You have to imagine that Vince McMahon has envisioned this scenario for his company at various times in the past. Confined to some bunker, no fans, a feeling of taping shows in secret in accordance with government protocols and away from society. Of course, in Vince’s mind, this would have come when the tree-hugging, pinko socialists came to power and declared wrestling unhealthy and dangerous and banished it to the darkest corner to be found in order to protect the children. And if you don’t think McMahon thinks this way, you haven’t been paying attention (and really, good for you).
That’s still where WWE found itself last night, running its second show without an audience from its performance center in Orlando, Fla., this time its long-running staple “Monday Night Raw.” WWE has had a rough time connecting with large swaths of its audience for a while now, but we can all take comfort in knowing that they, like us, don’t have any idea how to fill the time when confined to home.
A longstanding complaint about “Raw” is that it hasn’t needed to be three hours long in some time, if it ever did. WWE or USA Network or both have insisted it remain so, which has led to a lot of filler of bad storylines dribbling out of McMahon’s ear with a weary sigh, or pointless matches, or both of these on loop, or good matches broken up by too many commercials, or matches evolving into other matches for no good reason.
Even with three hours, a lot of superstars who fans are clamoring to see are still stuffed in some closet somewhere (mostly figuratively, but in the case of Aleister Black until recently, literally). WWE has had enough characters to fill three hours if it was operating at its most efficient, it just doesn’t.
So it was somewhat satisfying for the “it’s too long” crowd, that, once you took a live audience away, WWE pretty much waved the white flag on even two hours of content — an hour of screen time was gobbled running a replay of the Men’s Royal Rumble with commercials.
That doesn’t mean what was produced live wasn’t worth watching, in either the same sense as “The Room” or genuinely entertaining. It makes for uncomfortable viewing as a whole when you’re at home wondering if any of these people on camera have been tested, and knowing WWE’s policy on providing health care for any of its wrestlers almost certainly means they haven’t. So there’s one hurdle you have to get over.
There is something wonderfully kitsch about performers still having entrance themes and effects when entering an empty room, but it’s hard for any fan not to profess that they imagine wrestlers getting this treatment when they go to the grocery store on their own time. It just makes for a more vibrant world to envision it that way. And up to a point, we can give them a pass for still going through the mugging for a crowd that isn’t there, because after thousands of entrances for people like Edge, Becky Lynch, or Steve Austin, it has to be reflex at this point.
Still, one wonders why every promo is delivered through a handheld mic and we can hear it echoing through the PA of an empty space, when this is now a TV-production only. As people more creative than me put it:
WWE can’t seem to decide if it wants to lean into the absurdity of it all — such as having Asuka on commentary only yelling in Japanese (utterly brilliant) — or go on as if nothing was wrong — in-ring promos, motions to the crowd before and during matches — which would be its own style of comedy and entertainment. Instead we get this stuck-in-the-middle thing, which leads to a Stone Cold Steve Austin stand-up routine that sounded like when your stoned out, bro-tastic camp counselor had come up with a sketch for some kids talent show night. (Also, Irishwoman Becky Lynch slamming beers the day before St. Patrick’s Day...is that how we discourage people from going out today? Because I’d run through several tractors if Becky told me to).
There are many ways WWE could go during the next few weeks when its main method isn’t available. I would already be thinking of how to do a three-hour Southpaw Regional Wrestling episode, if not 12. You can’t help but laugh that WWE has a staff of writers it probably doesn’t need, that Vince doesn’t listen to anyway, to produce its normal show, and now it probably does need those writers and Vince is still not going to listen to them.
All of this is under the cloud of yesterday’s announcement that Wrestlemania, the biggest event in the industry, is going to also take place at the Performance Center without a crowd. To call this bewildering would be to come in several miles under an apt description.
Part of the point of Wrestlemania, and perhaps even most of it, is the bombast. The sheer ludicrousness of the scale. Here is a performance type born out of county fairs and armories and small theaters titled, “Bijou Tetanus,” and WWE puts one show on in a football stadium simply because it can. It’s utterly ridiculous to think about it for more than five seconds. The absolute gall it takes to do something like that is part of the draw. Wreslemania is Macho Man flying through the air with the Silverdome roof as a backdrop. It’s taking bets on how long it takes Undertaker to navigate the 75-yard-long ramp and his epic entrance. It’s Charlotte Flair arriving in a helicopter. And now it’s going back through the box to be a TV-only production.
They’re up against it, as wrestling is still, even in today’s age, a “live” event. It sits between sports which are totally live events and scripted television which are very much not. Yes, sitcoms were filmed in front of a live studio audience but mostly have moved on from that, except on CBS (and its CBS’s entire demographic that is most at risk for the coronavirus right now). The crowd at a WWE show is necessary to accentuate whatever is being expressed, or at least that’s the idea. WWE crowds have been known to hijack shows or simply sit on their hands and affect the product, but at least that’s something. But like sports, watching it on TV is something of a gift of seeing a live event that you didn’t get tickets for. It’s still to draw you into the arena one day, or at least was built on that premise, even if it abandoned it a while ago. That’s still something of a tenet, or it’s supposed to be.
So when Kevin Owens is accepting Seth Rollins’s challenge for a match at Wrestlemania, it’s supposed to be the ultimate culmination. A match on the biggest event in the industry in front of 70,000 people on a scale not supposed to be in line with the performance. The affirmation of that is supposed to carry weight because of the event. It’s more important because of where it ends, above the normal wrestling storyline because it’s worth a slot on this particular show. It’s hard to do that when we know now that Owens is challenging Rollins to a match in a glorified TV studio or parking lot. Doesn’t really feel like a culmination (though lots of things culminate in a parking lot, just none of them good).
Same for Edge’s challenge of Randy Orton to a “Last Man Standing” match. Part of the charm of those No-DQ style matches is the breathless anticipation of the live crowd as they set up the next biggest spot or their horror when it’s completed (and considering Edge’s neck might still be made of bubble wrap, this would only be amped up). Edge battering Orton with a chair repeatedly in an empty room is just going to look like an Office outtake or an Impractical Jokers sketch gone wrong (or maybe right).
WWE is in an impossible spot, of course. There’s no way to tell when it could put on a show at Raymond James Stadium. Even a June re-staging would force them to continue storylines for another two months, and to do that with shows in an empty performance center in the meantime. That’s asking far too much, and it feels like they just opted for a, “Fuck it, let’s get it over with however we can and then we’ll reset” ploy. You can see why.
It’ll be worth watching what WWE’s competition, AEW, does on Wednesday as it has its first show behind closed doors. AEW has never hesitated to not take itself seriously, which WWE can struggle with, as well as discard storylines that aren’t working (whereas WWE will just make it about someone’s family). It also helps that AEW is run by four guys who are self-professed total nerds and are willing to try just about anything and everything, where WWE is run by one increasingly senile septuagenarian who only knows one way and that goes through his own biceps.
Anyway, one day the oral history of the “Performance Center Shows” is going to be a whole thing.