Solid matches, storyline development, and at times all out chaos highlight a fun, breezy episode of WWE Monday Night Raw  – A show highlighted by a dream match between AJ Styles and Sami Zayn.

There are a few ironies involved when analyzing this show. First, this is the kind of tone and show we expect the Monday after WrestleMania (thanks to Sean Flynn for filling in) that gets our hopes up for the future only for “safe” focus group booking to return on week two. Second, the lack of an overbearing McMahon/Helmsley presence focused the show on talent and didn’t get bogged down in overwrought dialogue involving office politics or what is “best for business” which in the end kept things moving. Third is I could have saved my money from Dallas, gone to this RAW and been far more satisfied. C’est la vie.

The DVR Highlights

No specific times this week, because the whole show was worthwhile. Really, you should watch the whole show. Even the stuff that misses doesn’t stick around long.

Here Comes The Money

Social media has spoken and Shane did such a great job last week, he gets to run RAW again. A fascinating gamble in making WrestleMania irrelevant and also conditioning people to hate it when Shane is either taken off television or goes mad with power. Shane is here with new stars and new opportunities. Charlotte’s taking on Nattie in a Women’s Title match, there will be a tag team tournament for a shot at the New Day, and Sami Zayn against AJ Styles for a slot in the championship match at Payback. If Zayn wins, it’s a triple threat.

Color me hooked.

Kevin Owens comes out to protest, saying he didn’t lose, he was robbed and that it’s unfair he hasn’t gotten his rematch for the Intercontinental Title. Shane wants Owens to earn it by beating Cesaro, the winner gets the Miz. I have hopes that this is the return of a babyface authority figure that doesn’t chew scenery and just acts as a transition for the real stars. Shane was understated here, a la a Jim Crockett / Bob Geigel type.

I wanted to see Owens vs. Miz, to be honest. I’m not beholden to face/heel dynamics as a constant, but I also think Owens’ rematch clause is a valid point as is the feeling of being screwed when you have to defend your title against 6 other guys. Truth is I hate both the “rematch clause” and the multi-man match as tropes because they convolute things. Having rematches be arbitrary makes things worse, as the UFC has found. Dana White’s insistence that cash cows who were champs and got thrashed somehow merits an automatic rematch instead of earning another shot has stagnated entire divisions. Then certain journalists spin it as “the only choice” and “understanding the business.” So we’re left with entire divisions getting held up from progressing because management only has faith in one or two people or worse, phony “Interim” titles that further convolute the situation. UFC really is real life pro wrestling. I fully expect an “Interim” title to be introduced in the WWE at some point during Reigns’ career.

Intercontinental Contendership: Cesaro def. Kevin Owens

The tearaway suit is money. Bayley’s on Edge and Christian after RAW. All is well in the world. Go support her, she’s great.

So are these two. Is it 2006 and we’re in Reseda? As soon as I think that, Kevin Owens does a PWG tribute to the Claudio Castignoli/Bryan Danielson match from PWG Enchantment Under the Sea saying “I have the best headlock” and calling himself the “Headlock Master.”

Commentary is all over the place talking about Miz, Maryse (who are watching a TV, staged, natch), Stephanie and Roman until Cesaro starts hitting uppercuts. The story of the match is Cesaro’s taped up shoulder and how after getting momentum, it isn’t able to hold up for signature spots such as the Cesaro Swing or becomes the target of an attack. The match ends with a Cesaro leap frog avoiding the Pop Up Powerbomb into a rollup into an Equalizer.

A really fun match with a good story.

In a better than it should have been backstage segment, Dr. Phil interacts with the Flairs. Charlotte’s a good bratty heel, stating she should be on Legends With JBL on the WWE Network (free advertising) and this wouldn’t be happening if the Authority was here (When Poochy isn’t on screen, all characters should be asking “I wonder what Poochy’s doing right now”). Dr. Phil gives sage advice to Charlotte, saying her dad’s holding her back. Nice planting of seeds for a long payoff but for now it must be no sold. Dr. Phil is absolutely great here, he holds onto character, not taking any crap from Charlotte and not breaking. He gets into a “Woo-off” with Ric. Loved this segment if for no other reason the bar is low for guest star segments and this felt more natural. Not that Dr. Phil has any background in being a carny.

KO talks smack to Shane. Shane kicks KO out. Simple and effective face commissioner. So far so good.

Dudleys def. Lucha Dragons

AWWWWWWWW Los Angeles. The New Day is here to say “booty” and that the tag team division is on fire. Really, that’s all they did.

This match is a total squash. Kalisto gets jumped during the pre-match commercial break, leaving Sin Cara to take a beating and the fast pin. Commentary inexplicably mentions Kalisto is the legal man as the referee treats Sin Cara as legal, which in a perfect world would be a plot point, but I think this is Vince calling out continuity mistakes through commentary, which if you think about it, is an absolute lack of self- awareness.

Enzo and Cass come out to cut a promo on the Dudleys. I inappropriately laugh at Devon being called “Devin.” Not as good as last week, mostly transition lines to get to the catchphrases. But Cass and Enzo are made men on the roster up to the point they get into 50/50 battle with the Dudleys. Those not in the know are learning what said catchphrases are.

Roman Reigns comes out to thunderous boos, and Los Angeles being a generally safe town for Roman in the past means this is going to get worse as people now find this appropriate. He reminds us he’s not a good guy nor a bad guy, he’s THE guy. Reminds us that whilst Zayn and AJ have won titles, they haven’t won THE championship. It’s like Baron Corbin is on the main roster….oh wait. The League of Nations is out. They’re not happy about not being in the #1 contender match. Wacky comedy with the word ass leads to teased fisticuffs and the Wyatts are here. After a brave four on three beatdown of the heels out comes Shane channeling his best Teddy Long. Let me holla at you playa, we’re going to make a tag team match even if the pairing seems weird as two members of the League will take on Bray and Roman.

Natalya def. Charlotte

Ring introductions make this seem like a big deal. Dr. Phil is out to commentate. Why? I’ll note that Nattie’s gear is more Diva Dominatrix than serious athletic contender, and you can hear the production notes that scream while this is a rebranding of a division, it has to maintain some sex appeal and spectacle. They must be trying to impress the other Horsewomen in the crowd by starting off working an MMA style match to start. I’m pretty sure Charlotte. Nattie looking better than she did on the Madison Square Garden event.

Charlotte misses a moonsault leading to a sharpshooter. Flair pulls the referee out and gets disqualified as Charlotte taps. Lame finish, because it insults the intelligence. Referees being dumb is fine. Referees being dumb as they SEE the tapout is insulting. I tend to think Flair needed to punch the referee when he saw Charlotte was about to tap. Tease that tap for a second and have Flair panic. The camera angle showing that the official could clearly see what was going on just made the official look dumb rather than get heat for the Flairs.

Phil is disappointed in Charlotte but proud of the division. This is an odd endorsement. So of course we get no other women other than Maryse on the show. No Sasha and No Becky make Jeff no pay.

Sami Zayn and AJ have a face to face with Renee to hype their match.

Usos def. Curtis Axel & Heath Slater

The Social Outcasts look impressive to start, especially Heath Slater, who is horribly underappreciated. An arrogant Bo Train makes them stupid heels though, not seeing the blind tag and the easy rollup on Slater gets the win.

GALLOWS AND ANDERSON ARE HERE! They kill the Usos, JBL puts them over as a great team in Japan. Crowd starts a Bullet Club chant. Good debut. On Shake Them Ropes last week, I speculated Gallows and Anderson could be aligned with Roman Reigns, so either way beating down the Usos as a debut can fit into your fantasy booking scenarios. I’d love it if they went on and took out Y2J/Dean then the Wyatts then tease joining AJ only beat him down, thus taking out all of Roman’s old friends and enemies. WWE worked me by showing a tweet that referenced Bullet Club, which usually makes it canon. Much like Rob McCarron, perhaps WWE does not fear New Japan’s trademark and copyright attorneys.

Maryse acts like a high maintenance Hollywood type. Apparently no one read their tour rider (These things are fascinating if you’ve never read them, this angle references the famous Van Halen “No Brown M&Ms” and if you really want crazy, Katy Perry has a 45 page rider.) Jojo is here to talk to Miz who is sleeping with cucumber pieces on his eyes. Cesaro stops by. Acting metaphors abound. Maryse being foreign really makes this mundane material sing, and to be honest, the Miz act always needs a second. The “second takes” was a nice touch.

From the inner monologue of a man who has watched too much comedy:
Miz: “I drive an Audi R8. I drive an Audi R8”
Will Ferrell from SNL: “I DRIVE A DODGE STRATUS!”

AJ Styles def. Sami Zayn

A fun back and forth match teasing a Sami upset throughout. AJ wins when he blocks a Heluva Kick and hits the Phenomenal Phorearm. So Payback stays one on one. I like the move, as it makes the title match more important, and it doesn’t get the crowd dreading Sami as sacrificial fall. Sami didn’t lose too much losing here because he had a great match.

Y2J is here with the Highlight Reel. His guest is him and he’s doing his best “Between Two Ferns.” He goes through his resume. Nobody on the roster can touch him, here comes Prop Comic Dean. He has his own plant and a memo from Shane, saying the Highlight Reel has been cancelled and replaced by the Ambrose Asylum. Goofy Dean is confronted by serious Y2J. +1 for the Little Shop of Horrors reference. -1 one for the use of “bury” to try to tweak people. Jericho eats a Dirty Deeds. It’s a shame Dean isn’t much more, he’s still watchable, but it’s disappointing to think what could have been.

Apollo Crews def. Adam Rose

Bo is out to second Rose. I like whatever edict for the talent to interact with the crowd like it’s a small indy match. Showcase for Crews, as you’d expect. Distraction teased with Bo but Crews catches it, ends it with the spinning power bomb. Straight ahead and perfectly fine.

A Baron Corbin video and Bray Wyatt promo seem to blend together.

Bray Wyatt & Roman Reigns def. Sheamus & Alberto Del Rio

This version of Bray Wyatt is fascinating if for no other reason he has the “anti-authoritarian” swagger and mannerisms Dean Ambrose should have. They tease the tag team dissension angle. Love the LON homage to Demolition with the backbreaker/stomp combination. Bray is your face (?) in peril and Roman gets the hot tag to loud boos. The crowd is having none of this, which is fascinating because as stated before Los Angeles used to be a “safe” Reigns town. Eventually Reigns is knocked loopy with after being knocked into the post by Sheamus. Bray gets a hot tag and is a surpringly effective babyface. As the LON get an advantage here come the Wyatt Family. Del Rio’s Crossarmbreaker is interrupted into Sister Abigail. Cool visual as during the cover Bray points and Roman simultaneously hits a spear on Sheamus.

Weird staredown to end the show. Callback to “Anyone but you” looming?

Best RAW in a long time, so of course I didn’t go live. It wasn’t perfect, but there’s not enough bad that one would have a right to complain. That said, it’s too soon to think they’ve unlocked the formula for a week to week interesting 3 hour show from pillar to post.

One also hopes they’re not making actual improvements to the show as yet another hope spot to only be squashed when Vince gets nervous about thinking outside the box, even though this show didn’t stray that far outside.