While there are plenty of things to criticize about the creative direction of WWE as of late and their hesitance to take risks, on the micro level, they were more than willing to experiment with telling stories differently in the past. In the go-go-go world of WWE where—even on a three-hour show—some segments are shortchanged for running time, they suffer compared to more conventional pro wrestling stories.
Look at AJ Lee's feud with Paige so far. AJ comes back out of nowhere, they do what appears to be a double turn without much explanation, and Paige loses the title. The crowd reacted because they were happy that AJ was back and won, but it was a confusing, badly conceived segment.
The next week, again without explanation, they were partners. Paige was acting like a babyface again, but it seemed like the conceit was that Paige was a heel pretending to be a babyface. They didn't do an especially good job getting this across, to the point it would have been easy to miss even if you were paying full attention. It was kind of a mess and wasn't encouraging in the least.
That changed with their segment on this week's Raw, which served as the go-home show for Battleground. While AJ was wrestling, Paige was on commentary. It's a good setup to keep everything moving, especially because the women don't usually get much time to work with: You get a match, but Paige gets time to to explain the storyline.
There was some risk because Paige is not always the most confident talker on a live show, but she did a solid job getting over the basic story: AJ is her frenemy, and she was great at insincerely praising her.
It got even better after the match. AJ sat cross-legged, as is her trademark, on the announcers' desk, took Michael Cole's headset and had the most awesomely awkward, faux sincere, high school mean girls conversation possible with her. It set the tone and established the storyline in a way that none of their other segments did, all because they made the best possible use of their limited time. If the previous two segments got more time, maybe they could have gotten the message across sooner.
Sometimes it's just a missed opportunity, like with Cesaro's strange trajectory since WrestleMania. Going into the show, it was obvious that at some point that weekend, he would turn babyface to set up a feud with Jack Swagger and Zeb Colter. It happened on the WrestleMania pre-show, setting the stage for him winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal later that night in impressive fashion to one of the biggest ovations of the week.
The next night on Raw, it looked like they were cementing the turn while keeping the feud with his former friends moving. In a huge surprise, while arguing with Colter, Cesaro declared he was a Paul Heyman guy to a huge ovation from the always rabid post-WrestleMania Raw crowd. He spoke like a babyface, played to the crowd like a babyface and wrestled like a babyface. Heyman, meanwhile, appeared to have shifted to something new: He's not a babyface, he's not a heel. He's just Paul Heyman.
It was exciting. Even the most conservative possible reading of the angle was that yes, Heyman was still a heel, but Cesaro hired someone with a track record to guide his career. It's a rarely used angle, and the most famous version of it, when Chris Adams hired Gary Hart in Texas in 1984, was used to set up a heel turn by Adams instead of a feud between the two. If anyone could pull off pivoting to a feud instead of the wrestler turning, it's Heyman.
Instead, the next night at the SmackDown taping, the first show out of New Orleans, Cesaro was clearly a heel. A heel who was obviously being set up to feud with Heyman and Brock Lesnar down the line, yes, but a heel nonetheless.
WWE was clearly pandering to the crowd of world travelers in New Orleans for Raw, so they knew what they were doing. Still, if Cesaro is playing to the crowd as a babyface in New Orleans, he was playing to the crowd as a babyface on TV, and it was incredibly confusing when SmackDown aired the following Friday.
Why overcomplicate things and communicate the story so badly? If Cesaro and Heyman are more clearly heels, that crowd still cheers them anyway, so why the unnecessary misdirection? WWE knows what they're doing. They know how it originally looked and that it's the more interesting story than the direction they went in on SmackDown that week.
If they go off the beaten path and they nurture it the right way, it can lead to great things, but it often seems like the creative team outsmarts itself.
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