THE RAW REVIEW
The criticisms of last week’s RAW were answered.
The latest episode featured lengthy professional wrestling matches and a few brief, often entertaining promos that infused the vacated WWE World Heavyweight Championship with greater significance. The outcomes were predictable but felt much more earned than last week's. The matches were longer and more competitive, allowing viewers to savor each battle. Stories were told in the ring, not spots or booking decisions.
While Roman Reigns vs Cesaro was easily the best match of the night, Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler snuck in a slower-paced, grounded wrestling match that was a delightful deviation from the spot-heavy WWE-norm. Kevin Owens and Adrian Neville also offered a gem reminiscent of their encounters in NXT. Their contrasting styles and sizes results in some shocking spots (like a german suplex to Owens out of the corner) that create doubt and anticipation in the viewer’s mind. This week revealed, yet again, that the WWE’s younger roster, a blend of homegrown and indy talent, is the best the company has had in fifteen years. The only reason today’s roster is not perceived as the greatest the WWE has ever had is because no one on RAW ever states this truth. The booking, more often than not, is designed, consciously or unconsciously, to support all those who think The Attitude Era is superior. The booking conditions viewers to believe whether or not anyone is “grabbing the brass ring”.
If I tell you that this is a bunch of paint spilt onto a canvas by Picasso’s inferior, I’ll condition you to dislike it:
If I tell you this is one of the most important works of art in human history by the renowned abstract expressionist drip-painter Jackson Pollock, I’ll condition you to have a more favorable opinion.
If anyone (particularly Seth Rollins, Kevin Owens, Charlotte, Sasha Banks) cut a sincere promo about why today’s millennial roster is superior to any that preceded it, or if commentary consistently focused on the athletic genius of this roster, the misconception that this generation “lacks personality” simply wouldn’t exist. The booking is, far too often, at odds with reality. But the booking can defeat reality, especially for the average pro-wrestling fan who wants to believe what the WWE tells them. Raw is successful when the booking does not so directly conflict with reality or the desires of the audience. For example, while a large portion of the crowd wanted Cesaro to win, the story that Cesaro and Reigns told was undeniably excellent, culminating in a final back and forth flurry of counters and finishers that helped the viewer believe in the conclusion. It did not seem as though Roman Reigns won the match because he was booked to win it. It seemed like he’d had a good fight and relied on power in a moment of desperation. His handshake with Cesaro (something you won’t see on the Hulu Plus version) was essential in cushioning the blow dealt to Cesaro’s massive (and growing) sect of followers.
There is a champion in Cesaro. The only reason anyone doubts this is because he doesn’t literally have the belt on his shoulder, and he’s rarely presented as a viable threat. Whether viewer or booker, we’re preoccupied with whatever someone’s shortcomings are and we use this perception to justify whey they’re not “over” or why they’re not “championship” material. Neither Cesaro nor Roman Reigns are good on the mic, but both have strengths that do make them believable title holders. Their talents are undeniable. Their success, therefore, relies almost entirely on how their talents are used and how that use shapes perception.
Moving forward, it would be healthy for the product if the booker did not actively relegate a particular performer to any specific level of the card (bottom, mid, top) due to any perceived weaknesses like lack of “mic ability” or “lack of connection” or perceived strengths like “a great look” or “a great work ethic” and instead played to the strengths of everyone. Roman's not a talker and the people continually groan at his speeches.
So...stop giving him speeches. Showcase, instead, what he can do.
That style of presentation creates a more positive, uplifting product where individuals gradually reveal their true personalities and the cream, by way of positive reinforcement, rises to the top. Rather than watching the story that “this guy isn’t there because of these reasons”, WWE fans would like to watch the story that “this guy is going to get here for these reasons”. I cannot perceive any downside to a more positive form of presentation, where the main roster is presented as “THE MAIN ROSTER!”, the best collection of athletes in the world rather than a smattering of top guys and hangers-on.
A shift toward this more championship-based, realism-focused RAW has been happening for a while now in stops and starts. It’s time for a more permanent shift following Survivor Series. This shift has been most evident in the Divas Division the past few episodes. The division has finally begun to find solid footing in Charlotte and Paige.
Examining the final segment of this week’s RAW presents an interesting challenge.
Many regard it as “cheap heat” and “lazy writing”.
Others feel it’s exactly what the Divas Championship feud needed (and has needed for months). At the end of a tense, tearful contract signing for the Divas Championship match at Survivor Series, Paige insulted Divas Champion Charlotte’s deceased brother, stating “…he didn’t have much fight in him, did he?”
My initial gut reaction to the segment was entirely favorable. I had a big smile on my face and I got wrapped up in the heightened drama and I took great pleasure in watching Charlotte spear Paige into the barricade and drag her all over the announcer’s table. I wasn’t thinking about what went on behind the scenes or who was comfortable with what. I only saw a story that was well-played by two excellent wrestlers.
I was also overjoyed that they ended the show (the significance of that fact must not be ignored in favor of picking the scene to shreds). This segment was booked to be important. Replays of Charlotte & Paige’s rivalry were shown throughout the evening, leading into the signing, and Michael Cole’s presence in the ring, watching from afar like a grave journalist, was all designed to raise up Paige and Charlotte and make the viewer believe what the rivals said was incredibly important. The scene wasn’t played for laughs. The scene wasn’t played for easy gasps. Commentary did not undermine either woman. Nothing negative was said about their gender (in fact, their gender played no part in the story whatsoever). What could have easily been portrayed as a Jerry Springeresque, hair-pulling train-wreck was presented with the utmost sincerity as a battle between good and evil. There was a vulnerable, noble hero who aspired to be a role model. There was a misguided, vindictive villain who aspired to satisfy her ambition.
That vindictive villain said something horrible so as to push the hero to her breaking point.
Upon reflection, and after considering the arguments of others, my reaction to the segment remains unchanged. Even if there were other ways to elevate this feud, there are always a myriad of ways to tell a story. This is the way they chose and so we must judge this and only this, and keep in mind whether or not it succeeded in garnering interest for the Divas Title match at Survivor Series (which it did).
It’s also important that we consider what our reactions to this moment reveals about our perspective on the WWE. We see what we want to see. If this segments strikes a particularly raw nerve in a viewer, it becomes much easier to write it off as tasteless or lazy writing. If we’re preoccupied with how bad RAW’s booking has been then we see cheap heat. If we’re hanging on every spoken word and we see a blank stare in a wrestler’s eyes or we hear too long a pause we assume they’ve forgotten a line. If we’re desperate to see the women end the show, and if we want to see their feuds become more personal, then we regard this as a superb moment for #WomensWrestling.
There are various shades of reaction in-between (it’s certainly possible to want to see the women end the show or have better segments and not enjoy what happens - time and again I’ve found myself discouraged by Divas segments that other viewers thought were harbingers of change). But, for the most part, our varied responses to this exchange seem to have less to do with what actually happened between two rivals in a story and more to do with ourselves (my own included).
The challenge then comes when attempting to formulate a more objective perspective - if that's even possible.
It’s too easy to deem this scene a success simply because “it got people talking” and generated more interest in their match at Survivor Series. That’s certainly what the WWE is preoccupied with, but that’s not what The Work of Wrestling is preoccupied with. Contrary to the WWE’s ever-popular refrain, all noise is not good noise. In 2015, where so much of the audience is consciously cheering a good performance or booing a booking decision, the old ideas about what "crowd noise" means goes to the wayside and we must develop a new language for understanding the modern wrestling fan.
The smart viewer seems to be fixated on whether or not Charlotte and Paige and Ric Flair “signed off” on the angle. It’s impossible to know at the time of this writing whether or not the performers thought this scene was a good idea or if they were uncomfortable with the subject matter. But is that important when evaluating how they handled the scene? If Charlotte was uncomfortable or had reservations about the promo or felt strong-armed by her bosses to go to an emotional place she did not want to go then the integrity of the scene may be compromised. That’s certainly a difficult situation to be placed in, but it’s also not something the viewers can be privy to in the slightest. We simply have no idea what happened nor how comfortable the participants were with the exchange.
If we see the WWE as a seedy organization forcing their wrestlers to do things against their will then we’ll see a flubbed line or a glazed over stare as “discomfort” or “shame” ignoring the fact that this is essentially the main event of Monday Night Raw and there are a thousand different reasons to be uncomfortable or nervous apart from the dialogue.
When examining how Paige and Charlotte handled the subject matter, difficult as it was, their effort and their commitment must not be ignored in favor of chastising writers. We must consider the story they told and the story the WWE presented.
We must remember what preceded Paige’s venomous, final dig. Charlotte fought through very real tears and asserted herself as the rightful champion, a role model who wanted to stand up for the young men and women in the audience. When Paige denied that she’d ever been friends with Charlotte, stating that she’d only ever been “Using” Charlotte to get ahead, Charlotte fired back with some elegant shade of her own, “Well you must suck at using me because I’m Divas Champion and you’re not.”
For every empty insult Paige tossed at Charlotte, Charlotte responded with substance and honesty. This was a tennis match of barbs, long before the final blow. Paige would attack. Charlotte would counter and Charlotte would win. What began as a discussion about their careers gradually honed in on exposed, legitimate familial nerves because Paige was searching for a victory. Paige’s final attack was an act of desperation. She needed to stoop to that low level to provoke the Champion because Charlotte had been implacable. If Paige could drag Charlotte down, if she could provoke her, then she’d have a small victory, and a psychologic advantage going into Survivor Series.
What many are dismissing as cheap heat is actually a highly organized conflict that built toward a logical crescendo. Rivals say things like this to one another. People who hate one another, especially if they were once friends and especially if they’re competitors fighting for the top spot in a sport, search for ways to damage each other.
Not long ago we heard Nikki Bella say to Brie Bella, “I wish you died in the womb” (Jerry Springer actually was brought in for one of that feud’s regrettable segments). Where that feud was presented as absurd, sisterly cat-fighting, Charlotte and Paige’s feud is presented as a sincere battle between good and evil with the Divas Championship serving as the guiding light.
Where Nikki’s similarly venomous statement elicited laughs and had no basis in reality nor any discernible justification, Paige’s comment fleshes out her character and simultaneously gives Charlotte something to fight for. And the aura of significance and respect surrounding the scene reveals that, whatever criticisms leveled at the writers, the WWE wanted this scene to be taken seriously. The company wanted the viewer to believe in the Divas Championship, not regard it as an excuse to visit the bathroom.
It’s a story, something the WWE women have not been supported with for a long time.
The villain’s side of the story is that Paige will use her foreknowledge to exploit Charlotte’s weaknesses and regain the title.
The hero’s side of the story is that Charlotte is being tested by her past. What Paige regards as a weakness (and what Charlotte fears is a weakness) will actually turn out to be Charlotte’s strength. Charlotte will have to embrace her family history to prove Paige wrong. Defeating Paige will demonstrate that righteousness, honor, family, and love are superior to vindictiveness, venom, self-obsession, and hate.
Suddenly the Divas Title match is about more than catty nonsense.
The Divas Title is about overcoming one’s fears, proving evil wrong, and ascending to one’s rightful mantle at the top of the women’s division.
Paige and Charlotte are to be commended for taking what they were given, whether they wanted to or not, and making it feel urgent and real. Their heightened intensity will now inform every single move in their match. The imagery of their brawl, the look of pain and rage in Charlotte’s eyes, will contribute to the sense of satisfaction when she finally defeats her nemesis. This moment will be deposited in the bank of both wrestlers, contributing to their mythos in the company and their roles as deserving top women.
That is an improvement.
That is a story worth watching, regardless of the flaws.
That is a reason to tune in on Sunday, and cheer for The Champ.