I’m not sure that there’s anything new to say here.
I’m not sure that there’s anything new to say, because it’s been a year – more than a year – and nothing has changed. Even my ability to enjoy being bitter about things on the internet is being tested.
I guess we can start with: is there any person who is excited to see Triple H and Roman Reigns main event Wrestlemania? The WWE’s facebook page would indicate no. #CancelTheWWENetwork trending again would indicate no. The fact that I even have to ask this question indicates no.
Let’s take a step back. What is professional wrestling? It’s a storytelling medium. It’s a combination of physical skills, scripted segments, and improv used to construct a narrative for the benefit of an audience. If you’ve ever been in a writing workshop, you’re familiar with these basic questions: What do the characters want? Why should the audience care? If the readers can’t answer those questions, you’ve got some revisions to do.
What’s the story, in the main event scene, right now? What does Roman Reigns want? Who is the audience? Why should they care?
There’s been an increasing insistence by the WWE that we, the people who watch their product and give them money, are not their audience. Our criticisms don’t matter because we’ve “never been in a wrestling ring.” The goal of the WWE is to “put smiles on faces,” but if there isn’t a smile on your face, it doesn’t mean the WWE has failed; it’s you, watching the product wrong.
For coming up on two years now, they have been trying to make Roman Reigns the new top guy. Roman Reigns is fine. He’s big and has the right look and can put together a decent match, if he has the right partner and the right circumstances. He’s a phenomenal hot tag. He’s never been able to make it work in the main event and that’s fine but here we are, two years later. Roman is about to main event his second Wrestlemania. Become a three-time champion. Has received boos or lukewarm cheers in every PPV for the past year.
Daniel Bryan’s retirement was a shock to the system in a lot of ways. I don’t know about you, but I had forgotten what it sounds like when a crowd genuinely loves a wrestler. There’s only one active, face male wrestler on the main roster right now who is over. One. No one but Dean Ambrose can pop the crowd just by showing up in a mediocre backstage segment. The only interesting stories in the main event scene right now are “Will Roman and Dean break up?” and “How will Brock react to Dean challenging him?” These were the major plot threads leading up to Fastlane, and neither of them went anywhere. The only place Fastlane went was Roman Reigns looking strong.
There were a lot of interesting stories that could have come out of the triple threat at Fastlane. Dean winning and Roman turning on him, because he feels cheated out of another opportunity, because he could be gracious in victory but not defeat, because he never really thought that Dean could beat him. Roman could have won by screwing over Dean, doing something dishonorable and cruel, an act of desperation that hurt his best friend. Hell, it would have been dumb as fuck, but Dean could have turned on Roman, frustrated at always playing second fiddle.
Tell me: what is Roman Reigns’ character? How did this match display his character? Did he change? Did he make a decision? Was an inner conflict revealed?
Dean made decisions. He echoed the most painful moment in his career, whaling on Roman with a steel chair, casting Brock as himself in a reenactment of Seth’s betrayal. He tried to suplex Brock, using the beast’s most distinctive move against him. He started tearing up the announce table and invited Roman with double powerbomb Brock with him.
What decisions did Roman make? He speared Brock while he had Dean up in the F5 in a callback to last year’s Wrestlemania, taking advantage of a moment of vulnerability on Brock’s part. I guess it could have been played as unwisely saving Dean, if there had been any repercussions for it. He stood up in the kimura lock. He stood up after Dean’s chair shots. He looked strong. He made us wonder why he was allowed to wear body armor in the ring. That’s what it looks like, right? Someone that impervious to pain doesn’t even look strong anymore. It’s not impressive to keep getting up if you never really get thrown down.
Dean was the one with a goal heading into Fastlane. He wanted to prove that he could take Brock Lesnar, that he could take any amount of punishment and persevere, that he was an Iron Man and not a Lunatic Fringe, that he could hang in the main event. What did Roman want, heading into Fastlane? Another title shot? He’s had so many. He’ll have more. He’s had the title, twice. What will make the third time different? What makes this title shot different? What’s the endgame, here?
When the Shield broke up, Seth and Dean had an intensely emotional, compelling story and Roman wandered into the main event scene. When the WWE wanted to rehabilitate Roman after last year’s Wrestlemania disaster, they stuck him in a holding pattern, a meandering feud with Bray Wyatt that started nowhere and went nowhere and accomplished nothing. It wasn’t supposed to; it was just keeping Roman out of the main event picture long enough for us to forget why we hated him.
I still couldn’t tell you Roman’s character, after all this time. He loves his family, I guess, but he’s never offered an explanation for where he was when Seth tried to kill Dean. He calls Dean “crazy” even though Dean is on the record as hating it. He doesn’t even know what temperature Dean likes his beverages at. He wants to provide for his family, but he chose a job with no security that forces him to be on the road 300+ days a year. When Kevin Owens talks about providing for his family, you’re meant to know he’s being somewhat insincere; he’s here because he loves to wrestle, because doing this is his dream. His family is the excuse that justifies his actions. If everything Roman does is for his family, why not put that management degree to use and get a job that doesn’t involve him getting the holy hell beat out of him? That doesn’t require him to beat the hell out of his family, on occasion?
In a lot of ways, we’re now in the same situation as last year. There’s no positive outcome for the main event of Wrestlemania. Either a mostly-retired man keeps the title, which benefits no one, or Roman wins it back, and so what? Won’t the Authority just screw him out of it again? Where’s the catharsis? We’ve already seen him win it, twice. How will this time be different?
While Roman was champion, there were times I literally forgot about it. He seemed to. Roman gave less of a fuck about the title than Seth did about the car he bought J&J.
I don’t know about you, but WWE programming hasn’t been putting many smiles on my face lately. I can’t find the story here, and I once wrote an in-depth analysis on Cody Rhodes, a man who is only allowed to appear on PPV when he can talk a CW actor into feuding with him. There’s no tension, because within the storyline itself, Roman is handed opportunity after opportunity and effortlessly shakes off adversity. He has nothing to gain and nothing to lose, doesn’t care about anything, laughs off insults and pops up after chair shots.
Wrestling is supposed to be a storytelling medium. Where is the story, here? Wrestling is supposed to feed off the energy of the crowd. How long does the crowd have to tell the WWE that we are not interested in Roman Reigns as a top guy before they listen?
Who is the audience? How often is it acceptable for your viewers to campaign for you to be cancelled? When did lukewarm cheers become the highest a face should aim for?
What’s the story? What do the characters want? Why should we care?