THE RAW REVIEW
This week, I tried something different.
I endeavored to watch every single minute of Monday Night Raw with full, uninterrupted attention. I decided that I would only Tweet or look away from the screen or engage with the real-world during commercial breaks. This is the way I once forced myself to watch the show years ago, when I thought I had to write about every match and every segment, before I found the gargantuan running time and the complete lack of a realism-based, sports-conceit too much to bear.
Inevitably, I failed in my experiment. At 11:00pm EST, when “Demon Kane” was “revealed” as Seth Rollins’ opponent in the “Main Event” Lumberjack match, my resolve was broken, and I had no more time to sacrifice on the alter of WWE's flagship series.
I did find the results of my viewing experiment quite interesting, however.
I wound up enjoying the show more than I typically do. I typically watch RAW with the weight of several unsuccessful shows on my back, cringing my way through each segment, desperate to find something genuinely real, emotionally gratifying, and respectful of the stellar roster of talent.
This week, by focusing instead of cringing, I saw flourishes of truth sprinkled throughout the show, and these flourishes of truth helped me understand, more clearly, exactly what’s going on in the WWE today.
A creative injustice is being carried out, week after week, right before our very eyes. We feel the effects of this injustice in our bones, but we often struggle to articulate the depths of our earned frustrations with the main roster booking. We rage against the machine in a myriad of ways, but the machine just keeps chugging along, using our hope for significant change as fuel.
The WWE’s most ardent fans feel helpless. The WWE’s most reliable audience-members (the ones who are most likely to recommend or not recommend others buy the Network or watch the shows) are complacent, dejected, angry, bored, and at their wits’ end.
That is the environment surrounding the main-roster product.
That is the environment you have created, WWE.
It is not a place of joy and excitement and enthusiasm and a feeling of being “entertained”.
The audience feels inconsequential. This is partially because the company conditioned the audience (for decades) to believe their cheers and their boos actually mattered. Today, we have entered an era where cheers and boos transparently do not matter. The sooner this is accepted, the sooner the true plight of the viewer and the true plight of the roster becomes clear.
If cheers mattered, Cesaro would already be in a well-booked war for the Intercontinental Championship, with designs to put him in the World Heavyweight Championship title-hunt in the not too distant future.
If boos mattered, Roman Reigns would be a top heel.
So we do not matter.
I can accept this hard truth.
I never felt my opinion of an episode of Mad Men entitled me to anything from Matthew Weiner.
So, despite the fact that the WWE has told me, repeatedly, for thirty years, that my cheer and my boo matters, I’m willing to accept the idea that the WWE has ceased being an interactive medium that partially relies on crowd-participation and fan-feedback to function.
It is now just another television show with a show-runner and a producer, and, despite whatever feedback the fans offer, no matter how direct that feedback is and no matter how essential that feedback is to the live-show experience, the show-runner and the producer will go on running and producing their show in the way they want.
And the viewer will either like it or not. The viewer will either keep watching, or they’ll change the channel. Because enough people stick around and because this show has already been on the air for twenty-two years and because this show has no real competition, the stakes are relatively low when a fan does decide to stop watching.
This is why The Simpsons is still on television. Everyone knows it's not what it once was, but no one cares enough to do anything about it, and no one really wants to live in a world without The Simpsons no matter how far they've fallen from grace.
So the show just hangs there...in nothingness...just going on and on.
Again, I can accept this.
I’ve made my peace with the fact that I am committed to watching a television show that is not made for me, a television show that is not interested in my opinion of it, and a television show that continues to be something I would normally stop watching after only a few episodes.
But what I cannot accept is the misuse of talent.
Because the talent, no matter how hard the booking might try to convince everyone otherwise, does matter. It’s literally impossible to create one of the WWE’s shows without a cast of “Sports Entertainers”. Talent tells stories. Talent makes believers out of viewers. Talent inspires a generation to do great things. Talent creates heroes. Talent matters because, regardless of professional wrestling, the world relies on talent for mental and emotional nourishment. And pro-wrestling fans are as deserving of that nourishment as anyone else.
The creative injustice carried out every single week in the WWE is not related to the company actively ignoring its audience, but rather in the way the company actively ignores the strengths and weaknesses of its talent. More specifically, it is nothing short of shameful to give great storytellers like Kevin Owens, Cesaro, Sasha Banks, Charlotte, Seth Rollins, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Bray Wyatt material that does not come close to meeting nor adequately showcasing their excellence.
If you did that, and your were blind to the fact that you were doing this or, worse yet, if you did know that you were doing this but went ahead and did it anyway because you simply didn’t vibe with Picasso or didn't think Picasso really connected with your audience, how could this act be described as anything other than injustice or, worse yet, a peculiar kind of self-righteous insanity.
To use the language of today’s WWE, is it not a misallocation of resources to give Picasso crayons and a coloring book and tell him to create a money-making masterpiece out of it?
I found this RAW enjoyable for one very simple reason; I respected the effort that I saw today’s main roster talent display despite the material and despite a hostile audience that has been trained, through years of bad storytelling, to hate them. I saw people similar to myself pouring their heart out as best they could, giving their all to something that wasn't returning the favor nor even adequately cognizant of that sacrifice.
I enjoyed this RAW because this RAW helped me see, better than ever, that today’s talent deserves absolutely no blame for the failings of the flagship series. This is the best collection of talent the company has had since The Attitude Era, an historic blend of indy-performers and homegrown talent capable of creating some of the most athletically impressive and emotionally rewarding narratives the company has ever seen.
And yet there is no The Rock or Steve Austin of our generation.
Ignoring the idea of a “crossover success” - there simply is no one in the world of today’s main roster who strikes the visceral nerve the top guys of former generations did.
Why is that the case when the main-roster talent is so promising and, in the words of Steve Austin himself, athletically superior to the talent of former generations?
The answer is very simple. The answer is no secret.
It’s an answer that most cannot offer for fear of reprisal.
It's an answer many fail to adequately offer because they rely on ranting and raving and the hurling of insults to get their point across.
The reason today’s talent is squandered is because power corrupts human beings.
Power transforms human beings into misguided people who believe in the fiction of their own greatness.
When a man becomes too powerful and too comfortable in his ways, and when the world he’s created is one of passivity and fear, that man becomes disconnected from reality. That all-powerful man believes in his power to the point where, not only are no other opinions right or wrong, there simply are no other opinions in all of existence.
That Man is free to regard crayons and coloring books as supplies worthy of Picasso, and if Picasso fails (and fail he inevitably will) then that’s Picasso’s fault for not making the best of a “good opportunity”. And if Picasso were to ever say he deserved more than crayons and a coloring book, The Man would appeal to Picasso's vanity and say, "Prove it" or The Man would replace the crayons and the coloring book with coal and slate.
The Man only sees his own brilliance and his own greatness and he becomes incapable of comprehending the misuse of brilliance and the misuse of greatness in others. In this world, only someone that The Man chooses to be great and brilliant is afforded the opportunity of success. Organic, earned success becomes entirely nonexistent in this Man's world.
The Chosen Ones will be successful at all costs, for the Chosen Ones’ success is indicative of The Man’s brilliance and The Man’s greatness and The Man’s power and The Man’s right-thinking.
If the citizens of The Man’s world reject this process and choose a hero of their own, that hero can be nothing but a threat to the power of The Man.
If The Man listened to his citizens, he would have to admit that he made the wrong choice. The Man would have to come down off his mountain, mingle with the truth, humble himself, and admit failure in the pursuit of creating something better. But The Man would never do that. The Man cannot do that.
Gods do not admit failure. In fact, gods can do no wrong. Their infallibility defines them. Even in the wake of destruction and pain and stupidity and evil, gods are still just “working in mysterious ways” that we citizens can’t quite comprehend. That’s the trouble with gods.
You can’t have a conversation with them.
They don’t need to listen to prayers because why would a prayer matter when everything, even terrible things, happen for a good reason?
This is the state of the WWE.
There is still fun to be had in this universe, to be sure, but this is the world we all live in, and I genuinely do not know how to fix it.
All I can do is try to give a voice to those who cannot express their own, all the while holding up a mirror to the WWE in the hopes that they’ll dislike what they see enough to make a change. It seems all we citizens can really do, out here in the wasteland, is huddle together around our small fire and share our frustrations.
But if we want to honestly talk about what's happening in the WWE today, we can’t pussyfoot around reality and ignore how the show-runner and the producer are failing their talent. The people creating RAW feel it’s perfectly fine to take Paige’s hot promo from a few weeks ago, squander it with cloudy characterization, and then turn it into an advertisement for Payday. We would all love to think that if we were in Paige’s position, we’d storm into the main office and scream, “You want me to sell a candy bar?! That’s what you’re having me do just three weeks after my promo!” But she can’t. Her crayons and her coloring book would be completely taken away if she did that. And we don't even know if that's something she actually feels.
The roster is forced to embrace their god’s world, maybe even convince themselves that they like their god’s world, or risk being banished. Hell, it would seem, is preferable to limbo.
We are deep into the “Make The Best of It Era”.
That can do nothing but trouble me.
The Make The Best of it Era was epitomized in two particular scenes last night; one involving Sasha Banks and the other involving Roman Reigns.
Sasha, fresh off her historic masterpiece of an Ironman Match against Bayley, stood at ringside. While she got to also snatch Brie Bella off the announcer’s table, the way she was used in this scene could not be more far-removed from what we’d all seen her do at NXT Takeover: Respect. All of the praise, quoted in the WWE's own vignette, had absolutely no bearing on anything we saw from the Divas on RAW.
A momentous occasion that the WWE actually showed everyone watching RAW in a brief vignette, wasn’t worthy of anything more than a passing mention in the main roster’s fiction; a brief shot of Sasha Banks smiling while her friend wrestled.
The crowd chants “We want Sasha” but, as demonstrated a few paragraphs ago, that chant is entirely inconsequential. Sasha Banks’ talent is readily apparent. It’s on The Man’s own Network. Thirty minutes of glory that moved an entire generation to tears. But, in terms of her future on RAW, history has demonstrated that this is also entirely inconsequential.
And so Sasha Banks, many viewers’ favorite wrestler in the entire company, must do the best with what she is given in the hopes that, one day, RAW’s god, on a whim, will deem her worthy. Her success-story relies entirely on the taste of one man - not the outcry of millions. The faith that we viewers want to invest in her then gets polluted for we become aware of this never-ending process. We become downtrodden as a result of this process, hesitant to cheer for the ones we love. We know that our chosen heroes are enemies of the state.
All Sasha can do is keep trying and trying and trying, doing the best with half a crayon and half a coloring book.
On the other side of the coin, what’s it like for someone who is “Chosen” by The Man?
Do they really have it any better (creatively), or do they have to navigate the same barren landscape?
I’ve always liked Roman Reigns.
Last night, I gained a newfound respect for him. I have rarely, in all my days of creating art and experiencing art, seen someone try as hard as Roman Reigns tried last night. His promo is a perfect summation of how The Man is failing even his most favored children.
Roman Reigns was met, predictably, with a hostile Chicago crowd. Even the most novice of WWE viewers would know that Chicago would boo a Roman Reigns promo.
Roman was tasked with recounting his history with Bray Wyatt, promoting his Monday Night Raw match, and selling the Hell in a Cell pay-per-view. He began telling his story adequately enough, simply describing the events of the past few months since Money in the Bank. This kind of familiar exposition wears thin on today’s audience, for it is inevitably insulting to the intelligence of the viewer, assuming that the viewer has no memory of what they’ve been watching for several months. A disdain for the writers gets transferred to Roman.
The crowd gave Roman a “What?!” chant for every scripted line, and Roman, unlike many, pushed through, trying as hard as he could to remain grounded in the story his bosses had given him. Offering a glimpse of personality, Roman then tried to get the crowd on his side with an improvised joke.
“You guys having trouble hearing me?” There were a few laughs. I was one of them.
He continued, talking about Bray Wyatt and his feud, fumbling a word or two, until, after having colored outside the lines a bit too far, he found himself in uncharted territory. For a moment, his eyes glazed over, and he struggled to articulate the character and the story that his boss wanted him to tell. And that’s when the crowd, unavoidably aware of everything that was happening, really let Roman have it.
“Boring! Boring! Boring!”
And that’s when Roman, who could have easily broken character and turned on the crowd, refused to give up. He took a break, utterly frustrated with everything that was happening, and then he kept trying. He listened to the crowd. Only the artist who is capable of taking the pulse of the world around him is able to create anything real.
Roman responded to the cheers, stating, “This isn’t boring, this is real-life” and he talked about how Bray Wyatt threatened his daughter and asked the crowd “What would you do if Bray Wyatt threatened the people you love?!”. Roman did what The Man should have encouraged him to do in the first place; Roman found his way onto a blank canvas and painted his own picture. For a few seconds, he created a more convincing, human portrait grounded in emotional reality. He embraced the right lessons he’s likely learned from the right people, and he tried to find the truth of the story. That didn’t last long, however, as he inevitably had to return to The Man’s words, the more comfortable and familiar world inside the lines.
But it cannot be overstated how much Roman refused to give up on this scene, regardless of how inherently bad the scene was.
He displayed a remarkable amount of effort and commitment to his craft, and that is commendable. It is indicative of his passion and his reliability.
But he never should have had to work that hard to tell his story.
The fundamental nature of the scene forced Roman into an impossible situation. He had to fight the crowd, he had to fight a script that did not represent his soul, he had to fight the perception that surrounds him as a Chosen One, he had to fight to sell a pay-per-view the company hasn’t done an adequate job selling, and he had to fight to maintain the viewer’s attention. Nothing about the construction of this scene played to his inherent strengths as a performer nor shined a spotlight on what makes Roman Reigns an interesting human being.
The real rub of the whole thing is that The Man still gets to rest-easy in his choice. Roman, in displaying the effort that he did, in trying as hard as he did and by briefly tapping into something real, showed that The Man knows how to pick 'em. The story becomes, "Roman did a great job with what he was given. He makes the most of his opportunities unlike the rest of these millennials. He keeps proving me right." The story is not the true-story of "I've made a horrible decision and Roman found a way out of my horrible decision".
The reason Roman Reigns isn’t the next Rock isn’t because he’s not as comfortable on the mic or as charismatic as The Rock. The reason Roman Reigns isn’t the next Rock is because no one can become the next Rock in WWE’s current environment (and by "current environment" I do not mean the show's PG-rating, I mean the show's complete lack of creative ingenuity).
Dwayne Johnson would never have become The Rock if he’d come up today.
He’d be where Adam Rose is.
This is not a reflection of the quality of the talent; this is a reflection of a seeming change in the show-runner’s perspective and the environment the show-runner operates in.
The Man no longer trusts his talent today, because he does not have to.
There is no ratings war and there are no financial stakes. There is no pressure to think creatively nor to genuinely listen to anyone about anything, least of all a handful of internet smarks.
Today’s show-runner does not offer his talent a blank canvas on which to paint and explore themselves because today’s show-runner cannot perceive the benefit of creating that freer environment. From the show-runner's perspective there isn't even an incentive to creating a freer environment. A freer environment allows for people to be smarter, more creative, and more talented than the show-runner.
A creatively liberated WWE is nothing but a threat to The Man's sense of relevancy. If you create a world that cannot exist without you, you become the most important person in that world.
For some, that sense of importance is more valuable than doing right by others.
In the hopes of crystallizing how destructive this perspective is, I encourage everyone reading this, whether they work in the WWE or not, to imagine Stone Cold Steve Austin making his debut on the main roster today (and before you cite how Austin got over giving the middle-finger and cussing up a storm and how all of that would be off the creative table, allow me to remind you what a great promo and what a great professional wrestler Steve Austin is regardless of his place in history; Steve Austin, even within the confines of a PG-Era, performing as the bald-headed, beer-drinking toughest SOB on the face of this earth, would find a way to express his truth and make the people believe in him).
But if Stone Cold Steve Austin started to get cheered as a heel today, and this was an organic representation of the audience's appreciation of his fine work, he would instantly be relegated to squash matches or thrust into purposefully meaningless angles that squandered the fan's enthusiasm.
That means we wouldn’t have Bret Hart vs Steve Austin at WrestleMania 13; arguably the greatest professional wrestling match in WWE history.
That is what's being sacrificed.
Today's WWE is leaving masterpieces on the table.
That is what I cannot accept.
I cannot accept that an entire generation of brilliant artists is being tossed aside because one man fears what will happen when they color outside his lines.
I cannot abide the lack of confidence, and the abundance of hubris this reveals.
I don’t have an adequate response to this seemingly endless problem.
All I can do is remind Vince McMahon that coloring books don't make it into museums.
All I can do is try to prove the value of listening to your fellow human being.
Follow Tim Kail on Twitter @MaximusWrestler
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