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WWE 'Total Divas’ begins with WrestleMania rhubarb, plus John Cena romancing Nikki Bella

WWE Divas star on the E! reality show

WWE Divas star on the E! reality show "Total Divas," chronicling the lives of WWE's female stars on the road. Credit: Timothy White/E!

WWE "Total Divas” debuted on E! Sunday night with a clear advantage over its reality show counterparts.

For those tired of producer-driven “staged reality,” WWE starts with a lower threshold for success than Kardashian kin or “Storage Wars” combatants. Amazingly, there’s still a level of disappointment when folks find out half of what their favorite reality show features is smoke and mirrors.

But this is the wrestling business -- where the goal is to suspend reality through intricate storylines. If 20 percent of what WWE presents in its new show about its female grapplers offers anything approaching reality, it’s a hearty reveal, not a deflating farce.

To that end, Sunday’s initial episode scored in offering viewers something to make them at least feel that they weren’t completely being, as they say in the wrestling business, “worked.”

A promoted eight-person mixed tag match was nixed from April 7’s WrestleMania, the victim of time constraints. I covered WrestleMania at MetLife Stadium, and was shocked that the company ran the three main event matches consecutively with no lighter bout to give the fans a breather.

As it turns out, a longer-than-expected Triple H vs. Brock Lesnar bout bounced the tag match between the Bella Twins, Nikki and Brie, and “Team Rhodes Scholars” versus the pom-pom wielding “Funkadactyls,” aka Ariane and Trinity, along with Tons of Funk.

Unless WWE promoted a WrestleMania match just to kill it so they’d have drama for a side project -- and I don’t buy that -- then we saw something real as Ariane and Trinity (ring names Cameron and Naomi) sat deflated on the locker room floor commisserating over how there may be just a few years to chase these dreams before other goals like becoming a mom take over.

As for the rest of the show, the jury is still out on where WWE’s machinations begin and end, largely because much of that cattiness that was shown Sunday fit too neatly with what we see every week on “Monday Night Raw.”

* Nikki and Brie are the sexy sirens who irritate dutiful second-generation grappler Natalya by leaving the company for nearly a year, then reappearing to steal Nattie’s thunder. (Nikki won line of the night with, “If I wasn’t a Bella Twin, I’d want to be a Bella twin.” What in the world could be irritating about that?)

* Nattie, instead of getting a WrestleMania match, gets stuck babysitting Divas-in-training Eva Marie and Jo-Jo and fusses about her position. (“I actually taught them [the Bellas] how to wrestle... They’re throwing their weight around,” Nattie fumes.)

* Eva Marie challenges WWE brass by dying her hair beet red when she was supposed to become a blonde. She gets a grudging approval and a warning at the same time, cementing what could be a predetermined “rebel” role on the show.

Although the series is supposed to be about the Divas, the focus is relationships. The Bellas are both attached to grapplers (Nikki to John Cena, Brie to Daniel Bryan.) Trinity is engaged to tag-team specialist Jimmy Uso. And Ariane is hooked up with some dude named Vincent, who during a WrestleMania dress rehearsal wants to fight one of her tag-team partners, Brodus Clay, after Clay supposedly yelled at her. (Imagine Shirley Temple vs. a starved mountain lion and you’ll have a mental pictures of how Vincent vs. Brodus would develop.)

The main event for “Total Divas” is going to be Nikki and WWE flag-bearer/recently divorced Cena. The show is already hinting at a “once bitten, twice shy” issue as it pertains to Cena’s commitment. Is the Range Rover he gives Nikki a sign that things are moving fast, or a distraction to keep the discussion of rings on the backburner?

I have no idea. But considering I thought it might require a cobra clutch to guarantee my future viewing and I’m now setting up “Total Divas” on my DVR, the show has already won a surprising early fall. 

UPDATE: I watched the E! "Total Divas" premiere Sunday night while furiously writing about it, and was looking forward to a second viewing. Here's a few expanded thoughts from my tweets while watching the USA Network replay Monday night.

* I've interviewed John Cena twice. He's the nicest guy ever, and every media member I've ever talked to about him has said the same. Unless Nikki Bella's mean treatment of others -- trying to intimidate Eva Marie and Jo-Jo, etc. --  is a 100 percent "work," I don't get the connection. In the tease for future shows Cena throws the word "selfish" in her direction while they're driving. Stay tuned!

* For all the backbiting drama on the show, seeing Natalya hang with dad Jim "The Anvil" Neidhart while she trained was genuinely heartwarming. He's had some personal challenges over the last couple of years and it was nice to see them happy together.

* Seeing Natalya serve in a mentor's role while others actually were tapped to star at WrestleMania made me think of former "Tough Enough" trainer Al Snow. In my mind they are kindred spirits, and I wonder if they ever shared thoughts on guiding others' careers so others could get over.

* Hmm. Sunday night I lauded the backstage WrestleMania experience -- Divas having their match nixed -- for its apparent legitimacy. Nothing at the time seemed prefabricated. But now I'm a bit curious: If Naomi and Cameron already had a "dress rehearsal" before the show, how were their costumes all of a sudden not ready, adding to the anxiety?

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