It was bound to be a big show this week, not just because both of RAW's major singles titles changed hands the night before, but because the booking committee needed to act quickly and decisively to either save or abort Randy Orton's face turn after a less-than-stellar run as champ and an underwhelming main event at Unforgiven. Basically, the direction the company takes for the next four months is going to be defined in these next couple of episodes, so it's important that they don't screw things up right out of the gates. There was, naturally, quite a bit of momentum carrying over from Sunday's PPV, but with the added importance of the main event's future being decided on the same broadcast, this felt even larger going in than it probably should have.
The broadcast opened up, naturally, with a lengthy in-ring celebration by Triple H, Batista and Ric Flair, who managed to simultaneously celebrate and flaunt Hunter's victory at the prior night's PPV for well over ten minutes. I didn't really care for all of this, since the purpose of the segment was all but spelled out from moment one and nothing happened to even remotely throw us off as things unfolded. You see a big, human-sized cake in the ring, none of the heels will claim responsibility for setting it up, the champ assumes there will be a beautiful woman inside, BOOM, the challenger springs out of the cake and assaults his opposition. This was either booked twelve years in advance or somebody thought it would be fun to play around with a cliche or two at the top of the first hour. It's a shame, too, because it could've been a really cool little parody of the sport's more gimmicky past. A jab or two at the overdone segments of days gone by, not unlike the teased physicalities between Triple H and Eugene a few months ago, when Trips instructed him to chant "1-2-3-Pedigree" and then did absolutely nothing while the audience nearly lost their minds waiting for (and dreading) a pedigree that just wasn't gonna happen. About the only good thing I can say about this segment is how great the line of blood connecting Batista's nose to his chin was after Orton bloodied him with an inadvertent fist. That was a great visual. Triple H flailing around, both legs hanging out of the cake, was not.
Benoit and Conway put on a nice, neat show out there, opening up the program in the ring. I'm really happy to see these two getting the chance to work together on a regular basis, as each of their matches have been better than the last and it's helping Conway immeasurably. He's been solid in the ring almost from the get-go, but over the last couple of weeks he's been stepping it up as a character as well, doing more to get the crowd into the match during the lulls and really living his gimmick in the way he kicks, punches and carries himself. It was too bad the announcers didn't mention Benoit's history with La Rez (think back... who did these guys win those belts from in the first place?) but it's early still, and if they're going to pursue Benoit & Regal vs. the Flaming Frenchmen, I suppose there's plenty of time for that later. This was strangely paced, with the Rabid Wolverine looking for the Sharpshooter on more than one occasion inside of the five minute mark, but I guess it's been said that variety is the spice of life. I did love that lead-in from an apparent fourth rolling German directly into the crossface that eventually ended the match. As if audiences weren't nuts enough about the interlaced suplexes. I'm constantly amazed by the noise these crowds are making for Benoit appearances in general.
The Molly / Stacy face-off didn't do anything for me. Molly's dance and subsequent pride in her performance was amusing, but just like the opening segment, you knew where this was going and they carefully painted by the numbers the whole way there. The following tag wasn't the best I've seen from this women's division (not by a long shot, now that I mention it) although it wasn't the worst, either. Stacy's obvious weaknesses were catered to nicely by keeping her on the apron from start to finish, though it makes me wonder why they want her involved with the Women's division in the first place if she can't be trusted in the ring with much more than a simple roll-up at the end of a match. Didn't have enough time to get rolling, but even if it did, I doubt it would've amounted to much of anything.
Chris Jericho is being used about as flawlessly as possible at the moment. He's still cocky enough to maintain a connection with the heel character that brought him to the dance in the first place, but quotable and charismatic enough not to sour fans on him right out of the gates. His promos feel a lot less scripted, (especially the bit with the population in the front rows of last night's episode) which is giving him more room to ad lib and has visibly bumped up his confidence during a big, important speaking segment like we saw last night. It's unfortunate that he's still hovering around the Intercontinental Title, two years removed from winning the Undisputed World Championship, but with the level of competition he's got hanging around with him it's not all bad. Hell, with Christian, Edge and Shawn Michaels running the midcard alongside him, we could be in for a great series of fall IC Title defenses. Last night's Highlight Reel was serious when it needed to be, comedic without getting overly silly and effective at all the right moments. Introducing HBK to the midcard for the first time in twelve years is a challenge no matter who's involved, but thanks to some good booking and some great, character-driven dialogue, it didn't feel like a step down for the showstopper.
The tag match had its moments, serving as an enticing taste of what's just over the horizon for the IC scene, but felt lacking in more ways than one. I can't really put my finger on it, it just seemed as though something was being held back here, like the athletes were hesitant to hook up with one another. Regardless, Michaels and Jericho inarguably carried Tyson "goat beard" Tomko to the best match of his career and, surprisingly enough, he kept pace much better than I'd ever have given him credit for. Michaels has had some stinkers in his time, (his match a year or so back with Mark Henry springs immediately to mind) so it's relieving to see Tomko avoiding total embarrassment in his first meeting with the Heart Break Kid. I liked the little bits of story they threaded into this match too, almost confronting the obvious question (why the faces are all buddy-buddy now) by working together throughout the match as near-twins. When they hit that double-crossbody to the floor, it answered a lot of questions. Jericho came right out and admitted to being a fan of Michaels's career during the build to WrestleMania XIX. By working together as such a strong team here, by showcasing the fact that each knew the others' weaknesses and how to cover for them, it proved that Y2J wasn't the only one who was a fan of his partner's work. I honestly can't wait to see where they go from here with this.
One more week before the Diva search comes to a close. Not that I'm counting.
I guess that's an out to the Kane / Lita love story, albeit a weak one. But hey, don't get confused, I'm not complaining. At least, I'm not complaining if and when they decide that this really is the conclusion of one of the year's worst storylines. I am, however, complaining about the three whole segments of TV time they devoted to its execution. They wasted so much time on this that it started bringing back bad memories of the night the New Age Outlaws shoved Cactus Jack and Chainsaw Charlie off the entryway in their dumpster. I loathed that angle, as it ate up close to half of the week's show, but at least it led to a match and involved characters that I gave a damn about.
Weak main event that didn't have enough time to live up to the build, thanks to those countless, nail-bitingly tense shots of Kane and Lita slowly wheeling their way out of the arena. Not that I would've really cheered a three-on-one match in the first place, but... come ON! If I've gotta choose between Lita's acting and the standard "three guys vs. one... OH MY GOD THE ONE GUY IS HOLDING HIS OWN AGAINST ALL THREE OF HIS OPPONENTS" match, do you think there's even a choice? This felt hurried as hell, and though the conclusion left us with some interesting questions, it also left behind a comparison I'm not sure of my feelings towards. Benoit, Orton and Benjamin facing off against Flair, Hunter and Batista. What's the premise of the Evolution stable again? Past, present and future? Hm. Past, present and future. Past, present and future. Past, present and... oh shit.
I don't really mind that Benoit's the perceived "past" of that face version of RAW's most dominating stable, but there's no doubting which side the cards are stacked towards in that face-off. This could go somewhere, and I'll concede that the time is right to counter Evolution with a strong face stable, but the moons are going to have to align just right for it to work with that trio. Benoit, Orton and Benjamin have their work cut out for them.
They asked a lot of questions with this show, and didn't provide many answers. That's a good thing, in case you were wondering, but I can't say I'm terribly enthused about a lot of the new directions they've chosen. The IC Title scene is good to go, no question about it, and the main event could put on a great show, but something's missing from this picture. It's like they're afraid to engage. At a glance, I'd call this better than last week, but I can't give it a score of much more than average. I kept waiting for them to stop unravelling fuse and start igniting their lighter.
Overall Score: 5.3