Monday's episode of Raw opened with a dance-off between upstart ballroom brawler Fandango and vet Chris Jericho, who did a turn on Dancing With the Stars during one of his numerous WWE hiatuses. Fandango was resplendent in fluorescent tiger-stripe tights and matching vest; Jericho was playing it cool in an A-shirt and black slacks, and the ring mat had been covered with a parquet floor, or some facsimile thereof. Needless to say, the contest didn't reach its conclusion; Fandango's dance partner, Summer Rae, went down with a twisted ankle, and when Jericho went to check on her, Fandango attacked. The sprain had been a hoax.
If you spaced out reading that last paragraph, imagine how the average WWE viewer felt. I had dozed off briefly before the show and when I woke up to this, I thought I was still dreaming. I rubbed my eyes and checked Twitter to make sure I was seeing what everybody else was seeing. This was the last episode of Raw before the Extreme Rules pay-per-view — this was the go-home show — and they were leading off with a dance-off? How the hell did we get here?
In years past, the post-Mania PPV has often been a sequel to the WrestleMania card, a mishmash of revenge matches that acts as an epilogue and profitable way to relive the year's biggest feuds. (It was even called Backlash for several years to drive the point home.) But this year, that wasn't in the offing. Two of Mania's headliners — the Rock1 and Undertaker2 — rode off into their respective sunsets after the show. Triple H and Brock Lesnar have continued their rivalry over the past month, but both guys seem to exist more in the ether of video recap packages than in the present tense of WWE unreality. And to make matters worse, CM Punk went on injured reserve after Mania to tend to lingering issues; he appeared on Raw the next night and walked out in silence to stoke the flames for his eventual return, and then appeared in the audience at a UFC show to either display his despondency with wrestling or to piss off Vince McMahon or both. When John Cena turned his ankle on the European tour and the early diagnosis was an Achilles injury, it looked for a moment like the WWE's entire foundation was crumbling to pieces.3
It's only natural, I guess, that whatever came after this year's WrestleMania would be a letdown. Of course there'd be a hangover after the wrestling year's biggest high. But this wasn't just a post-Mania hangover, this was getting tossed out of a bar and ticketed for public intoxication and then waking up in the ER while your stomach is being pumped.
This Sunday we get Extreme Rules, where every match has an EXTREME stipulation, which of course has led to endless amounts of EXTREME bluster and bombast from the WWE announcers. But that doesn't mean things in the WWE universe are exactly as big and epic as they've always been — they're not. Looking back, it's hard to imagine how we fell this far so fast.
The run-up to this PPV has been a series of sitcom plot nodules, comic setups in search of punch lines. There was a tug-of-war, a busted Achilles, a dance-off, an arm-wrestling contest, some fat dudes doing an endless B-boy routine, a wrecked office, a concussion from a ladder pratfall, and a secret admirer. It all feels like nothing more than a screwball spec script. Then it hit me: WWE's story lines since WrestleMania haven't just felt like a hangover — they actually seemed like outtakes from the Hangover movies. (I know, that is the most Grantland thought ever.) But what the hell — in honor of the inevitable disappointment that will be The Hangover Part III and in homage to a rich history of similar columns from Bill Simmons, I'm going to explain how this hangover in the wrestling world is just like the original Hangover, using quotes from the 2009 film. It might not be as entertaining as WrestleMania, but it's better than a dance-off.
"It's rock-paper-scissors. There's nothing more fair."
John Cena is Phil, obviously. He's the golden boy of the franchise, the alpha male with a juvenile sense of humor and a bizarrely simplistic sense of morality. You spend half the time wishing he wasn't in The Hangover and about 20 incredible minutes wondering how the movie could exist without him. In the weeks since Mania, Cena has employed both his repertoire of dick/gay/fart jokes and his sense of adolescent entitlement in his new spat with Ryback — a guy who used to be his friend but who's tired of living in Cena's shadow. Which leads us to …
"Really? Well, then, why did I do it? Huh? 'Cause I did it! Riddle me that! Why'd I do it? You know, sometimes I think all you want me to do is what you want me to do. Well, I'm sick of doing what you want me to do all the time. I think, in a healthy relationship, sometimes a guy should be able to do what he wants to do."
Ryback is Stu. The high-strung second banana with jacked-up teeth who's finally coming into his own by going buck wild. And Stu's tirade when he broke free of the shackles of his girlfriend is basically a point-for-point replica of why Ryback said he rejected Cena's friendship and went off on his own. See, Ryback was Cena's pal, and he always had Cena's back, but Cena never really had his, and so Ryback got beat up by the Shield like 50 times. Now, Ryback is still a bit green in the ring and on the mic. Even at their best, his snaps sound a bit like phlegmy radio static. So WWE pre-recorded Ryback's heel-turn monologue and it was (1) shockingly justifiable and coherent, and (2) bizarrely reminiscent of the time "Mr. Wonderful" Paul Orndorff turned heel on Hulk Hogan because the Hulkster wouldn't return his phone calls. (Both Hogan and Cena are terrible friends, despite their good-guy credentials — just ask Randy Savage and Zack Ryder.)
"Hey, you've reached Doug. Sorry I missed your call. Please leave a name and number and I'll get back to you."
CM Punk is Doug, because his absence is the most compelling story line going right now.
"Whose fucking baby is that?"
Triple H is the baby. Because the excitement of Triple H's comeback wore off almost as quickly as the novelty of baby Carlos in The Hangover, but they're both still there in basically every other scene, and they both pee their pants. Triple H's entire pretense for staying around is being figuratively strapped to the chest of Brock Lesnar, a pairing that is great in a promo poster but less dynamic in practice. (And I say this as a fairly big Triple H fan.) So that makes … Oh wait, here we go:
"Phil, we're not gonna leave a baby in the room, there's a fucking tiger in the bathroom!"
Brock Lesnar is the tiger. Of course Brock Lesnar is the tiger. The uncontainable wild card — the beast incarnate, as announcer Michael Cole likes to say — who's hilarious even as he's mauling all the other characters. A couple weeks back, Lesnar went to WWE headquarters and trashed Triple H's office — by which I mean some tiny, empty office that they outfitted with a balsa wood desk and a couple of photos in Ikea frames to look like Triple H might have been there once or twice — for exactly the same reason that the tiger tore the Mercedes to shreds: He's a fucking wild animal and that's what wild animals do. At Mania, Lesnar lost to Triple H, whom he'd previously beaten (and whose arm he'd broken twice). On Sunday, he's fighting Triple H in a cage match, which will basically be like baby Carlos versus the tiger in a locked hotel room. (Note: In this scenario, Hasbro and all of WWE's gore-averse shareholders are PETA and the Parents Television Council.)
"Seriously, I don't care what happens. I don't care if we kill someone."
Daniel Bryan is Alan. He's earnest, his beard is half his shtick, he started off with a ton of indie cred and a history of being ignored by the mainstream, and he somehow managed to end up a huge star. And even though other guys get top billing ahead of him, he's consistently the best wrestler on TV. His partner Kane is the smoking monkey in Part II. On Sunday, Team Hell No will put their tag-team titles on the line against Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns of the Shield, and they're probably going to lose and start feuding with each other. Which is perfect, because Alan is intrinsically a loser, and I'm pretty sure The Hangover Part IV is going to be a slap-boxing match between Alan and the smoking monkey. Something's still not right here, though. Oh, wait, what if …
"At least our trip wasn't a total loss … While I was stuck on the roof I found about $80,000 worth of Bellagio chips in my pocket."
What if Dolph Ziggler is Doug instead of Punk? I mean, he hit the jackpot when he won the WHC belt the night after Mania, and he disappeared when he got (legitimately) concussed by Jack Swagger, who kicked him in the head, so he won't be wrestling at the PPV. (Swagger and Alberto Del Rio will compete in a no. 1 contender's match instead.)4 And if Ziggler is Doug, then AJ is the apoplectic wife-to-be and Big E is Sid Garner, the sarcastic father-in-law. Done and done.
"C'mon, man. I'll be your Doug."
And Swagger and Del Rio are Black Doug. They're trying to fill Ziggler's shoes even though they're not the Doug we're looking for and not the Doug anybody cares about. But they are good for a laugh or two.
"Oh, fuck! I keep forgetting about the goddamn tiger! How the fuck did he get in there?"
I've mentioned this before, but the strangest thing about the WWE Legends bracket — Lesnar and the Rock and Triple H and Undertaker — is that they have exactly nothing to do with the WWE outside of their specific feuds. They're the biggest attractions on the card, but nobody mentions them except the announcers and their opponents. (The Undertaker teaming up with Kane and Bryan in London was so awesome precisely because it betrayed the established formula.) Presently, Brock and Trips are totally in their own world. Despite the WWE playing video packages about the feud ad nauseam, it takes place in a parallel reality separate from the rest of the WWE story line, and every time Lesnar comes onscreen, grinning and getting ready to pounce, the tenor of the show changes and every WWE fan probably says, "I keep forgetting about the goddamn Lesnar!"
Fandango is Chow. At first he was a revelation, but just as soon as he won our hearts, he got played out. Sure, we laughed at Chow in the first movie, when he was naked and offensive and ridiculous. We laughed because we knew we shouldn't be laughing at him, just like WWE fans adopted Fandango because of his pitch-perfect terribleness. But now we're all left wondering how this guy is a main character in the sequels ("main character" and "sequels" being "main eventer" and "pay-per-views" in Fandango's case). Chow is no more the heart and soul of the Hangover movies than Fandango is a WWE headliner (yet), because as much fun as both characters are, there's not enough to them to carry a story line. Fans liked him exactly where he was, but the guys in charge overreacted to his success and ruined a good thing by overblowing it and shoving it down our throats. That dance-off on Monday was Chow parachuting in Part III, and I think I speak for both WWE fans and Hangover fans now when I say come the fuck on. Fandango's match against Chris Jericho on Sunday might well be the highlight of the show, but that doesn't mean we need Fandango as world champion any more than we need a Chow spin-off movie.
"This is my favorite part coming up right now."
Paul Heyman is Mike Tyson. They weren't in the first draft of the script — WWE resisted rehiring Heyman for years until his offscreen relationships and onscreen chemistry with Lesnar and Punk made his return inevitable, while Tyson literally wasn't in the original script for The Hangover. Both roles could have been handled terribly and no one would have been at all surprised, yet Heyman is probably the most compelling talker in WWE right now, just like Tyson stole the show in The Hangover.
"Fuck this tiger!"
No, but seriously, that cage match is going to be good. Like somebody's-going-to-get-seriously-hurt, old-school-ECW good. Mark my words: The tiger's going to shred the baby, but they can't let the baby die because he's in good with the producers.
"Please don't spoil the movie by adding your own soundtrack."
The Miz is the "turn off your cell phones" warning that comes up on the screen before the previews, because he's only ever on the pre-show.
Thanks! I'll be here all night! Be sure to tip your waitresses.
"Remember, what happens in Vegas stays in Vegas. Except for herpes. That shit'll come back with you."
The Shield is the herpes. I mean this in the best possible way. With all the unwatchable material that WWE has shoveled into our living rooms over the past six weeks, the best part has been seeing these three young wrestlers take center stage. At Extreme Rules, two-thirds of the Shield (the aforementioned Rollins and Reigns) will be vying for the tag-team belts, and the other third (the irrepressible Dean Ambrose) has a match against Kofi Kingston (the perpetual transition champion) for the U.S. Championship. All three will probably end the night with belts around their waists. Not bad for a trio who weren't much more than protagonists in fantasy matchups on Internet message boards a few months ago. When all is said and done, I won't feel crazy about the past six weeks of WWE product, but I'm happy to let the Shield stick around forever like herpes. Extreme Rules will be worth watching this Sunday if only to witness their (presumptive) ascendance.
And when they do that thing on Monday where instead of showing us clips from the PPV, they put up a series of still photos to try to get us to buy the replay? Let's pretend it's the credits of The Hangover, where all the characters agree to look at the pictures once and then delete them and forget that all of this stuff ever happened.
Except the Shield. I don't mind remembering them. Everything else I hope to God I forget.