WWE Monday Night Raw

The worlds of geek culture and professional wrestling should overlap more than they do. Superheroes and wrestlers present a similar appeal: Usually, they are discovered concurrently when young boys and girls (okay boys) are drawn to oversized morality tales settled by outlandishly costumed heroes and villains engaged in exaggerated combat in the physical arena (literally, in wrestling’s case). Unfortunately for ‘rasslers, the squared circle has never attained anything approaching the mainstream acceptance comic book or other genre heroes have come to enjoy, instead falling away into the entertainment ghetto populated by monster truck rallies, NASCAR, and line dancing at Brooks & Dunn shows. While even the hippest bar will be dotted with a Batman T-shirt or a copy of Snow Crash, anyone sporting WWE gear is still going to get regarded as a rube. Maybe we geeks never quite recovered from the Santa-level betrayal when we first learned that the schoolyard “wrestling is all fake” taunts were, in fact, tragically true. Maybe it’s that superheroes, unbounded as they are by actual physical bodies, never look saggy and ridiculous in their spandex. Or perhaps we just eventually needed our vicarious bombastic heroism to be better written.

Regardless of any elitist pooh-poohing, professional wrestling continues to thrive as evidenced by the fact that WWE’s flagship show RAW celebrates its 1,000th episode this week. Any worries I had about following the narrative were assuaged immediately as announcers Michael Cole and Jerry “The King” Lawler make a helpful habit of providing expositional running commentary, perhaps for the benefit of younger viewers (or lapsed tv commentators), a helpful touch as the show balanced its ongoing storylines and matches with a healthy helping of nostalgia. Kicking off the three-hour (!) program with a lengthy reunion of “Attitude Era” pioneers Degeneration X (Triple H and Shawn Michaels, along with lesser minions the New Age Outlaws), episode 1000 settles into a familiar, if extended, pattern, interspersing long, talky segments with the wrestling. Except that, with the added burden of rehashing a thousand shows’ worth of wrestling history and attendant shenanigans, even in a three-hour show there’s even less wrestling than one might imagine. As the show stretched on, I actually counted up less than 30 minutes of, you know, actual wrestling which wouldn’t be a problem if the other two-and-a-half hours were chock full of compelling storytelling and he wrestling action was of high quality. Unfortunately, RAW 1000 falls short on both counts.

Split between advancing existing feuds and trotting out old timers, the show’s producers seemingly felt free to allow each vignette the time to really breathe, which would be okay if the wrestlers were played by the cast of Party Down (actually I’d watch that), but, with few exceptions, wrestlers aren’t the best improvisers and these segments, which comprise about eighty percent of the running time, are mostly dead air. The worst offender is some sort of wedding subplot between thoroughly dull nonentities Daniel Bryan and A.J. which drags on over four segments (plus commercials). While it’s always a treat to hear Vince McMahon’s entrance music and bask in his veiny villainy, this storyline, as well as a few others, just goes on forever. From a purely nostalgic standpoint, the segments featuring aging alumni such as JBL, Ron Simmons, Roddy Piper, Psycho Sid, one of the Road Warriors, and even Doink the Clown have more appeal, but their adventures are as flabby as most of the returning stars.

As far as the six matches go, most are essentially afterthoughts, taking up less time than the extended introductions, entrances, and pre-match bluster. One, between obvious jobber Jack Swagger and rotund bruiser Brodus Clay is a literal squash match, with the tubby Clay immediately flopping down on the Billy Zabka-lookalike Swagger and the contest proper taking a fifth the time of Clay’s heavily choreographed intro. And while I’ve been out of the game for a while, I have to say that the rest of the wrestling action was shockingly sloppy and turgid, with only masked luchadores Rey Mysterio and Sin Cara displaying their signature leaping athleticism (although they only get one spot each), and even proven workers such as C.M. Punk, John Cena, Christian, and Chris Jericho looking sluggish and overly rehearsed, with some obvious blown spots along the way. In addition, the big match of the night, a championship contest between Punk and Cena is especially disappointing: Sure, it’s unlikely we were going to see the title change hands at a non-pay-per-view, but, apart from the lackluster in-ring action, the decision to end it with the traditional “knock the ref out, bad guy interferes, champ steals the match” is an enduring example of WWE storytelling at its most frustrating and unsatisfying. Hackneyed writing like that is not going to bring in any new geek fans. Maybe the WWE could hire Grant Morrison.

Stray observations:

  • As ever, when the Undertaker’s entrance music hits, feel free to go make yourself a sandwich.
  • One comic vignette ends with a reference to one of the most ridiculously distasteful storylines in WWE history. If you just found yourself puzzled by the sight of a teenager in a giant hand costume, count yourself lucky.
  • The Rock and C.M. Punk buddy cop movie? I’d watch that.
  • With the checkered history of WWE weddings like Stephanie McMahon and Triple H (chloroform and kidnapping), Lita and Kane (blackmailed into marriage, forced miscarriage), maybe wrestlers should just book a function hall for the big day.
  • Charlie Sheen is introduced as the evening’s “social ambassador”, which amounts to three brief segments of him making lame jokes and plugs for his sitcom via what appears to be a first generation webcam.
  • World champ Sheamus cuts a striking figure, with his mackerel white flesh contrasting with a shock of bright orange hair. Seriously, is it part of his contract that he can not go outside ever? Is there some sort of mandated SPF? Dude is white.
  • In a three-hour show, they couldn’t squeeze in an appearance from Koko B. Ware? Outrageous.

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