Wednesday, May 9, 2018

On Clean Finishes on Tuesday Night

A clean pin isn't a death sentence, no matter how wrestling has conditioned you to think so
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Brian "Road Dogg" James and Michael PS Hayes have not really garnered the most sterling reputation for running Smackdown. Their creative decisions have often left viewers unsatisfied, turning a critical favorite during the early days of this round of brand extension into a wholly forgettable show, which is not an insignificant task when the Blue roster included AJ Styles, Shinsuke Nakamura, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Rusev, New Day, the Usos, Charlotte Flair, Becky Lynch, and Naomi, among others. The latest Superstar Shakeup shoveled even more prime talent onto Tuesday nights. In addition to gaining Daniel Bryan as a full-time wrestler rather than an authority figure again, Smackdown traded Zayn, Owens, and some chaff for Samoa Joe, Asuka, The Miz, The Bar, and Jeff Hardy from RAW, in addition to SANitY, Andrade "Cien" Almas, and the Iiconics from NXT, but one couldn't be helped from wondering if that infusion of talent would just go to waste under the brutally inadequate creative direction.

Having watched Smackdown for the last month since Mania, it's clear to see that the creative direction still leaves a lot to be desired. Whether it be using "I BIG, HE WIDDLE" as a feud starter between Big Cass and Bryan, the vaguely racist character direction of Nakamura, or the fact that Asuka has gone from having a STREAK to barely being featured, it's clear James and Hayes are in over their heads when it comes to crafting overall stories and narratives that are meant to guide wrestlers between matches and give reason to have the matches. That being said, Smackdown hasn't been as dreadful a watch as it has been before WrestleMania from a direction standpoint, which mostly has to do with the finishes of matches.

Case in point last night, all three of the Money in the Bank qualifying matches had clean finishes. The most notable one, Rusev over Bryan with the Machka Kick, was shocking because Rusev didn't appear to have much of a story going on while Bryan, one might think, would be protected. However, because it was shocking doesn't mean it was necessarily bad. Forget what you might think about booking consequences and stories. Forget your theories about crowd reactions dictating who gets into what match, or health concerns about putting a recent returnee from concussion-related retirement into a high-impact ladder match. The Smackdown team had the temptation to put Rusev over Bryan with shenanigans, and it didn't. The same went for Miz over Hardy and Flair over Peyton Royce (or in that case, shenanigans causing a reversal of fortune).

Having clean finishes in those matches makes a bold statement, and in my view, a good one, and in a post-Vince Russo landscape, especially in WWE, it can bolster a unique identity for one of the main two brands without doing a whole lot of major institutional changes. In a company where one expects interference to run rampant, using the clean finish helps keep the audience on its toes. It can also buttress the idea that pro wrestling still has a "sports" ethos to it, enhancing kayfabe just by ensuring that not every other match has a theatrical finish to it. You don't need to run a shoot-style promotion in order to convince the audience, even if just in the moment, that you are pretending to be sports-based. I think Chikara, the company with living science experiments, canon time-travel, and mind-control instrumentation, has proven that with its point system deciding who challenges for the top titles.

Most of all, it conditions fans not to believe a loss is equal to a burial. In the Russo-influenced days, clean losses were hard to come by because it was his belief that everyone deserved to remain strong, that losses might diminish someone's crowd reaction. That belief is where his booking philosophy, one that WWE continued to utilize to varying degrees after he left, came from. If someone had to lose, it had to be screwy. In reality, clean losses themselves don't diminish a wrestler as much as a clean loss coupled with a bad story or no story at all would. Losses can be as much a storytelling tool as wins are when they are given context.

Again, going back to the main event last night, Bryan didn't lose anything putting Rusev over clean, and the focus was on him after the match. Commentary spoke about his demeanor and what the loss meant for him, and cameras trained on his sullen expressions and sunken shoulders while seated on the apron. It was poignant, even for wrestling. What would have been the alternate? Big Cass' interference directly causing the loss? That kind of story building has become such a cliche that it becomes expected. The clean loss now opens Bryan up to more options going forward. Does he continue on the Cass feud, explaining away that the physical toll from the match and the beatdown afterwards cost him against a more rested and much better Super Athlete? The storytelling can also shift to be more introspective. It can also be used to jump-start the cold war with Miz into a hot feud, especially since Miz won his match cleanly.

Of course, the losses that follow within the rules of the sporting DNA of pro wrestling don't automatically forgive the shoddy writing and framing from James and Hayes. Smackdown still has to get from this finish to the next match, and I would feel a lot more comfortable if someone like Ryan Ward were helming the creative front (even if he's way, way, WAY too reliant on worked shoots, but that's a whole other thing). You still have to deal with Nakamura forgetting how to speak English and turn into Toru Yano as a heel because I assume someone in the writer's room watched New Japan once or twice and thought it was funny. But working in the confines of a set of rules that you set for yourself can work to make a lot of that palatable at least. Why have a standing ten-count if no one's going to lose to it, and what better way to get there than by stereo, mutual kicks to the dick? It's how Smackdown can get the most out of its roster, or at the very least allow the roster to shine through better and hide the deficiencies of the writers' room rather than the overbearing creative bankruptcy of the people framing the action overcoming the talent in the ring.