It’s WrestleMania season, theoretically the biggest time of year for pro wrestling and pro wrestling fans. There’s something electric about this period, and no matter how many big mistakes are made along the way, there’s always hope that WWE can pull off something special: Daniel Bryan’s improbable rise to superstardom, Seth Rollins’ shocking Money in the Bank cash-in against Roman Reigns and Brock Lesnar—those “WrestleMania Moments” that, for some fans, make everything worthwhile.
I had one of those experiences last year, in Arlington. WrestleMania 32 was by no means a great show—it was largely panned as boring, and readers of the Wrestling Observer picked it as the worst major show of 2017 in its annual awards—but being in attendance inside the cacophonous AT&T Stadium to see Shane McMahon almost kill himself jumping off a steel cell, and hearing the familiar glass break at the beginning of “Stone Cold” Steve Austin’s entrance were special moments.
But while WrestleMania 33 is being touted as “The Ultimate Thrill Ride,” the buildup to that show has been something markedly less than “thrilling.”
This week saw both Raw and Smackdown simultaneously attempt to move the story forward towards WrestleMania while also somehow staying in a holding pattern, using its time to focus on each of their programs going into the feud while basically ignoring everything and everyone else. In some way, this is understandable: You have to get your ducks in a row for the biggest moneymaker of the year. But the result feels less like a series of television episodes, and more like a checklist—a bunch of tasks that need to be completed rather than a story.
SmackDown has certainly felt the brunt of this. Touted for months as “the land of opportunity,” the show has legitimately found ways to elevate its stars without being a detriment to other performers. Few people were invested in Heath Slater and the Miz before the draft, but within weeks, they were part of two of the most compelling stories in the company. But the show has suffered from a noted lack of opportunity as of late, precisely because WrestleMania is on its way: With a card already penciled in, and there simply aren’t any more opportunities to give.
There are some bright spots. The John Cena and Nikki Bella vs. Miz and Maryse storyline turned into a surprisingly interesting story, despite the questionable turn it took this week. (Those Miz-Maryse vignettes were ill-advised, as was the decision to dress Tyler Breeze in drag as Nikki Bella.) Likewise, AJ Styles and Shane McMahon have made a deeply pointless match into some exciting television.
But the treatment of some of the other performers and storylines has been abysmal. The tag titles and Intercontinental title, in particular, haven’t felt particularly important in the scheme of things. Dean Ambrose vs. Baron Corbin reads on paper like a strong match, but the feud feels like an afterthought, while there seems to have been no thought at all placed into American Alpha—and now the Usos—in the tag title picture. When American Alpha lost this week to Jimmy and Jey Uso, does that set up a rematch for WrestleMania? And if so, why should your average viewer care, considering the two teams have spent what feels like weeks out of the spotlight?
Over on Raw, things don’t look much better. Despite the ongoing, excellent program between Kevin Owens and Chris Jericho, and the Lesnar-Goldberg main event—which will likely remain a draw, especially among more casual viewers—there isn’t a lot there to love. Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson remain afterthought tag champions, with seemingly no effort put into their story or their WrestleMania match against Enzo and Cass, and Cesaro and Sheamus, a bout that could prove to be a show-stealer but which right now feels thrown together, with nothing better to do for everyone involved. Meanwhile, with Bayley’s run as champion poorly booked from the get-go, the constant addition of new challengers each week is becoming a drag. And perhaps most frustrating has been the treatment of Braun Strowman, who was built up as a monster heel only to be fed to Roman Reigns in the latter’s lead up to a bout with the Undertaker, a decision that helped neither Reigns nor Strowman.
33 will likely be better than last year’s iteration, the booking of which suffered from a staggering number of injuries. And there has been some legitimately good storytelling along the way: Triple H and Seth Rollins stand out, as do Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton. But now that the card is all but set, Raw and Smackdown are going through the motions, and audiences are left waiting in line until the “Ultimate Thrill Ride.”
Paul DeBenedetto is Paste’s assistant wrestling editor.