If you’re a regular Voices of Wrestling reader you may be confused why I’m appearing with a column that isn’t talking about WWE Monday Night RAW. I promise this is still somewhat connected. Just let me explain myself for a moment.
In order to get through that weekly trudge I’ve done a lot of things to keep myself, and occasionally the reader, entertained. Sometimes it’s Tori Amos videos for every segment. Sometimes detailed rankings of the best cuts of meat at a churrascaria. One week it was talking about how I had decided to watch the entire run of the TV show Newhart. After a few weeks of that I started seeing parallels between Newhart and the show I was actually supposed to be reviewing. As the seasons of Newhart spun on I kept finding myself tying things back to WWE. And while RAW may never end, Newhart eventually did. So with that, I say goodbye to one of my favorite recurring features of the WWE Monday Night RAW review:
The Last Newhart Update
The run is over. Eight seasons, 184 episodes, and a whole lot of silence from Darryl AND Darryl later, the quest to re-watch a show remembered mostly just for its finale and two mute supporting characters has ended. And along the way it turned out that there were a lot of things about this show that were germane to the other thing being talked about in this review.
One guiding premise of this whole plan was to watch with the perspective of someone watching for the very first time. Obviously I was aware of the legendary final minutes of the show, revealing the entire thing to have been a dream in the mind of Bob Newhart’s previous character Dr. Bob Hartley, waking up in his familiar bed from The Bob Newhart Show next to Suzanne Pleshette as his on-screen mate Emily Hartley. But I did my best to never let that impact the way I viewed each episode. But it does bring up a question for me that requires unpacking.
First, thoughts on the first 183.9 episodes. As the season drew to a close the characters were seemingly outright hostile towards each other most of the time. The stories that did occur were maddeningly broad and cartoonish. A baby owns a TV station and its parents make hiring/firing decision based on how the baby coos. A local TV show gets nationally famous guests to appear but the producer would rather have a local magician instead since “that’s what grabs ratings.” By the time the last episode started I hated watching this show. Yes, there were always moments that could make me laugh. Everyone still had their innate sense of comic timing and sometimes individual jokes were able to hit, even if they made no sense in the overall view of the show. I just wanted a conclusion, no matter how disjointed it was. Some closure, a bit of epilogue perhaps, and I could move on from Vermont. The show was stumbling to a finish, and I hoped it wouldn’t fall down and need to be shot before it reached the wire.
The final episode was so ridiculous a premise that it seemed like the writers had decided to just create the strangest ending to a middle of the road TV show that they could possibly dream up. A young Japanese man who had spent a week in town revealed that he was in fact super wealthy businessman who had decided to buy every house in town for the purpose of leveling them and creating an enormous ski resort. Overlooking both the casual xenophobia inherent in the early 90’s fear of rich capricious Japanese magnates who could buy and sell small town America on a whim and the staggering amount of money that would be needed to buy the whole town (even assuming just 100 homes it would still be $100,000,000 to buy the land) it was entertaining to see all these proud townies agree en masse to pack up and ship on out.
Except, of course, for Dick and Joanna Louden. After years of bemoaning having to live with all of the wackjobs and judgmental jerks in town, suddenly he has a fit of pride that compels him to try to rally the town to stay. When he is left hanging (rightfully so) he chooses obstinacy and pique, staying in his home while the bulldozers move in all around him.
Then, a flash forward. Five years have passed. Dick and Joanna still run the Stratford, however everything including their clothing is Japanese. Joanna dresses like a geisha. Dick is referred to as Dick-San. Their staff are all Japanese, and everyone around is reminiscent of their former counterparts. After some more grating to watch Japanese stereotyping, all of the townfolk reappear. They are all well-off and more insane than ever. Everything is fluff and forgettable with the exception of Darryl and Darryl speaking their only word in the series (yelling “Quiet” at their new wives, including a young Lisa Kudrow). At the last, with only minutes left in the final episode of the series, surrounded by thumping golf balls and unruly former neighbors Dick finally cracks. He is screaming at everyone in the inn about how they’re all nuts and going to the door to leave. As Dick opens his front door one of those golf balls that had been banging off the inn hits him square in the noggin and he becomes woozy, slowly crumpling to the ground with his eyes closing and the world growing dark.
And then Daniel Bryan beats HHH, Batista, and Randy Orton on the same night at WrestleMania to become the WWE World Heavyweight champion.
Complaining about the storytelling in your favorite show or medium is one of the main things the internet was invented for. As WWE watchers, it is second nature to most of us to assume that the monkeys chained up in the writing room are just never able to get past the blurst of times when they’re plotting things out. Throw in a 70 year old man who is obstinately out of touch with the world around him having the final say on everything, and it’s a wonder that there is ever anything on the show that isn’t bad enough to make viewers set their TV on fire just to be sure they do not get infected by the show. But yet sometimes things work out perfectly for this group of seemingly bumbling idiots. But are they as bumbling as they seem?
In retrospect, the final season of Newhart had a sort of dream logic, as things grew more ridiculous with each episode. But the complaints I was voicing about the show’s progression were going on for years. Am I to believe it was a master plan that the show’s writers/producers were planning from the beginning?
I have no doubt in my heart or mind that Daniel Bryan was going to be facing Sheamus at WrestleMania 30 as of January 1, 2014. I have no doubt that was caught totally off-guard by the impact of the CM Punk pipe bomb. And I have no doubt that the Roman Reigns backlash confused the hell out of everyone involved in creating these programs. In each of these cases WWE was presented with an unexpected circumstance and their reactions ran the gamut from awful to amazing.
It seems like forever since CM Punk sat down criss-cross applesauce on the ramp and had a lot to say about the state of things in WWE. And then a few weeks later he won the title from John Cena in front of possibly the most rabid crowd in company history.
For a moment WWE had a chance to seemingly hit the launch button on a new era for the company, and create their next megastar. Instead within two months Kevin Nash was exhumed to be a part of the story, HHH was beating Punk, and Alberto Del Rio was champion because WWE was worried about Mexican tour gate receipts. The lack of flexibility or willingness to deviate from previously formed plans was the beginning of the end for CM Punk in WWE, and in many ways the end for Alberto Del Rio, as he never truly recovered from being the third wheel in the Punk/Cena angle.
In 2014, Batista returning was going to be the main focus of the Road to WrestleMania. He was coming back to get his hands on his former Evolution teammates and take the title from Randy Orton. Daniel Bryan had been given his time at the top of the card and was a nice story to get through summer and into fall, but it was time for the big people to take over leading up to the biggest night of the year for WWE. Then Royal Rumble 2014 happened. Daniel Bryan lost to Bray Wyatt. He did not enter the Royal Rumble. Batista entered late and seemed gassed from walking to the ring. Roman Reigns had his first taste of being a crowd favorite, and Rey Mysterio suffered for WWE’s sins as the 30th entrant. WWE did not seem dissuaded by Batista’s negative response, and a WM card of Batista/Orton, Cena/Wyatt, Taker/Lesnar, Punk/HHH, and Bryan/Sheamus had been the rumored plan for months. Nothing on TV was in any way moving in a different direction. And then CM Punk had a bad day. A really bad day apparently, as he said to hell with this wrestling garbage, and disappeared from the face of the earth, never to be seen again. Episodes of RAW were kind of but not really hijacked due to this.
The biggest impact, however, was on HHH. His WrestleMania match had been unceremoniously canceled because Punk decided getting punched in the face on a daily basis was better than working a program with Hunter. Unlike the last time WWE had to deal with a bump in the road, this impacted the heir to the WWE throne. Hunter was going to have his WrestleMania classic match damn it. And with Punk gone, they needed another indie darling to step in and fill his shoes. So Daniel Bryan was plugged in, and the card again seemed ready to be written in pen, only with Bryan/HHH replacing Punk/HHH and Sheamus getting bumped down the card. Giving Bryan a showcase match of that caliber should quiet the nerds down and let WWE get back to focusing on Batista’s big comeback.
Maybe it was CM Punk leaving. His absence turning the crowds angry and rebellious against the company. But the fans weren’t buying any of this shit. They hated Batista, they hated Orton, they hated HHH, they hated Stephanie McMahon, they hated anyone who was not CM Punk or Daniel Bryan. And since CM Punk was not there, the only person they loved was Bryan. That love was shown in segment after segment, regardless of whether Bryan was onscreen or not. The irritation was beginning to show on Batista’s face when he would emerge to a chorus of boos. And at last it all seemed to become too much. Bryan was not only given a match with HHH, but a shot at the title should he win. And Yestlemania happened and there was joy throughout the land. Sure it likely was fueled by HHH wanting to look like a bigger man and show Punk how petty he thought Punk was being, but it did happen. However, do we think it was a master plan? Was this long-range thinking at its best, all designed to culminate in one of the great WrestleMania Moments?
Being surprised by the crowd two years in a row leading up to WrestleMania seemed like the sort of thing you wouldn’t expect such seasoned industry vets to have to deal with. But along came Roman Reigns. This is recent enough history that I think we all remember it. The Rock got booed for raising Roman’s hand. Brock Lesnar was the de facto face at WrestleMania. And until about 9:45 Central time on WrestleMania night it appeared like WWE had gone the 2011 route and stuck to its guns until the bitter end. Roman Reigns kicked out of a ridiculous four F-5s by Lesnar. He was the first inhabitant of Suplex City. The crowd had reluctantly gotten into the match, even if they still wanted Lesnar to come out on top. Brock Lesnar. The man who beat Undertaker at WrestleMania the year before. He was the favorite. Then Seth Rollins appeared to a gigantic pop. The coronation of Roman Reigns was put on hold. Seth Rollins was the new champ, and we were back in the comfortable spot of having a champion backed up by an endlessly scheming company boss. But why? Why that night? It ended up pleasing the crowd and the worldwide audience, but since when has that been a daily concern of Vince McMahon and company?
Depending on who one chooses to believe, the idea of having the entire run of Newhart revealed as a dream came to Ginnie Newhart midway through season six, or to the show’s creators near the end of the run. As possibly one of the two most recent viewers in the whole world of the entire show’s run I can safely tell you that signs of character degradation and lazy writing were seeping in long before anyone decide to pull a (not Bo) Dallas on the entire show. But at some point looking back is there a time when a constant viewer would notice a switch being thrown, where a trend of bad writing became a plan to write lunacy of the sort only dreams could produce? In retrospect, the answer is “kind of sort of yes no maybe so?”
Things on the show did reach a point where credulity was being stretched to the breakingest of points. The final season especially was full of illogical situations and people behaving like caricatures of themselves. It is plausible now in retrospect. But at the time, watching episode by episode, it just seemed like awful writing from a group of people who just wanted to get their jobs done and move on to the next things in their lives.
WWE does not have the luxury of moving on to the next thing. There is only this thing, eternally in progress. While calling the writers lazy is a staple of complaining about wrestling while on the internet, they don’t really ever have the luxury of just coasting to the end. Next Monday or next PPV is ever looming on the horizon. So it seems we must assume that the company is always purposive in its decision making, for good or ill. There are no times where it is just a case of no one paying attention and no one being concerned since everyone will be gone soon. As long as Vince McMahon lives there is someone paying attention. In his own way of course.
So how to account for when and why course corrections occur for WWE? What does that mean going forward the next time a white-hot angle presents itself when WWE wasn’t expecting it?
It seems that CM Punk’s final legacy in the company, even more than opening the door for indie talent to come in mostly as they were previously, may be that someone seems to have realized that sometimes things have to change course, even if it means acknowledging failure. That never happened when Punk was around. The Summer of Punk died so that Del Rio and Nash and Cena and HHH could live. The epic title reign came to an anticlimactic ending to set up Cena vs. Rock at WrestleMania. Being without the belt meant that they couldn’t run the 500 day champ vs. Undertaker’s streak at WrestleMania. The career of CM Punk is one of missed opportunities because WWE made plans that could not be broken.
Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins, two other former ROH champions, were the beneficiaries of the lessons learned. It took extraordinary events in the case of Bryan, and in the case of Reigns it almost seemed like the company was purposefully trying to sabotage his march to the top. At times WWE seemed to be reveling in the frustration of the fans, and to be honest I have no doubt they were. The legitimate anger at the crowd for not taking to Batista on his return struck me as obvious during the early part of the WrestleMania build. To be spurned privately by one of your biggest stars deciding to walk away and publicly by a fanbase that was violently rejecting your plans for the biggest show of the year gave an edge to everything being said by HHH and Steph at that time. It became worked into the story of course, because everything gets transformed from reality to pseudo-reality in pro wrestling. That’s just the way of things.
But they did make the change, just like Michael Jackson hoped we all would. Maybe that’s a sign of progress. Perhaps proof that the reins of power are being gently eased out of Vince McMahon’s hands. Might just be that Vince is preoccupied with making sure he’s getting the right supplements daily so he can live to be 200. But as fans we have to keep sight of the fact that we are part of the show. That doesn’t mean be jackasses trying to get yourself over at the expense of everyone else. What it does mean though is that as the reactive audience it is our obligation to let the producers know what we desire. I read opinions that say the crowd’s job is to go with the flow of the show and perform the role of Greek Chorus, serving to amplify the desired effect of the story. No. A hundred times no. Pro wrestling is a unique thing. Not only can we cause change with our wallets, but we can do so with our voices. If you’re going to watch WWE, watch it actively. If you go to a show, yell for the things you love.
I had no idea where this was going to end up, either when I started randomly watching Newhart or when I started rambling about it in these reviews. It turns out it ended where I am. In Chicago. Where CM Punk is still alive and kicking. Where a statue of Bob Newhart sits proudly near the lakefront by Navy Pier, Chicago’s most visited tourist attraction. Their influence is still being felt. Craig Ferguson is recreating the Newhart ending for his finale over two decades later. Not only are Kevin Steen and El Generico and Tyler Black and PAC and Bryan Danielson and Prince Devitt and Rebecca Knox and Sara Del Rey are all employed by WWE, but some of them have ridden groundswells of crowd support to the top of the company, despite perhaps never being previously thought of as deserving of such prestige and responsibility. Wrestling is awesome. Bob Newhart is awesome. Fans being fans is awesome. Let’s keep being awesome. There are good days ahead for us.