Sunday, August 23, 2009

The Jericho Dare Part II – WWE Monday Night RAW – August 17, 2009

As in the case of The Jericho Dare, Part I - Smackdown (see article below), I ask for your understanding, should you find the following description of RAW wanting. There were just too many parts of the program that were … uh … let’s call it challenging. Fair enough?

As stated, the episode of WWE Smackdown that I watched last week featured some surprisingly good wrestling. True, it was buried under a mountain of distractions (a very few okay, some banal, others ridiculous and a couple of them crossing the line into the offensive). Still, I came out appreciating that while many of the talented wrestlers were constrained by the preferred WWE style, that style has broadened somewhat since I last tuned in. A very pleasant revelation, that.

So, now it’s on to WWE Monday Night RAW, the TV show that is lauded as the company's flagship. It’s the one that gets the most attention and the highest ratings. It also receives the greatest amount of criticism for going off the rails with exasperating regularity.

Here in Canada, we are “treated” to a 15-minute preview of the night’s show, thanks to “Countdown to RAW.” Countdown begins at the top of the hour, which means everything that follows is a quarter-of-an-hour later than what our southern neighbors are viewing. For my purposes, it's a good thing. Greg Sansone is a typical generic WWE-style host, although he’s actually an anchorman for The Score, the national channel in Canada carrying all WWE programming. He does a good job bringing us up-to-date with the usual hype. The current storylines and angles are highlighted, awash as they are in clips from the recent past. Wowie, looks like we’re in for a humdinger of a show, dadgum it!

One thing that fails to raise my hopes comes with the announcement that this week’s “Guest GM” is Freddie Prinze, Jr. Nothing personal against Prinze the Younger … I’m not at all familiar with his work, but the few times I’ve seen him he seemed affable enough. Besides, I liked his old man back in the ‘70s.

But what’s the deal with a celebrity running the program every week? Okay, we know the real reason is cross-promotion. Other than that, does the gimmick enhance the matches at all? No other sport that I’m aware of allows an outside individual to call the shots. The angle itself is not a major crime in this make believe world, but such stuff makes it much more difficult to suspend disbelief and go with the proceedings. I actively dislike this manner of contrivance.

Anyway, RAW kicks off with a skit featuring Santino Marella and Freddie Prinze, Jr. Like Colt Cabana of ROH, Marella’s a natural comedian with plenty of charisma. That said, the material he’s given is horribly unfunny. Interesting to note that Santino’s thick Italian accent drops completely as he mimics other characters, one of whom is, I believe, from the program “24.” (Is it Keifer Sutherland’s role?) Fortunately, the whole thing was short, over and done before it became truly annoying.

Now, WWE champion Randy Orton joins Prinze in the ring to make it clear he has no intention of working that night, even if Sergeant Slaughter, the previous week’s Guest GM, set up this week’s main event. Tonight, Orton is scheduled to team up with his hated enemy (and the challenger for his title come SummerSlam on Sunday), John Cena. Not only that, they’ll have to face the tag team champs, Big Show and Chris Jericho. Seems to be a lot of talent crossover between RAW and Smackdown. As one might expect, RO doesn’t go for it. As far as he’s concerned, there’s nothing to discuss.

I dig Randy’s heel work. Unlike most everybody else, he doesn’t bluster and yell. At least, not to this point. Instead, he speaks in quiet and measured tones, which makes his heel personality vastly more interesting and intimidating than the screamers. Huzzah! Then, through his actions, Prinze informs us that he’s got big brass ones, for he lays down the law … the match has been made and Orton WILL appear in the main event. A little bit of back-and-forth and then bang … Orton nails him with his finisher, the RKO. Prinze is down and out on the mat, his subconscious wondering who the hell thought this would be an okay idea. It actually looked pretty good on the replay.

Randy slowly leaves the ring, and again I like how he works. Supremely arrogant yet soft-spoken is a rare novelty in today’s sports entertainment, and for that reason it’s all-the-more impressive. The viewer tends to listen to the message because it’s at a conversational level, a simple act that makes it even more menacing. So, it’s bye-bye and off to the hospital for Prinze, who didn’t even get a chance to hype his latest project (then again, I may have fast-forwarded through it). Interesting decision to pre-sell Freddie’s attendance and then kiss him goodbye within the first 10 minutes. Of course, this can only mean he’ll be back before it’s all over.

And now for something completely different: a match! Kofi Kingston, a highly energetic holder of the U.S. title takes on a nasty-ass Carlito. Haven’t seen Kingston before, but I’m pleased that Carlito seems to be over his apple-spitting phase. Done routinely, it’s predictable, boring and means nothing.

The bout is pretty stiff with a few nice spots, although Kingston’s over-amplified facial expressions don’t help. With the occasional exception, someone trying to convey an emotion by going way over the top relegates it to caricature. It only serves to remind us of what we are unable to achieve ... the suspension of disbelief. I have a feeling it won’t be the last time tonight.

Oh, joy. Just like on Smackdown, we start receiving notices that Degeneration X is coming back. The punch-lines from a series of idiotic skits Shawn Michaels and Triple H had performed over the years as DX are thrown at us lickety split. Like so many of the matches from this company, there’s no build-up … just the pay-off. Lacking genuine humor, it makes me dread the reappearance of two men that are over 40 yet pretending to be teenagers with snotty attitudes. I know each has a large following, but does anyone over the age of 12 find this turn amusing? I may be in the minority on this, but to me it's moronic in the extreme.

WWE wants you to e-mail your vote now! Can Randy Orton & John Cena defeat the team of Big Show & Chris Jericho in tonight’s main event? Hurry! (Nice method of bumping up the hits on the company website, Shane. Actually, it’s pretty clever).

The Miz (anybody happen to know what a Miz iz?) comes out and gives the crowd plenty of snark. Like C.M. Punk over on Smackdown, he’s a recent convert to the heel side of the fence. He’s taking on Evan Bourne in what proves to be mostly a spot-fest. There’s very little psychology to speak of, but the athleticism is certainly admirable. Well, except for a clothesline on Bourne near the finish that sends shivers up my spine. Call me a naïve mark if you want, but over the years I’ve seen too many wrestlers legitimately injured from things just like this. My immediate impression is that Evan has inadvertently landed hard on his neck and/or back of his head. Still, he manages to kick out of a pin attempt. Not so sure about the hardship created by the clothesline now. Bourne continues and soon loses, not showing much of an effect from the bad bump. So I’ll reduce my suspicion to 50/50.

Another DX reminder, courtesy of Jerry Lawler in the arena and a camera crew waiting in the parkade for their arrival. I’m beginning to shake in a combination of nervousness and dread of what’s to come.

And following the break … yep, here they are. Shawn Michaels and Triple H have arrived in all of their crotch-chopping glory. Exiting from a monstrously long limo with DX spray-painted on its side (thoughtfully parked right where the cameras can get an unencumbered shot), they walk with a sense of purpose towards the building. But before they can enter, they must first run a gauntlet of stupid people. (Or, more fairly, people doing stupid things).

First, it’s two girls, one with long blonde hair, acting in the role of crazed fan. Jumping around like she’s got a nest of wasps in her shorts, she continually screeches about DX until Trips empties a rubber trash can on her head, followed by the can itself. The other girl, who looks supremely embarrassed during her friend’s conniption fit, merely stands and watches the entire production. Who the hell writes this stuff and why haven’t they been sedated? Maybe they already are…

Then Santino, once again adopting the Keifer Sutherland role in “24” (if that’s what it is), drops in and acts the fool once again. Even though he himself remains appealing, this pretense is wearing awfully thin for me. One thing the “E” fails to grasp is that when something works, you don’t need to drive it into the ground by repeating it over and over in rapid succession. The surprise factor isn’t there after the first time, and with each replay the alleged humor diminishes. It also wouldn’t hurt to hire writers possessing a sense of humor that resembles an adult’s.

Shawn Michaels hits Marella with a Super-kick to the chin, laying him out. And here, I’ll admit it. I found the final few throwaway lines between the two friends to be genuinely witty, causing me to laugh at both the absurdity and the delivery. Once in awhile, the law of averages tells us they’ll get it right, and they certainly did so at the very end. Kind of an unexpected reward for sticking around.

As we all must be anticipating, DX hits the ring to the insane delight of the crowd. I guess this answers my earlier question … as long as people eat this foolishness up, Vince McMahon will continue dispensing it. The “boys” go into their long-running ego trip and self-congratulatory routine. (No offense to anyone, but my God … is it ever gay! Not that there’s anything wrong with that!) They merrily cavort about the ring until The Legacy (Cody Rhodes and Ted DiBiase, Jr.) run in to destroy the old-timers right where they prance. As intended, the result is an instant feud, and waddya know … it’s just in time for SummerSlam! Couldn’t see THAT coming.

Our next match is a women’s contest between Diva titleholder Mickie James (who’s put on a hint of flab around the mid-section since I last saw her) and Gail Kim. Remembering both of them as polished professionals, I’m expecting a well worked bout, far above the usual WWE women’s standards. Both are babyfaces, so with neither one needing to play the heel, there should be some decent exchanges.

But something’s wrong here. I don’t know if they’re having a hard time communicating during the bout or what, but it’s dangerously sloppy at times. Kim especially seems particularly loose and semi-lethargic, and I’m getting the feeling that Mickie is becoming exasperated. Still, it continues and I suppose it could be worse. The end, though, confirms my suspicions.

The conclusion is nothing less than a big-time screw-up. Rightly or wrongly, here’s the way I saw it: James accidentally clips Kim in the face with a spinning kick of some sort. It legitimately seems to knock her woozy. Mickie follows that up with a stiff clothesline, a roll-up and the pin. She’s looking kinda pissed off, while Gail lies perfectly still on the mat. She’s not selling a bogus injury and is barely beginning to stir.

So, the ref raises Mickie’s hand in victory, and together they take a quick walk around the ring. James then wanders over to Kim, who is attempting to regain her composure. Mickie’s talking to her, possibly apologizing but more likely reminding Gail that they are both babies and need to confirm as much to the crowd and the TV viewers. That means Kim should be raising James’ hand while both show signs of mutual respect.

But that’s not how it goes down. As Gail Kim regains her feet, she’s shooting daggers in Mickie James’ direction. The top diva grabs her hand and raises it in an attempt to sell their unity. After a couple of seconds, Gail jerks her hand away (or perhaps Mickie throws it down in contempt), with James no longer hiding her facial displeasure. Somebody better get between these two in the back! Or better yet, NOW’S the time for the ever-intrusive cameras to show us what’s going on behind-the-scenes. I dunno what really happened, but it was definitely not scripted.

Michael Cole excitedly informs us that Freddie Prinze, Jr. has now returned to the arena. (Toldja!) We’re then back in the ring with Josh Matthews as he conducts an interview with John Cena. Of course, the discussion centers around John’s challenge to gain Randy Orton’s WWE belt on Sunday. I like Cena’s responses to the questions. He gives credit to his opponent, which flies in the face of modern wrestling practice.

It doesn’t take a college degree to recognize that a man giving credit to an adversary creates the impression that the speaker is a realist. The match between the two will be even-up and compelling, and it’ll be a tough night for both of them. To take the opposite approach by claiming that his foe is beneath him tells the fans that maybe the bout won’t be competitive, and THAT message reduces the I-must-see-this-match factor.

Now Chris Jericho and Big Show arrive and verbally intimidate Cena. Not sure why these guys are interjected when the focus needs to be squarely on Cena versus Orton.

Next match: MVP vs. Jack Swagger. It’s all punch ‘n’ kick for two minutes or so. The ref disqualifies Swagger, whereupon MVP jumps him from behind and they roll around on the mat until it’s time to leave. Nothing particularly good or bad here.

The matches are coming fast and furious now. Chavo Guerrero is slated to face the Irish midget, Hornswoggle for the umpteenth time. (Found that last part on the net). It’s a nothing match, a comedy chase under the ring and into the back. It's too senseless to recount, so I won’t. I’ll simply say that Chavo is a highly talented wrestler who is utterly wasted in a bad burlesque parody. Ugh.

Just-recovered Freddie Prinze, Jr. is still the General Manager for the night, dadgum it! And he decrees that the main event is now going to be a lumberjack match. More so, the ‘jacks are all individuals that have a particular dislike for Randy Orton. Take that!

After a break, we get the final result of the e-mail question concerning whether or not Orton and Cena can defeat Jericho and Big Show in the main event. Oh, right! THIS is why the tag team champs came out to intimidate Cena beforehand. At least it makes sense now. Anyway, 76 percent of the respondents said yes, the duo could defeat the baddies, and 24 percent said no. Not sure what it proves except that people watching RAW are capable of sending e-mail messages when instructed.

After another ubiquitous commercial break, we join the match just as it’s starting. However … at least here in western Canada … there’s no audio. Can we possibly follow the action without yammering heads telling us what we’re seeing?

After several silent minutes, we are suddenly plunged into darkness, then jerked back to the beginning of the bout. Again, there are no announcers, at least not until Cole and Lawler find their microphone’s “on” button. With no explanation forthcoming, maybe the technical misstep was limited to certain areas. In any event, the bout is reasonably well paced, with the crowd loving it every time Orton is sent outside the ring, only to face the wrath of the unfriendly lumberjacks.

Pretty fair exchanges with some decent storytelling taking place. With everything breaking down at the end, Orton decides that now is the best time to sneak up on Cena and hit him with an Attitude Adjustment, thus concluding their temporary partnership for the night. Randy makes his exit up the aisle, and then stops to appraise the damage done from the top of the ramp.

Now it’s the lumberjack’s turn to jump inside the ring, only to be quickly tossed outside by Jericho and Show. However, this gives Cena time to recover, and in the most surprising move of the night, snaps Show’s head off the top rope. The large man tumbles to the floor, so an angered Cena picks up Jericho, airplane spins and slams him hard to the mat, getting the pin. Gotta say, I never would have expected anything resembling an actual finish to the match, and I give props to Chris Jericho for doing the job.

All-in-all, the program wasn’t as horrifically bad as I was anticipating. But then again, it was far from good, or even average. Way too much crap throughout, with nothing to inspire me to tune in to RAW again anytime soon.

But you know what? The next night, and without any pre-planning, I found myself watching one of my Pro Wrestling NOAH discs, all-the-while breathing a sigh of relief. The lesson through all of this was: wrestling can be a fickle mistress. Loud, irritating and extremely immature at times, it's often full of promise while delivering very little. But then again, when performed with consideration and intelligence, it can also be highly rewarding.

RAW Grades:

The Wrestling: D
The Skits and General B.S: F
Combined Grade: D-