The general question regarding most frivolous purchases is: “Will I enjoy this?” It’s a question I’ve been mulling over in regards to this DVD. The fact is, I don’t know. I don’t know if this is your thing. I can’t answer that question for you. All I can do is unpack what the motivations are behind compilation DVDs, what I believe the kind of person who buys these things might enjoy, and whether The Best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 stacks up to these ideals. Essentially, I can’t answer a simple question without making it too complicated for it’s own good.
WWE has been producing compilation tapes since before you were born. Early on, the compilation tape made loads of sense, especially to the casual viewer: it was a curated collection of highlights and matches (more often than not heavily clipped matches) that fit into a tidy 2-3 hour VHS, offering glimpses into missed out and/or unforgettable moments. These compilations always varied in time-span, quality, and method, and shifted back and forth from heavily over-played clips to rare, untelevised matches.
WWE’s compilations played into a somewhat dead concept in the era: tape trading. Since no region in the world carried every wrestling broadcast, tapes were the way to watch things you’d missed. It was also the only way many people saw PPV matches, since PPV didn’t become ubiquitous until the 90s. I personally saw my first several PPVs on VHS, months after they aired. I didn’t care that I knew what happened. To me, wrestling wasn’t about finding out a conclusion. It was about the thrill of the match, the story being told. If the story is good, you can watch the match over and over.
An interesting shift has occurred in recent years. WWE’s DVD collections have become much better compared to the VHS collections. Matches are shown in full, sometimes even with alternate commentary, and collections are introduced with hosts, who educate viewers on the context of the collection (often poorly, as the case was with the Macho Man DVD. But at least they’re trying.) The money-to-time ratio has also never been better: The Best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 was $24 at Best Buy (conversely, you can buy it from Amazon from this link and I’ll get a kickback), and it has a little over 10 hours of footage.
But at the same time, I don’t really feel like anything on this disc needed to be seen again so soon, and nothing on this DVD wasn’t aired on high-rated cable and network television. Obviously this is a time-sensitive issue, and this collection’s value will increase as the year 2011 is drawn further into the past, But all of it is still so fresh today, when the DVD is on the shelf. It’s worth noting that the title of the DVD is repeated on a circular sticker for some reason. It’s there so you know exactly what you’re getting, I suppose. Maybe they think wrestling fans need to be hit over the head over and over with information? Then again, this DVD is nothing if not a repeated assault on your immediate nostalgia. Remember when the Rock came back? When Edge retired? When CM Punk said hi to Colt Cabana? Weren’t these moments just the best?
As I said, nostalgia is relative and increases over time. This DVD will be better ten years from now. But today, while you can actually buy it, it’s partially only as great as your memory is poor. Its value, however, is not only in reminding you of what happened, but what happened well. 2011 will almost certainly be remembered as the year that WWE tightened up and presented a concise image of itself. It’s clear right away, from the upfront admission that there is no brand split. Raw and Smackdown are presented as under one umbrella for the first time in ten years, and it’s finally nice to see them admit what we’ve wanted all along. It’s basically impossible to know which show any match or scene comes from, since the sets are identical and the announcers jump from show to show anyway.
Even with this concision, the DVD is only half the story. The Best PPV Matches of 2011 (iTunes link, where the matches are available a la carte) is the other half, and you really do need both to make sense of things. Almost every non-wrestling chapter is something that advertises a PPV match you can find on its sister collection. But 2011 actually offers more PPV-quality wrestling matches than you’d think: there are 23 matches in total, and most of them go over ten minutes. The best matches hold up wonderfully, and some are even better out of context. John Cena vs Rey Mysterio (July 25) is a great deal better than you remember, as is Christian vs Randy Orton (May 6). There isn’t a stinker in the set, as even poor wrestlers like Alex Riley and Mason Ryan are stuck behind multi-man tag matches. The ‘best’ in the title isn’t hyperbole, and I honestly can’t think of a serious omission.
The real highlight is disc 3, which covers Mark Henry’s rise to utter dominance. the Cutting Edge with Randy Orton and Mark Henry (September 16) is worth watching multiple times. It’s a master stroke, and possibly the best scene Mark Henry has ever performed. That disc also features Alberto del Rio vs Daniel Bryan (August 19), which is a quiet classic among many, as well as John Morrison vs R-Truth (August 15), a match that makes both Morrisson fans and detractors happy.
As disc 4 wound to a close with four excellent, detached matches, I began to realize just who would most enjoy this compilation. It’s the person who can sit down and enjoy a street fight between Randy Orton and Cody Rhodes without knowing their story, before or after. It’s the kind of person who can delight in the acrobatics of CM Punk vs Dolph Ziggler without caring about the WWE Championship. It’s the person who can revel in Mark Henry’s physical marvels without rolling their eyes at his previous mediocrity. Essentially, the greatest audience for this DVD is the fan of professional wrestling matches, but not necessarily professional wrestling characters or plots. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that matches outnumber scenes 24-12, and take up the vast majority of airtime. Fans of pro wrestling characters love the singular DVDs (like Edge’s), while fans of wrestling plots enjoy the rare DVDs that compile stories (like Bret vs Shawn). But best-ofs are the dominion of match-lovers, and for them The Best of Raw and Smackdown 2011 is a treat, even if perhaps you should cellar it for a few years, like wine.
If I can offer an idea for improvement, I would leave off the scenes entirely, and allow the ‘narrator’ to explain a little backstory before each match, Robert Osborne-style. Move the scenes to the PPV-matches DVD, where they are contextually appropriate (not one scene leads to a TV match). Let the compilation be what the wrestling match-lovers want: unimpeded wrestling. And god, please, let us have the live audio track, so we don’t have to listen to the announcers talk about what was trending on twitter in the past.