THE RAW REVIEW
One. Two. Three.
For a brief, beautiful moment, I experienced genuine happiness at the end of Monday Night Raw.
My viewing of RAW last week was slightly similar.
The majority of the show grated, but the opening and closing segments succeeded. Last week I emphasized the importance of remembering the fact that the majority of the show was, very simply, not good television, that we must not allow a few bright spots to blind us to the larger issues.
I could very easily go into detail about the blandness of this particular episode, and how the WWE app stipulation “Should John Cena risk his WWE Championship opportunity to rehire Dolph Ziggler, Erik Rowan, and Ryback?” was convoluted nonsense (say the phrase aloud and it will become apparent it’s just one too many words for a stip and that leaving it to the fans was meaningless), but I’ve already done all of that.
It’s obvious what the problems are with Monday Night Raw. It’s so obvious, in fact, that on the sidebar of this page I have listed The Three Points that sum up the most fundamental problems with the show. If any one of those issues are ever actually addressed by the WWE, the show will become infinitely more watchable.
Harping on the failings of this episode would be missing the bigger picture, however.
Joy is the bigger picture. And joy, on a massive scale, is what the WWE can give you.
Although I was overtired and the broadcast’s gargantuan three hours had beaten my attention-span and my optimism into submission, leaving me disheartened and frustrated before the first hour was even complete, when Sting appeared on the stage and distracted Seth Rollins allowing John Cena to score the roll up victory, and particularly when John Cena became lost in the crowd (a crowd that embraced him) and high-fived and hugged a small Cena-fan, I experienced that Moment of Pop we all strive for - whether we’re watching a pro-wrestling match or listening to a symphony.
I smiled, overjoyed by the abundance of joy on display at the end of that show. Fans came out of the crowd and patted Cena on the back. Grown men who normally wouldn’t be caught dead with Cena hugged him.
The evil Triple H screamed “No!” and the crowd instantly erupted into uproarious and defiant “Yes!” chants. Triple H, clearly recognizing how he’d ignited the crowd (perhaps a happy accident), continued repeating “No!” to embolden them to chant “Yes!” even louder.
Hunter's cry "Sting!", not unlike James T. Kirk screaming "Khan!" in Star Trek II, was operatic.
And then, adding spectacle on top of spectacle, Brock Lesnar stormed the ring, and the crowd continued to roar. Lesnar pummeled Seth Rollins into the mat and gave the F-5 to Kane and The Big Show. The ebb and flow of emotions, the juxtaposition of popping because of Sting's arrival, Cena's victory, and then popping again because of Lesnar's unexpected arrival made for one of the best final RAW segments in a long time. The emotional complexity of the moment made it that much more rewarding.
A lot of fans hate John Cena, but they were genuinely rooting for him here, and they were genuinely happy that he won.
Lesnar is a villain, but he was cheered here simply because he's so powerful and impressive (thanks in large part to Heyman's promos), and because his target was the slimier villain, Seth Rollins.
All allegiances and frustrations faded. We were all simply captivated by the grandiosity of this shared experience, by the effectiveness of the booking, by the fun of the storytelling. It was joyful and uplifting and suddenly it didn’t matter that the majority of the show had been slow and matchless.
In this moment of clarity and purity, we were all just fans - we just loved wrestling, and we just loved the WWE because the WWE is the only pro-wrestling entity that can give us this kind of moment on this grand a scale.
This is but one reason why I love the WWE and will continue to watch RAW regardless of the glaring issues. For better or worse, the WWE holds the keys to my emotional history. While I love the art of professional wrestling itself, the WWE has the resources, the power, and the extensive, instantly accessible library of pro-wrestling memories that contribute to the kind of uplifting, communal, joyful experience that brought Raw Dallas to a close. Even if you’ve only been watching the WWE for the past six months, you still know who Sting, John Cena, Triple H, Seth Rollins, and Brock Lesnar are. These characters are very clearly defined in our minds and each of them elicits a strong emotional reaction without even needing to do very much. No matter how misused these performers might be, no matter how ill-conceived or repetitive the stories surrounding them might be, there is always a strong emotional bond, a psychological investment in these theatrics that, usually, runs throughout a viewer’s entire life. That investment, when appreciated by the company, can be manipulated to great effect, resulting in the kind of elated crowd response we saw in the final moments of this episode.
All Sting needed to do was point.
That’s all he needed to do to pop that crowd, and it’s because of the history of that character. Apart from a fan’s foreknowledge, the image itself is foreboding and exciting. It was more powerful than Sting’s Survivor Series appearance because there was no posturing, no needlessly long stare-down with Triple H. It was all so fast and there were so many different emotional notes at work that his arrival resonated much more effectively. It was just story. It was simple and accomplished everything it needed to.
All John Cena needed to do was hug a child. That image is inherently powerful for anyone who appreciates the meaning of that character (regardless of one’s personal preferences).
I vividly remember what it was like to be a child and what it was like to believe in something. I know that kid’s life was made in that moment. To see what appears to be genuine elation in John Cena’s eyes as that crowd gathered around him, to see him and that child embrace as one, the center of this swirling mass of human ecstasy, snapped me out of any and all cynical thoughts and simply made me feel good about being a pro-wrestling fan.
That moment exists as a pure example of what pro-wrestling is ultimately about.
If I’m hard on the WWE in these reviews and in my podcast, it is because I love the WWE.
It’s impossible not to love the WWE because they are a pro-wrestling entity that is responsible for countless fond, childhood, adolescent, and adult memories. Just last month they gave me the most moving championship victory I’ve ever seen when Sami Zayn won the NXT Championship.
There is an instantly recognizable, emotional association we make with this company and with the extravaganzas this company puts on.
You just felt something or thought something or remembered something important because you simply read the word WrestleMania.
That’s power. I offer criticisms to the WWE because I very much want them to wield that power more intelligently, effectively, and respectfully. For example, if I may interrupt this more upbeat review with one simple criticism, commentary threatened to ruin everything about that ending.
Booker T and Michael Cole's proclamations and strange mutterings upon Sting's arrival served only to distract from the power of that moment. And then, later, when JBL actually said, "We're witnessing a historic moment", the viewer is completely taken out of that historic moment. The visuals already tell the viewer what to think and how to feel - this is especially true of a character like Sting. Commentary is supposed to accentuate or slightly embellish the meaning of these moments if and only if it serves a purpose to do so. Commentary is supposed to be the editor. Not the storyteller.
I ask readers to comment below to the following question: how much more powerful would the closing moments of RAW have been if commentary had not said one word?
I do not need JBL to tell me I'm watching an important moment. It also doesn't make sense for JBL to be the one to tell me I'm watching an important moment, because JBL is the heel commentator. Important moments should be associated with goodness.
Hearing JBL tell me what to think and how to feel instantly makes me want to do the opposite of whatever it is he's saying.
There also does not exist a human being on this planet who is actually moved in the way that line from JBL (or Vince McMahon who's feeding lines through the headset) is supposed to move someone. It's important that the WWE and Vince McMahon truly understands what I am about to write:
No one hears "This is a historic moment" and then feels that moment more effectively. No one.
No one nods along and thinks, "You know what, JBL is right. I'm glad he said that because I'm now feeling the significance of this moment more".
That human being simply does not exist on this planet. That person is not watching your show, because that person does not live in this reality. People either did not hear JBL, Michael Cole, and Booker T throughout that finish because they were wrapped up in the moment and had tuned those hideous voices out, or people have my reaction, which is to get frustrated that commentary is insulting their intelligence and spoiling the natural excitement. Those are the only two appropriate and possible reactions and those are the only two people watching your show.
Hearing "That was history!" on the next show or the week after is entirely different. Hearing "We all witnessed history" on the next Monday Night Raw inspires feelings of positivity, a sense of pride in the fact that "I was there! I saw it". But hearing "You are witnessing history right now!" whilst you're witnessing history is kind of like staring at a Picasso painting and having your museum-guide shouting in your ear, "You are staring at a Picasso painting and I'm going to tell you what it means!"
To make this abundantly clear to the WWE, I'm embedding a video that argues, rather eloquently, in favor of the power of silence. The man making this argument...none other than Vince McMahon:
Even if the WWE fans were the idiots that commentary (Vince McMahon) seems to think they are, the fans' experience would still, in no way shape or form, be enhanced by commentary telling them what to think and how to feel. Everything was taken care of by the visual.
I'm surprised commentary didn't actually say something like, "Sting is pointing! He's pointing! He's pointing at The Authority! Shades of when he haunted The NWO. What a reunion show!"
The WWE runs the risk of compromising the visual power of their characters and these moments by instantly regarding them as "historic" and "important" - you can hear the soundbites that will later play in pre-match vignettes and you can see the clips coming together before those vignettes even exist.
The company isn't allowing itself and, by extension, the fans, to live thoroughly in these powerful moments. These are precious memories. Their preciousness is tainted when, in the moment they're happening, I have someone I naturally hate telling me how precious it is.
I doubt my adolescent pro-wrestling memories would be as cherished as they are if I'd had JBL barking in my ears telling me what to do.
It's so simple, WWE. You are a visual medium. Let the visuals speak for themselves first and foremost. Let these moments gradually become significant. Allow their significance to be earned in people's hearts and minds. Don't taint these moments by strong-arming the audience into instantly understanding exactly what it is you are doing.
Sting points. Cena hugs. Hunter screams. Brock attacks. We get it.
Essentially, I want the WWE to stop wasting my time and I want them to understand what they have to offer and for them to offer it on a more consistent basis without undermining their excellence.
There is no television show, no live, legitimate athletic event, absolutely no other entertainment organization of any kind that can create exactly the kind of moment that brought RAW home. I'm not arguing that the WWE should always be ending RAW with special appearances and babyface victories. I'm arguing that the WWE should be less stingy with the joy. The WWE should be less withholding when it comes to creating logical, effective narrative moments, and the experience of those moments shouldn't be earned following two hours of boredom.
Because, while there will always be off weeks just like there will occasionally be botched moves, there’s no reason the company can’t more regularly offer, at the very least, palatable episodes of RAW.
Although it was a long and sometimes painful road to get there, the final moments of this week’s RAW represent what the WWE is capable of when it’s actively trying to make people happy and actively trying to get them excited about something.
People very much want to feel something, and they feel most powerfully when they believe in what they’re seeing.
Last night, in that Moment of Pop, I believed John Cena had succeeded. I believed he’d won Dolph, Rowan, and Ryback’s jobs back despite the fact that I didn’t like that angle in the least. I believed Sting had emerged from the past and was ready to enact some kind of revenge on The Authority. I believed Brock Lesnar was The Beast Incarnate and that he was going to destroy Seth Rollins at The Royal Rumble.
That’s the feeling I search for. That’s the feeling I want to write about.
And I hope we all get it again this Sunday.
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