We talk a lot about the little details here at the A.V. Club. With episodic TV criticism, there’s the need to pick apart those small moments because they can have huge implications across an entire season. Plus, as episode after episode piles up, those small details become important. They’re the building blocks necessary to keep a story grounded, to keep it from falling over under the weight of various plotlines and shifting character motivations. Raw is held to the same standard. It’s a different beast than an FX drama to be sure, but it’s still episodic storytelling. So, the details matter. They come together to form a bigger picture, and when everything’s aligned just right, that bigger picture is something truly special. See: Seth Rollins cashing in at Wrestlemania.
WWE’s flagship show is anything but aligned right now. In fact, it’s a complete mess. In last week’s review I talked a bit about how some of that mess can be waved away as a necessary picking up of pieces after Finn Balor was injured, derailing a lot of the long-term plans WWE had for Raw and its Universal Championship. But I also said that at some point the excuses had to stop. At this point, Raw needs to adapt, and to be fair, Clash Of Champions did a pretty good job of setting up future storylines. As always, the solid in-ring work was occasionally marred by some shoddy booking, but overall the stories for the next few weeks were set up in satisfying fashion.
Now, here’s the problem: WWE repeated those steps again the very next night. Seriously, the first hour or so of this week’s show is basically Clash Of Champions: The Re-Clashing, as Roman Reigns defends his newly claimed United States Championship against Rusev, and The New Day defend their titles against Gallows and Anderson. On paper, the structure of the first match isn’t a bad idea. It’s a 30-minute slugfest that proves both of these guys are forces to be reckoned with. In execution though, that’s not exactly the story being told. Instead, Michael Cole and company drive home how beat up and exhausted these guys are from their match the night before. That angle is meant to legitimize what these guys do and make them seem tough, but when coupled with the slower pace, the match ends up achieving the opposite affect. Rather than making it seem like these guys are tough, the story being told is that these are two very tired and very hurt superstars who can barely get through this match. That doesn’t exactly make for compelling wrestling storytelling.
Structure matters. Storytelling details matter. In other words, starting your three hour show with a 30-minute, slow-paced match based on the fact that the two competitors are beat from the night before isn’t any way to assure your audience that this episode is going to be any better than last week. That same kind of complacency, or lack of attention, extends to the next match as well, as Gallows and Anderson get yet another shot at the Tag Team Championships despite the fact that they’ve lost every single title match they’ve been in; maybe some good old rest and relaxation in Puerto Rico would actually do them some good. Anyways, that match is, like the one before it, just a slower version of the great PPV match they had. It accomplishes nothing. Look, having title matches on Raw is a great idea. You need to instill the sense that big things could happen on the show, and title matches are the most obvious way to tease such a possibility. But if you’re just telling the same story you told only one night before, it’s pointless, redundant, and a complete waste of everyone’s time. Nobody benefits from this match. New Day are in the same spot they were last night, and Gallows and Anderson actually move down a peg, their momentum from looking mean as all hell last night totally squandered.
That doesn’t mean that this week’s Raw doesn’t contain some inspired moments and atenntion to detail. In fact, once the show gets over the stumbling block of regurgitating Clash Of Champions, it becomes a pretty solid show. Take the Cruiserweights for instance. Set up for failure in last week’s episode, they come back strong this week with two segments that manage to make the division feel a little more defined than before. There are still problems—TJ Perkins, who’s clearly talented in the ring, remains devoid of charisma during his promos—but the good far outweighs the bad. The change in production, with the purple ropes and lighting, is a great touch, and the matches themselves achieve what we all hoped they would: a needed change of pace in the three-hour format. The two matches tonight are pretty high energy, even if Perkins ends up looking like the least interesting man in the bunch. He’s not only outshined by Tony Nese in his own match, but also by Cedric Alexander and Rich Swann in an earlier bout. Plus, Brian Kendrick shows up, and that guy is on some serious next-level heel work right now, acting his ass off and putting meaning behind his words. That’s bad for Perkins, but great for the Cruiserweight division.
That same freshness comes in handy in the main event. When Ezno and Cass’ music hits during the Highlight Reel with Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens, it’s a moment worthy of a real pop. That’s because it’s a great distraction from the typical main event booking that’s defined the last few weeks of Raw. There’s no reason to give Enzo and Cass the win, but the very nature of having them wrestle in the main event, and keeping things fresh, is promising. Again, it’s a small detail, but it pays off. The same can be said of how WWE is using Cesaro and Sheamus, as well as Charlotte right now. Both stories get moved forward this week, and the result is some of the more exciting segments of the night. While Charlotte kills it with a promo—her mic work is on-par with her in-ring work now, and she looks like a true Champion—and the crowd is welcomed into a hot Banks-Charlotte feud, Cesaro and Sheamus are forced into a reluctant tag team. That’s really the best possible option for these two guys. It gives them more story to work with, which last night’s draw clearly necessitated, and also keeps these two stars busy with something meaningful. Their match against a couple of jobbers is delightful, but what’s more exciting is that it only hints at what these two could do together.
So, despite the sluggish and baffling start to the show, this week’s Raw actually manages to (mostly) find solid footing for the next few weeks, as the build towards Hell In A Cell begins. After weeks of unsatisfying and downright mind-numbing Raws, that’s a step in the right direction.
- Results: Roman Reigns vs. Rusev ended in a double countout (United States Championship match); New Day defeated Gallows and Anderson (Tag Team Championship match); Bayley defeated Anna Fields; Rich Swann and Cedric Alexander defeated Drew Gulak and Lince Dorado; Sheamus and Cesaro defeated Nick Cutler and Willis Williams; TJ Perkins defeated Tony Nese; Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho defeated Enzo and Cass.
- “Do we have another championship that we can give to Kevin Owens?” Corey Graves speaks for all of us.
- “Go get a doctor’s note that says ‘I can’t wrestle because Kevin Owens broke me in half!’”
- Cole loves to say that the Rusev-Reigns feud is personal, but isn’t too fond of laying out why, because that would make Reigns look like a bad guy.
- Did anyone else miss Kofi getting busted open? I feel like a blinked and then he had a full crimson mask.
- I am ALL IN on Cesaro and Sheamus as a reluctant tag team. As much as I’d love a Cesaro solo run, he killed it with Tyson Kidd, and Sheamus is a guy worthy of top-tier spot away from the Universal Championship. Feels like a good thing for both guys.
- I’m still popping for the Lumbar Check.
- Two title defenses next week: TJ Perkins vs. Brian Kendrick, and Charlotte vs. Sasha Banks.