Saturday, October 04, 2008

No Mercy 2008

The WWE may have a pay-per-view this weekend, but it isn't their top priority.

That's because Smackdown jumped networks this week, going from the CW to MyNetworkTV. This is not a favourable move. As I understand it, the CW is a third-rate network to start with. But MyNetwork TV is something of a disaster zone, to the point where it leaves Smackdown with a sword of Damocles hanging over it: if MyNetwork folds, what then?

All this illustrates one of the problems with the WWE's business. Smackdown drew good ratings by the CW's standards, but it still didn't get renewed, because it doesn't bring in ad revenue. The show may have plenty of viewers, but they're assumed to have no money, so advertisers don't care about them. (Thus proving that, even in American TV, there is in fact such a thing as "too downmarket".)

In fact, the WWE's demographics aren't as bad as all that, but they have an image problem. They know it, but they don't really understand how to tackle it. Getting rid of the dodgy sexual and racial politics, the abysmal comedy skits, and the excruciating acting would be a start; it's often remarkable how the WWE's output can be so high-end in production terms and low-rent in terms of scriptwriting, all at the same time.

Anyhow, the company quite correctly regards the network jump as their top promotional priority, and the pay-per-view as an annoyance which has to go ahead because it's been on the schedule for months. It's largely full of Raw matches (presumably to keep Smackdown clear for other purposes), and many of them are filler.

1. World Heavyweight Title, ladder match: Chris Jericho v. Shawn Michaels. The Raw world title, in other words. On last month's show, CM Punk was meant to defend the belt against five other guys in a convoluted "championship scramble" match. For reasons best known to themselves, they did an angle on the show where Punk was laid out by Randy Orton and eliminated from the match, allowing Jericho to take his place and win the title. Punk's obligatory re-match has already taken place on Raw, and it looks like he's out of the picture for the foreseeable future.

Jericho is already caught up in a long-term feud with Shawn Michaels, so that story duly continues here. It's taken a long time and a lot of work for Jericho to be accepted as a villain, but they've pulled it off. This is probably the strongest storyline on Raw at the moment, and they're virtually guaranteed to have a good match. I can't imagine Jericho losing the belt after only a month, so presumably he retains with some sort of screwjob (probably outside interference from his sidekick Lance Cade) to set up yet another rematch down the line.

2. WWE Championship: Triple H v. Jeff Hardy. Jeff Hardy has another stab at breaking through to the top level. This is a face/face match, and despite a token attempt at suggesting that Triple H thinks Jeff isn't in his league, they've done very little to build it up. Instead, the story has mainly featured both guys coming under attack from midcard heel Vladimir Kozlov, who's angling for a title shot himself.

Kozlov is a rookie who's spent the last few months going through the usual routine of beating lower-card wrestlers in short matches, with the gimmick of a Russian mixed martial arts champion. (He's actually Ukrainian, but that's still unusually authentic by pro wrestling standards.) It remains to be seen whether he's any good in longer matches, and putting him straight into a main event storyline for his first major feud is something of a risk.

Given Kozlov's orbit around the storyline, I'm guessing that he does a run-in and costs Jeff the match in order to set up a feud between them. Either that or Triple H wins clean. There's a remote possibility that Jeff could win if they decide to use shock tactics to get attention for Smackdown, but I don't see it. The match will probably be good.

3. ECW Title: Matt Hardy v. Mark Henry. Matt won the ECW Title from Mark Henry in one of last month's scramble matches. They've actually had a rematch already on the weekly TV show, but ECW is not replete with challengers, so they're having another won. It'll be okay if they keep it short, and presumably Matt wins to finally lay this feud to rest for the moment, so that he can move on to a more suitable opponent.

4. Batista v. JBL. Winner gets a shot at the World Heavyweight Title on the next show. There's no real storyline beyond that, and it's basically a match-up between two high-profile characters with nothing better to do this month.

Since Jericho is likely to retain, that pretty much guarantees Batista wins here. (Jericho/JBL would be an unenticing heel/heel match-up.) If JBL wins... well, it's probably a curveball and they'll sort it out over the next month. It's nice to see some actual forward planning for once, at least, and they should have a decent enough brawl.

5. Big Show v. Undertaker. The latest chapter in the long-running storyline of the Undertaker's feud with Smackdown general manager Vickie Guerrero and her faction of lackies. With Edge out of the picture, Vickie has enlisted the Big Show as her latest partner. And so, with that change of personnel, here we go again.

Actually, these two could have a decent match, but it feels like one that we've seen too many times before. Still, Smackdown is short of top storylines and needs somebody to keep Vickie occupied, so I can only assume that the bad guys win, to stretch things out for another few months.

6. Rey Mysterio v. Kane. A weird last-minute addition to the card. There's a thoroughly garbled story here, where Kane supposedly beat up Mysterio in a parking lot and tortured him (or something), and claimed to have broken his spirit. But then they needed somebody to replace an injured John Cena in last month's scramble match, so Mysterio was plugged into that role, apparently none the worse for wear, and the Kane story sort of fell apart.

The angle never made the slightest sense, and didn't seem to work. For some reason they've added the stipulation that Mysterio must unmask if he loses, but I think that's just to add finality to a match which, hopefully, draws a line under this misconceived story. If they were seriously going to unmask Mysterio, they'd have given it a lot more than six days build. (We'll just ignore the fact that Mysterio already lost his mask in WCW in 1999 and wrestled without it for the next two years. The WWE certainly do.)

The match will be the usual schtick were Mysterio takes a protracted beating and then comes back with a few moves at the end, I expect.

7. WWE Women's Title: Beth Phoenix v. Candice Michelle. This is the first title shot in ages for former champion Candice Michelle, proud owner of the worst entrance music in professional wrestling today. She's been out of action more or less since last October when she landed on her head in a horrifically botched spot during a match against Phoenix on live TV, and broke her clavicle. (You can find it on YouTube if you really want.) She returned briefly in the spring only to re-break the bone in her first match back. She's been back on the active roster for a few weeks now, but she's a bit out of practice.

Candice is a fairly typical product of the WWE's hiring policy for women: she had zero experience of wrestling and an uninspiring modelling resume. But she did have some charisma, she worked hard, and she had become a passable wrestler by the time of her injury. Frankly, she hasn't looked so good since her return, and I'm expecting a bit of a train wreck here.

The current champion, Beth Phoenix, is doing just fine as the straight man in her double act with inept Intercontinental Champion Santino Marella. I can't see any point in having her lose the title and upsetting their act.

Worth buying? Well, the Jericho/Michaels ladder match should be good, and Jeff Hardy fans will want to see him in a singles main event. That aside, it's a middling card at best, as you'd expect for a show which isn't a top priority.