Tuesday, May 12, 2015

WWE Network's New Primetime Specials

It has been awhile since I discussed what has been happening on the WWE Network here. Since I last wrote about WWE Network when they ran Warrior Week a year ago shortly after his death they have been my usual go to destination for a few of their programs. Usually I watch the weekly NXT episode and the new monthly PPV on the WWE Network every month, but every several weeks they will have a new original series lined up or a new original special that will catch my eye and I will tune in. I also will randomly turn on the live stream(imagine it as turning on WWE Network as it was just a TV channel and not a on demand streaming service) just to see whatever it is they are deciding to air at that particular moment.

Since Wrestlemania 31 however, they have been hyping up new original weekly primetime programming. It is essentially one new original show each weeknight in primetime. This started a couple weeks ago and I thought I would chime in with some quick thoughts to let you know which shows are worthwhile. Before I do that I will give some quick shoutouts to some other original WWE Network programming I have caught this past year that I recommend checking out. First, absolutely make sure to check out the two part ECW Exposed special where Joey Styles and Paul Heyman address the many controversies of ECW’s past and answers tweets from the fans. It is a very entertaining and informative watch, and the two even shed some new light on past lingering questions where the statute of limitations has now expired. The WWE Countdown series continues to be a good guilty pleasure as I am a sucker for a countdown show, and somehow WWE has continued to release a new episode or two a month in this series since the WWE network launched. It is starting to get unintentionally funny for the interviews they are using for this show as you can tell they are mixing in very recent interviews with newer WWE talent and recycling older interviews when wrestlers were in much older gimmicks, like Cody Rhodes rocking that sweet mustache and when the Matodores were simply Epico & Primo.

For any fan old or new, make sure to check out the 20 episode, The Monday Night War mini-series. I 100% agree with what someone online recently referred to this series as a great starting point for newer fans who have never witnessed this time in wrestling before as a perfect way to get caught up on one of the best must-see eras in wrestling history, and immediately follow it up with Wrestlemania X7 which transpired several days after WWE bought out WCW. Even if you lived through this, it is a great way to get refreshed on the era, and each episode has an interesting theme or angle it brings to the table like focusing on key Monday Night Way players like Bret Hart, Chris Jericho, ECW, the Cruiserweight Division and Mick Foley. I am only about halfway through this, but every couple of months I find myself catching up on an episode or two. Just keep in mind The Monday Night War has a little bit of WWE revisionist history woven into it as you are definitely getting WWE’s side of things and if you want the complete story make sure to do your proper research, but for the most part it is pretty close to reliving how that era went down.

WWE recently started a new monthly series, simply called WWE 24. They are essentially mini half hour documentaries on a certain superstar each month. The first two episodes that came out earlier this year focused around Daniel Bryan and Booker T, and were great quick retrospectives on their entire career. Of course I would have preferred them getting the traditional in-depth, two hour DVD documentary treatment, but this is a neat quick peek and I like how it was utilized last week for its latest installment focusing on Roman Reigns. Since he has only been around two and a half years, this feature on him seems far more comprehensive focusing on his coming up in the Samoan family heritage and his quick college football career before making the transition to WWE. I like the first half of the special focusing on his and coming years, but unfortunately, the last half after him breaking apart from the Shield faction comes across as a feel-good, please cheer for Roman Reigns propaganda special, which I will absolutely refuse to do until he naturally earns the fans respect in the ring.

So the WWE 24 installment of Roman Reigns was a noble effort and quite well made, but came across a little too heavy handed for my liking on WWE Network’s new primetime programming block. Next up is Jerry Springer’s Too Hot for TV. I completely forgot Springer is still around these days, and WWE scooped him up to host this new series where he introduces and narrates over edgier segments from WWE’s past, most notably from the Attitude era. It is what I expected with Springer cracking lame one-liners as he introduces each segment. Some segments I completely forgot about were a hoot to relive, like Batista randomly hooking up with Melina to motivate him in a Smackdown main event match up, but for the most part it is rehashing popular edgy segments in a new fashion I have seen many times before. It has already lasted two episodes, and I will be surprised if it will last another two since you can probably get a better fix of the Attitude era from the various Countdown and Monday Night War episodes instead.

Another new series WWE started this year where episodes mostly release in a monthly format is a ‘podcast interview’ series. The first two episodes of these were conducted by Steve Austin, who hosts his own weekly podcast where on the Network he interviewed Vince McMahon and then Triple H. I never got the feeling Steve’s questions were rehearsed and the interviews were part reminiscing about the past, part current questions on behind-the-scenes of the current state of WWE, and part hard hitting questions. Austin had a great mix of questions and I liked his interviews with Vince and Triple H. Vince kind of rambled on endlessly about a couple of odd tangents, but then again he is nearing 70. Triple H is more on the ball and has a fitting and well spoken answer for every easy and hard question Steve tosses at him. It looked like Austin’s schedule must have been booked going forward because another former wrestler-turned-podcaster, Chris Jericho takes over afterwards. First he interviewed John Cena last month, and during primetime week he interviewed Stephanie McMahon.

Jericho is not necessarily as hard hitting as Austin, and is more about reliving stories on the road and past storylines that played out before with his guests. I did notice however through his playful chumminess with both Cena and Stephanie in those interviews, he will somehow slyly sneak in a legit hardball question and phrase it in an innocent way where he got actual answers from both Cena and Steph. If Austin would have straight up asked the hard questions as he did in his interviews with Vince and Hunter I feel Steph and Cena probably would have gave us a rehearsed, PC answer or just ignore the question all together. I prefer Austin’s interviews over Jericho’s because Austin is a preferable straight up interviewer and has a better variety of questions where Jericho can be a little irritating at times as he has a very punch-worthy smile as he indulges in the past on camera antics a bit too much with his guests. Jericho’s interviews are still worth going out of the way to listen to, but if you only have time to check out a couple on the WWE Network I recommend Austin’s first. Also make sure to check out both Austin’s and Jericho’s respective podcasts as both are great listens and they have a great array of past and present wrestling stars.

WWE smartly cashed in on all the hype to the recent boxing superfight between Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao by airing a special on the Floyd Mayweather/Big Show match at Wrestlemania XXIV in 2008. I thought they were just going to be re-airing the match in its entirety, but instead they went the full mile and showed highlights of the entire feud and compiled old/new interviews from everyone involved in making the match possible such as Mayweather, Big Show and Triple H. If you never saw that match in its entirety I highly recommend you do so as I vividly recall back then it having potential to be a Butterbean/Bart Gunn-esque train wreck, but instead wound up as one of the best and most entertaining celebrity matches in WWE history. I ended up catching the Mayweather/Pacquiao fight at a local sports bar, and I watched this special earlier in the day and it only helped me get hyped up for the big fight. That fight may not have been the KO slugfest that everyone wanted, but I still got mesmerized in the ‘sweet science’ of it all as Mayweather put on a smart, defensive counterpunch clinic that night.

WWE brought its once popular annual summer tournament, the King of the Ring out of hibernation and made the semi-finals and final match a one hour WWE Network exclusive special on primetime week. Last time we saw the King of the Ring tournament was in 2010 with Sheamus winning, and then going on a losing streak as ‘King Sheamus’ and the WWE going on for years later saying that winning the tournament was more of a curse than a blessing to the last couple of winners. WWE decided to rewrite history by taking five years off airing the tournament and hoped everyone forgot the likes of Mabel, Billy Gunn and Ken Shamrock winning the crown and then re-emphasized how the tournament was a big launch pad to the careers of Steve Austin, Triple H, Bret Hart and Brock Lesnar and boom, instant prestige! It aired the quarter-finals on RAW, and the next day on the Network we got Neville vs. Sheamus and Bad News Barrett vs. R-Truth, and the night finished off with the winners of those two matches. The special was straightforward, with solid wrestling action in all three matches, and quick old school promos from the winners immediately after all three matches, capping off with the traditional King of the Ring coronation ceremony. I enjoyed the one hour special, but probably doing the tournament as a traditional 16-man bracket over a couple of weeks of qualifiers on RAW and Smackdown instead of a rushed 8 man tournament announced only a day before it transpired would have made it a smidge more memorable in the long run for me.

The highlight of the primetime week of specials was probably the one hour Mick Foley Cheap Pops story time theater special. I want to say stand up act, but Mick Foley keeps insisting throughout it is not a comedy act, and instead him doing a twist on sharing his war stories from his many years in and out of the business. I saw his stand up/story time act at a local club about a year ago and it was quite entertaining. He tells a lot of stories you heard plenty of times before if you read his books or watched his documentary, but hams up certain aspects in that vintage, self-deprecating Foley fashion for some nice laughs. Props to Foley for having a whole new act lined up for this special as I did not recall a single bit reused from when I saw him last year as his act here incorporates tales ranging from Tim Tebow, George Clooney, The Miz and wrapping things up by getting his son Mick Jr. on the act. I hope WWE has more Foley comedy specials in the future.

Finally I will wrap up with thoughts on another WWE one hour special, but one that aired on ESPN instead of the WWE Network, and that was a ESPN E60 special on WWE titled Behind the Curtain. It is rare that WWE gives this amount of all-access coverage to third parties, so Behind the Curtain’s surprise announcement and release a couple weeks ago was a very welcomed fresh look at WWE behind-the-scenes. It focuses on the NXT careers of Xavier Woods, Corey Graves and Leo Kruger/Adam Rose at the tail end of 2013 and beginning of 2014. It profiles how all three found their way into the NXT developmental territory and how their careers either shot them into the WWE main roster or in the case of Graves took an unexpected turn into an announcing career.

All three have a inspirational story to tell as Graves is battling a nonstop barrage of injuries and concussions to live his dream, while Woods is working tirelessly while wrestling to become the first WWE star to earn a PHD and Rose is trying his best after a floundering career as Leo Kruger and reinventing himself as an Austin Powers-esque playboy, Adam Rose to make an honest living for his wife and special needs child. I am surprised WWE gave ESPN this amount of access to show all three working out behind-the-scenes at the WWE Performance Center as they develop their on-screen personas and overcome hurdles as they try to make it to the WWE main roster. Adam Rose is the surprise standout of this as you see the man behind the gimmick’s real life struggles and you cannot help but feel sympathetic for what the man is going through. I can only give the highest recommendations to check out this brilliantly made look at three of WWE’s newest stars.

I am done rambling now about catching up on all the unique original content on WWE Network. I think it is a steal for $9.99/month and it is easier than ever to sign up now compared to a year ago now that you can cancel anytime and always get a free 30 day trial period and are no longer stuck to the six month commitment when the WWE Network first started. You are already getting your money’s worth from the monthly PPVs alone, having every WWE/WCW/ECW PPV on demand anytime is icing on the cake along with a ton of archived TV episodes from all these promotions and the many original specials mentioned here. I feel having new original content though is a big factor at attracting new eyes, and while not every new primetime episode I ran down above is a hit, it is definitely a step in the right direction and will keep me tuning into the WWE Network more frequently. I am still waiting though for WWE Movie night where we can have stars of the direct-to-video WWE films chime in throughout movies with anecdotes from the production or how horrible the film was in the form of old 90’s movie night specials like Up all Night and Dinner and a Movie. I am dying to hear Kane’s on-the-set stories of See No Evil 1 & 2, make it happen WWE!

Past Wrestling Blogs

Best of WCW Monday Nitro Volume 2
Biggest Knuckleheads
Bobby The Brain Heenan
For All Mankind
Goldberg: The Ultimate Collection
Ladies and Gentlemen My Name is Paul Heyman
Legends of Mid South Wrestling
Macho Man: The Randy Savage Story
OMG Vol 2: Top 50 Incidents in WCW History
RoH Supercard of Honor V
RoH Supercard of Honor VI
RoH Supercard of Honor VII
ScoobyDoo Wrestlemania Mystery
Superstar Collection: Zach Ryder
Warrior Week on WWE Network
Wrestlemania 3: Championship Edition
Wrestlemania 28
Wrestlemania 29
Wrestlemania 30
The Wrestler (2008)
Wrestling Road Diaries Too

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