This week’s episode of Monday Night Raw had a lot going for it, coming off of a pretty hot Royal Rumble PPV that, while leaving people divided on the state of the Heavyweight title picture, at least evoked a lot of emotion and strung together quite a few fun stories. A lot of those stories are built upon tonight, but as has been the case with WWE, their hit-to-miss ratio is woefully lopsided in favor of the misses. The company has delivered some praise-worthy moments over the last few months, but has consistently failed to keep the momentum going.

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It’s interesting then that so many of WWE’s creative problems are embodied in a single segment tonight. About halfway through the show, a big return is finally revealed: the Rock is back in his home town, his appearance surprising absolutely nobody, and the following segment is both everything good (New Day) and bad (everything else) about current WWE storytelling and creative direction. Look, unless you’re blindly nostalgic or in denial, the Rock is not a great character. He had his time in the Attitude Era, but even then his shtick was obnoxious—sometimes on purpose, sometimes not. Now, in 2016, he’s like Jericho; a relic of the past that doesn’t deserve to get the time and freedom he does with his occasional appearances. Across 25(!) minutes, the Rock manages to intro his own entrance, pull out some seriously sexist and unwarranted shit against living deity Lana while backstage, and then do everything he can to ruin a New Day segment, whose role on this show is still, frustratingly, to interact with bland, old, or terrible babyfaces.

It’s great that New Day gets some good stuff in. Their hushed confirmation of “you can’t say penises on TV” was delightful, as was them standing up in defense of Byron Saxton to the dismissive Rock. Their stuff stands in stark contrast to the Rock though, who decides to go off script, indulge a bunch of assholes in the audience who WWE actually moved during the commercial break because they were obnoxiously putting themselves over, and then proceeds to Rock Bottom all of New Day because…he’s pumped about Wrestlemania? Nobody knows. But the “nobody knows” is the problem with WWE creative. Imagine, for a second, WWE giving anyone on their unbelievably deep and talented roster the time and creative freedom they gave the Rock tonight. Imagine they allowed some of these guys to go off script, allowed them time on the mic to work out gimmicks and motivations and feuds. Imagine that and now look at the reality, where the most mic time is afforded to Jericho, who wrestles one or two PPVs a year, and the Rock, who doesn’t wrestle at all. It’s indicative of WWE’s frustratingly nostalgic mindset, and it’s keeping some of the best guys in the locker room in a state of creative stagnation. No wonder the entire show has suffered after losing a few reliable, top-level superstars.

Really, this week’s Raw is a tale of two completely different shows. There’s the first half, which expertly builds upon the Royal Rumble and puts a few feuds in a good position. There’s AJ Styles having his debut against Chris Jericho. The finish to their match is a little wonky, but it’s hard to argue with the WWE version of AJ Styles so far, which is really just AJ Styles doing his thing. I like that they’re teasing the Styles Clash as well, much as they did with Hideo Itami and the GTS. “This is where I belong,” shouts AJ as he comes out with easily one of the best current WWE entrances, and I couldn’t agree more. On top of that, WWE continues to surprise by actually making the Divas championship scene meaningful and relevant. After Sunday’s surprise Sasha Banks appearance, it looks like WWE is building towards a Sasha, Becky, Charlotte Triple Threat at some point in the future, either at Fastlane or Wrestlemania. What’s great is that they’re not just throwing those three into the mix, but giving them all clear motivations and stories. Tonight’s segment is short, with Becky and Sasha wrestling for about three minutes before Charlotte comes out and demolishes both of them, but it’s perfect for the build. Plus, there was no Ric Flair, which I think is a good move for Charlotte going forward. It’s time to make this feud about these three women and nobody else.

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The first half of this show even has some good throwaway segments. Ziggler and Owens get a match that doesn’t mean a whole lot, and while it’s something we’ve seen over and over again, it never fails to disappoint. Those two guys can work, so let them do it. Plus, Owens was still selling from his Last Man Standing match the night before, once again affirming that he’s the best wrestler in the business right now. Then there’s the Social Outcasts in a segment that’s ultimately to get the Dudleys and Flo Rida over for some reason, but involves Bo Dallas (aka. Bo Rida) absolutely destroying Flo Rida in a rap battle. Between that and his new singlet, Bo Dallas is back in business, baby.

Most of that good stuff is overshadowed by the lackluster back half of the show though. There’s the horrendous, long Rock promo, a match between Kane and Bray Wyatt that the crowd completely hijacks—you deserve more than this, Bray—the seemigly weekly Total Divas match, and a main event that’s like every other main event of the last few weeks, with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose facing off against Rusev and Sheamus. The final announce table spot is cool because it’s the Reigns that everybody loves and calls back to the Shield, but otherwise, it’s more of the same from WWE. There’s the promise of something great in the announced Fastlane main event, where Roman Reigns, Dean Ambrose, and Brock Lesnar will face off in a Triple Threat match to see who challenges Triple H for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Wrestlemania, but that’s still a few weeks away. For now, WWE is still misfiring all too often.

Stray observations

  • Results: Kevin Owens defeated Dolph Ziggler; The Dudley Boyz defeated Curtis Axel and Bo Dallas; AJ Styles defeated Chris Jericho; Sasha Bank vs. Becky Lynch ended in a No Contest; Bray Wyatt defeated Kane; Paige and Natalya defeated Brie Bella and Alicia Fox; Kalisto defeated The Miz; Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose defeated Sheamus and Rusev.
  • That Triple H promo to start the show was fire, and might as well have been a shoot, talking about how delusional fans are. “You guys live in this fantasy world.”
  • The Dudleys having no idea who was the legal man for the pin was unintentionally hilarious.
  • AJ Styles’ entrance music is so good.
  • So, Goldust is looking for a new partner. Ignoring the fact that the segment was stuck in the homophobic ‘90s, any guesses on who he might find? Stardust/Cody Rhodes again?
  • I can’t overstate how much I hated Rock’s entire interaction with Lana.
  • The Rock is like the hot guy or girl in high school who treats you like shit constantly, but every now and then they wink at you so you idolize the hell out of them.
  • Hey, Michael Cole. Any idea if Ambrose is crazy? I’m curious where you stand on this.

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