On "Smackdown Live" on Tuesday, a promo aimed at Shinsuke Nakamura took the show to a place that even forgiving fans found problematic.

mahal nakamura on smackdown live photo
Jinder Mahal's promo on "Smackdown Live"

The WWE’s efforts to build Jinder Mahal look remarkably like flying a plane into the side of a mountain. I keep waiting for the company to treat its champion like a champion, but the top story on Smackdown Live is Kevin Owens versus Shane McMahon, where no titles are on the line. Mahal currently holds the most prestigious belt on the show, but he remains mired in angles that are unconvincing if not demeaning. Tuesday, he cut a promo on Shinsuke Nakamura that was too complicated as well as racially problematic. Let’s walk through the issues:

1) Mahal stood in the ring accompanied by the Singh Brothers and for the second week in a row, made unfunny fun of pictures of Nakamura. So there’s the repetition thing, and it was made more repetitious because the jokes were all based on the same photo. While the sequence developed Mahal’s character—he can’t tell a joke—what we watched was five minutes of jokes that didn’t make anybody laugh. 

2) The idea behind the angle is that Mahal wants Nakamura to realize that American audiences are racist, and the jokes Mahal is making are jokes that fans made first. So what’s this feud about if they’re on the same side? And how on the same side are they really if Mahal spends two weeks making jokes at Nakamura’s expense? Even if others made them first? I’m confused.

3) Maybe the point would be clearer if the Singh Brothers weren’t selling their sycophancy so enthusiastically. They’re the only actual entertainment in the sequences as they throw themselves to the ground in fake hysterics at Mahal’s jokes, but they make the moment about them.

4) Mahal says to the photo of Nakamura, “You always rook the same,” which might be less offensive if it came from Mahal and not the writers—likely white writers, let’s be real—and if that was actually a riff on an offensive cliché. But since no one complains about the Japanese and their facial rigidity, it felt like a forced effort to get Mahal to do an offensive pre-WWII pidgin Japanese impression. 

5) To compound the confusion, there’s a chance Mahal’s assessment of the audience is right. The audience in the arena was dead silent for most of this spot, not laughing and not booing. “Rook/look” didn’t get a response either; in fact, the audience only chanted “That’s too far” when Mahal referred to Nakamura as “Mr. Miyagi,” giving us a Karate Kid moment. The audience was okay with a gross, outdated stereotype but not an ‘80s pop culture reference? Admittedly, the Miyagi character was itself seen as a stereotype, but I don’t think that’s what the audience was referring to. To be fair to the audience, perhaps the Miyagi reference was simply the offense too far. Maybe fans accustomed to the sketchy dance pro wrestling has done with race since its inception simply gave the spot some leeway to see where Mahal was going. When he couldn’t get away from stereotypes, they dropped the hammer.  

6) As if to make sure that the sequence ended badly, we go backstage to an interview with Nakamura, who only says that Mahal is funny, but it won’t be so funny when Nakamura beats him at Hell in a Cell. That was too mild a response and didn’t address the race issues Mahal played with, or the Singh Brothers who cost him the win at SummerSlam. That response didn’t build Nakamura, and it’s hard to see what this second, more aggressive promo added to the first except more chances to be called out for it. The Washington Post, where Marissa Payne reported on the spot, quoting fans at ringside who shouted, “That’s racist,” and Tweets that also took exception to it. “Having a brown person say openly racist rhetoric does not make it OK,” one person tweeted. The spot got enough attention that the WWE had to address it:

Just like many other TV shows or movies, WWE creates programming with fictional personalities that cover real world issues and sensitive subjects.

As a producer of such TV shows, WWE Corporate is committed to embracing and celebrating individuals from all backgrounds as demonstrated by the diversity of our employees, performers and fans worldwide.

A conscious Mahal anatomizing American xenophobia is potentially a good idea, and it would certainly get heat. Right now, audiences are flat on his aristocratic boorishness, much of which is communicated at too meta a level to really land. Adding racially insensitive rhetoric to this sputtering effort is a very dangerous kind of fail.  


The best and worst of Raw this week:

- Raw featured a surprisingly reduced roster for the last show before the “No Mercy” pay-per-view as John Cena and Brock Lesnar were not in the building. Those wanting part three of the the Cena/Roman Reigns cutting contest were pleasantly surprised when Reigns laid out his best promo in the series as he ripped on Cena for being in Hollywood and not there after Cena lambasted The Rock for the same thing years earlier. On Monday night, Reigns sounded at ease, as if the lines came from him and not a character. If this program with Cena has helped Reigns become better on the mic, it will have been a very successful one.

- The upside of Braun Strowman’s intrusion on Enzo Amore’s promo? Lobbing Enzo from the floor through the middle rope into the ring was really impressive. The WWE has done a great job of making Strowman seem physically awesome. The rest of his beatdown on Enzo—meh. Everybody does it. The downside? Enzo’s competing for the championship on the WWE’s cruiserweight 205 Live? How weak does the division look when one of its top contenders can be tossed around like that? There was no jobber backstage who could have taken the beatdown? A less prominent cruiserweight to trash?

- Much like the Mahal angle, I’m now lost in the Raw women’s division. We finally got the Alexa Bliss/Nia Jax match, but without much build-up, there wasn’t much joy in seeing Bliss get her comeuppance as Jax crushed her. The actual match was also hurt by being ill-constructed. Jax could throw Bliss around the ring at will, but the show went to a commercial break and when the show resumed, Bliss had somehow turned things around. All in all, the match felt like an effort to be done with a rivalry that the company had lost interest in. 

Instead, the match felt like a vehicle to help get Sasha Banks involved—she kept Bliss from running away—and at the end, Bayley came back from her injury and, with Banks and Bliss, took down Jax. The three-on-one made Jax look like the face, and when Bliss tried to ally herself with Bayley and Banks, they took her down two-on-one. Bliss earned it, but the face/heel designations in the women’s division feel really fluid, as if the writers are deciding who’s what on a week-by-week basis.

The best and worst of Smackdown Live this week:

- Kevin Owens Kevin Owens Kevin Owens. Shane McMahon started the show with a generic promo threatening Owens at Hell in a Cell, but when Kevin Owens took his turn in a suit, he was money. His promo had menace and personality down to inflections of his French Canadian upbringing in his indoor voice, and it added new nuances to his character. He finished, “Shane, you say you’re going to condemn me to hell—I don’t think so. Because for what I’m going to do to you Shane, people like me don’t go to hell. No, people like me go to Heaven.” 

- So far, Natalya’s primary characteristic has been that she’s a good worker who’s labored for the company in the women’s division for a long time. As the Smackdown Live Women’s Champion, that’s not a lot to work with. This week started the work of fleshing her out, and much of it was successfully and intentionally funny. She interrupted Charlotte Flair talking about her father’s health to bring out a picture of herself winning the belt and celebrating herself as a role model. When Charlotte challenged her to championship match, the women’s locker room emptied one by one to come to the ring and say why they should get the next shot at Natalya. In the process, they started to hang an image on her. Riffing on Bret Hart’s catch phrase, Becky Lynch dismissed Natty as “The craziest there is, the craziest there was, and the craziest there ever will be.” When Lana came out with Tamina, she told Natalya, “You’re a crazy cat lady, and you need to shut up.” When general manager Daniel Bryan came to the ring, he interrupted Natalya, saying, “Easy, Gloria Steinem.” Since she radiates Tracey Flick, that low-grade, dismissible, cat lady crazy will stick, and she’s more interesting for it.

- The animated “hero in Bulgaria” Rusev is a nice change. It will be interesting to see where that goes.

- Dolph Ziggler put on another painful, toothless display, once again ripping the audience for liking wrestlers with cool intros instead of his incomparable in-ring chops. This time, he kept it cutting edge by doing Triple H’s intro, then going further into the Way Back Machine for Shawn Michaels’ “Sexy Boy” routine and Billy Gunn’s DX intro. None of the intros had been performed this decade—he did an older version of Triple H’s—so he did riffs that meant little to most of the people in the arena, who were flat for this whole sequence. With no enemy other than the audience, Ziggler seemed to run in circles for the third week in a row to no clear purpose. Speculation is that it will end with him mocking Bobby Roode, which will start a program with him and Roode. That could make for good matches because Ziggler is as good in the ring as he is unengaging out of it, so can we get to it already?