(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about—serialized dramas and single-camera comedies—are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, by popular demand, Ryan McGee visits the WWE to follow its increasingly popular summer storylines. Next week, Noel Murray sees what's up with another American institution by watching Sunday Night Baseball.)
Last night, I watched my first wrestling pay-per-view in nearly a decade. That’s both a way of giving you my wrestling credentials up front and a way to help enlighten just how much interest in the business has picked up over the past few weeks. Plopping down coin to watch this year’s SummerSlam marked the first time I paid to watch wrestling since Wrestlemania 21. While I had passively kept abreast of the general wrestling world, I hadn’t really been engaged for some time. But like many, I had been recently brought back into the fold thank to some incendiary performances by C.M. Punk, a wrestler who managed to blur the line between illusion and reality in an age where I simply didn’t think it was possible. So I put down some cash, watched SummerSlam with my brother, and saw Kevin Nash all but jackknife powerbomb any hope that this amazing ride could be anything other than a happy accident.
C.M. Punk’s recent feud with John Cena, the WWE, and reality itself has been pretty well-documented over the past few months. Since it’s integral to understanding both tonight’s WWE Monday Night RAW and the state of the WWE as a whole, here’s a primer for those unaware: While decently successful during his run in the organization, Punk had never been exactly a top-tier player in the scripted universe of World Wrestling Entertainment on the level of its mega-superstars. Hardly a jobber but hardly a headliner, his stock rose and fell over the past half-decade in the company. His real-life contract was due to expire immediately after last-month’s “Money in the Bank” PPV, and instead of leaving his potential future for discussion in wrestling blogs and message boards, Punk and the WWE turned his potential departure into an in-show storyline. Punk teased that he would win the WWE Championship on the last night of his contract… and simply walk off with the belt.
It’s not just that he announced this on-air as part of a storyline. It’s the way in which he did so that made fans stand up and take notice. His announcement was peppered with insider speak usually forbidden from being spoken within the context of a WWE event. He trashed Vince McMahon, Vince's daughter Stephanie, and Vince's son-in-law Triple H (Paul Leveseque). Now, plenty of superstars have trashed these figures before. But Punk’s diatribe went past their onscreen personas and touched upon what many savvy fans knew to be the real people behind the larger-than-life characters. Most wrestling fans know that Levesque and Stephanie McMahon are married in real-life, but absolutely no one within the established reality of the WWE’s product ever said it out loud.
Punk eventually did win the championship on that final night of his contract. The match-ending drama reflecting the infamous Montreal Screw Job of 1997, in which Vince McMahon worked behind the scenes with Shawn Michaels and others to help remove the title from then-champ Bret Hart. That night is legendary (for good and bad reasons), and having Punk warn of a Montreal-type incident in the run-up to the match only blurred the line further for fans between reality and the written word. McMahon did attempt to re-enact the Screw Job in the “Money In the Bank” PPV, but this time, it was a scripted event meant to replicate an unstaged event from nearly 15 years earlier… and oh look, I’m bleeding from my nose trying to explain all this. Honestly, it’s like Charlie Kaufman got bored and decided to book RAW for a few weeks for shits and giggles.
In any case, Punk did win the match, and he did run off with the belt… only to return several weeks later with a new contract locked down. By that point, as fellow A.V. Club writer Myles McNutt noted in a podcast we recorded together recently, a lot of the thunder that his character had built up suddenly dissipated. It’s a far different thing to be perceived as excelling within the confines of one’s craft versus openly speaking truth to the power of said craft. You didn’t have to know how verboten it is for a wrestler to talk about the “fourth wall” during an in-show promo to recognize a specific veracity in the way Punk delivered his promos in the ramp-up to his “Money in the Bank” win. People responded to that authenticity in a way that fans used to respond to “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s authenticity during his feud with Vince McMahon back in the Attitude Era. Austin’s promos resembled Punk’s, in that both augmented aspects of their existing personality. The most successful characters in wrestling always hue closest to the performer’s actual disposition, demeanor, and outlook. The TRULY landmark characters manage to connect that personality with those in the crowd watching them perform.
I compare Punk to Austin not simply due to that authenticity but also due to the specific cultural places in which both arose. Austin gave the WWE the necessary character to move past the cartoonish 80’s-era of its brand and align with then competitor WCW’s edgier product. But what took his character from “edgy” to “iconic” lay in his ability to tap into every fan’s (indeed, every person’s) latent hatred of authority. Stone Cold was Office Space on steroids, a figure that provided catharsis from everyday frustrations with every Stone Cold Stunner, every middle finger, every beer bath. He couldn’t have come earlier and worked as powerfully, nor could he have come later. All the stars aligned, plus a healthy dose of talent and luck, to produce a singular experience.
Punk’s Phoenix-like rise came about in the midst of a time in which many feel disenfranchised, abandoned, or simply unheard. He appeared in the “Money in the Bank” match with new intro music: Living Colour’s “Cult of Personality,” a song he used earlier in his indie career. It symbolized and reaffirmed his new position as a “voice for the voiceless,” a reconfiguration of Austin’s early iteration as stand-in against authority. (He could have just as easily used Rage Against the Machine’s “Killing in The Name Of,” if only the applicable chorus could make it past the censors.) Punk’s version favored work ethic, cunning, and force of will over Austin’s brute strength and brash personality. However, both came from the same primal source.
But whereas Austin personified a struggle against authority itself, Punk’s version was specifically aimed at the voiceless masses that love the WWE despite its current product. They attend house shows, they watch RAW/SmackDown, they buy PPVs, but they want more from the product. They are fans smart enough to recognize talent buried under men who are physically imposing but possess a poor skill-set and even poorer work-rate. In Punk, these fans found a messianic figure that either 1) gave voice to their frustrations about the way the WWE has buried certain performers, or 2) gave them hope that through Punk, the WWE recognized its own shortcomings and was trying to overcome them. Punk’s specific gripes and the way he could express them both on the microphone and in the ring allowed him temporarily to make even the most die-hard fans question how much of his performance stemmed from improvisation and how much fell under the heavily-scripted world of the WWE. Even if you couldn’t ever bring yourself to believe it was anything but excellently performed recitation, the fact that Punk had you questioning it at all was a triumph unto itself.
All of that flew out the window last night, sadly, in a main event finale that seemed to either a) signal the limits of how much such a storyline could go on, or b) be a blatant attempt to punish Punk for going off-script even for a second. Punk and John Cena met in a rematch of last month’s PPV, each holding claim to the WWE Championship belt. (In Punk’s short absence on RAW, a tournament was held to fill the vacant belt, with Cena regaining it.) Triple H, former target of Punk’s verbal attacks, now stood in as Chief Operating Officer of the WWE in an onscreen capacity. How did he get that position? By “firing” his real-life father-in-law Vince McMahon, yet another in a series of bizarre storyline in which real-world events were playing out via funhouse mirror within the show’s reality. Triple H not only announced a rematch to unify the belts but also put himself into the match as special referee. Adding to the intrigue, Stephanie McMahon reappeared to roam the halls backstage throughout the pay-per-view, conducting conversations with each major participant (some heard, some seen, some implied) meant to prepare everyone for a swerve during the climatic match.
So what happened? A very ordinary match that ended with three twists straight out of the tired WWE script book. The fans weren’t exactly hot for the match before its climax. (In fact, most of SummerSlam registered poorly in-house, with the SmackDown main event garnering the most heat.) But the final three moments didn’t stun the crowd so much as deflate it. Punk ended up pinning Cena, but Cena’s foot was on the ropes. Triple H didn’t see it, which meant Punk, the “voice of the voiceless,” now had a tainted victory. But that victory was short-lived, as long-absent (and fairly ancient) Kevin Nash made a surprise appearance post-match to deliver the aforementioned jackknife powerbomb to the unified champ. As if that wasn’t enough, WWE superstar Alberto del Rio cashed in his “Money in the Bank” opportunity at that moment to instantly start a match with the weakened Punk, winning the title from him in seconds.
What’s disappointing isn’t so much that Punk’s now fully enveloped in what can be easily recognized as a scripted narrative, although that sucks in and of itself. Rather, it’s that the narrative itself isn’t nearly as bold and original as his “off-script” antics. Contested victories, whiplash title changes, and returning figures from WWE past have all been done before. To see them silence the “voice of the voiceless” within such stale parameters undoes a lot of the goodwill and interest that the product has recently generated.
If you were to liken the end of last night’s PPV to other forms of television, you’d call it the seasonal finale, just like those on the same USA Network on which RAW airs. It set up several storylines that started to play out on tonight’s RAW, to be sure, signaling a turning point in the show’s narrative. But there’s a difference in seeing the story mechanics click into place and viscerally experiencing a true game-changer. The Punk/Cena match did a lot of things: 1) set up a genuine grudge on Cena’s behalf that he lost unfairly, 2) gave Punk some potential remorse for earning a tainted victory, 3) re-established Nash’s on-show presence in the WWE brand, and 4) made Triple H look just as foolish as the man he was sent in to replace. The latter aspect is fairly interesting, especially given Levesque’s legendary politicking behind-the-scenes. To allow his character to look that stupid is a fairly bold move, one that lets many people in-show question his leadership as he struggles to prove that he’s not the same incompetent boss that led Punk escape the arena with the WWE Championship belt last month. It also could be part of a long con to keep the old guard in power versus “upstarts” such as Punk and Cena. (They can be the “Get Off My Damn Lawn Cliq.”) But as intellectually interesting as that all is, it’s still well within the confines of what fans understand to be a fully scripted experience. And it returns focus to a person who should probably step aside, rather than step into someone else’s spotlight yet again.
Tonight’s RAW picked up on all of these threads but picked them up ever so slightly. In fact, things didn’t really progress so much as get increasingly muddled. That slow pace makes sense but only in realizing this will be a long story that will be teased out over the course of months, not weeks. Those looking for definitive answers to last night’s final moments would have been disappointed. Sometimes, a post-PPV RAW can signal a seismic change in the narrative landscape, clearing up a major mystery in order to power ahead with a new storyline. Ones like tonight’s edition simply lay the groundwork for a long grind.
Rather than give a clear-cut explanation for SummerSlam’s finale, tonight’s RAW offered up multiple options, not unlike a game of Clue, for both characters and audience to wade through. Triple H opened the show with an apology to one and all for the debacle but claimed he did little but leave tickets at the gate for his old buddy Nash. Nash, for his part, came out to explain his side of things. He asked Triple H, real-life godson to his child, to own up to the fact that the new COO texted Nash during the match to take out the winner. Backstage, John Laurinaitis (real-life head of WWE Talent Relations) asked Nash to discuss a deal while Stephanie McMahon told Punk, “People always get what they deserve.”
Trying to figure out who is behind things at this point is a little like trying to figure out the identity of Keyser Söze. Having a multitude of suspects is fine. Having Punk and Cena operate in separate spheres in tonight’s episode? Less so. Having Punk and Nash exchange barbs at the end of the first hour leading into the second was a fun way for two guys with good microphone skills to have their first encounter. Nash might literally explode into dust at this point if he actually took an in-ring bump, so verbal trashing is all he can do. But it also seemed clear that he was surprised by the WWE officials blocking Punk’s way to the ring, making his bravado in the ring an act to mask the fact that he doesn’t have all the information either.
What all this seems to be leading toward is a battle for the generational soul of the company: those that long for the days of D-Generation X and those that want to see new blood take over the main events. If so, then the separation of Punk and John Cena might make ultimate sense. Cena only appeared onscreen after tonight’s main event, in order to make the save for Rey Mysterio after the latter lost a title bout with del Rio. His words about Punk in his tirade towards del Rio were positive, which indicates any past feud between them could cease in the face of a larger looming threat. The WWE has already booked Cena in the main event at next year’s Wrestlemania, pitting him against Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson in a battle already described as one between two representatives of different WWE eras. It only makes sense to solidify that gap in terms of weekly RAW episodes in which certain members of the organization fight against the calcification that comes from those that stay in power too long.
Framing the conflict in this way could help reignite some of the fire lost last night. Cena, and potentially many others, could join Punk as he seeks to stave off that calcification of the company as the elder statesmen close rank around them. Surprising people could make unexpected choices, in turn leading to new feuds, new storylines, and new factions. It’s not about simply a generational conflict being played out here. If it was as simple as “old people are square, man,” then all of this would be hokey beyond belief. But the idea that certain people are most dangerous when they are unaware their time has past… well, that’s a decently cool idea for a storyline. If Levesque makes his COO someone so fully convinced of his own impartiality that he unleashes a civil war within his roster, if people rally either to a style that worked in the past versus one that might work in the future… well, I might watch that. That’s about the soul of wrestling itself, something that people both in the ring, in the stands, and at home would have a vested interesting in protecting. It could take the other 90 minutes of RAW that served largely as filler and connect it to the whole in a compelling manner.
Sometimes, a 2+ hour live show is a great showcase for a multitude of storylines. But sometimes, it’s even better when focused around a central idea that relates to everyone. The storyline embedded within last night’s main event is big enough to include everyone. Let’s hope the WWE embraces that heading into the fall. They have a lot of new eyeballs watching now. It would be a shame to have them turn away once again.
- I didn’t focus a lot on the matches themselves tonight, since they were standard matches that featured some athletic spots but little in the way of consistently compelling action.
- Seeing the tag-team champions lose in a short match buried in the middle of the second hour gave me tons of nostalgia. Good to see some things never change. Thanks, David Otunga and Michael McGillicutty.
- Also nostalgia-tastic: hearing good ol’ JR announce matches. That felt great. I want him to record a series of audiobooks for corporate drones, so they can listen to it at work and feel better about their jobs. I can just hear it now: “My God! That was a HELLACIOUS series of copies that he just made!”
- John Morrison’s slo-mo entrance is either the best thing I’ve ever seen or the fucking dumbest. I honestly can’t tell.
- Also dumb: the number of pins in the Morrison/R-Truth match that took place on the floor, not the ring. I know RAW caters to the home fan more often than the one in-house, but that was ridiculous.
- Seeing Vickie Guerrero again just made me sad about her late husband Eddie all the more. Also? I keep feeling like the WWE kept her as a prize the way that the Starks kept Theon Greyjoy in Game of Thrones.
- The whole sequence with The Miz and Jared from Subway was as painful as TV gets. That stuff made all the in-show Subway promos on Chuck seem downright subtle by comparison.
- Good to see the WWE Divas now have twins on their roster. No, I don’t know if they are actually twins. No, I don’t really care.
- I love that Alberto del Rio has his own announcer for his matches. If I’m ever a WWE superstar, I’m going to try and get Morgan Freeman to be my personal announcer.
- Given how mixed the crowds have been for Cena lately, I was surprised to hear how much the crowd was behind him at the end. Then again, he just saved Mysterio, who might be one of the five most-loved superstars of all time.
- If you're curious about the grade, it refers to the show itself, not the angles I spent at length describing. Tons of dead air time, as per usual, but no truly atrocious matches, and the central storyline still works. At least for now.
- “If Triple H asked you to jump off a bridge, would you? Because I think THAT would be good for business.”
- “OMG. WTF. Kevin Nash. Thought he was dead. LOL.”
- “You are NOT a champion. You are a target.”