Braun Strowman and Bobby Lashley go boom.
Photo: WWE.com

After three days of embarrassing attendance at the Stomping Grounds pay-per-view and the subsequent editions of Raw and SmackDown, and after months of chatter that the product had sagged and stagnated, WWE finally decided to make a big move last week. That the move in question wound up being the shock announcement of Paul Heyman and Eric Bischoff as the newly appointed “Executive Directors” of Monday Night Raw and SmackDown Live, respectively, was... well, let’s just say unexpected. Installing those two veteran wrestling hands in newly created roles felt very storyline, although the news arrived with assurances that the two would have real creative responsibilities. The question was what that would mean. Heyman was already working on the WWE creative team and still seen as sharp, but Bischoff hasn’t worked in such a role since being sent home from Impact Wrestling in 2012 and hasn’t been successful at it for over 20 years. The fact that Vince McMahon, when presented with a chance to modernize his promotion, turned to a pair of his fellow ’90s wrestling war promoters was not promising. But until this week, there was nothing to do but speculate about what it all might mean.

Multiple reports have indicated that Bischoff won’t take over SmackDown until after July 14’s Extreme Rules event, but that Heyman would already be doing his thing on Raw this Monday. Watching this week’s shows sure seemed to confirm that. SmackDown felt exactly the same, but Raw was noticeably different in variously wild and Heyman-accented ways. If this one installment of Raw was any indication, things may actually change. The question, as always, is just how much change McMahon will allow.

WWE creative and production has made itself into a hermit kingdom, and that has not helped the promotion or the product. There’s a reason why fans use the word “stale” so often to describe WWE’s product—everything echoes everything else, every message is communicated in the promotion’s preferred quirks and language, and everything flattens out as a result. But on Monday, at least, Heyman seemed determined to tweak the presentation as much as possible, especially in ways that aided storytelling logic. It wasn’t a complete overhaul, and it still had plenty of that old WWE corn—cameras still shake to emphasize “impact” and “chaos,” for instance. But there was also the sense of some fresh air entering the room. It was long overdue.

The show opened hot, with Bobby Lashley facing Braun Strowman in a falls count anywhere match. This instantly broke down into chaos when Strowman tackled Lashley through the LED boards that make up the entrance set. As is common with this type of in-universe WWE mishap, this set off a bunch of pyrotechnics meant to signify exploding electric circuitry and a lot of the lights going out. It’s an overdone WWE trope, and seldom looks as cool or dangerous as intended. This time, though, there were enough tweaks to make it work, as Strowman and Lashley went through the set with great force; color commentator Corey Graves blurted out a relatively natural-sounding “Holy shit!” on air. Technicians ran over with fire extinguishers, and after a few moments, the camera angle switched to an elevated one off to the side, allowing the paramedics to do their work without being impeded. That went on until both wrestlers could be rolled away on gurneys.

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Look: this was still a very WWE/Vince McMahon piece of pro wrestling, and deployed a notably tired bit of WWE gimmickry. But the departures from the standard made it feel so much more chaotic and organic, the usual camera-shaking bullshit notwithstanding. There was, in that moment, a sense of how the Heyman/Bischoff gambit could work, if it works. Vince McMahon is still in control. Working within his framework as much as possible is the correct move to not just lay groundwork, but also build trust. And anyway, these shows don’t have to be completely different to get better; they can and should still be WWE-style professional wrestling. They just need to be good WWE-style professional wrestling.

That said, it was striking how much these small and seemingly obvious changes did to improve the show. When the announcers did their first on-camera after the explosion, great care was taken to explain how the auxiliary electrical power for the whole show—the word “generator” was implied but never used—was exactly where the wrestlers landed behind the stage. Normally, that type of thing is just left hanging—you’re supposed to assume that a wrestler crashing into anything electric will automatically cause explosions. The explanation given still sounds a bit overly fantastical at best, but giving that kind of explanation with real gravity goes a long way towards sustaining suspension of disbelief and keeping everyone in the moment. WWE had been skipping that step for years.

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The change in tone continued with the second match, The Viking Raiders versus New Day’s Xavier Woods and Big E. The Raiders’ entrance was impacted by the issues with the lighting and the stage being “repaired” on the fly, which was a great touch. Once the match got going, Samoa Joe ran out and attacked Woods in a way that was not telegraphed at all, and which felt suitably violent. WWE Champion Kofi Kingston, the third member of New Day, then ran in to make the save; in a welcome departure, he did so without entrance music. WWE did break this tack out at Stomping Grounds when Becky Lynch gave Seth Rollins an assist, but seeing it again, on this specific show, made the moment feel a lot more like “pro wrestling” than “WWE.” The decades-long switch to entrance music for run-ins—while entirely plausible in canon with modem technology—has always been an immersion-killer, and it was bracing and heartening to see it gone. Here’s to hoping it stays that way.

But this is a work in progress, which was made clear when the show immediately shifted back into Bad Modern WWE Mode after a commercial break. Joe and the Raiders met New Day in an impromptu trios match, an idea that was already overdone on WWE programming and which has only gotten worse with the recent Vince McMahon edict that there can be no wrestling during commercial breaks. Matches like best two-out-of-three falls matches, which allow for natural breaks, are the natural solution to that programming problem, but they’re confining in other ways. Later in the show, Raw crammed the first two falls of the match between Elias and The Miz into roughly a minute.

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Heyman’s fingerprints were less visible after the first third of the show, but always at least faintly apparent. A promo from Lacey Evans and Baron Corbin, with the former applying lipstick in a mirror while the latter talked, was at least a nice departure in presentation from the cookie-cutter WWE fare. When Drew McIntyre fled the ring to avoid an arriving Undertaker, the camera hopped the rail and listen to what he had to say among the safety of the fans. The show’s new arrivals—the duos of Mike and Maria Kanellis, previously of 205 Live, and NXT Tag Team Champions The Street Profits, comprised of Montez Ford and Angelo Dawkins—both made perfect sense. Heyman was a huge Maria fan when she originally arrived in WWE in 2005, and one of his signature creations in ECW was a different fun-loving “urban” tag team, Public Enemy. The ECW version was portrayed by aging white dudes, but Heyman has wisely changed with the times, here.

There was also some weird shit.

The Kanellises, Mike and Maria, made their Raw debut by interrupting a backstage interview segment with Universal Champion Seth Rollins and Raw Women’s Champion Becky Lynch. Both are real-life couples, and WWE has gone all-in on the champs as their on-air “official couple” in recent weeks. Both are great wrestlers, but the promo honestly kind of sucked until Maria saved the segment with her great delivery of lines like, “Becky, you beat ‘the baddest woman on the planet, Ronda Rousey’...but I pushed an eight-pound baby out of my uterus! Let’s see you do that!” The Kanellises issued a challenge for a mixed tag team match later in the show wherein Maria somehow called Mike her bitch, and the weirdness continued during the match. Rollins tagged Lynch in, which meant Maria had to tag in, as well. Instead, she rolled to the floor and grabbed the microphone.

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“How could you let this happen?” she asked. “You’re supposed to protect me! You said you could mop the floor with Seth! But I should have known better, because you couldn’t even mop the floor at home! YOU DISGUST ME!” That was Becky’s cue to approach, which Maria was ready for. “Nonono,” she stammered, “I’M PREGNANT! I’M PREGNANT!” When a beaming Mike asked how from the ring apron, Maria sent more daggers flying. “How could I be pregnant?” she snapped. “I don’t know, because I don’t think you’re man enough to get me pregnant!”

This domestic drama continued after the match, which the Kanellises lost. “I cannot believe you’re the father of my children,” yelled Maria. “I have waited and waited for you to be a man, for you to grow up, to take some responsibility! But you? You’re just a disappointment. The only man here tonight was ‘The Man’—Becky. So maybe, the next time, I’ll ask Becky to impregnate me.”

This is simultaneously an extension of and a 180 from the original version of the Mike and Maria act in WWE. They were a vaguely creepy couple who were always way too affectionate in public, and had the unsettling lovey-dovey entrance music to match. Mike’s role was clearly designed to play on some old macho anxieties, to the point where he took on Maria’s last name to help stand him up as an “emasculated” heel. (I’m not saying it was good, but it was clearly the idea as presented for Mike Bennett, who used his real name everywhere else.) On 205 Live, the two didn’t get to do much in the way of personality segments or character development, but on Raw the lovey-dovey part is gone and they’re clearly leaning into the idea of Mike as a henpecked husband. It was the pregnancy announcement that really made this all stand out, though.

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Reportedly, Maria is in fact actually pregnant again, which was the real reason she did nothing physical on Monday; she told WWE about the pregnancy after she and Mike signed new, more lucrative contracts with the promotion. After announcing her previous pregnancy just three months into their current WWE stint, to boot. You can imagine how something like that might go over in a company that had to settle an EEOC complaint over the 2005 firing of a then-pregnant Dawn Marie. Storyline Maria announcing she was pregnant to get out of fighting—i.e. her work—on top of the verbal abuse, was uncomfortable to watch. Mike and Maria both delivered excellent performances, but the broader vibe was uneasy. It could become something very interesting, or it could just stay awkward.

Raw wasn’t perfect on Monday, and the ways in which it has long been imperfect were very much in evidence. The no-wrestling-during-ad-breaks edict is murder on the show’s flow; the shaky camera is and has long been corny as hell; the storylines seemingly designed to embarrass/punish the performer and not the character are an embarrassing McMahon tic that can’t go away soon enough. There’s still a lot of work to be done, in short, but there is also finally some reason to believe that the work is begun. It’s a start.

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David Bixenspan is a freelance writer from Brooklyn, N.Y. He writes the Babyface v. Heelsubscription blog/newsletter and co-hosts the Between The Sheets podcast every Monday at BetweenTheSheetsPod.com/everywhere else that podcasts are available. You can follow him on Twitter at @davidbix and view his portfolio at Clippings.me/davidbix.