On Monday night, when Stephanie McMahon attempted to put The Miz in his place, with Kane also in the shot, I had a feeling I knew what was coming. But, I still let my guard down and wanted to believe it would be something big. Tweets started dropping the name, "Finn Balor," but that was a long shot, considering his match with Shinsuke Nakamura doesn't air on NXT television until July 13. It was also doubtful because the IC Title defense was probably coming in the third hour, when many viewers might have already flipped over to other programming or turned the flat screen off for the evening. Still, it was possible, but after hearing the word, "surprise," there was a very click-bait aura to the whole thing.
Surprises aren't always pleasant, but the term generally connotes some form of excitement, usually accompanied with anxiety and even a little tension. The Monday Night War taught us of a world where "surprise" meant something monumental, and that reality came about due to the one-upsmanship that defined the era. Whether it was Lex Luger's arrival on Nitro at the Mall of America, Hulk Hogan dropping the leg on Randy Savage while the Outsiders watched, the debut of Chris Jericho in Chicago with The Rock, or even The Radicalz(s) hopping a RAW barricade in early 2000, landscape-altering events were seemingly taking place every week.
It wasn't always a good thing, even when it was advertised with more specificity. Nitro popped a huge rating for TNT on the night Goldberg defeated Hogan for the WCW World Heavyweight Championship, but there's at least an argument to be made that it was a knee-jerk reaction to a WWE business upswing. Eric Bischoff needed a minor victory to get Turner executives off his back, and he knew the announcement could also sell out the Georgia Dome. Even with Vince's Attitude Era paying dividends, WCW was still in a good place at the time, for Goldberg was still undefeated, but Bisch wasn't too far away from the Kevin Nash victory that may have been the first nail in the coffin.
Or was that two nWo brands?
Or was that Scott Hall's alcoholic angle?
Or the flash paper that wasn't, from Halloween Havoc?
Or most of the world not being able to see the finish of DDP and Goldberg, from that very same show?
Or was it Jay Leno?
Or was it challenging Vince McMahon to a match at Slamboree?
All of these atrocities, and many more, occurred in the same year. Or how about the first Sting-Hogan finish in 1997? But I digress.
Vince McMahon dropped his top honor on Mick Foley on television as well, and after watching and being conditioned as a child to see TV as an advertisement for house shows and PPVs, title changes all of a sudden started happening more frequently on cable. It became a gimmick to get a one-week number higher than the other guy, rather than a long-term business strategy. If you make your audience believe they will miss something important, particularly at a time where the Internet was nothing like the behemoth we know today, the belief is they'll watch. It wasn't an inaccurate assumption, but it causes problems, because eventually you run out of big surprises and begin selling minor newsworthy moves as major.
You might also start lying.
Think of it like Michael Lewis' exceptional book, The Big Short, which became a similarly stellar, Oscar nominated Adam McKay film late last year. If you saw it - or if not - indulge me a bit and consider the subject of that story, the housing bubble and subsequent market collapse in 2008.
Without delving too deeply into the minutiae of bonds, credit default swaps, leverage, and investment banks, the important takeaway is that the big banks ran out of high end, low risk bonds, and thus began taking on increasingly dangerous mortgage backed securities, eventually compiling them into collateralized debt obligations (CDO). Loans went to people ill equipped to pay them, and some people (including the banks) bet against those bonds, to get rich or to keep the machine churning. Inevitably, people walked away from their homes when adjustable rates kicked in, and I'm going to stop there before we get way off track.
Relate the baseline concept to pro wrestling surprises. Mortgage bonds were among the most coveted and safest plays a bank or an investor could make on Wall Street. Likewise, a "surprise" on a wrestling show is an easy win, because a large quantity of individuals will stick around to see the payoff. It's Triple A rated. But, as the WWE vs. WCW arms race continued, those final reveals began to mean less and less, both because most of the big swings had already been taken, and because a show WITHOUT a surprise was a failure for a certain group in the audience.
Wrestling promotions kept telling us the current shiny things were Triple A rated, but they might be complete junk. It's deceit for profit.
Once something is expected, it shows decreasing returns. On the penultimate episode of Game of Thrones this season, everyone pretty much knew what was going to happen. When it did, it was disappointing, at least to some. Sunday, the storytelling took a few unique twists, particularly in the first 15 minutes, and it's regarded as one of the best episodes in series history.
When the Monday Night War came to an end and both WCW and ECW closed their doors, the effort to pull off a big shocker went from bad to worse, with castoff signings being treated like historic events. All of this failed, because WWE completely botched and mangled the Invasion angle, so where would the surprises come from then?
Enter Money in the Bank a few years later in 2005. I've always felt it was the MITB ladder match that replaced King of the Ring as the signal of the next big thing, though there were exceptions. Whenever a superstar won the King of the Ring tournament, you felt good about his prospects for the next 12-18 months. Sometimes the ceiling was an Intercontinental Championship, and there are instances when it didn't work out for one reason or another, but KOTR winners usually went on to big things. But, the surprise factor was absent, because the tournament was conceived at a time when business was down, but the struggles were across the board. Thus, no one had heavy artillery.
Money in the Bank would be the new surprise, which we found out on January 8, 2006, when Edge cashed in the first briefcase on John Cena following the Elimination Chamber. Now THIS was a surprise, even if it was predictable, because now, on any show, at any time, Mr. Money in the Bank could run-in during the main event and cause a seismic shift with a WWE or World Championship switch. Can you imagine how the briefcase gimmick would have been handled in 1997 or 1998, especially when Vince was down in the ratings?
There would have been briefcases in every shape and size - not to mention in leopard print - but it wasn't necessary at that time, because big-name free agents were still there to be signed and trotted out the next week on TV to hurt the rival organization. Or, you know, Stacy Carter might just take her clothes off and fight in a vat of oatmeal. Or, you could turn to Nitro and see a Piñata on a Pole match.
Next, we come to TNA/IMPACT, a company that has made an art form out of bogus "surprises," most egregiously pushing possibilities as can't miss on social media platforms, and using announce teams to scream the equivalent of "Holy Shit" for things that left not one crowd mouth ajar in any kind of positive fashion. There's no need to name all of these items, because you either saw, read, or heard about them yourself. This kind of tactic has never been good for IMPACT's reputation, and the general reason is the audience has lost all trust in their ability to deliver, and that pessimism then leaks into questions of integrity. It's not a reflection on the boys, who work extremely hard and do as they're asked, but when the only way to generate interest is to go with the wrestling version of a "hot take," that's pathetic.
Look, there are only so many Diamond Dallas Page - Sara Taker WWE stalker storylines to be written out there folks, and gazing into that dark abyss, there probably should have been one less. But, at least that got a big pop when DDP took off the mask.
As of late, whenever WWE books a match with a "???" and a silhouette on the opposite side from a named participant, the result is usually underwhelming. People get their hopes up, and for Vince it's worse, because many hardcore fans know how many stars he could debut, call-up, or sign. Then, when it's Chris Jericho (nothing against him) teaming with Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose, or it's Kane facing Miz, anger and unhappiness abound. Hope can be a scary thing for a wrestling promotion or entertainment company, and it can lead to hurt feelings and lost equity for a fan base.
The expectation should not be for WWE to attempt to surprise its audience every week.
The expectation should be for WWE not to manipulate interest when it knows of the mundanity of its reveal.
More than anything, however, the expectation should be for WWE (or any promotion) to write with a quality that makes a "surprise" the icing, rather than the only thing worth eating on the cake.
While no one would have been overjoyed at the prospects of a Miz-Kane match, the crowd would have known what was coming. If the surprise was going to stink, that turd needed to be unwrapped in the very next segment. That's what we dreaded, not what we needed dangled in front of us like a carrot. Glenn is a great guy, but Kane in 2016 is not a great draw. He's not a draw at all. Do the backstage conversation before a commercial break, but tell Miz his match is next, rather than later in the show.
Sure, there wouldn't have been time for Twitter to explode with Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura (which I found laughable), Neville, or whomever else, but all that did was create buzz that was to be killed a little over an hour later. Even the most clueless of executives inside WWE had to know what a sad excuse for a surprise they were about to provide.
The biggest problem, however, with last night's non-surprise, is that the show wasn't bad before Kane's music hit. It was overcompensation, but at the worst possible time to get something wrong. It stopped decent momentum, which far outweighs the value of the tease in the first place.
None of this is Kane's fault, or any performer's fault. They're merely pieces on a game board. The responsibility falls on the person or persons who made the decision to market a Demon Kane ring appearance as a surprise. They knew they were selling us garbage, but sold it anyway, because they wagered their audience was gullible enough to buy it. Peter is calling wolf, or in this case, Vince McMahon is calling surprise. It's a short-term win, but in the long run, it's fools gold. He knows the ruse will be up rather quickly, and then, his fan base will see him standing there with no clothes.
Don't tell your friend you bought her a phenomenal wedding gift, when you know a melon baller is in the box, which you picked because it was the least expensive. In Cageside-style...
When you know you're about to unveil the Gobbledy Gooker, do it five minutes after you first show the egg. Or, do what WWE did last night, and murder your already tepid crowd with 50 minutes left in your show.
If it's Finn Balor, use "surprise" all you want, and do it with pride.
If it's Kane, just say it's Kane, because not even Glenn Jacobs would care if he happened to be watching at home.