WrestleMania was on the night before this.

The A.V. Club’s own Kyle Fowle covered all of the bases on that particular front, calling the event “baffling,” so we can leave it at that. Basically, WrestleMania 32 did not come out smelling like roses in the way that—the similarly poorly built—WrestleMania 31 did. But in all of the frustration to come from the event (and from fans letting other fans know whether or not they were right to feel said frustration), there was a dim light at the end of the tunnel. That light? The RAW after WrestleMania. After a night of questioning WWE’s thoughts and choices about the future of its company and this business, WWE pulls out one show a year that’s guaranteed to quiet that questioning for just a moment.

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If that sounded too pessimistic, even though it wasn’t meant to be, please keep in mind that nothing has really changed in over a year.

So this week’s RAW does the job it’s meant to do as the post-WrestleMania show. That doesn’t mean the show’s without its speedbumps though, as the first 20 minutes of the entire show are especially dedicated to reminding the hardcore audience how much they really don’t matter as much as they think they do or WWE often pretends they do. It’s not new for WWE commentators to go on about “bizarro” land or vocal audiences, but this is the first time in recent memory—after a very vocally-panned WrestleMania, mind you—that the show itself has opened with a disclaimer and shaming for such things. The condescension is strong from the moment Michael Cole calls the hardcore crowd a “non-traditional audience.” Keep in mind, 10 years ago, at WrestleMania 22, this type of audience was called a “traditional” one by Jim Ross. And these “non-traditional” crowds are “very vocal,” according to Byron Saxton, which essentially says that in order to be a good or proper crowd, you have to shut up and know your place. Actually it’s JBL who makes sure that point is out in the open:

“They’ll boo the guys they’ll normally cheer, they’ll cheer the guys they normally boo.”

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On the commentary front, these disclaimers are the most aggressive it gets with regards to “explaining” away the crowd, but there are moments throughout the show when it sticks out again: Cole says that the crowd is chanting “get the tables” when they’re clearly chanting for NXT’s Chad Gable and Jason Jordan, and the commentary makes sure to point out that “Bayley isn’t here,” on a night full of surprise debuts of Superstars. The latter feels especially pointed as it’s basically snapping at a crowd who can’t hear them.

But it’s most evident when Vince McMahon himself calls the audience crazy… specifically when they start chanting “better than Roman” at Shane McMahon. The chant is absurd, as a 40-something non-wrestler couldn’t possibly be a better wrestler than, well, a wrestler (though arguments can be made with regards to storytelling, charisma, etc. about what defines that). But the night after Roman Reigns gets booed non-stop in the main event of WrestleMania, the night after a storyline that plenty of fans and legends have voiced their complaints and concerns about, the night after fans who have voiced their complaints and concerns are told they’re watching WWE “wrong,” and the night that an entire audience is already being called “non-traditional”? The last thing that needs to happen is Vince McMahon repeatedly calling the audience “crazy” for booing Roman Reigns. And to say Mr. McMahon is heel and needs to be booed ignores the fact Mr. McMahon hasn’t been fully heel since his feud with DX in 2006 (and possibly, maybe in the Summer of Punk). There’s too much adulation and stepping in to “take down” the Authority for that to be true anymore. Vince McMahon calling the crowd “crazy” for continuing to reject his project? That’s not him just working heel.

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Simply put, it’s very rare to see a television show—a piece of entertainment, as Vince McMahon and company are so keen to call WWE—show such contempt for its audience. (The exception to that is possibly an Aaron Sorkin show when it comes to internet users.) But WWE not only shows that, it absolutely relishes that on its quest to reach out for fair-weather, casual fans. It’s the character in a teen movie who drops all of their nerd friends to be cool. It’s Shane West in Whatever It Takes. It’s Patrick Dempsey in Can’t Buy Me Love. It’s Michael J. Fox in Teen Wolf. Only, with the exception of the Attitude Era, WWE hasn’t gotten to the “cool” part of the movie again. The ones who latch on to WWE now are just as big of nerds as the ones who are already hooked, possibly in different ways but nerds all the same. But they’re still supposedly “crazy” and “non-traditional.”

Then again, the love-hate relationship that WWE creates between its audience and its product just might be the stuff of “crazy,” even if it’s a lot more nuanced than that. The same promo in which Vince calls the audience “crazy” is one where he reminds them and the audience at home that nothing actually matters, not even at WrestleMania. The quickness with which he sweeps that lockbox nonsense from the Vince/Shane storyline is actually rather impressive, even more impressive than the WrestleMania match being all about legacies all of a sudden. And then, in true “have your cake and eat it too” fashion, Vince gives Shane control of RAW. The thing that was up for grabs at WrestleMania but Shane lost fair and square. And if the audience is wondering what Triple H and Stephanie think about it, it doesn’t really matter, since they’re not there and it’s just for a night. The latter is something the commentary team has to make clear throughout the night, because the man who calls his contrarian audience “crazy” hasn’t made it through a single promo lately without the commentary team having to either elaborate on what he meant or at least try to elaborate on what he meant.

So we get a night of Shane “in charge”—as Vince assumes the show will sink… even though he’s previously said Stephanie and Triple H were the sinkers—is conveniently the best recent episode of RAW, because, again, it’s the post-WrestleMania RAW.

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Just imagine for a second if Shane had been given the go-home show to this year’s WrestleMania or something instead of a lay-up.

The League of Nations turn on King Barrett! The Wyatt Family beats down the League of Nations! Summer Rae is given a live mic! Apollo Crews debuts! “He calls it the Deep Six!” Maryse returns! The Miz has a championship again! Enzo Amore and Big Cass debut! Primo and Epico have finally been repackaged back into Puerto Ricans! The Vaudevillains are coming to SmackDown! Cesaro returns and rips his clothing off like the Swiss Superman that he is!!!

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Some of those things are more exciting than others, but they’re all at the very least decently surprising.

Apollo Crews is quite possibly going to be every child’s new favorite wrestler, and I mean that with the utmost respect for him and his work (and children, I guess). He’s a jacked muscle guy who moves like Neville and smiles a lot. He’s going to be the best action figure in the world—he’s basically the best action figure in the world, already. He’s going to make so many wishes. He’s not a great mic guy, but given everything I just said about him, he really doesn’t need to be. He’s got “it,” and his debut match against Tyler Breeze shows it to everyone who didn’t know who he was. That’s actually a good thing about this RAW—if you didn’t know about the new guys, now you know.

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Enzo and Big Cass debuting in front of thousands of people who will know their introduction backwards and forwards makes them look like the million bucks they are. Enzo showing why he’s called “smacktalker Skywalker” and just playing a one-person game of the dozens with the Dudleys tells you everything you need to know about them. Assuming some newcomers saw them perform on Roadblock too, they had the best possibly in-ring showing they’ve ever had in front of those people. And if I were a kid, I’d have my Apollo Crews action figure fight my Big Cass action figure while my Enzo Amore action figure talked smack.

If I were a kid, I’d also have Baron Corbin understand how count-outs work, but maybe now we should acknowledge that I’m not a kid.

As for Primo and Epico, they manage to somehow be the most confusing and fascinating part of the whole three hour show. Supposedly they’re heels, because the xenophobic wrestling trope makes it so people with national pride outside of the United States are bad guys, but my only reactions to the latest Primo/Epico reboot occurred in this order:

  • Wait, this isn’t a commercial.
  • Is their gimmick Carlito again? Or Carlito with a hint of Jamaican Kofi Kingston?
  • Are they being being repackaged as a travel agent couple? And as someone who loves The Americans as much as the next television-obsessed person, I’d be down for that too… if they weren’t related.
  • If they’re being repackaged as the Kratt brothers, they better bring Zoboomafoo back from the dead.
  • Wait, they’re heels? Why is no one acknowledging that video package? Was it a commercial?

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So as one team debuts and another stops pretending to be another nationality, we have the WWE trios situation.

New Day, of course, remains as over as ever after WrestleMania’s legends takeover (with Xavier even blaming himself for what happened in what is honestly tooclose to an abuse victim’s statement for it not to be intentional), but that was never really the question and argument about that WrestleMania segment. What was in question is why WWE couldn’t let them have a moment without reminding everyone how much the past is still more over than them and always will be. Last year during the build-up of WrestleMania, I constantly made the argument that Rusev and Bray Wyatt’s futures would depend on what happened during the show, not in the random episode or pay-per-view that happened after it. No one will remember what happened in a blow-off match on RAW or Payback; they only remember WrestleMania. No one will remember that the New Day retained the titles against the League of Nations the next night on RAW; they’ll only remember when Mick Foley, Stone Cold Steve Austin, and Shawn Michaels (the only in-shape one in the trio) asserted dominance of the League of Nations (who won, not that it’ll be remembered) and New Day. They’ll also remember the Booty-Os, but the point is that that moment couldn’t be the punctuation mark—the past was, yet again.

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Of course, this week’s RAW also posits that a legend emasculating a talent or talents will give them the motivation to finally stop being evil. Or something. The Wyatt Family (arguably as the faces in this scenario) versus League of Nations is a fresh match-up and should be something interesting. But it’s honestly the guys who always lose versus the former important guys who always lose. It’s the Wyatt Family versus the Shield of failed pushes. The Wyatt Family is cheered during this segment because they’re jumping the guys whose matches lead the crowd to do the wave. If it’s a reset button on their team, it’s impossible to do the hardest of resets. Because as much as WWE likes to pretend its audiences have the attention spans of a fruit fly, they really don’t. However, the very idea that they’re willing to do something—anything—to “fix” the Wyatt Family brings out some optimism.

Speaking of “fixing” and “optimism” and “resets” and all of those buzzwords, how about Roman Reigns? The Roman Reigns situation is legitimately tricky here, which is actually progress, since that implies layers that were never there before. I’d say that the boos for Roman are louder on this week’s RAW than they were at WrestleMania, but the only difference I can really point out between the two nights are that the crowd mics were turned down at WrestleMania. Here, the boos are absolutely brutal, and just when you think they can’t get any louder, for once, a WWE crowd actually proves that they can get louder. If the argument is just that people are being contrarian in their boos, please acknowledge the fact that the boos never subside. When a crowd is just booing to boo, they’ll eventually tire themselves out. That doesn’t happen here. It’s actually kind of marvelous to see.

And it comes at a time when WWE finally allows it to be acknowledged. Sort of. This is still the RAW in which the audience is “crazy” and supposedly “boo the guys they normally cheer,” but it’s also the RAW that gets Roman mostly figured out. It’s not perfect, as you have commentary and Roman Reigns himself telling instead of showing Roman’s new characterization: He’s not a bad guy. He’s not a good guy. He’s The Miz. He’s the guy.

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Technically, even with that last line, you could call him a “tweener,” meaning WWE still has its way and Roman Reigns has not turned heel. Plus, that blurring of lines of him being neither a bad guy or a good guy was what the Attitude Era was built on, and depending on who you listen to, it’s how Vince McMahon actually feels about heel/face dynamics… But if that’s the case, it’s been a long, long time since such a thing even really existed in WWE. After all, Vince McMahon is the same man who though New Day would be hot babyfaces in their original incarnation, that no one would ever cheer a vegan or someone who didn’t drink, and, well, we’ve all seen Roman Reigns for the past two years. So like the majority (if not all) of Roman Reigns’ gimmicks (characterizations and catchphrases, really) since going solo, it remains to be seen how long it will actually last.

The thing is, if WWE really wants to play it both ways, it has to tread that fine line carefully. If this is his character going forward—meaning that Roman would actually, finally have a consistent character, by the way—it means there has to be commitment to him really being neither a heel nor a face. To this crowd post-WrestleMania, he’s a heel, but there’s really no indication of any closeness to the face part. He says he’s a fighting champion, yet when challengers come out, he avoids fighting. He actually condescends to Sami Zayn (and then AJ, actually) with a wave that says “hey little guy, you get lost on your way to the ring?” That’s not really anywhere in between, is it? If this is the actual heel turn, then that’s great. But again: The crowd is totally supposedly booing who they’re supposed to cheer, right? The real test for Roman and WWE comes in the following weeks removed from WrestleMania and this crowd. However, the biggest indicator that maybe something might be clicking, after all of the banging against a Kevlar wall? WWE doesn’t have Roman do guest commentary for the #1 Contender Fatal Fourway main event.

By the way, I’ll admit, Chris Jericho and then AJ Styles coming out to confront Roman Reigns gave me severe Chris Jericho/John Cena/Christian-related stress at first, and all I could think was that if Cena couldn’t come out of that beloved, there would be no hope for Reigns. It instead leading to the terrific main event gave me the opposite feeling, knowing that regardless of who won, we were finally, truly out of the darkest Roman Reigns match-up era. Until now, it’s always still felt like Big Show or Kane might suddenly show up for another plodding match with Reigns, to no one’s benefit.

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Instead, watching four workhorses just put on a clinic to show why they all call themselves the best and why they should be in contention made another three hours of WWE programming worth it. A lot of it made it worth it, but this match really made it worth it. I’ve said it before, but I’ll say it again—when WWE’s good, it’s great, and it makes you forget about all the bad, if only for a moment. That’s how it keeps audiences coming back for more after insulting their intelligence or them as a whole. It’s unhealthy, but it’s wrestling. It’s futile but it’s also vital. Ja Rule was probably talking about WWE when he said “pain is love.”

Maybe we are all crazy.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: New Day (Big E & Kofi Kingston) (c) defeated League of Nations (Sheamus & King Barrett) (WWE Tag Team Championship); Sasha Banks defeated Summer Rae; Apollo Crews defeated Tyler Breeze; Dolph Ziggler versus Baron Corbin ended in a double count-out; The Miz defeated Zack Ryder (c) (Intercontinental Championship); Dudleys defeated Usos (Tables match); AJ Styles defeated Kevin Owens, Chris Jericho, and Cesaro (Fatal Fourway match for #1 Contendership)
  • By the way, it’s been a while, but did you guys hear? I like Baron Corbin now!
  • Charlotte is busy with Natalya now, so let’s have Sasha Banks have a secondary women’s feud with Summer Rae all about BFF and how Summer Rae actually resented having her head on a stick. Or something. Please.
  • By the way, Charlotte’s major problem with promos is that her cadence can be quite off, but once she gets into the zone, she stays in it. Her insulting everyone and then not understanding why they were mad at her is pretty priceless.
  • The biggest problem with the women’s segment though? Not actually the crowd, who thought they were being supportive. (Come on, you know when a terrible crowd isn’t being supportive.) It was Natalya and Lana specifically (the two I especially noticed at least) who kept corpsing during the segment. As it turns out, Cameron has been right about one thing all this time: “You gotta work the face, you gotta work the camera.”
  • The one question to arise from the Enzo/Big Cass debut: Is Carmella joining them?
  • The Vaudevillains debuting on SmackDown is one of the smartest choices of the night, as I think we all know that the Vaudevillains—as great of wrestlers as they are, to an extremely underrated point, even—are quite possibly the “most NXT” gimmick to ever exist. I still fear so much for them, especially in this non-brand split world, but putting them on the taped show feels like a good thing to me.
  • Then again, Tyler Breeze debuted on SmackDown, and now his ceiling is a flashy squash match against Apollo Crews while Dolph Ziggler lets out a sigh of relief that his own career could’ve actually been much, much worse.
  • You have no idea how much I wanted to make every picture in this review just Cesaro in his tearaway suit.
  • Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens’ feud doesn’t need the title, so someone else winning at WrestleMania was one of the moments that really made sense to me. I’ve also said over and over again how Zack Ryder has been doing the best work of his career lately, but I’d also argue that Miz has been in that same boat as well (and keeps getting cast aside, like in AJ/Y2J and Zayn/Owens). I can’t hate either of them having a substantial run and feud with the title.
  • So on one side of the argument, Miz is a former world champion and while Ryder won in a seven-man ladder match, he couldn’t get the job done one-on-one. On the other hand, Miz is often the butt of every joke and Ryder deserves to actually be given a ball to run with, instead of having one snatched away from him because he’ll just drop it (based on no evidence). Hopefully this feud ends up being said ball, but there’s a precedent when it comes to not believing that.
  • What’s your favorite thing about Maryse, and why is it the way she pronounced “gentlemen” (“gent-leh-men”) on the game show version of NXT?

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