Monday night, Aug. 29’s edition of Monday Night Raw was momentous, not just for all the obvious reasons, like Triple H’s surprise return (his first appearance since WrestleMania) and Kevin Owens becoming the new WWE Universal Champion, thanks to The King of Kings’ interference.
The closing angle also saw WWE’s narrative disconnect between how fans react in the arena and how the characters behave in front of them reach an absurd new high point. Triple H, who has been consistently portrayed as a megalomaniacal heel on WWE’s main programming for the past three years, unfairly screwed his nemesis out of the title, then stabbed his protégé in the back, to hand the title to his new slimy chosen one. The reception was loud cheers and chants of “You deserve it” to the low-life who willingly accepted earning the title in the cheapest manner possible.
This narrative disconnect has been caused by Triple H being simultaneously positioned as a villain on WWE’s flagship shows, whilst also presenting himself as the father figure of NXT, which has successfully appealed to hardcore fans by signing the best independent talent from around the world and giving them a platform to showcase their skills. More subtly, in shoot interviews Paul Levesque has let it be known that Vince McMahon still has the final say on the WWE product, allowing him to absolve any blame for bad creative decisions, whilst taking all the credit for when NXT performers do well on the main roster. That’s why it’s almost impossible for fans to truly suspend their disbelief and boo him as they’re supposed to do by normal storytelling logic.
The narrative disconnect is also exacerbated by talent like Kevin Owens openly discussing in the media how he owes his spot in WWE, after steadily working his way up the ladder on the indy scene for 14 years, due to Triple H signing him to a developmental contract and seeing the potential for greatness inside of him. At a time when insider wrestling news has never been so accessible, fan reaction now owes almost as much to the perception of wrestlers’ real life characters and whether they are getting a fair crack of the whip, as to the fiction Vince McMahon and his merry band of scriptwriters comes up with. That’s why Owens will get some degree of cheers whatever he does, as his backstory appeals to hardcore fans, his quick wit is naturally amusing and he has the look of a common man living out his wrestling dreams.
The problem with the narrative disconnect is that we’re left with a bunch of stars that are potentially miscast. The best that can be hoped for of Roman Reigns at this stage is that he becomes this generation’s John Cena, i.e., booing him becomes cool for the hardcores without damaging his appeal to children and women, because Vince McMahon obviously doesn’t want to turn him heel. Kevin Owens is such a great talker and Seth Rollins’ in-ring style is more suited to working as a babyface that they should be able to generate largely the “right” reactions. However, if the plan is to turn Stephanie McMahon into a full blown babyface because she has a book to sell, whilst feuding with her husband that will be a tough one, especially as that will likely overshadow everything else on Monday Night Raw. Stephanie has traditionally struggled in the babyface role and hardcore fans haven’t warmed up to her in real-life to the same degree as Hunter.