Sunday night, the WWE's shows and affiliated pay-per-views became about the McMahons again.
It was a depressing moment when Triple H announced himself to be the final member of Raw’s Survivor Series team. The COO of the WWE doesn’t return to television to play a peripheral role, so you knew he would be crucial to the conclusion of the Survivor Series match against Team Smackdown Live and likely episodes of Raw to follow. By the end of the match Sunday night at the “Survivor Series” pay-per-view, he turned months of storylines into a McMahon family feud and made WWE Superstars secondary figures in that drama.
What’s worse is that when Triple H gets involved, the age and style of the players changes. The younger, dynamic talent is the strength of the WWE right now, but instead of finding ways to capitalize on the explosiveness of such performers as Finn Balor, Shinsuke Nakamura and A.J. Styles, the company focuses on guys pushing 50—Triple H and Kurt Angle are 48—and the style of wrestling slows down with them. Triple H is one of the WWE’s great heels, but when he goes into matches, he does little beyond brawl. His matches tell good stories, and it’s likely that he has inserted himself in the show to help put Braun Strowman over. Still, every time Triple H reappears, his presence restates the WWE’s core belief in big, high impact guys like Kane, who reappeared a month ago, also to slow down matches. All of the exciting, high-speed talent that Triple H helps to develop on NXT seems less important when he as a performer helps to set the shows’ agendas.
“Survivor Series” as a whole served as a reminder that the WWE never strays too far from its sideshow origins. Sideshows and grind house movies all sold the prospect more than the reality of excitement, and the Raw vs. Smackdown Live five-person matches were certainly in that tradition. Not only did they not live up to their hype; they couldn’t. On paper, all those stars promised something special, but a match that gave everybody and the most intriguing possibilities their due and told a good story would take at least an hour. In reality, Samoa Joe and John Cena were there for a cup of coffee, and the in-ring storytelling that the WWE takes pride in became secondary to the stars getting to their signature moves. Bobby Roode got do to a “glorious” celebration before he was dispatched from the match, and Nakamura blazed for the first five or so minutes before Braun Strowman demolished him. It wasn’t until late in the match when the number of performers got down to manageable number that a story started to emerge. Then, in the last moments, it went through so many twists that the audience seemed as confused as Strowman, who stood on the ring apron.
The women’s match had similar issues, and it also illustrated what happens when performers who rarely work together have to work. Naomi and Alicia Fox blew a number of spots including the pinning sequence, and throughout both matches, there were similar moments, though none as glaring. Bobby Roode leapt off the top rope toward Strowman, and it looked like Strowman was supposed to catch him and turn that into a power bomb. Roode flew too far from Strowman to catch and control, so he fell to the canvas, where Strowman scooped him up and finished him off with the power bomb they missed moments before.
I’ve complained here before about how inattentive to basic details the WWE writing staff seems to be, and that became an issue Sunday night. In the women’s Survivor Series match, Nia Jax was counted out because she didn’t return to the ring within a 10 count. It ended the battle of the big women between her and Tamina Snuka before it really started, but it got her out of the match without being pinned by a smaller wrestler. In the men’s match, Strowman spent at least 10 minutes out of the ring after being slammed through an announcers’ table, but when he was ready, he simply rejoined his team as if nothing had happened. In his case, that time let others perform in ways that they couldn’t with a destroyer like Strowman ready and able to crash into the ring at a moment’s notice. Still, both situations underscore the kinds of contortions the WWE has to go through to ensure that its big athletes are seen as dominant and powerful.
The saving grace of the women’s match was that it established Asuka as a badass in a way that her previous matches on Raw didn’t. Still, no new storylines emerged during “Survivor Series,” and the only stories that were furthered involved McMahons—Shane’s feud with Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn, and Stephanie’s feud with Kurt Angle. Now that that’s out of the way, it seems, shows can go back to business as usual.