DEAN AMBROSE & ROMAN REIGNS: THE TEAM WE NEED
Lately, SmackDown has existed as background noise in my house.
This has less to do with the quality of the show and more to do with the fact that Raw’s three-hours saturates the viewer. By the time SmackDown comes around to HuluPlus on Saturday, I’ve already seen a minimum of four hours of WWE “content” (usually more as a result of perusing the WWE Network and YouTube). There is no other television-narrative I devote that much time to. Every other show I watch is either twenty minutes a week or forty minutes a week. Like most, I occasionally binge-watch a show, but such shows are always focused on the same characters or the same, consistent narratives. The WWE has yet to catch on to the viewing patterns of today’s generation, and the fact that more and more audiences are responding to psychologically driven, serial narratives with relatable characters in interesting situations.
The majority of my week revolves around what the WWE produces (now more than ever thanks to this website). This is why you have yet to see any articles on the independent wrestling scene - indy-wrestling is simply not as instantly accessible, unfortunately, and I inevitably get to that point where I’ve watched too much wrestling and need to cleanse my brain-pallet.
So SmackDown, for better or worse, becomes a low priority.
Despite lacking the enjoyable grandiosity of RAW, and consistently presenting ADR boos and cheers as legitimate crowd reactions (creating a sense of inauthenticity) I’ve found SmackDown tends to be more fun to watch when I watch it. There’s a lightheartedness to SmackDown that RAW lacks. And I do not mean that SmackDown is funnier or sillier or that RAW should take itself less seriously. RAW seldom takes itself seriously in the truest sense of that idiom.
I mean that a glower cloud hangs over RAW from time to time - and I do not mean that The Authority characters or the story surrounding those characters creates a sad atmosphere (as many who read my RAW REVIEW seem to think). I'm not criticizing gimmicks or angles that are designed to elicit heat, I'm criticizing bad television. Usually, Triple H and Stephanie are the most consistently enjoyable part of RAW and they turn in amusing performances. They’re often the only ones who seem to be having any fun with their characters.
What I mean is that the RAW show itself seems to be tired and angry at itself and at you, the viewer. The schizophrenic nature of the show combined with its need to sell everything the WWE produces can, on bad days, make for a labored, grating experience devoid of joy.
SmackDown often seems to understand exactly what SmackDown is - a show that is supposed to make you feel good for watching it. It’s much easier to engage with people who seem happy about themselves than cynical people who hate themselves and hate everything else. The same is true of how we interact with television shows. RAW seems like a cynic. SmackDown seems a little more hopeful.
For all my preaching about art and the allegorical significance of pro-wrestling, there must always be an element of joy in what you are watching (and you can have that when you're watching bad guys be bad). The art of the medium creates that joy, to be sure, but in a very basic, escapists way, you need to feel like you’re getting wrapped up in a world that cares about making you feel good.
The main event of this week’s SmackDown achieved that sense of fun and joy in spades.
Early on in the night Roman Reigns confronted Seth Rollins. This scene instantly felt right because of the history between these two and the unfinished business that remains. Roman, often criticized for his promo work and lack of move-variety, seemed to inject a bit more of himself into the scene. He recited his insults to Rollins, a rather lengthy, twisting list of alliterated euphemisms, and then when he finished the speech, he said, “That wasn’t easy to say,” and then he winked into the camera.
I popped big-time when I saw that wink. I’m a fan of Roman’s, unapologetically, and I’m a twenty-eight-year-old married, straight man. When I see Roman come down to the ring through the crowd I am always captivated. I see in Roman the hero I would admire when I was twelve years old. That’s who Roman is for, that’s the the valuable role-model Roman can be. If Cena is for kids, Roman is for early teens. You have to divorce yourself from cynicism and over-analysis and just appreciate Roman in the way you would when you were a hopeful, impressionable kid. He represents everything your average adolescent young man wants to become. He appeals to all races, creeds, colors, and orientations. His universal appeal is most affective when the WWE isn’t telling you how universal his appeal is, however.
Roman excels in his movement and in his stoic expressiveness. Where smarks call him wooden, I see someone who understands his own visual language.
Pay attention to the way Roman moves his arms, hands, and feet in the ring and pay attention to his eyes when he enters through the crowd. Pay attention to the way he slowly lifts his head after he smashes his boot onto the ring steps. The guy gets it. He knows how to be imposing and what he needs to do to show off his physically impressive presence. All the elements are there for the character to be a John Cena-like franchise player grown men actually like, but there are simply too many cooks in the creative kitchen. The booking of the character is what makes the IWC hate the character (the same character the IWC resoundingly cheered for almost two years). There are too many people telling Roman what he needs to be (myself included) instead of just letting him be whatever he really is. Like all gimmicks, Roman is at his best when he’s closest to who he really is. That wink into the camera demonstrates his sense of humor and self-awareness. He knows the criticisms leveled against him (clearly).
That wink creates a sense of fun, an enjoyable relationship between Roman and his fans and Roman and his detractors.
This sense of fun carried over into the main event.
SmackDown did a good job gradually building the tension, painting Roman into a corner against Seth Rollins, Big Show and J&J security. It was a match that made narrative sense (which always engages viewers more than the random booking we’re accustomed to - such as Sin Cara cleanly defeating Wade Barrett earlier in the night).
You were with Roman, wondering who his partner would be, hoping that he could overcome the odds. It’s an old wrestling trope, and the reveal is almost always obvious, but it's a good trope nonetheless.
Just when it seemed Roman would have to go it alone, an old friend came to the rescue.
Enter Dean Ambrose!
I cannot emphasize enough to the WWE how pleasurable it is to watch scenes such as this, moments that are informed by the past relationships of these characters.
Several months ago, after Seth Rollins curb-stomped Dean Ambrose into a cinderblock, Roman Reigns eventually confronted Seth Rollins and attacked him on RAW. Much like that incredibly satisfying moment, SmackDown’s reunion of Dean & Roman just feels right.
That feeling of rightness is the result of good booking (good booking being synonymous with good storytelling).
Dean’s feud with Bray was so terribly unsuccessful despite whatever entertainment their matches yielded because there was never any semblance of purpose behind the feud. Bray never had any sort of motivation for his actions. I dissected his reasons as best I could, eventually arriving at the conclusion that he was attacking Dean because Dean was allowing himself to become too corporate as “Dean Unstable Ambrose”. But that was a stretch - I had to work way to hard and simply want there to be some kind of meaning to deduce that. Even if that was the reason, it never resonated, and the promos lacked clarity and focus and the matches became more and more gimmicky with each passing week (TLC ended with Dean being shocked by a television?). Those guys killed each other for very little return.
The poor quality of that rivalry, the fact that it didn’t come close to living up to its promise, hurt both Dean and Bray. It hurt them so bad that I even soured on Dean’s character. This shows you what booking can do - despite the obvious quality of a performer, you find yourself believing what the WWE tells you to believe about that character. It doesn’t matter how talented you are, if you’re presented in a bad light, people tend to focus on that light.
But last night, when Dean charged the ring, when Seth Rollins reacted in terror, when Dean tackled Seth to the ground and started pummeling him, I instantly forgot everything that had happened between Bray and Dean and I remembered why I once dubbed Dean "The Transcendent Wrestler".
Not long ago Dean was on such a roll that he inspired me to create a two part video series about his excellence:
The tag match that followed was brimming with energy and the aforementioned joy. Dean drew the empathy with his brilliant sells, and Roman drew the excitement with his monstrous fluidity. And Rollins and Big Show drew the heat with their delightful combination of slimy bravado and hulking self-assuredness. It was a perfect contrast of behaviors and beliefs, and it was all earned, informed by years of character development.
Dean’s spectacular elbow drop on The Authority, and Roman’s beautiful curb-stomp counter into a spear was the uplifting finish fans needed. You felt good. You felt good for the same reason you feel good when you put the square peg through the square hole or when you complete a jigsaw puzzle or when your mouth meshes with your lover’s.
Joy is the feeling of rightness, the sense that everything is coming together at the exact moment it needs to come together, ascending to a place of perfection.
And the combination of Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, and Roman Reigns is perfection. It’s perfection whether they’re allies in The Shield or enemies.
These three, when playing together, represent the most entertaining, enjoyable, captivating main-roster product the WWE has to offer.
These three work so well together that you can do nothing but smile, sometimes with wide-eyed wonder, at what they do in the ring.
Think back to the matches they had at pay-per-views and on Monday Night Raw last year. To this day, I remember The Shield’s match against The Wyatts on RAW (Seth Rollins' triple flips outside the ring, landing on his feet) as the best tag match I’ve ever seen.
These guys are talented, and when they’re together, they push each other to higher and higher heights.
And it’s because they know each other. They’re comfortable with each other.
All can achieve success on their own, but for the WWE to segregate them in the attempt to create three massive stars in parallel, they will damage at least one if not all.
It simply makes sense for the relationship between these three characters to keep pushing the top narrative forward.
I’m concerned that putting this slightly more informal proposal out there in the universe will guarantee it shall not happen. I’m concerned that suggesting Dean & Roman should reunite and be the team to ultimately bring down The Authority at WrestleMania will virtually guarantee this SmackDown match is a one-off.
But there’s no denying that Dean + Roman is money, both literally and figuratively. It’s a combination shall remind everyone why they initially fell in love with these characters. Reunions are typically tantamount to stagnation or regression, but, in this case, a reunion between Dean and Roman will ground the characters in a wonderfully sense-making motivation.
People will forget why they soured on Dean during his feud with Bray, and people will forget why they disliked Roman’s unearned push.
There’s reason to cheer Roman and Dean, because everyone loves to see a good friendship, a good relationship succeed.
There’s never been finality to The Shield story, and even less finality to the brilliant Seth/Dean feud. So to watch this rivalry come to fruition once again, in a new form, would virtually guarantee a return of fun to Monday Night Raw.
This is what WWE fans want to see today. These three guys at the top, working together, delivering together.
It’s time we get back to business with the future of the business, WWE.
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