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Guest stars and shoddy storytelling bog down a Raw that’s trying to build momentum

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Because The A.V. Club knows that TV shows keep going even if we’re not writing at length about them, we’re experimenting with discussion posts. For certain shows, one of our TV writers will publish some brief thoughts about the latest episode, and open the comments for readers to share theirs.

  • Results: Finn Balor and the Hardy Boyz defeated Cesaro, Sheamus, and Elias Samson; The Miz, Bo Dallas, and Curtis Axel defeated Heath Slater, Rhyno, and Dean Ambrose; Seth Rollins defeated Curt Hawkins; Neville defeated Lince Dorado; Sasha Banks won a Gauntlet Match to become the #1 Contender to the Raw Women’s Championship.
  • Just like last week, Raw gets off to a hot start tonight by having Roman Reigns and Braun Strowman do what they do best. That means that Reigns comes out first to get the crowd going. Then, he acts entitled and angry and says some things about how he’s going to destroy Braun Strowman at Great Balls Of Fire in his first ever Ambulance Match. When an ambulance backs into the arena and Reigns cautiously approaches, we all know what’s coming, but it doesn’t make it any less delightful. Strowman attacks Reigns, and after a few punches he throws Reigns off the stage and into the ambulance! It’s yet another moment of Braun Strowman, backed by a hot crowd, looking like a million bucks, and another building block in a feud that’s running on all cylinders (I get to keep using car-related words for the next two weeks, so don’t try to stop me).
  • It should be noted that all of Reigns’ past booking is paying off in this feud. From the way the crowd reacts to both Strowman and Reigns, to the angle of the story with Braun consistently getting the upper hand, it’s all working because of how dominant Reigns has been. That’s not a qualitative judgment of the past booking decision, but rather something worth pointing out.
  • Despite the hot start, Raw quickly devolves into a rather meaningless show. It’s a sluggish affair this week, with a few guest stars putting in terrible performances, and only one match really standing out.
  • Raw spent weeks building up a confrontation between Goldust and R-Truth, and then tonight they have Goldust attack him before a match in a segment that’s all of 30 seconds and contains all the brutality of the Westminster Dog Show. Hopefully there are still plans for Goldust to do a lot more, but this was a disappointing payoff to one of Raw‘s more intriguing stories from the last few weeks.
  • Pivoting to a segment that actually builds its feud, Enzo and Cass get one hell of an emotional, beautiful, heartbreaking in-ring promo this week. It starts with Enzo playing the ex who doesn’t understand why he’s been dumped, pleading with Cass to remember why they were together and to come back to him. Eventually, Cass does come out and, surprisingly enough, apologizes for his behavior. He says that he lost sight of what was important and that he’s ready to get back to business. The two shed some real tears and living rooms everywhere get a little misty. It’s so damn touching that you can’t help but buy into the moment; I’m suddenly all in on The Realest Guys in the Room winning the tag team championships. Then, long after the music has hit and Enzo and Cass are up at the top of the ramp, Cass lays out his former tag partner with a huge clothesline before chucking him down the ramp. It’s heartbreaking, and oh so perfectly played. It’s a segment that not only underscores why Cass is doing what he’s doing, and why Enzo is so hurt, but it also doubles down on Cass’ violence. That’s how you continue to build a hot feud.
  • Similarly, Raw is doing great work building to Samoa Joe vs. Brock Lesnar. I wouldn’t say the storytelling beats have been all that unique, but that’s not really the point. Rather, it’s a pretty straightforward story told really well. It’s the unstoppable force vs. the immovable object. It’s the guy who’s instilled fear in every single person he’s come up against while putting Goldberg in his place at Wrestlemania finally going toe-to-toe with a man who isn’t the least bit scared of him. This week, Joe doubles down on his creepy whisper threats by crashing Paul Heyman’s backstage interview and throwing out more whisper threats. As if that wasn’t enough, he also attack Brock during his entrance when he’s coming out to challenge Joe to a fight. He locks in the Coquina Clutch, and despite Brock nearly breaking the stage setup with Joe’s body, he keeps it locked in and leaves the Beast on the ground gasping for air. Again, Raw is establishing Samoa Joe as a real threat and plausible champion. Whether he wins at Great Balls Of Fire or not, it’s great for Joe’s character, and also gives Lesnar some much needed vulnerability.
  • There’s not really any great wrestling matches tonight, but the main event is a lot of fun. It’s a Gauntlet Match to determine who will face Alexa Bliss for the Raw Women’s Championship at Great Balls Of Fire, and it’s one of the best gauntlets in recent memory. The success of the match all comes down to the booking of Nia Jax. Here she’s allowed to really look like a destructive force, running through every single competitor, starting with former champion Bayley, before coming up against Sasha Banks. Ultimately Banks gets the win, and while I think I’d have preferred the Nia-Bliss story, the main event does its job selling Banks as the rightful contender. Nia looks strong in the loss, and Banks gets some much needed momentum heading into the title match.
  • Main event scene aside, this is a dull Raw, and it’s evident in the structure of the first hour. In that first 60 minutes there’s a fun Strowman-Reigns segment, then two meaningless six-man tag matches, the underwhelming Goldust-Truth confrontation, and two absolutely horrendous guest appearances from “celebrities.”
  • The first is Josh Duhamel, who sits in on commentary to not only promote whatever the new Transformers film is called, but also an upcoming WWE production with Sheamus and his USA Network show. WWE does this all the time, but Duhamel is astonishingly useless on commentary—talking about this being your first ever exposure to wrestling while on air isn’t a great look, as is admitting you just met your WWE co-star for the first time backstage—and the forced tie-in ends up distracting from the match. Not that there’s much to see with the Hardys continually getting wins over Sheamus and Cesaro these days, but still, I think the point stands. I don’t understand why Josh Duhamel should ever be on my TV in 2017.
  • Then there’s Miz TV, a normally reliable segment that turns into a complete trainwreck this week with the inclusion of LaVar Ball and his two kids, brand new Los Angeles Laker Lonzo Ball and his brother LaMelo. I get that LaVar’s personality is made for pro wrestling, but this segment is a mess and, for me at least, embodies the worst aspects of including a “celebrity” in a segment. What I mean is that LaVar is there for LaVar. He’s not there to be a part of the segment, or to tell a story, or to sell anything outside of his Big Baller Brand t-shirts (tackily displayed along the usual MizTV props, but at least WWE finally found some t-shirt designs that look worse than their own). He’s there to get the Ball family over, and while I don’t blame him personally, it doesn’t make for a good segment. Instead, LaVar talks over everybody, fails to play into what the Miz is saying despite some heavy guidance, and then Dean Ambrose of all people is forced to come to the ring in a Big Baller Brand shirt. It’s painful to sit through despite LaVar going shirtless, and coming on the heels of two six-man tag matches and that bad bit of Duhamel business, it’s the death knell of this week’s Raw, coming a mere 70 minutes into the show.