Right now, WWE claims to be on The Road To Wrestlemania; but day by day, week by week, it feels less and less like WWE is actually on any clear cut path. That’s perhaps an understatement, as Vince McMahon is notorious for re-writing scripts right before or even during showtime, but a combination of no direction and a lack of understanding the direction of the audience is a recipe for… Well, WWE has enough documentaries on the Monday Night Wars with WCW to finish that sentence.

Speaking in terms of the present, Vince McMahon tweets about listening to the audience’s complaints (for lack of a better word), but he also misses the actual point that people want to be heard on. When #GiveDivasAChance trended last Monday night after RAW’s abysmally booked Divas tag match (and continued trending for quite awhile, especially after star Diva AJ Lee legitimately called Stephanie McMahon out), Vince McMahon promised that WWE heard the upset fans (and, presumably, Divas) and that the audience should keep watching. So this week, we get a much longer Divas match (that, luckily, the crowd is pretty into and the commentary team actually calls), the announcement of Alundra Blayze/Madusa as part of the 2015 Hall Of Fame class (despite WWE’s Monday Night War revisionism often casting her in a negative light), and the return of AJ Lee to set up for a Diva tag team match at Wrestlemania.

Plus, WWE is now partnering with Cricket Wireless for a campaign called #ShareYourVoice, again creating the illusion that the fans have a voice in what happens for the company. Keep in mind that this is the same company that has a once heavily-promoted anti-bullying campaign in B A STAR, yet is led by Vince McMahon and continues to employ people who have constantly been called out by talent for their intense bullying. #GiveDivasAChance itself is only addressed in the form of AJ Lee giving a wink wink (nudge nudge) inclusion of the phrase in a backstage promo. That’s sneaking in an audience’s voice, but not necessarily WWE acknowledging the reasons behind the hashtag in the first place, now isn’t it?

The thing about this episode of RAW—especially in the context of it being a part of the lackluster Road—is that the actual wrestling within it is a terrible way to get anyone hyped for Wrestlemania, where these wrestlers who keep wrestling each other on the main show get ready to… continue to wrestle each other. Besides the aforementioned Diva match, none of the matches in this week’s RAW elevate past the now comically dreaded status of “wrestling for wrestling’s sake.” Take a look at the (non-Diva) card:

  • Dean Ambrose versus Bad News Barrett
  • Luke Harper versus Daniel Byan
  • Cesaro, Tyson Kidd, Natalya versus Jimmy Uso, Jey Uso, Naomi
  • Curtis Axel versus John Cena
  • Roman Reigns versus Seth Rollins

In theory, this is a good card. However, Axel/Cena isn’t so much a match as it is a statement from Cena and a reminder that Axel is a joke. Cesaro/Kidd/Natalya versus The Usos/Naomi should be fun, but it is instead more of a story about how, after finally having husband-wife duo Kidd and Natalya on the same page with last week’s RAW, that’s all undone to continue whatever weird residual domestic issues Total Divas (season finale: this Sunday) has wrought. Roman Reigns versus Seth Rollins is especially disappointing, because the crowd just is not into it—neither the match nor continuing to voice their obvious displeasure (made clear throughout the rest of the show before the match) with Roman Reigns. In fact, even with the “wrestling for wrestling’s sake,” Newark, New Jersey was a hot crowd all night long until this, the main event.

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And of course, there are the first two matches on this list, which are only in service of the ridiculous build-up for the Intercontinental Championship ladder match at Wrestlemania. The only thing propelling any of these characters (besides Barrett and Bryan) is that they’ve stolen the belt. The Barrett/Ambrose match is again about R-Truth’s “he loves to have fun” approach to guest commentary. The Harper/Bryan match quickly goes from possible match of the night to upsetting to watch; although it’s not a long match, the majority of it is Bryan taking moves that can’t be good for his surgically-repaired neck, and then it all ends with Bryan making Harper tap out, despite putting in limited offense. No one looks good in the match, and it all digresses into a cartoonish back and forth stealing of the belt that ends with Dolph Ziggler getting it (and thankfully the commentators point out that he lost the belt in controversy) and facing-off with Daniel Bryan (and Daniel Bryan alone, despite four other men being part of this “feud”) for an awkwardly long time. Dolph Ziggler and Daniel Bryan have made it clear off of WWE proper (on social media, mostly) that, in a post-Roman Rumble (not a typo) world, they’d love to go one-on-one in a competitive match to steal the show at Wrestlemania. Instead, they’re now both part of a match that centers on a 43-year-old man who thinks it’s “still” “cool” to say “fo’ shizzle” (or any “-izzle”-based words) on live television.

Seriously: The best way I can think to describe R-Truth’s character right now is “almost a literal minstrel show.”

The Intercontinental Championship used to be a prestigious title in the WWE, the title for the workhorse wrestlers. I could keep going, but it’s the spiel that tends to begin Intercontinental feuds these days, and it actually is the one that began the original Bad News Barrett/Dean Ambrose feud. Somehow, WWE decided that that wasn’t good enough and that the belt itself should instead be the biggest joke on the card. Congrats! They succeeded.

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Last week, I found myself praising John Cena for the very simple act of not slut-shaming a woman and rightfully calling out Rusev for being a false hero. This week, John Cena decided he no longer needed the body double and came back to do what he does best—call his female boss a “bitch,” pretend he’s ever actually served in the military,* and use bullying tactics against those who don’t cater to his childish demands. The Cena segment, while featuring gems like Stephanie McMahon (making it clear that the man who calls himself “The Face That Runs The Place” actually doesn’t and that there would be no John Cena without WWE) and Curtis Axel (whose #AXELMANIA gimmick is now getting him over with the crowd, which sadly leads to worrying about how WWE will “punish” him), is honestly just that of the “good” guy having to bully the bad guy into having a match. This is textbook Cena booking, in that it is Cena having to overcome the odds (of Rusev not wanting to have a match against him), and no amount of pretending John Cena is either going to leave the WWE or be taken out back and shot for being so old and fragile is going to change or hide that.

If there’s one thing that segment makes clear is that John Cena is old news. (Just play along.) And have you heard the news lately? WWE Superstar Roman Reigns—relative of The Rock, The Usos, Rikishi, Umaga, Yokozuna, The Wild Samoans, and more—is Samoan. He has Samoan blood, just like his Samoan family members. Surprisingly, Roman Reigns was able to keep that fact a secret from his WWE employers and colleagues for two-plus years, but now it’s all out in the open.

At least, that’s part of the current narrative WWE is telling with regards to Roman Reigns. It’s a combination of that, Roman Reigns being the strongest, most powerful sports entertainer (specifically not “wrestler,” as mentioned in last week’s Stray Observations) ever/around, and Roman Reigns channeling his inner John Locke: Don’t tell him what he can’t do. All of these parts of the Roman Reigns narrative still boil down to one thing: He is the new hand-picked guy, and no amount of winking at the audience like they’re in on it is going to change that.

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It’s easy to be frustrated with WWE for that, but honestly, it’s kind of funny when you think about it, especially when you consider the Seth Rollins narrative. Within WWE television—not the behind-the-scenes, insider world, but the one with heroes and villains—Seth Rollins is the hand-picked guy of the Authority, someone who’s never had to really work for anything that he has in this business. Never you mind that Seth Rollins earned his stripes on the independent professional wrestling scene as Tyler Black (as this episode of RAW proves, there is nothing outside of WWE). When you hear Jon Stewart tell Seth Rollins, to his face, “You never fought your way up,” that WWE cognitive dissonance radar pings yet again. The things people are saying about Seth Rollins the character are more applicable to Roman Reigns the hand-picked guy, and it’s so backwards that it makes you think what would have happened if WWE had just made Roman the Authority guy and Seth the Dog Against All.

However, for all of WWE’s confusing creative decisions, there are some things that they can’t mess up—some things that can just rise above mediocrity. For that, they should be appreciated. This week, one of those things would happen to be Jon Stewart (yes, that Jon Stewart; no, not the Green Lantern John Stewart) and his presence in the type of WWE segment that tends to tank nine times out of 10. If you’re reading this and you’re not a WWE fan, you might be aware that WWE Superstar Seth Rollins recently called on Jon Stewart on WWE television, claiming he could host The Daily Show better than Jon Stewart. Stewart made a video promo, challenging Rollins, and then Rollins showed up and crashed the Moment Of Zen on an episode of The Daily Show. So the natural conclusion would be for Jon Stewart to show up on RAW, and that’s what he does. Seth Rollins hosts his own version of The Daily Show, and again, this is the type of RAW segment that tends to get dumped on by the audience in attendance and at home.

Instead, Rollins craps on the town, on Jon Stewart, and then Jon Stewart proceeds to cut a gripping promo that plays on Seth Rollins’ insecurity as the biggest shit heel on the show. And then he kicks Seth Rollins in the balls and skedaddles so Seth can’t hurt him.

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And it’s awesome. It works because Jon Stewart is legitimately a fan of WWE, past and present. There’s a difference between RAW guest hosts who maybe used to watch WWE (or never watched WWE) and still watch WWE—the latter actually care and want to be there. The latter wouldn’t accidentally call SummerSlam “SummerFest.” The latter wouldn’t create as terrible of a segment as this.

There are exceptions, of course, like in the case of The Muppets. But The Muppets are transcendent in the context of pop culture, just like Paul Heyman is apparently transcendent in the context of WWE’s obstacles. Paul Heyman essentially has to carry the Brock/Roman feud on his back through his promos, and this episode has him more fired up than we’ve seen in ages, taking it all out on ring announcer Lillian Garcia and WWE’s crappy microphones. He could have been speaking like Charlie Brown’s teachers during the promo, and it would have sounded great. The content of the promo isn’t very much different from last week’s Roman-stroking one, but he’s so fired up and angry that it’s easy to overlook at first (which wasn’t the case last week, where the crowd had way too much time to react to the points). At one point in the promo, I’m pretty sure he starts speaking in tongues.

That’s really what’s missing the most from this show as a whole—that fire. The advocate for the never-present world champion and the host of a comedy news show have the most fire on a weekly wrestling show featuring its weekly performers. How is that supposed to fire up anyone for Wrestlemania, let alone the next episode of RAW?

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Stray observations:

  • Hey, that was a great Stardust and Goldust seg— Wait, just kidding. There was no Stardust and/or Goldust segment. Oh well. There’s always The JBL Show.
  • By the way, R-Truth and Michael Cole literally did the same bit that they did tonight on commentary about acrophobia/arachnophobia back around the time of Money In The Bank 2011. Whoomp, there it is.
  • *The one thing that offends me about John Cena more than anything else is his faux military status just because he played a Marine in a movie my friends and I played a drinking game to back in college. Him talking about “[his] service here in WWE” honestly almost made me turn off the show. At least when The Miz says “I’M THE MARINE, DAMMIT!” there’s self-awareness.
  • I could have written a whole segment on the Triple H segment, but as an Internet “kid,” I know my opinions wouldn’t matter on the subject. The short version of it: TNA doesn’t exist, and neither does “Am I fucking going over??!” Triple H.
  • How mean was it of WWE to mention a possible triple threat match (or “triple theat” match, according to Roman Reigns—that still doesn’t beat “deglare”) at Wrestlemania between Roman, Seth, and Brock, knowing it’s not going to happen because Seth will be dealing with Randy Orton’s face turn (outta nowhere)?
  • I have some controversial (maybe) opinions about the Miz/Mizdow situation, so hopefully I have room to talk about them in at least one of my next two RAW reviews. After that, who knows if there will even be any more RAW reviews. I will say, I found the Niagara bit humorous because of the performers, not necessarily because of the context. Also, between that and Paul Heyman pointing out Andre The Giant being dead, WWE is really about making sure people remember that PG means “Parental Guidance,” aren’t they?
  • AJ’s “STAY WEIRD” shirt is a tribute to Johnny “Dirty Curty” Curtis and NXT Redemption. Nothing else makes sense.
  • Also: Booker T, I love you. But don’t you dare try to bring back “frenemies” to the commentary booth for the Divas.

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