TLC : My Cable Bill Might Be A Little Higher This Month
Turns out we are not scheduled to do another podcast before the upcoming TLC PPV, so I thought I would give some of my thoughts on it here, in print. If you heard our last episode (Episode 34: The Levesque Finish available now on this site and iTunes!) then you already know that the 3 of us were not looking forward to the TLC PPV at all. Before this week’s go-home show it felt very much like what we have come to expect since “Summerslam” – going into a PPV with little or no enthusiasm and then having the PPV disappoint. Perhaps WWE was starting to sense this fatigue in their audience, because while last night’s ‘Slammy Awards’ show was still 80% groan-worthy, a few key segments really gave the build-up to TLC the shot in the arm it needed. The final segment, obviously, is the one everyone is talking about and will be talking about for some time to come. But before I get to that, I want to talk about a few other things.
Anyone who knows me, and knows my background as a fan, knows that I appreciate the “old school”. When I say that, I am not even talking Bruno Sanmartino putting a guy in a rest hold for 30 minutes, I am just talking the core building blocks of what make Pro Wrestling what it is are still very valuable and appreciated by me. As time goes on, WWE cares less and less for these things, and as a result I am sure new fans who are coming up now care less as well. They don’t know any different. They have no reason to miss something they’ve barely seen put into practice. But me, I miss things that used to make Pro Wrestling great. I’m not talking about women taking bumps, or blood, or chairshots to the head or anything negative that resulted in tragedy (and should have NEVER been done that frequently to begin with)but more so the psychology stuff. Wrestling is a work. Its called “a work” because the crowd is being worked, and that is still true to this day even with the disappearance of Kayfabe. Whether you KNOW its a work or not, if you’re standing up and popping when Shawn Michaels kicks Daniel Bryan out of nowhere on RAW, then you’re being worked. Because those aren’t real fighters, thats not a real fight, thats not a real kick. Therefore, we are ALL marks, and the only difference in today’s fanbase is, we’re smart to it, and CHOOSE to be fooled. We are voluntarily allowing ourselves to believe, and get into it, like we would with a movie or a book or any other piece of fiction that requires you to use your imagination. People within the business say that Vince McMahon Jr. giving the audience that choice, and telling you it was fake, and leaving it in your hands instead of trying to fool you, may be what has kept the business alive to this day. Whether or not that’s true, I don’t know, but it’d be tough to argue against. So, yeah, “old school” – heels, babyfaces, protecting top guys so they look good at all times, making sure people look like credible opponents, making sure title belts have value, etc etc. As I am going through that short list of examples, you must already be starting to figure out where I am going with this. My point is many of these things are unimportant to WWE in today’s age. We live in a different time and they feel (maybe justifiably, maybe not) that this age has a different pace, they like/require different things to be entertained and therefore different approaches are more effective than the traditional ones. We spoke in length on the last episode about how the Free TV (Raw/Smackdown,etc) was supposed to exist to sell PPVs, and in recent months the free shows are far more enjoyable than the $55 shows that are the shits. We spoke about what’s wrong with that approach and why we didn’t understand it. I am not going to repeat it here, go listen to the episode, but my point is, (finally) that last night’s RAW definitely sold a few PPVs. And considering the buyrates for recent endeavors like “Battleground” and “Survivor Series” – they definitely need to be doing that.
Bray Wyatt’s promo on the Titantron to Bryan is one of the best examples. Bray is undeniably one of the best talkers WWE has period. You don’t have to love his in-ring abilities or even if you don’t enjoy the gimmick – its undeniable that he is a gifted and very comfortable public speaker and like CM Punk, Austin, Dusty Rhodes, Mick Foley, Ric Flair, Jake the Snake and all the other great stick-men that come to mind, you get the sense that it just sort of flows out of him. His face on a screen, and the intensity with which he delivered that promo to Bryan, while Bryan stood in the dark – did more to make me care about this handicap match than ANYTHING they had done in the weeks previous. All that “kidnapping Bryan and carrying him off”, but then its never mentioned again and sloppy nonsense like that didn’t amount to a hill of beans. I didn’t care. I love The Wyatts, I love D. Bryan, I wanted to like the match, i wanted to WANT the match and they weren’t doing a great job of making that happen. I still wish (especially after that awesome promo) that this was just Bray vs Bryan one on one, because i feel the handicap match is being done to death, but they were smart because now it does kind of feel like that’s what it is. Being that the other two guys are just followers/minions, it really is going to come down to Bray imposing his will on Bryan, even if he has two other guys with him to help him impose it. So just like that, you’ve made me do a 180. How? Old school wrestling psychology/manipulation. Allowing a gifted speaker to almost literally TALK me into buying the PPV. Just like Flair used to do, Just like Dusty used to do. Having a speech that makes me feel like SOMETHING that I can’t afford to miss as a fan is going to go down on Sunday and I just have to be there. THAT is wrestling.
And they did it again with that ending. That final segment not only sold the PPV (and Cena’s promo was great to that effect, similar to what I said about Wyatt’s above) but it sold whatever they do moving forward. People are already buzzing about how that crazy ending could have set up 2 or 3 possible feuds for Mania. When you are not only selling THIS PPV, but already looking to sell future PPVs by peaking the crowd’s interest that way? THAT is old school wrestling. I would pay my life’s savings to get an HBK/Daniel Bryan match. Not even a feud, just a match. One match at Mania. The history between the two, coupled with their combined talent in the ring would make for a Wrestlemania Moment for sure. Will we get it? I dunno. Most of last night’s show seemed to say ‘no’. I hated that HBK came out doing his typical out-of-character jokiness and sort of dismissed the whole thing (even though he was winning an award for screwing the company’s most over babyface). Then later in the show he presents Bryan with an award and you think “NOW they’re going to do it” and instead Bryan smiles and says “HB-Shizzle” and doesn’t even seem to be THAT perturbed that HBK is the (storyline) reason he is no longer in the title picture. It bothered me to no end. If Shawn cant’ wrestle, sure, don’t set up something you can’t deliver, but to not address it at all? Just 2 months later? That just made me so mad. Now in the end, with the final segment we finally got more HBK/Bryan interaction, but part of me still feels at the very least Bryan should have snatched the award from him and cut some kind of passionate promo about how HBK got in his way and ONE day he’ll have his revenge, just in case. If they DO decide to go at Mania, they’d have that speech in the can to use for video packages and stuff, and i just feel one angry/passionate promo would have been enough to justify him moving past it and onto the Wyatt Family (especially when Shawn is RIGHT THERE in his face). But alas, he made a few jokes, mentioned casually that HBK screwed him and then left.
The end of the show was something different. That ending was something we haven’t really seen much of since the ‘Attitude Era’ came to a conclusion. And by that I mean, the kind of ending that’s so unpredictable and exciting it has everyone talking the next day about what it meant and what it COULD mean. While the rest of this RAW (and the last few months of RAW actually) have not been appointment television – this segment was a must-see for anyone who’s been a wrestling fan during ANY part of the past 10 years. And smartly played, because if you see a boring movie that has a great ending, or a twist at the end that blows you away, you leave the theater remembering the last thing you saw and feeling excited by it. So now everyone’s walking around today smiling and saying “did you see that!” when really 2 and 1/2 hours of the show was still not great. But it doesn’t matter, because we got a historical moment. Cena’s promo, as I already mentioned was phenomenal and in an “old school wrestling” way did a multitude of things that this feud desperately needed. His trip down memory lane with Orton and his goading Orton and calling him lazy and saying he’s a shadow of what he could have been all were effective in not only reminding us that Orton is a credible opponent, but using “shoot” stuff the internet has been saying, in order to give us the sense that Orton may in fact deliver on Sunday. Not only is he a credible opponent, but Cena may have awoken the guy who kicked his dad in the head, and that makes the match all that more exciting. It was like a verbal guarantee that Randy won’t be phoning it in on Sunday, when it matters most.
Cena himself, as he sometimes does, took it upon himself to go off script (at least it seemed that way) and give credit where it was due to his ‘supporting cast’. WWE may only see Cena as the face of the WWE, but Cena has always been good about recognizing his peers and sharing some of the spotlight, and so while at first blush, him putting over Bryan in his hometown, or giving Punk props may seem like pandering, it still helps those guys and makes the fans feel like we’re safe from absolute corruption of the product with a guy like Cena (who wants to give new guys a chance) on top. Cena gets a really bad wrap, and while I don’t love him, I have a whole theory on him that I will share in the next piece I write for the blog. But for now, let’s focus on TLC. The video package they aired showing all past champions, combined with having so many former champs in the ring at the end went a long way to suddenly making what was previously a throwaway PPV feel like exactly what they were trying to sell it as – a significant moment in WWE history. Not to mention the tease of Punk/HHH, HBK/Bryan, HHH/Orton…it was just total mayhem at the end. Cena standing NEXT to The Authority while Raw goes off the air? That was a very subtle visual cue, that could (and probably will) turn out to mean nothing, but it was def intentional – and planting seeds like that, even if they are just to keep us guessing or get us talking is OLD….SCHOOL…..WRESTLING. No matter what kind of company you wanna be, Vinnie Mac, it is the Pro Wrestling psychology element that still sells PPVs (at least for me).
Now, whether it turns out to be as HUGE a match as last night made it feel remains to be seen, but that doesn’t matter. Old school wrestling psychology dictates that if you say something is big, you better make me BELIEVE it is big, and then I’ll spend my money. WWE has a bad habit of “talking things up” when none of us are on board. And it leads to “boy who cried wolf” syndrome. We’re used to them forcing things that are not organic and saying “biggest this or that ever”. Yeah yeah, sure Michael Cole, biggest match in WWE history, we hear ya. That language only works if there’s action supporting it, to make us agree with him. If i am sitting at home saying “oh man he’s right, this is a huge deal!” as I was during last night’s final segment – then they’re doing it right, in my opinion. Of course, whether or not something big is actually delivered always varies. Sometimes they swerve us to keep the angles going (i.e. “Battleground” and “Night of Champions”)and we feel gypped, sometimes the guys don’t have the best match ever or are having a bad night and it just doesn’t live up, and sometimes, rare times (like Punk winning the title at “MITB” or Bryan/Cena at this year’s ‘SummerSlam’) it ACTUALLY delivers exactly what we hoped for and more. But what I mean to say is whether or not it actually lives up to the hype is separate from the fact that the go-home show and all the shows before it are supposed to “work” me, bring out the mark in me, fool me into believing that beyond a shadow of a doubt it WILL live up. They’re supposed to make a fool of me and make me forget the times I was cursing my TV and mad at myself for wasting my money on their shows. They’re supposed to trick me into raising my cable bill for the month by $55 bucks and being too blinded by excitement for the sport I love, to give a fuck. I want to be tricked, I am volunteering for it. I am begging for it. And millions of fans like me are too. Last night may have done it. Maybe. I’m still on the fence, but either way, I am talking to people today who did a 180 and are 100% sold on buying it now. So congrats WWE. You did what free TV should be doing every week of the year – you sold some PPVs. Keep doing it.