Smackdown Views 26/07/13: Joseph Hegarty
[Disclaimer: This blog is not intended to be a traditional review of an episode of WWE’s Friday Night Smackdown, you can most likely find hundreds if not thousands of them across the internet so I see no purpose in retreading that same ground, instead this blog intends to use this week’s episode of Smackdown to inspire analysis of more general themes and issues in the professional wrestling industry.]
Unfortunately due to unforeseen circumstances this blog is going out much closer to the live broadcast of Monday Night Raw rather than to that of its subject Friday Night Smackdown. Hopefully you dear reader may still find my thoughts worth reading, especially since one of the main themes of this blog (i.e. spoilers) is one that is perhaps even more important to the events of this week’s episode of Raw due to last week’s tapings required because of the WWE roster this week being down under on a tour of Australia (followed by South Africa). WWE feels it is undesirable, I suppose understandably so due to the time difference, to film Raw live from Australia tonight but I would be interested to see how an Aussie crowd would compare to for instance a smart American, British or Canadian crowd (Hey, if there’s any Australians reading this, why not comment below and tell me how you gauge you wrestling crowds to be?). Perhaps an indication of the kind of crowd Australia offers comes from a spoiler (that I’m sure most fans will be fine reading) from the tour that Antonio Cesaro is working as a babyface, hinting that an Aussie crowd may be a bit more appreciative of a talented heel than other crowds.
When I was asked to take up the position of Smackdown correspondent here on Lock Up, two thoughts instantly came to mind: firstly I was happy that after a very busy last few months I finally have an excuse to make sure I catch Smackdown every week and secondly whether with the show being taped every week I should read the spoilers for the show or not? Like many fans who just watch Raw weekly, I usually read the spoilers for Smackdown mid week and if anything sounds interesting I check it out if I have any time. However, now I have to ask myself whether a wrestling write up can be at it’s best if it lacks the response of seeing something unexpected which is crucial in pro-wrestling. So for now at least I’ve decided to avoid all spoilers. However, this led me to contemplate the importance of spoilers to modern sports entertainment and in fact entertainment in general. Head down to your local newsagent or supermarket, how many spoilers do you see plastered across the front of magazines dedicated to soap operas? Spoilers and speculation fill the eye, suggesting that fans of soap opera enjoy knowing what happens in the storylines of their favourite shows before they happen (supply and demand, innit?) and a quick browse of any online wrestling fan forum would suggest that many wrestling fans share that same mentality in enjoying their own brand of serial entertainment. Now, is this because narrative arcs are less important in soap opera (and by that I include WWE) storylines than more respected drama such as Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad? Or does it just become another type of narrative, one less concerned with surprise than suspense? Legendary film director Sir Alfred Hitchcock, primarily known for his use of suspense in his silver screen thrillers, famously described the difference between surprise and suspense using the example of the presence of a bomb (see YouTube clip below). If our characters are sat around talking and then there is a sudden explosion caused by a bomb then we are surprised, however if we know that there is a bomb that is going to explode but our characters do not, that’s where suspense comes into the equation. I don’t see it as too far of a stretch to borrow this concept to explain a potential excitement for spoilers to supplement the enjoyment of a pro-wrestling angle; the spoilers may tell us that Alberto Del Rio is going to beat Rob Van Dam but we don’t yet know how, when or why. I suppose the concept could similarly be described as the entertainment being the journey and not the destination.
This week’s smackdown kicked off with the episode’s best match, which pitted the two recently crowned Mr. Money in the Banks, Damien Sandow and Randy Orton. Both men got good reactions in their respective role, with Sandow particularly getting heat (albeit cheap if you care, I don’t; heat is heat.) running down the Texan crowd. Although, of course another factor I will have to keep in mind in these blogs is the editing of crowd reactions on Smackdown. Speaking of crowd reaction in this match, this leads me to an opinion of mine that I’ve found surprisingly controversial when spouting it on the internet in the past: Randy Orton is a good babyface. Although most of the internet wrestling community seems to clamour for a heel turn for “The Viper”, I’ve never been a bigger fan of Orton than in his most recent babyface run (granted I’m unfamiliar with his highly acclaimed Legend Killer run, being on a hiatus from the business at that time), particularly since his feud with Christian which really turned me onto Orton’s talents. Perhaps the babyface appeal of “The Apex Predator” lies for me in behaviour in comparison with the other WWE babyfaces, specifically the happy go lucky characters of John Cena and Sheamus. The latter is perhaps the best comparison, both the Irishman and Orton show heel-like traits, however Sheamus’s cheery exterior compared to Randy’s brooding nature is rather grating. It’s hard to like a bully who acts the hero. On a related note, in our present day post-kayfabe wrestling world, it’s hard to like a babyface who doesn’t put over other talent, in an entertainment form where we know the outcomes are predetermined, a wrestler who always wins just comes across as selfish and cowardly.
This leads me to ask the question, what makes a good heel in modern professional wrestling? In today’s wrestling scene there’s always going to be a vocal section of the crowd, who would be classed as smart fans or smarks, who generally appreciate heels more than babyfaces or at the very least support whichever wrestler they deem to more talented rather than who WWE (or whichever promotion) deems they should support. Therefore, in modern wrestling does a really talented heel have to bypass the support of the smarks and instead find a way to be hated by the entire audience? Returning to the case of Randy Orton, as a heel I found him boring and it wasn’t until his current babyface run that I became a fan of his work, but looking back does this mean that he succeeded as a heel while other villains of the WWE piece (CM Punk or Dolph Ziggler for instance) failed by engaging my enjoyment of them? A perhaps more relevant example of this is the character of Alberto Del Rio, many fans deride him as boring and uncharismatic but he’s getting fans to do boo him and he’s a competent and safe in-ring worker so he’s doing his job.
Although with Del Rio’s old school heel antics this past Friday there’s a chance he is coming full circle, I enjoyed his work because he was actually quite refreshing by pulling the generic house show heel moves of not entering the ring and then clinging to the ropes for the 5 count when he eventually did get in the squared circle. The brevity and unsatisfactory (in kayfabe terms) nature of the match answered the question I asked aloud when the contest begun, shouldn’t this be the main event, considering it pitted the World Heavyweight Champion against one of the most over wrestlers in the WWE? But this leads me to the main event slot of the night and conversely the night’s opening contest, which ended as Sandow was distracted by the presence of his ex-tag team partner and newly turned babyface Cody Rhodes, who after the match made off with Sandow’s Money in the Bank briefcase. This led to a reasonably entertaining recurring segment throughout the night in which Sandow would roam around the backstage area asking a varied cast of extras from crew members to Hall of Famer Booker T if they’d seen Cody Rhodes. These segments culminated in Mr. Money in the Bank finding his former best friend outside holding the aforementioned briefcase while standing next to the shore of the Gulf of Mexico. Unsurprisingly Sandow’s blue briefcase was hurled into American waters to join the many storied wrestling flotsam and jetsam including The Rock’s Intercontinental title belt, a John Cena branded garden gnome and Chavo Guerrero. This angle continues to simmer along nicely and I for one am very happy to see both men finally finding some direction after quite some time in the WWE wilderness.
Overall this was a decent show, while there wasn’t much top quality wrestling on show with most of the matches being exceedingly brief, each match still managed to achieve everything they needed to in an efficient and effective manner, i.e. cementing The Usos and Mark Henry as a team to match up with The Shield, highlighting Del Rio’s dastardliness instead of the boringly forced feeling ruthlessness they’ve tried to label him with in the past, keeping Christian’s winning streak going and giving the Wyatt Family a dominant in-ring debut. A highlight of the night was a rare Smackdown appearance from former WWE champion CM Punk, who was as captivating as ever, cutting another fine promo in a similar vein to his segment on Monday Night Raw. It probably won’t get mentioned much in this blog since it will focus mostly on Smackdown, but boy am I excited for the matchup between “The Best & The Beast”. An angle I’m not as excited as I thought I might be though is the feud between Dolph Ziggler and AJ with her enforcer Big E Langston. This brings us back to what makes a good heel/face in the 21st Century, with the moral dynamic seemingly a bit off kilter seemingly encouraging sympathy for AJ rather than Dolph. However, creative may just be executing a slower turn than expected and with that being the case I remain excited for a feud involving two of my favourite talents on the WWE roster as well as an up and coming powerhouse. Heck if the story sucks at least the spots should be entertaining with Dolph selling Big E throwing him around like a rag doll. As of now I’m reserving judgement, hopefully more on that story next week. But for next week I only hope for a few less recaps, Sheamus skits and Total Divas adverts and a little more wrestling to match the quite good story telling (barring Dolph and AJ) of this week’s Smackdown episode. I leave you with Smackdown’s greatest revelation: Damien Sandow, while being the beacon of light in a harbour of iniquity cannot dive of that harbour because he doesn’t have the ability to swim. Nevertheless, he is the inaugural winner of my award for the Smackdown Superstar of the Week!