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‘Wu-Tang: An American Saga’: Hulu’s Latest Doesn’t Bring the Ruckus

Hulu’s latest series is part rose-eyed biopic and part cliche gangster drama, neither of which are particularly effective.

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Wu-Tang: An American Saga is one of 2019’s stranger creations; presenting itself as a semi-autobiographical retelling of the legendary Staten Island rap collective’s origins, Wu-Tang: An American Saga is really an urban melodrama in the vein of Power or The Wire, albeit one without the understanding of self the aforementioned shows pertain. Like the super group whose story it is fictionalizing, Hulu’s latest drama is a mess of contrasting styles, ideas, and approaches as maddeningly inconsistent as the Wu catalog. Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest, haunting interludes between musical sequences and trite gangster story lines; unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.

Equally earnest and self-righteous, Wu-Tang: An American Saga‘s best moments are often its quietest – unfortunately, those moments are spread too thin across its first three episodes to hold the whole experiment together.

Co-created by the RZA (him and Method Man also serve as executive producers, with most members of Wu-Tang Clan noted as “Consulting Producers”) with Alex Tse (whose previous credits include co-writing 2009’s Watchmen film), Wu-Tang: An American Saga centers its story around a young Bobby Diggs, stuck between the drug world that keeps the family bills paid, and the music world he so desperately wants to break into. Played by Moonlight‘s Ashton Sanders, the character of young RZA forms the foundation of the series, positing young Bobby as the connective thread between the many different characters and happenings in Wu-Tang‘s fictionalized version of 1991 Staten Island.

Problem is, so many of those characters and situations feel like echoes of 30 years of material from New Jack City to Empire; though there’s an undeniable understanding of the show’s fictional versions of Bobby, Sha, Dennis, Cliff, Ason, and company, Wu-Tang insists on drawing out their origin story from the same blueprint as its obvious cinematic influences. Which in a way, feels a bit self-aggrandizing; in its attempts to feel gritty and realistic, the influence of the show’s subjects on their portrayals seeps through the material, which at times, places its characters inside genre cliches in strange, self-glorifying moments.

That lack of separation from subject to screen is impossible to ignore; it only feels like half the conversation is being had, so reluctant to observe its subjects rather than deify them through cliched material. Take the character of Ason (aka a young Ol’ Dirty Bastard): Wu-Tang‘s first three episodes effectively portray Ason as the unhinged, lovable radical with crazy dreads that was his public image around fans; TJ Atom’s performance is wonderful, capturing the freewheeling joy that was the foundation of Ason’s unusual creativity and personality. But Ason was also a serial abuser, a rampant alcoholic and drug addict, and most likely suffered from undiagnosed mental illnesses (plus other traumas, like the time NYC cops took shots at him for effectively no good reason) that eventually led to his death in the middle of Wu-Tang’s New York studio.

Though Wu-Tang: An American Saga has every right not to engage with that part of his story, there’s a feeling of massaging ODB’s legacy through this show that I feel with every character, refusing to explore even the ideas of inner conflict and morality that makes the exercise feel… well, a bit masturbatory at times. Having the foreknowledge of their success, and their well-known influence on American culture is baked right into the series, an unspoken framing of every scene that allows its creators to not really engage with their own legacy on an interesting level.

Wu-Tang An American Saga

For better or worse, it feels like a Wu-Tang album; one that straddles the line between honest storytelling and reinforcing its own worst habits, one willing to go on strange diatribes (the second episode has some strange, randomly inserted animated bits) and unsatisfying diversions, all in what feels like cherry-picked personifications of its characters. The most frustrating of these isn’t even Ason – it’s Shameik Moore’s Sha, an absolute miscalculation of performance and character that drags down the entire Wu-Tang affair.

Quite frankly, the way Raekwon comes off in Wu-Tang is dumb: in their attempts to paint him with shades of gray, the series simply leaves him as a big blank. Considering how integral he is to one of the show’s central mysteries – the first episode begins with him spraying bullets through the windows of a young Ghostface’s home, before stashing the gun at RZA’s family home – Wu-Tang‘s inability to explore Sha in three dimensions sells many of its big dramas short. Sha is meant to be conflicted, torn between his job, his dreams, and his childhood friends – but the show, and its audience, already know how the story ends, and Wu-Tang takes no chances at trying to define Sha beyond his actions, which just make him an empty vessel for the show’s lesser, more stereotypical elements.

When Wu-Tang is able to divorce itself from the friendly self-authorship of its story, there are signs Wu-Tang can find its voice at the strange intersection between 90’s gangster epic and musical biopic; sequences with Bobby’s attempts to buy a drum machine, coupled with Dennis’s hidden relationship with his boss’s sister are genuine attempts to bridge the gap between humans and legends, rare side plots that give Wu-Tang some sense of identity beyond simply mythologizing their origin story.

Wu-Tang An American Saga

I just wish there was more of that, and less of the show’s attempts to emulate so many of its cinematic influences (or in the case of Method Man, shows he’s already been on), in order to build empty melodramatics around its characters, themselves largely a collection of archetypes Wu-Tang doesn’t want to add any unique, or unflattering, shades to. People simply are who they are because of their environment, Wu-Tang argues, at times even suggesting Bobby is the only one with a vision beyond the ghetto, beyond the short life spans and long jail sentences that have plagued generations of young black people (though in the rare moments where Wu-Tang does lean heavy into those sociopolitical elements, it does have a bit of spark), and nearly consumed the lives of the Wu-Tang Clan before they made it.

Whether the events of Wu-Tang: An American Saga are factual, are irrelevant: what matters is how those stories are adapted to the screen, and how the clear influence of its subjects colors their on-screen portrayals. Unfortunately, most of Wu-Tang‘s first three hours are too consumed by that thought to have anything interesting to say on its own; it’s rather happy to indulge itself in the habits and rhythms of other fiction, with the strange undercurrent of never letting its characters exude any kind of real, inner conflict about their inherent destinies. With time, maybe Wu-Tang will find that; but there’s little sign this series is more than a handful of evocative rhyming sessions, a few revelatory moments of discovery, and a whole lot of cliched storytelling and one-dimensional characterizations, in what amounts to an underwhelming adaptation of a quintessential American story.

Other thoughts/observations:

  • Dave East co-stars as a young Method Man, and holy shit, does he do a great Method imitation.
  • There’s so much dichotomy between the show’s performances: where as Sanders’ RZA is so artfully constructed with subtle looks and physical performance, Siddiq Saunderson’s Dennis (aka Ghostface) feels like a gangster caricature, showy and large in all the wrong ways.
  • There’s a speech given in a flashback about the “light” and the “dark” that is so laughably amateurish, one of a couple examples of Tse and RZA flimsily opining to the audience.
  • another subplot introduces and disposes of a flashy character in the span of an hour, a cheap dramatic cash-in I really wish the show would’ve avoided, because it falls flat and swallows most of the third episode whole.
  • Ultimately, these first three episodes are not very good – but I’m going to be sticking with the first season, because I’m curious if those few elements of promise can be drawn out into something powerful. I’ll check back in after the season finale.

A TV critic since the pre-Peak TV days of 2011, Randy is a critic and editor formerly of Sound on Sight, Processed Media, TVOvermind, Pop Optiq, and many, many others.

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Wrestling

Greatest Royal Rumble Matches: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

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WWE Championship: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

WWE’s annual Royal Rumble pay-per-view is famous for its over-the-top main event, but there have also been many legendary single and tag team matches over the years that wound up overshadowing the titular 30-man brawl. One such match came during the Ruthless Aggression Era when two of the greatest wrestlers in the history of professional wrestling, squared off in what would be a technical showcase between two mat technicians. Of course, I’m referring to the 2003 Royal Rumble WWE Championship match between Kurt Angle and the Rabid Wolverine, Chris Benoit.

The match between Benoit and Angle isn’t just one of the greatest matches in WWE history— it is hands-down, the best match of 2003— a non-stop classic that doesn’t get the full recognition it deserves.

This match took place on January 19, at the Fleet Center in Boston. It was the sixteenth annual Royal Rumble and it unfolded during the pinnacle of the first WWE brand split. Monday Night Raw placed a heavy emphasis on soap opera drama while Smackdown focused more on technical wrestling. And if this wasn’t evident at the time, it became crystal clear during the 2003 Royal Rumble pay per view. In short, there was a huge difference in quality between the Angle/Benoit match which headlined the Smackdown brand and the primary match for Raw which saw Triple H and Scott Steiner fight for the World Heavyweight Championship. It was no contest. The Smackdown brand came out on top thanks to the sheer talent of Benoit and Angle; two world-class competitors in their prime and arguably at the time, two of the best wrestlers on the planet.

WWE Championship: Kurt Angle vs. Chris Benoit

For roughly twenty minutes the Canadian Wolverine and the U.S. Olympic Gold Medalist went to war in a non-stop physical encounter which simmered with an amazing series of transitions from the Ankle lock to the Crippler Crossface. Needless to say, both men pulled off every single one of their special movies, multiple times throughout the match. Benoit attempted a diving headbutt on Angle, only Angle avoided the move and attempted an Angle Slam on Benoit which Benoit countered. Later when Benoit applied the sharpshooter on Angle, Angle in dramatic fashion, slowly made his way to the edge of the ring and touched the ropes to break the submission. Their chemistry was off the charts and the action in the ring kept the audience at the edge of their seats, as did the incredibly convincing near-falls which were executed to perfection. At one point, both men laid on the mat unable to get to their feet which almost resulted in a double count-out. It as a back and forth battle that had spectators believing anyone could win at any given moment.

WWE had built Benoit up as a babyface, and despite being the underdog— with the crowd behind the Canadian wolverine, many believed he would finally hold the belt over his shoulders. By the time Benoit executed a diving headbutt, nobody in the arena was left sitting on their chairs. In the end, however, Benoit applied yet another Crippler Crossface on Angle, only to have Angle counter it into a modified ankle lock, forcing Benoit to submit to the hold. It was a clean finish that featured a rare submission from the famously resilient Benoit.

Angle vs. Benoit at the 2003 Royal Rumble

The match exceeded any expectations and in the end, both men received a standing ovation. And while Benoit didn’t win, he walked away as the man who stole the show. Thankfully, it wasn’t the end for him but only the beginning. Over the course of the next year, he would rise in the ranks of the WWE roster and in 2004, he would win the WWE Championship at WrestleMania XX against Shawn Michaels and Triple H in a triple threat match.

As Kurt Angle said when asked about his career-defining match: If you want to learn and understand the art of pro wrestling, you need to watch the 2003 Royal Rumble World Championship match.

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Up next….. Royal Rumble in January 2019. 16 years ago I had the privilege of defending my WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble. This is how the match was explained verbally to those who haven’t watched it. “Professional wrestling in its purest form is as beautiful as ballet, as elegant as a ballroom dance and as captivating as a theater. By purest form I mean technical wrestling, which in today’s world is almost non-existent. The fiery chain wrestling, involving great chemistry, in-ring psychology and dream like story telling is something that happens when all the stars align.” This match was one of my best performances of my career. If you haven’t seen it, give it a look. #itstrue #wwe #championship #royalrumble

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Angle vs. Benoit can be viewed as the single greatest non-Rumble match in the history of the pay per view. Watching it again after all these years proved to be just as thrilling— even if I already knew the outcome.

  • Ricky D
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TV

“Crisis on Infinite Earths” Concludes By Going Big… and Going Home

Crisis ends, and DC’s television universe looks towards a bright future.

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Crisis on Infinite Earths

(click here for my review of Parts I through III)

After three hours of thrilling cameos, bold narrative design, and clumsy dramatic crescendos, “Crisis on Infinite Earths” returned to air its final two episodes, concluding what’s been arguably the most ambitious experiment on a broadcast network post-LOST. Its final two parts – aired as the ante penultimate episode of Arrow, with Part V serving as the Legends of Tomorrow season premiere – are much like the three that aired in December; equally ridiculous and resonant, able to transcend an undercooked central premise with a combination of heart and humor unlike anything else in the superhero genre.

Equally ridiculous and resonant, Crisis on Infinite Earths transcends an undercooked central premise with a combination of heart and humor unlike anything else in the superhero genre.

“Part V” particularly benefits from being able to serve two critical roles: it serves as both a testament to the core characters of the DC-CW universe and their continued legacy on the network, as well as a poignant reflection on the impending departure of Green Arrow. And despite the obvious similarities, it would be a little simplistic to call Crisis on Infinite Earths the Endgame of the DC Universe: through characters like Sara Lance, Black Lightning, and The Flash, Crisis – and Part V in particular – is a reminder that even 500+ episodes into its universe, there’s still a bright future ahead for its super powered paragons.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

That being said, let’s be honest: “Part IV” is a hot goddamn mess, rush through a web of silly plot twists and unnecessarily drawn-out scenes, that builds to one of the most laughably incoherent action climaxes of recent memory. Watching the heroes fight anti-matter ghosts was bad in “Part I” – by the time we get to the end of “Part IV,” and Ollie the Spectre is trading energy beams with the Anti-Monitor while everyone else stands around punching the air, the conceit of the whole endeavor almost falls flat on its face.

The only reason it doesn’t is because of what comes before it; though it is understandable to criticize “Part IV” for the strange collection of brief flashbacks into Oliver’s past (experienced by our paragons as they exist within the Speed Force), there’s a certain balance between chaos and clarity that’s found in the random assortment of moments The Flash, Supergirl, and company experience. The Speed Force is an unruly, uncontrollable force, and “Part IV” establishes the difficulty of their ability to even exist in such a state: given that, it makes sense that much of what we experience in the Speed Force is unsatisfying, or feels like it is missing out on key moments.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

There’s no doubting how clumsy everything around it is: from the Monitor’s origin story, to the inexplicable beard Ray Choi grows, much of “Part IV” feels like filler material, hamster wheeling its way to its final two minutes, where the paragons…. look up a CGI hill, and think really hard about what they’re the paragon of? While the notions behind the final moments of “Part IV” are certainly noble – the idea that the super friends’ greatest powers are not their physical attributes – the execution is sloppy at best, and teeters towards being utterly ludicrous in its most critical moments.

But when the Anti-Monitor’s siege is (temporarily) defeated, Crisis on Infinite Earths drops the entertaining, if superficial conceit of unpredictable cameos and absolutely insane world building and turns towards deifying Green Arrow. And though it falls utterly flat in landing its emotional beats in “Part IV” (admittedly, it’s hard to take anything seriously after the Climactic Collection of Stares), once Crisis leaves Arrow to move to Legends of Tomorrow, all the pieces begin coming together, to deliver a rather touching homage to the long shadow cast by Stephen Amell’s impending departure.

By centering on The Flash and Sara, two characters who spend most of the episode refusing to believe Oliver doesn’t exist in this new universe (where every character in the DCTV universe has been integrated into one world), “Part V” is able to grasp an emotional thoroughline “Part IV” is way too busy to find. Especially with Sara Lance; as she reflects on her journey from philandering sister, to dead assassin, to captain of a MF’in time ship, Crisis finds resonance in Oliver’s departure, and how that has a rippling effect on every hero left behind.

Crisis on Infinite Earths

Even more interesting is how the subtext of Sara’s reflections give voice to the anxiety of uncharted seas lying ahead for the minds behind the DC television universe: without their original protagonist, their dramatic bedrock of nearly a decade, there is a changing of the guard happening on both sides of the camera. Positing Sara as the de facto protagonist moving forward is a logical move: her journey to becoming a true leader on Legends of Tomorrow might be the single most satisfying arc of this entire dramatic experiment, something “Part V” openly acknowledges as it begins to fill in the landscape of its new shared universe.

By the time “Part V” ends (which, let’s be honest, it takes a long time to get to), there’s a Hall of Justice, a Super Friends table, a brand new conflict for Supergirl to face, and plenty of intriguing new threads for its new and returning series to explore in the coming months and years. The impact of Crisis will ripple through the DC televerse for years to come, and that’s an exciting creative kick start for some of its long running series: though sometimes Crisis certainly feels more interesting to dissect than it is to actually experience, the impact of its conclusion offers infinite potential to rejuvenate series like The Flash, and a fresh slate for shows like Black Lightning, the new Lois and Clark series, and the upcoming Stargirl to begin building a new, more refined foundation on.

Though the minute-to-minute quality of Crisis on Infinite Earths is wildly uneven – and ultimately, it comes up dramatically short in its climactic moments – it is undeniably one of the most exciting television events in recent memory, a crossover that should be lauded for its sheer ambition, and heartfelt delivery. Though the Arrowverse will be losing its bedrock when Arrow departs the air at the end of January, “Part V” proves the new, post-Crisis universe is clearly in good hands heading into the new decade.

Other thoughts/observations:

It is not surprising the two MVP’s of the entire crossover are both Legends of Tomorrow regulars: Brandon Routh pulling dual roles before his own swan song from the universe (“Wait… there was a Super-me?”) and Caity Lotz absolutely fucking chewing scenery in the final half of “Part V”.

Best moment of the crossover? I mean, it’s gotta be the scene with Ezra Miller and Grant Gustin, right? Extremely impressed how they kept that cameo under wraps. The Doom Patrol dance is probably a close second, though.

Swamp Thing cameo!

The sidelining of Constantine in the final two parts is a bummer, though I guess having a dude who can access the world of the dead might make the whole eulogizing Green Arrow thing weird.

Gotta say it: it sucks there was no Felicity in “Part IV” or “Part V”.

Mick Rory the author continues to be the greatest subplot of the DC universe.

Unfortunately, Batwoman sticks out as the weakest part of the new Super Friends lineup. I want to like Ruby Rose in the role, but it’s just not working for me, at least so far.

Beepo!

It is no surprise the best episode of the five-part series is the Legends of Tomorrow season premiere.

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Wrestling

Royal Rumble: The Most Over The Top Moments

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Best of the Royal Rumble Moments

The Best of the WWE Royal Rumble

While WrestleMania might be considered WWE’s biggest pay-per-view of the year, the Royal Rumble is arguably the most popular. It is the official start of WrestleMania season as the main events come into view. More than that, the actual Royal Rumble match is one of the most exciting WWE has.

The essential premise is that two wrestlers start in the ring. Then, another wrestler enters every 90 seconds, with a total of 30 wrestlers involved. There are no count-outs, pinfalls, or submissions. The only way to be eliminated is by going over the top rope and both feet hitting the floor.

What makes it blast to watch is the unpredictability of the match. The complete roster of wrestlers involved is rarely known, so most numbers have the potential for a surprise entrant. Even if fans think they know who is going to win, how it plays out is rarely as predictable.

Some of the most unique moments in WWE history have happened in a Royal Rumble match. Hopefully, this year won’t be an exception.

Kofi Kingston: Royal Rumble MVP

Superstars like John Morrison and Shawn Michaels have pulled off off some impressively acrobatic moves in a Royal Rumble match. But Kofi Kingston has carved out a name for himself as one-man highlight reel.

Kofi Kingston is a human Royal Rumble highlight reel.

Consistently, Kofi has produced some of the biggest saves from elimination moments. From walking around outside the ring on his hands to chair hopping from the commentator’s desk back to the ring, Kofi has found the most creative ways possible to keep going.

His leap from the barricade to the ring apron at Royal Rumble 2014 remains one the most athletic moments in WWE history.

Asuka Wins The Royal Rumble

In 2018, WWE changed the game by having the first Women’s Royal Rumble match. 30 female wrestlers both past and present entered, leading to some historic moments. One of the coolest was seeing Trish Stratus and Mickie James, two in-ring rivals, face off in match they helped build to.

The eventual winner was Asuka, which was both the expected and the hoped-for outcome. Asuka was in the midst of her juggernaut run that started in NXT. It was a huge win for her.

It meant Asuka was going to WrestleMania to face Charlotte Flair or Alexa Bliss.

Ronda Rousey’s Royal Rumble debut.

Unfortunately, it was followed by another huge moment that overshadowed hers when Ronda Rousey made her debut. Through no fault of Rousey’s, WWE’s choice to have her appear at that second somewhat stepped on the importance of Asuka’s win.

Stone Cold Rules The Royal Rumble

More than a few wrestlers have become two-time Royal Rumble winners. This includes the likes of Shawn Michaels, Randy Orton, Hulk Hogan, and John Cena. But only one man has won the match three times.

Stone Cold clears the Royal Rumble ring.

Stone Cold Steve Austin.

He won the Rumble back to back in 1997 and 1998, then again in 2001. Of all the great moments in the history of the Royal Rumble, Austin’s record-setting third win is a big one. Even if that record ever is tied or broken, probably by Randy Orton, Austin will always be the first to achieve it.

Shawn Michaels And The One Foot Save

Being eliminated from a Royal Rumble match requires two components. The first is going over the top rope and the second is both feet touching the floor outside the ring. Keep in mind, the key word in the second component is “both.”

The first one foot save.

In 1995, Shawn Michaels changed the game with a one foot save. It was the first time any wrestler had tested the limitations of the “both feet touching the floor” rule quite so literally.

It was a successful test, too. Shawn Michaels also became the first wrestler to enter at number one and win the entire match. Before him, the earliest entry to win was Ric Flair at number three. |In reality, Michaels wasn’t the only number one entry to win. Chris Benoit also pulled it off in 2004, though WWE is unlikely to mention that one.

AJ Styles Debuts At The Royal Rumble

There was a time that one of the top wrestlers in the world to have never worked in the WWE full time was AJ Styles. Well, until Royal Rumble 2016. That’s when unfamiliar music hit and Styles entered the arena. The pop from the audience was one of the biggest ever.

AJ Styles enters the Royal Rumble.

The confused look on Roman Reigns’ face sold the moment. That being said, the camera stayed on his face longer than it did the entrance.

As great as the debut was, it would have been better if AJ had won the Rumble. Instead, Triple H won. Not the most surprising person to go over in a Royal Rumble match but Styles main roster debut was still one of the hottest moments of the year.

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