Wednesday, August 2, 2017

Can The Power of Love Overcome Smackdown Live's Showrunners?

The Power Couple of WWE will need to survive based off Maria's enthusiasm
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Mike Bennett and Maria Kanellis signed with WWE and skipped right to the main roster, eschewing a gestation period in NXT that most indie guys/international signees seem to get nowadays. Kanellis has a history with the company, but it's clear that she's not an active wrestler, at least for now. Bennett, however, maybe could've used a few months in the developmental territory/prestige brand1. Their debut was auspicious enough, appearing at Money in the Bank in their obnoxious PDA2 gimmick with the "mockable3"-feminist undertones of Bennett taking the Kanellis name. The entrance music bangs for sure, but nothing about that gimmick or the stature of Bennett before coming into WWE begged for him to get the surprise splash debut. Even without the jabs at feminism, a couple that is way too enthusiastic about professing their love in public is a shallow as fuck gimmick, and it needs something like the number of vignettes that the ill-fated Emmalina "reboot" got with the depth of the ones Roderick Strong received in NXT.

One could theorize that WWE didn't even want Bennett to begin with; it only wanted Kanellis and had to settle to take the husband if it wanted her back. So a gimmick so bad that it was designed to fail was given to them. I'm not entirely sure I buy into malicious intent in this case, but only a fool would deny that this gimmick had a low probability of taking off when the only means of getting heat is one-dimensionally playing into what the office believes its fans like and don't like. Granted, PDA is pretty annoying to most people, but is it enough to carry the act? The answer is "only if the performer(s) goes out of their mind doing it." It's been the modus operandi of the Smackdown showrunning crew, to be honest.

One only needs look at the spate of foreign-menace bullies on Smackdown Live to see that the current administration for Brand Blue isn't too interested in fleshing out character motivations for wrestlers. Jinder Mahal, Kevin Owens, and Rusev can only drain the well of "America suxxx" water so much without adding flair of their own. Honestly, said flair, even from Owens, has been sparse to say the least. Of course, one can blame Mahal's lack of resonation in the fact that he had to play off Randy Orton for most of his reign as Champion to date, and Owens has more shone in the ring than in character development. But honestly, they're not the only ones who are suffering. John Cena came back to cheaply invoke 9/11 for a wrestling match. Shinsuke Nakamura is "The Artist," but no one really knows what that is supposed to mean in a wrestling context. The women's division is treated like a nuclear core collective, and I'm frankly shocked that the folks in charge decided to go with a one-on-one match at SummerSlam instead of some bullshit six-pack challenge. Smackdown isn't where one goes for great storytelling and character framing, outside of maybe Breezango.

But it's not as if Smackdown is bereft of value. As stated, Owens and AJ Styles are engaged in a great in-ring feud, as are the Usos and New Day, who have a well-structured story between them even if it relies on toxic masculinity to develop. Chad Gable is shining in his proto-singles run right now. Baron Corbin, Sami Zayn, Naomi, even Mahal on promos are all doing some good stuff in the present. The common thread is that the individual performances are carrying the weak narrative structures being built around and on top of the wrestlers/performers. The good news for the Kanellises on this front is that Maria is completely owning her airtime right now.

From the first time she stepped out to that toe-tapping theme song, she utterly sold the hell out of what she was offering. Equipped with wide eyes, a booming delivery, and the enthusiasm of a child headed to Disneyland for the first time, she offers a different subtext to the gimmick. She's not a lovestruck dame or even a controlling shrew, but a cult leader, and that cult is love and devotion, baby. She'd work as a better Bray Wyatt than Bray Wyatt has on the WWE main roster, and I bet the writers' room hasn't even allowed that thought to cross its collective mind. Imagine a stable of happy couples worshiping what they think is the idea of public love but is really in service to the power and glory of the great and powerful Maria Kanellis? That scenario would be so oddball and yet so pro wrestling that it hurts.

Of course, I doubt WWE will allow the Kanellis Power Couple to take it in that direction, but that doesn't mean they won't survive against long odds. The funniest thing about it is that Mike doesn't even have to do much to make it work. Maria can do all the heavy lifting in character, and all he has to do is wrestle competently. While he wasn't the most lauded guy coming out of Ring of Honor after his contract let up last year, he's definitely a solid hand in the ring. I suspect that when he gets his sea legs underneath him, he'll improve more and more, as he seems like a throwback worker better suited to a WWE ring than a breakneck indie one. But Maria, yeah, she's good enough to cover both of them from a narrative perspective. The thing is that she's going to have to be, because she's going to get no help whatsoever from her creative bosses.

1 - I'm not even sure what role NXT fulfills anymore. I'm not sure WWE knows what role NXT fulfills anymore. However, that topic is fodder for a whole other post.

2 - First definition, obviously. Mike and Maria aren't collectively a computer, and they don't want you to stop all the downloadin'.

3 - "Mockable" only in the sense that the Neanderthal-brained bullies in WWE's front office are hard-wired to make fun of feminist things. Take whatever goddamn name you want, for crying out loud.