Friday, September 23, 2016

Podcast Deep Dive: Masked Man vs. Cheap Heat

Lynch was a guest on the Cheap Heat show which was that one's major plus this week
Photo Credit:
There’s a part of me who thinks it’s wholly unfair to listen to David Shoemaker’s Masked Man Show on The Ringer network and continually weigh it against his former show, ESPN’s Cheap Heat. And perhaps if I walked away from Cheap Heat, I’d be able to approached Shoemaker’s new audio home free of any hang-ups. But, completist that I am, I still listen to every second of Cheap Heat, and that makes it impossible to ignore the comparison.

Cheap Heat host Peter Rosenberg invites the juxtaposition because he simply won’t shut up about his former co-host. But all that does, to his own show’s detriment, is highlight everything Cheap Heat isn’t — and probably never was, because even when Rosenberg and Shoemaker were paired in Cheap Heat’s Grantland days, the DJ’s domineering personality suppressed the writer’s ability to fully guide the show’s creative direction.

Put less fancy, Shoemaker does much better work when he’s in charge. That was supremely evident with Episode 11 of his podcast, released Sept. 21 and checking in at 1:17:03. (Technically he’s had more than 11 Ringer shows, but the episode count restarted when he changed its name from Ringer Wrestling Podcast.) The main reason Ep. 11 represents his top work is because Shoemaker functions best guiding a simple conversation, and rather than the usual setup of two guest co-hosts, he was joined in studio this week by only one — Dave Schilling, of the Guardian, who only wanted to talk wrestling (and not plug any upcoming projects) and had only guested twice before, once in early June and later right before SummerSlam in mid-August.

As Shoemaker’s show has started to find its voice, a key distinction separating his work from Cheap Heat is looking at big picture issues or development instead of making sure to mention every segment from the week’s RAW and Smackdown offerings. This week the lead topic was Seth Rollins’ apparent face turn, exploring how it was conveyed (with consideration of alternatives that read less like fantasy booking and more like a look into the creative team’s brainstorming session).

“I don’t want to knock WWE for the way they’ve treated the Rollins character” Shoemaker said. “I think that, in my dream booking world, this is how you do it. You don’t, you know, he doesn’t get screwed over by Triple H and then suddenly start, like, inviting Make-A-Wish kids to sit ringside for his matches. Like, it’s not — that’s not how real human beings work. So, like, the way that they’re doing it, with a little bit of nuance, I’m totally behind. I’m more interested in the sort of meta question of whether or not fans are going to be able to adapt when WWE does things in more interesting, nuanced ways.”

The other topics were similarly broad — how fans’ perception of Roman Reigns is being used to advance stories for other wrestlers, how conventional heel and face portrayal might be shifting to match audience demographics, options for utilizing a stalled talent like Baron Corbin, WWE’s opposition to factions — “the faction has to exist outside of a single storyline and that, that I think is tough,” Shoemaker noted — and a lengthy look at WWE’s glut of weekly content.

Rather than just coming off as a confounding, Rosenberg-grade complaint — There’s too much good stuff to watch! I have a life! — Shoemaker and Schilling considered how WWE tries to make its offerings all feel mandatory without doing enough to avoid monotony — Shoemaker: “They put themselves in a weird position, you know? It’s not super easy for them to differentiate the two shows when you’re so bleary-eyed from watching wrestling that you don’t know which show is on right now” — then constructively explored the ways they might do so, such as encouraging commentary teams to distinguish themselves more from each other.

Cheap Heat actually was a strong offering this week — Something Shiny dropped Sept. 22 and checked in at 1:14:03, just three minutes shorter than the Masked Man Show. Listening to Rosenberg, Stat Guy Greg and ESPN’s Brian Campbell, you’d barely know Rollins had such a big Monday. However, the show opened hot with a look at Randy Orton’s controversial tweet and Rosenberg more than willing to take a strong stance on the side of social justice before Campbell pulled things back on topic, certainly wary of what happens when folks on the ESPN payroll get too political.

Rosenberg seems to have realized his freeform tendencies don’t always yield quality audio, so he’s trying to establish a weekly framework. He asked Campbell and then Greg for hot takes, leading to brief talks about how RAW is lagging behind Smackdown in terms of entertainment value and the way in which RAW fumbled its rollout of the cruiserweight division.

As usual, though, Cheap Heat couldn’t avoid being disorganized. Conversation jumped from RAW’s tag team segment to looking ahead to Clash of Champions then back to Smackdown before the real reason to tune in, an extended interview with Smackdown Women’s Champion Becky Lynch (which starts at 34:33). After that lengthy segment, Campbell is gone but the guys still want to talk a little bit about Rikishi and dash off some quick Clash predictions.

About that Lynch interview — Rosenberg clearly has pull within WWE that Shoemaker can’t match. The only interviews Shoemaker’s put on wax since moving to Los Angeles are a hit with Goldberg, who was promoting his involvement with the WWE video game, and a rushed phone call with The Miz in conjunction with The Ringer’s Cleveland Week. Lynch, however, was around for the long haul. She answered questions about her perseverance, how she feels about being isolated from her fellow Horsewomen.

“I feel a bit of pressure, but I also feel it gives me a lot of delight, you know? And it makes me really happy, and it makes me excited, and I feel like — I feel like hopefully I’ve been put in a leadership role and that’s what I want to do, and I want to make Smackdown the women’s division to watch, I want to make us the women’s division that people care about and they want to get emotionally invested in it, but I want all of us, you know, to shine and I want all of us to be superstars.”

Lynch also shared her positive evaluation of Charlotte and other promising women not on the main roster. Rosenberg owned up to his prior doubt about Lynch’s potential, then Lynch talked about shifting from chasing a title to carrying it as a hero. There was a bit of chatter about the world of mixed marital arts before the low point — Rosenberg revisiting his talking point about finding jacked women to be attractive courtesy of Lynch — and fortunately Greg rescued the ending by asking about how Lynch celebrated winning the strap.

So if we’re really just playing the shows against each other, you probably give the edge to the one that landed a long interview with a reigning women’s champ. Or, we just say “Becky Lynch got a high-profile appearance on an ESPN property” and appreciate what it means to her to have reached such a position where it’s as big a deal for the show as it is the guest.

Those are overly simplistic views however. Take away the Lynch interview and Cheap Heat is clearly inferior. Both will get you ready for Sunday’s card, but where Shoemaker provides a deeper look at the show in context of WWE narrative and tropes, Rosenberg sees it more as a chance to make predictions the same way a football show might pick the Bears to lose to the Cowboys.

To that end, Schilling offered this assessment: “If Seth Rollins wins the title on Sunday, you’re going to see that sort of dissipation of his heat because I think that the audience responds the most to idea of the underdog, the guy or woman who is not fated in the stars to be the best. Which is why Kevin Owens gets a ‘You deserve it!’ chant after he wins the belt. Or Becky Lynch. Or all these people that are quote-unquote ‘underdogs.’ And Seth Rollins has to build that credibility up.”

Whereas Rosenberg and Greg spent a total of 23 seconds discussing the main event of RAW’s first brand-specific supercard:

“Maybe we see Triple H again,” Rosenberg said. “But either way, if they decided to do this thing with Kevin Owens, they’re gonna keep it on Kevin Owens.”

Greg: “Yeah, agreed. But, you know what? For the sake of spicing it up? (Pause.) Yeah, I’m gonna stick with Kevin Owens.”

As I try to do breakdowns of each weekly episode of both shows, I more and more circle back to a familiar talking point: each show has more or less shown its audience what to expect each week, for better or for worse. Cheap Heat is a perfect microcosm of ESPN’s affiliation with WWE — on the surface there’s excitement (or at least interest) in the name recognition and mainstream attention, but it quickly becomes clear the talk is surface-level at best. Week in and week out Shoemaker is the source for actual thoughtful analysis, and even though his show is far from perfect, it’s got its own degree of consistency and faithfully respects its audience.

All that said, I don’t begrudge anyone who listens to either. It’s been a while since Rosenberg actively ruined one of his episodes, but absent a visit from a bona fide star, he also rarely delivers anything that could be deemed essential.