Just Business: Fastlane 2017 - The Performance Art Review
By Samuel 'Plan
Mar 8, 2017 - 3:02:43 PM
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Just Business: Fastlane 2017 - The Performance Art Review
Don’t look for greatness with WWE’s latest Raw exclusive pay-per-view offering and you won’t be disappointed. Many found last Sunday’s event something of a stinker. While I can’t say it riveted me, nor can I say I found it a chore. I thought, as a show, it was what it was: three hours of decent to good pro wrestling.
That is because, really, Fastlane 2017 wasn’t a show about the wrestling. Rather, it was a show about issues; specifically, the issues facing WWE today. These issues underscored almost every facet of Sunday’s pay-per-view, and are what I will be focussing on in this, my latest Performance Art Review.
As ever, my name is Samuel ‘Plan and this is the Performance Art Review of Fastlane 2017.
The Importance of Caring
So, three hours of decent to good pro wrestling and the good started the evening off in strong fashion with a solid curtain jerking effort from latest Raw debutant Samoa Joe and perennial fan favourite underdog Sami Zayn. Far superior to their laborious and self-important NXT efforts in the early part of last year, theirs was a bout that strayed rarely from the heavily established Zayn method: underdog meets brute. And what a brute Joe proved to be; a Universal Championship match opposite Brock Lesnar is, I would think, a guarantee for this man’s future.
The Tag Team Championship match continued the trend. Sure, it was a step down from the frenetic work the Realest Guys compiled during their time in NXT, watching instead as more commercial and static, but the climax was well worked and the conclusion possessed a sliver of urgency desperately needed in Raw’s tag ranks.
Reigns vs. Strowman did well to maximise their generous minutes with a competitive effort that demonstrated greater athleticism than most could have predicted. Even the deflating predictability of a Reigns victory didn’t quite take the shine off of another head-turning outing for the Monster Among Men, who undoubtedly deserved better than his hefty shove into the background over the course of this last weekend.
It is with patriotic pride that I can say the Cruiserweight Championship provided the closest match to a hit all night, though, with the excellent, tight knit form of 205 Live now beginning to carry through onto the bigger stages for the smaller performers. False finish was a little on the heavy side for my personal tastes, but there’s no denying the charm with which Neville and Gallagher worked, nor the excellent character depth that lent only greater subtext to their hotly contested encounter. If there was one reason to ever revisit Fastlane 2017, that reason was definitely Neville vs. Gallagher.
However, for all the decent to good wrestling – and certainly beyond the mid card “bonus matches” that stunk up the middle of the show – Fastlane’s central problem was not of its own making, but indicative of a deeper problem currently plaguing Monday nights: I simply didn’t care who won.
WWE matches are always promoted as storytelling before anything other, and one absolute prerequisite for any effective story is an ability to make the audience care. I didn’t care who walked out Tag Team Champions because, frankly, theirs was a match that should have happened at Summerslam. I didn’t care who won between Joe and Zayn, because in February both men’s paths are already plotted and unlikely to change. I didn’t care when Strowman lost to Reigns because Strowman was, let’s face it, always going to lose to Reigns. And I didn’t particularly care who walked out Cruiserweight Champion, because Aeries was a firm WrestleMania bet this close to a big stage we know overshadows everything until April.
Fastlane 2017 felt emotively empty, serving only to emphasise how integral to WWE’s product being able to make the audience emote really is, because when the best parts of your show are parts nobody cares about then you are, quite simply, in trouble.
Raw’s Women, and the Struggle with Character
For my money, the women’s work on Sunday provided the bitterest disappointment. Knowing what the talented likes of Charlotte, Bayley and Sasha Banks are capable of, to witness the confused mess we witnessed at the weekend was utterly crushing and served to drive home two very important ideas: it’s much easier to succeed in NXT than on the main roster; and storytelling logic is universal across mediums, even if good wrestling booking isn’t.
To deal with the first of those two points, I turn my head specifically towards Bayley. Bayley was undoubtedly a run-away hit on the NXT roster, taking her naturally endearing act and utilising it to craft a compelling and immersive character arc that, soon enough, translated into a strong championship run that saw her perform effectively against a myriad of opponents, each of varying styles and experience.
Yet since debuting on Raw’s main roster, the cracks have started to show. Some of the blame for this must be placed on the shoulders of the performer; it is, after all, Bayley who is out there wrestling. In promos, she can watch as awkward and self-conscious, regularly corpsing. In matches, her work has been spattered with mistakes. It goes to show that being able to perform effectively in one segment every other week on a one hour show is radically different to being able to perform effectively in multiple segments every week on a three hour show – a damning indictment of WWE’s entire television model, I think. Could we be seeing the undeniable reveal that perhaps Bayley isn’t as good as everyone thought she was?
Nonetheless, I did say only some of the blame should be placed on her shoulders, for the lion’s share undoubtedly rests with the creative team on Raw, whose entire approach to their female division has left me cold since the inception of the Brand Extension. Fastlane 2017 was a demonstration of this, warts and all.
Bayley, whose entire appeal rests upon her status as the upwardly aspiring underdog, has met championship success far sooner than would have otherwise endeared her, cutting short the same organic growth her character enjoyed in NXT. Ending a winning streak of Charlotte’s so heavily hyped as an achievement only widens the gap between the concept and execution of Bayley’s character arc; as do her ongoing antics alongside Sasha Banks, that on Sunday undeniably portrayed the good guys as morally questionable on several occasions.
This isn’t about wrestling booking, but universal storytelling logic. Underdogs struggle to overcome the odds; but what odds did Bayley overcome on Sunday, retaining a championship, with support, ending a vaunted winning streak? Good guys act with moral fibre; but what morality was Sasha demonstrating when interfering, at first utterly unprovoked? Nor was this brazen lack of storytelling comprehension limited to the Women’s Championship match. With Sasha Banks battling to stop Nia Jax’s endless physical onslaughts, the story required a definitive end; so how is a surprise fluke win in any way a satisfying conclusion?
From climactic moments to character portrayal, every aspect of the women’s work on Sunday was at total odds with conceptual tone. Wrestling booking may require specialist knowledge; decent storytelling, though, requires only common sense. Right now, Raw’s women’s division has none.
Goldberg: The Most Important Talent Acquisition of the Decade
I empathise completely with the outrage felt at Owens being ignominiously squashed by a 50-something part time talent, but I must confess I found Fastlane 2017’s main event uplifting for three reasons; the latter most of which demonstrates how I feel there is more going on with Goldberg’s new run than at first meets the eye.
First, I had my problems with Kevin Owens’ run as Universal Champion, the majority of which saw the champ playing anything from second to even sixth fiddle on Raw. This is not entirely on Owens, of course; WWE’s decision to limit the Y2J/KO relationship to the realms of obvious comedy has long marred the quality of Monday night’s flagship brand. As a result, moving the Universal Championship away from KO presents the character with a clean break at a time he is being re-established in much needed fashion. That, I feel, is a good thing.
Second, I have loved the Lesnar / Goldberg feud from the moment it was reignited; and I was the last person on the planet who thought I would. WWE have proven through this feud that they remember what it is to show bravery in their writing. It has been a feud full of daring and, frankly, ingenious decisions, and while many fans cannot move beyond their ongoing Streak-break hangover, I have instead found it to be an engaging reset for a Lesnar character in desperate need of fresh room to grow. The Goldberg encounters have provided just that.
Third, and most important I think, is that Goldberg once again evidenced at Fastlane why he might just be the most important talent acquisition of the Renaissance Era in WWE. A bizarre statement, I know. He’s in his 50s. He’s part time. He squashes people in minutes. He can’t do the stuff a Rollins or a Styles or a Zayn or even a Reigns can do. As the world of wrestling continues to do more, more, more, Goldberg has returned to the fold doing less, less, less...
…and that’s exactly what WWE needs right now. From the structure of WrestleMania to the homogeneity of television and pay-per-view in the ring, right through to the universality of in-ring styles, true variety at a conceptual level has quickly become a thing of the past in WWE. Character has been a casualty of this shift, as has continuity and, at times, even story. In Goldberg, WWE has a compelling argument for remembering that less can so often be more; that not every main event needs to be thirty minutes long; that shows like WrestleMania can benefit from being more succinct at their top level. Sure, Goldberg is an extreme way to make this argument, but if WWE have proven anything it’s that extremes are about the only form of conversation they understand. Ultimately, that’s what Goldberg at the top of the modern day product represents: a conversation, about how there’s always been a different way to do things.
That way used to be the rule; it has now become the exception. But a product that universalises any style, mainstream or Indy, is a product that could benefit from opening a dialogue. In an age when all talents, from the undercard to the main event, can and will do everything all the time, Goldberg is a reminder that diversity should be embraced, in every sphere of professional wrestling.
For those struggling with that closing statement of mine, I intend to revisit the issue in greater depth with a dedicated column in the near future. It’s a fascinating issue, with deep roots entrenched in broad conversations being had on a consistent basis about WWE today, as much about WWE’s past as is it is WWE’s future.
But to refocus, regardless of my seemingly odd opinion about the main event, there can be little denying Fastlane 2017 was by no means a memorable show. Nor was it terrible. Worse; it simply was. Here’s hoping, then, that as we move closer towards an already busy WrestleMania card WWE can remember how to make people care about the outcomes of their stories; otherwise we might be in for a very long, very rough night come April.
For more of my thoughts on the rest of the show, and WWE in general, click here to add me on Facebook!