattel executive immediately phoned Vince in tears as Cole did the stretcher job, who knows?
It’s actually an eye-opening commentary on WWE’s booking that Reigns got the reaction he received last night. It says that WWE truly doesn’t book its babyfaces like vigilant killers in the vein of The Punisher, and thus Reigns’ violent actions actually surprised them. You need only go back as far as January 2015 to see smart-aleck Dolph Ziggler, towering Erick Rowan, and explosively-confrontational Ryback stand there like gutless saps as Stephanie McMahon snipped off all of their testicles prior to firing them. I understand it’s not the Attitude Era, and you can’t hit Stephanie, but shouldn’t Ryback be lurching forward and ripping Hunter’s throat out?
For all of the guesswork and armchairing over what’s causing the ratings plummet, I’d offer the lack of true conflict. Nobody’s sneering and scowling on the way to the ring, nobody’s attacking while the opponent makes their entrance, nobody’s consistently on edge until they’ve wiped out the opposition. Everybody waits their turn to talk instead of aggressively cutting their nemesis off, because there’s a ‘story’ to tell. All of the babyfaces are putting on affable smiles, because somebody in power thinks that angst is uncool. It can be, but angst paid off with the destruction of opposing evil is way, way cool.
In 1981, NBC executive, and future WWE ally, Dick Ebersol became executive producer of a critically-plummeting Saturday Night Live. Tasked with restoring the show’s faded glory, he brought back original SNL writer Michael O’Donoghue, whose grim, caustic, extremely dark sense of humor paralleled his grim, caustic, extremely dark personality. On O’Donoghue’s first day back at work, he tried to make a profound statement toward the cast and fellow scribes by spray-painting the word “DANGER” on the wall of one of the writing rooms. He then turned to everyone and calmly stated, “THIS…..is what the show lacks.”
Everyone rendered frenzied by Reigns pulverizing Helmsley knows this feeling all too well: WWE has lacked ‘danger’ for a long time, and that’s to be expected when the show is overrun by writers afraid to take chances, corporate officers who only look at the bottom line, and wrestlers unwilling to force the issue aside from the occasional to-be-deleted tweet.
The Attitude Era, when it was the ‘status quo’, was all about danger, or at least emboldened chaos. Danger and chaos keep the audience awake, because otherwise, they’re afraid they’re going to miss something.
Judging by the third-hour Raw numbers, it’s been a while since the audience has willingly fought sleep. Let’s hope the chaos continues.
Follow Wrestledelphia.com columnist Justin Henry on Twitter @JRHWriting.