By Colin McGuire, ProWrestling.net Staffer (@McGMondays)
Rampage will ultimately feel like a throwaway show in the realm of all things AEW and become some version of AEW Dark Elevation Extreme.
I came to this fear about a couple weeks into the show’s run and it’s only intensified since that notion was first introduced to my brain. I whine about it occasionally in the reviews, but never have I been able to pinpoint why those feelings were even formulated to begin with … until last Friday, when for the sixth week in a row, the show featured a different commentary team.
Now, you might scoff at that and say that’s a foolish reason to downgrade a pro wrestling show. You might accuse me of nit-picking. You might argue that I’m just looking for reasons to feel let down by this hour of television — a self fulfilling prophecy, if you will. It’s just commentary, right? Nobody puts that much weight into the voices behind the visuals, do they?
Well, they do. And it’s not just me. Commentary in wrestling is oftentimes the most thankless part of the puzzle. We get used to hearing certain voices in certain spots and it doesn’t matter how good or bad those commentary teams are; instead, all that matters is how comfortable they make us feel. It wasn’t until Twitter was invented that Jim Ross’s legendary calls began to receive the attention and notoriety they deserved. Put the audio to Mick Foley’s fall from the top of a Hell In The Cell to anything from a grandmother falling on ice to a rough foul in an NBA game and you have instant gold. With the help of audio/visual editing software, those calls can live forever in an infinite amount of contexts.
And that doesn’t just apply to Ross, who is arguably the most famously celebrated commentator ever. If Gordon Solie wasn’t on the call in WCW or Georgia Championship Wrestling or CWF, it didn’t feel right. Gorilla Monsoon and Bobby Heenan defined ’80s WWF audio (as did Vince McMahon, to be fair). Tony Schiavone steered WCW through the Monday Night Wars and Nitro wouldn’t have been the same without him. Shoot, even Joey Styles brought the ECW product to a different level when he was on his game.
My point is that every worthwhile wrestling staple in our lives came complete with an identity, a voice, a vibe, a steady hand.
SEARCHING FOR IDENTITY
Rampage doesn’t have that. But you know what does? Dynamite.
Ross, Excalibur and Schiavone are the Ross/Lawlor or Heenan/Monsoon of AEW. The flagship show has the flagship team and when those two things stumble into synergy, you get magic. Sure, we’ve heard Chris Jericho sit in a week or two, and yeah, a few other personalities have lended their voices to matches here and there, but those moments only came after we knew those three were the ones to steer the ship. Or, in other words, Dynamite quickly established its identity, voice and vibe via the guys who were calling the action. It’s all to say that while we knew Rampage wasn’t going to compete with Dynamite for A-Show status, I don’t think any of us thought that this particular Friday night hour of wrestling would eventually become an afterthought.
Now, settle down. I know “afterthought” is too harsh a word, and we can all agree that even 10 episodes is too little a sample size to really put a label on anything. But, man. The more Fridays that go by, the more skeptical I am of Rampage’s relevance within the AEW oeuvre. Oftentimes, it feels like it’s two weeks or one additional show announcement away from becoming something that has a QT Marshall vs. Mark Henry main event. And all due respect to both those guys, but with the kind of roster AEW has, that’s not necessarily a main event that makes sense for a show on cable TV — especially if you have Omega, Punk, Danielson, Moxley, Cody, Page, Cole, MJF and what feels like a million other notable names sitting around in the back.
This isn’t to say all shows should be created equal, but it is to say something that probably isn’t going to sound all that popular …
TWO RELEVANT SHOWS
… And it’s that if you want to look at a company that has done a better job at figuring out how to have two shows feel important, you’d probably have to look at WWE.
Granted, WWE has decades of experience and namesake on AEW, and yes, insert your own “Raw is awful” or “Smackdown could be better” quip here. This isn’t a space to cast judgment on the booking decisions WWE has made of late; we all do that on a daily basis anyway. Instead, this is only to note that even if you think Raw has been a B-Show, or even if you think Smackdown has been a B-Show, there has not been a drastic shift in presentation between the two in quite some time.
Could that be a function of both shows being live? Probably. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t take credit away from WWE for figuring out a way to make both shows feel important, all brand splits be damned. Truth be told, if AEW actually wanted to do split brands (and to be clear, I’m not a fan of brand splits in any form in any company), it probably could do it with the amount of talent it has amassed over the last two years. In that case, Rampage could be the place you tune in to see Chris Jericho in the same way you tune into Smackdown to see Roman Reigns. Ditto for, say, Dynamite and Danielson and Raw and Becky Lynch.
The point here is that throwing together an hour of television for the sake of throwing together an hour of television isn’t particularly productive for a company that loves to position itself as The Company That Does Everything Better. Outside of CM Punk’s return, I don’t think there has been a Rampage in its illustrious 10-week history that’s been can’t-miss. You see the cards, and you say, “Oh, maybe that thing could be good, and oh yeah, that other thing looks kind of interesting,” but then you get to Friday night at 10 p.m. ET and … well, look at the declining numbers for Rampage and you can finish that sentence.
Speaking of what might look interesting, though …
A TIRED FORMULA
… Any hope of finding an element of surprise in Rampage has diminished significantly over the weeks it has existed.
Case in point, here’s the formula: Start out with a long match — sometimes, the match you’d think would be the main event — run a couple short vignettes, give the women four minutes, add in a couple more videos and perhaps an interview, head to the main event, say goodbye. I understand that when you’re working with an hour, you don’t have as much wiggle room as you would if you had two or three hours, but let’s not kid ourselves and say there aren’t creative ways to make each week feel different. Or at least every other week feel different.
Instead, what we have now is an hour of television that even in its very short history feels more and more like it’s becoming redundant each week. A formula is fine for the C or D shows — cough, anything you put on YouTube, cough — but at what point do we start to question the quality of a show on face value rather than the reputation the company has? AEW is the coolest thing in wrestling to a lot of people right now and oftentimes, that provides blindspots to even the most cynical or skeptical of fans. Hate other companies all you want, but if you try to name me a perfect wrestling organization, I’m going to name you a liar. That includes AEW.
Plus, the notion that it’s not possible to put together a solid hour of wrestling television is a non-starter for me. If you need proof, take NJPW Strong for a test drive and see that you can have great wrestling and good stories even if you don’t have a particularly large budget. Even now, Strong continues to evolve with its format in ways that keep the viewer guessing. Furthermore, those episodes are taped weeks in advance, not days. So, the elements of spoilers and staleness are possibilities, yet NJPW has turned that hour into one of the best of the wrestling week.
Rampage, meanwhile, feels like it devolves more than it evolves. At this point, its hook is The Show On Which CM Punk Wrestles People We Don’t Know Why He’s Wrestling, all the while refusing to maximize Punk’s appeal and relevance by sticking him in feuds with … Team Taz? It’s lazy at worst, frustrating at best. God bless the company for getting Punk back into the thick of things, but asking him to carry the B-Show with people who are working with him because they are on a “four-match winning streak” doesn’t feel ideal.
It all leaves me with just one question …
A GAME PLAN
How can AEW make this better?
One of my biggest pet peeves with AEW programming is its tendency to not sit still. Yeah, that can apply to some matches, but more than anything, it speaks to the fever pace a lot of the shows have. More than once (or twice), I’ve been convinced that they had to speed up Excalibur’s voiceovers in post-production as he runs down future cards because it’s just so fast and so concise that it doesn’t feel human. Additionally, the roster is so stacked that the company can be forgiven for leaving quality talent off the show for a week or two, but that’s not necessarily what AEW does. No Miro match this week? Here’s a 23-second vignette of him making mean faces.
So, then what? Well, finding an identity is crucial, and that begins with (or at least includes) a consistent commentary team, as I outlined earlier. Going live more often than not wouldn’t hurt, either. There’s something about knowing a crowd has already sat through three hours of wrestling before this show begins taping that takes some air out of it — and that’s speaking for the crowd, too. It’s a tough ask for them to have a large amount of enthusiasm so deep into the night, even if you did book CM Punk vs. Bryan Danielson to start the taping.
In all, though, you know what I think AEW should do to raise Rampage’s profile? Take it more seriously. The shine was going to be there when it debuted, and putting the CM Punk return on the show gave everything a heap of credibility, but since then, it feels like it’s drifted backwards into an abyss of inconsistency and relegation — and that’s even despite offering good-to-great matches most of the time.
That said, perhaps this coming Friday is exactly what it needs in order to raise the show’s profile moving forward. WWE making the brash move to add 30-minuets two Friday’s Smackdown to go head to head with Rampage for at least half the show clearly woke up Tony Khan, if his tweets are any indication. If Rampage doesn’t get the numbers Khan hopes for and if Smackdown wins the ratings battle by somewhat of a wide margin, don’t blame it on this week’s episode; instead, look at the previous nine and consider the sporadic ratings behavior, the hot-shot matches and the occasionally phoned-in cards.
Which brings this full circle. It’s a bit disingenuous for Khan to be so chesty about a show that is clearly established as the company’s B-level programming. Sure, it’s fun in a lot of ways, and yeah, it’s clear he likes to lean into the so-called wrestling wars that all of us love to dissect while so many people in the actual wrestling business seem to say they don’t exist. But let’s not pretend that every Rampage has been a home run and all of Khan’s attention is focused squarely on making sure Rampage is a can’t-miss show each week. That’s not a knock — the guy has a reputation for doing so many things, I don’t even know why he’d want to take on another hour of television in the first place. It’s just to say that Smackdown vs. Rampage isn’t exactly Raw vs. Nitro.
But then again, maybe one day it could be … as long as AEW Rampage doesn’t ultimately become AEW Dark Elevation Extreme.