For a time it looked like this episode of Monday Night Raw was preempted in favor of a very special showing of As the McMahons Turn. Pure soap opera was the story of the night.
Sure, wrestling matches were going on throughout the evening, but all anyone in the announce booth could talk about was Stephanie and Vince McMahon's decision to keep Triple H from wrestling Curtis Axel.
Are we in for a return to the Attitude era, when the McMahon family starred as the show's center point, the villains everybody love to hate (Vince) or just plain hated (Stephanie)?
Not if Daniel Bryan has anything to say about it.
The diminutive, absurdly bearded mat technician stole the spotlight with not one but two amazing matches, making sure no one left the arena with "McMahon" on the tip of their tongue.
That's the beautiful thing about being a truly great wrestler. A wrestling match has the power to transcend even the most mind-numbing material, to make it okay to watch television that sometimes seems to lack the Wizard of Oz essentials—heart, brains and courage.
A great match can teleport you into another world, where nothing else matters, where there is just Ryback, Bryan and a hot crowd. That's a good place to be.
Bryan gets an A+ on the night—but I didn't just grade the weak links. Every live segment was scrutinized and put under the microscope. Disagree with my decisions? Let me know in the comments.
McMahons in the ring? Making waves? Belittling the crowd?
Is this the right show? Or did I randomly put in the new Attitude DVD?
This was a Stone Cold appearance away from being a 1999 flashback, complete with Vince's suddenly much darker head of hair.
But instead of the Rattlesnake, it was the Shield who came down after the two McMahons teamed up to cancel Triple H's match with Curtis Axel. They didn't cross paths, but it was a tease of what might be one day.
The McMahons cancel the Triple H match already announced for later on Raw. Well, okay then.
"It sure does feel great to be back on Monday Night Raw." Stephanie McMahon to a mixed reaction.
"Even though Triple H is medically cleared to compete tonight, I'm making an executive decision." Stephanie. Well then.
"I'm not going to let Triple H put his well-being in jeopardy against Curtis Axel, who, quite frankly, is beneath him." Stephanie.
"It seems like you're happy to see me. I'm happy to see you guys as well." Vince McMahon.
"Please don't boo my daughter Stephanie. Come on guys, she has feelings just like each and every one of you." Vince. The crowd boos.
"My son-in-law, Triple H, he's given everything." Vince.
"You want his heart, his liver, his spleen...what do you want?"
"WWE sports entertainment is not a bloodsport." Vince. The crowd boos.
"I'm thinking tonight, every one of you is beneath Triple H as well." Vince. Well, that took a turn.
"Get out of there!" JBL to the McMahons as the Shield's music plays.
I had this at a C. It didn't seem to do much to help anyone. But over the course of the program they kept going back to it, including a conversation between Hunter, Steph and Vince that almost devolved into fisticuffs.
Suddenly, this looked like the opening act of a strong three-part play. I adjusted my grade accordingly.
The hottest feud in wrestling gets another chapter as Team Hell No once again takes it to the Shield. Everything about these matches is so spectacular even I struggle to find anything snarky to say about them. I will work hard over the next week to come up with something to complain about.
Ambrose pins Daniel Bryan with a Headlock Driver.
"He's the hairiest link." JBL on Daniel Bryan.
"Not a lot of teams lining up to take them on." JBL on the Shield.
"So nice, he did it to them twice." Jerry Lawler on Orton's double DDT.
"You're losing it." Randy Orton to Daniel Bryan post match when Bryan claims to know they see him as the weak link.
"The reality is I'm the weak link." Bryan.
Not up to last week's level, but this was a fantastic match. Daniel Bryan is not only the best in-ring wrestler on the planet, but he's among the very best actors in the business, too. Just an amazing performer, the perfect amalgam of the Chris's—Benoit and Jericho.
The Usos both have one half of their face painted. Because they are Samoan and it is an ancient tradition for warriors to get their faces painted like they are at an eight-year-old's birthday party.
When two jobber teams clash, smart money is on the team with the new look. That's the Usos, making the result inevitable.
Jey Uso pinned Darren Young with the Superfly Splash.
"What a boot." JBL in Titus O'Neil manhandling the Usos. He was the only one watching as the other two announcers were shilling the McMahons instead of the match.
"Money is the root of all wealth." Jerry Lawler. That's true.
"What'd y'all get paid for that? The same thing Verne Gagne paid for Super Clash?" JBL on Lawler and Cole's Hangover 3 appearance.
Perfectly acceptable wrestling, albeit the kind of match destined to be immediately forgotten. Things happened, and then it was all over. That's not really saying much is it? The wrestling version of a competent but formulaic sitcom.
Really liking the potential of Big E Langston. We don't know if he can talk yet. But he has a presence, both in the ring and out. He is a powerhouse. He has Taz's tiny ring gear. And he's not afraid to take a brutal German suplex.
Like I said—I'm excited.
Del Rio beat Langston by turning an armbar into pinfall.
"I've got to get one of those guys. Where can you buy one?" JBL on Rodriguez. What is he, Ted DiBiase?
"Dolph and AJ call themselves the "It" couple. They should call themselves the "Idiot" couple." Jerry Lawler.
These two have great chemistry together in the ring. It's almost a shame this has to end. Love the finish there. Langston did all he could to counter the armbar, only to have Del Rio outsmart him a counter.
This match is the result of a three-hour programming block. There's no reason for it to exist and no one will enjoy it even a little.
Okay, maybe a little.
Sheamus pinned Rhodes with a Brogue Kick.
"I am a magician, I was not cheating." Damien Sandow on his battle of wits with Sheamus on Smackdown.
"Look at him. He's embarrassing himself on television. The Irish brute." Damien Sandow.
"Never seen Dusty do that." JBL after Rhodes missed a moonsault.
"Cody's playing possum." Sandow.
"He's about to play roadkill." Jerry Lawler. That was a nice comeback.
"I'm not going to shake your filthy hand, Sheamus." Sandow. Instead of a handshake, he got a smack to the face.
Sheamus continues in his holding pattern, knocking off jobbers and midcarders right and left, but without any coherent push or program.
Good thing Fandango got put over Chris Jericho at WrestleMania! How else could he wrestle Great Khali in the middle of a random Raw?
Khali wins by countout as Fandango takes off. Meanwhile, Wade Barrett lands a sucker elbow on Miz.
"It looks like a giant-sized Gumby just got electrocuted." Jerry Lawler on the Fandango Lite Brite.
"I don't understand how Hornswoggle fits into this Khali-Natayla dichotomy." Michael Cole. I'm not sure I want to know.
Not good on any level. I don't mind comedy. On a three-hour show, it's a necessity. But, and I feel like a broken record, this stuff with Khali is not funny to me. It's just not.
The odds were stacked against Miz. Not only did he get hit with a huge Bull Hammer before the match, well, he's the Miz.
Looks like the WWE is building a three-way dance between Miz, Fandango and Barrett. I really like Barrett and hope he can navigate his way through this dead-end feud and back into something respectable.
Miz beats Barrett by Figure Four after Fandango distracts the champion.
"There's still some fight left in Miz." Jerry Lawler
"There's still some dance left in Fandango." JBL. And here comes Mr. Saturday Night Fever.
I like that Miz is trying to work the leg before he applies the Figure Four. He might not be smooth, but at least his psychology is on point.
WWE is going to try to work an angle between Jericho and Punk without Punk even making an appearance on Raw. I'm not sure even Paul Heyman can pull that off. Will be fun to watch him try.
Jericho and Heyman sign a contract to make CM Punk vs. Jericho official at Payback.
"Somebody call the sheriff. These boys might just steal the show." JBL on Jericho and Punk.
"Before I sign this agreement, which by the way, we could have just signed in the back in private..."
"And he has an amazingly stylish buzzcut plus an array of tattoos including a piece of pizza and a donut." Chris Jericho on Punk.
"You are going to be vilified, you are going to be jeered, you are going to be heckled by a partisan, biased crowd that thinks CM Punk can do no wrong." Heyman.
"What CM Punk does... is make liars of people who think they can lay claim to the title of best in the world." Heyman.
"When you act like a jackass, like CM Punk acts, you get treated like a jackass." Jericho.
"Compared to what?" JBL after Jericho told Lawler he was looking good.
"Unbutton your jacket. Unbutton your jacket before I rip it off." Jericho, threatening Heyman.
"I know exactly where this contract needs to be filed." Jericho, putting it down Heyman's pants.
That was really disappointing. Did anyone really believe they weren't going to sign? That they were going to make the match on Raw that very night?
Hopefully they have something better up their sleeves for next week. Putting the contract in Heyman's drawers was pretty weak.
The announcers talked over this match like they were three Tony Schiavone clones and this was a luchador six-man on Nitro. These poor divas get no respect.
Kaitlyn hits a Bella with a spear after AJ Lee refused to tag in.
"Unlike you, it's no secret." Jerry Lawler admitting to Cole he admires Kaitlyn—but is not her secret admirer.
"She is thinking. Thinking 'I'm leaving.'" Lawler on AJ Lee refusing a tag.
This moved the Kaitlyn-AJ Lee angle forward—but not in any way that makes sense. Kaitlyn is champion. AJ is the top contender. If Lee is scared to be in the ring with her, why is she looking to challenge for the title in the first place? This is making my head hurt.
Daniel Bryan, looking to prove himself, challenged the biggest dog in the yard. His partners think he's crazy. The announcers think he's crazy.
He's just out to prove to himself he belongs.
I hope WWE decision makers are watching. Bryan isn't just a little over. He's really, really, really over. The crowd is buying him as an undersized giant killer. I am too.
Daniel Bryan wins a great match after Ryback puts him through a table.
"My throw up is bigger than you." Ryback to Bryan.
You're the weak link. And after our match tonight, you're going to be the missing link." Ryback.
"You don't have anything to prove to me or to anyone else." Kane
"I do have something to prove...and I'm going to prove it without you....I don't want you anywhere near me tonight." Daniel Bryan
"Call me when you find your mind. Because it's obvious you've lost it." Kane.
"You can't breathe when you're in that." JBL on Bryan's half crab. Not sure that's how it works.
"It's all about sending a message to Cena." Michael Cole on Ryback's table fetish.
Once again, Bryan has topped himself. What an incredible match. It's rare to see a wrestler hitting on all cylinders like this, folks. Enjoy it.
If Curtis Axel doesn't get over, it won't be because of a lack of television time. Another week, another main-event slot.
No, if Axel doesn't get over, it will be because he spent all that time in the main-event spot winning fluke matches and getting put over in the weakest possible fashion.
Curtis Axel wins by countout after Ryback ran Cena through a table.
"Do you want me to say it in Yiddish?" Vince McMahon to Paul Heyman after making the match.
"Good luck, kid," Vince to Curtis Axel.
"He's Mr. McMahon. He likes that kind of stuff." JBL explaining to Lawler why Vince made the match no-DQ.
"Heyman has got this way about him. People believe in him. Believe in what he says." Michael Cole on Paul E.
"This young man's waited his whole life for this. Curtis Axel was born for this." JBL.
"Is there any depth Paul Heyman won't sink to?" Lawler. Didn't the King work ECW? He knows.
"He waited for his opportunity." Cole on Ryback.
This worked, both as a match and as a way to further the Ryback-Cena feud. Axel is able to hold his own against the top guys in the sport. That's a good thing. But nothing he does stands out and he's not particularly crisp or sharp in the ring. That's not so good. I'm not 100 percent sold on him, but I haven't written him off yet.