THE RAW REVIEW
Two weeks in a row I’ve been somewhat stumped as to what to write about in The Raw Review. Last week, after several false starts and actual drafts, I created what was, for me, a less than satisfactory nitpick of the WWE’s ongoing booking woes.
I very much want to write about the symbolism and themes of various WWE scenes and matches, but when the performances are subpar, when the booking and the creative and the script looms like a dark, inescapable cloud over the proceedings, it’s hard to get to the goods and even harder to write about the goods.
For example, if you just fundamentally believe you should not be watching a scene between Daniel Bryan and Roman Reigns, if you think that simply should not exist, that their match at Fastlane should not exist because it flies in the face of maintaining the significance of The Royal Rumble and gives way too much power to an endlessly complacent audience, it’s hard to get swept up in the action. If, for the sake of adequately examining their interactions for a review, you set your frustrations with the booking and your personal preferences aside, you’re still met with occasionally stilted performances and a script that doesn’t do anyone any favors.
There is a strange, anesthetized quality to RAW and the WWE lately, both within the fiction and in the audience. Even though Roman Reigns and Daniel Bryan did a good job at the beginning of the show (Roman is really starting to show positive signs of coming into his own), the parameters of their script and the interruption of The Authority keeps everyone who participates in RAW on an infinite loop of sameness.
Pro-wrestling is already cyclical, and the stories are never-ending. When that aspect of the medium is framed within a corporate structure bent on selling you everything it’s producing, when blatant brainwashing becomes a piece of the product, and when the crowd willingly, almost purposefully suppresses their individuality to cheer at the right times and boo at the right times and complain at the right times the environment becomes terribly uninteresting to watch.
Even The Royal Rumble’s disastrous conclusion where the crowd seemingly went against script was entirely predictable. We knew Roman would win. Everyone had pleaded with the WWE to either not go ahead with Roman winning or to tell a better story that convinced people to cheer a Roman victory (though I suspect the crowd would just go ahead and boo Roman regardless of whether or not his story was well-told). The WWE did neither. And so, the people, knowing they would boo Roman, went ahead and booed Roman. And then we all talked about how the WWE failed and then the WWE went ahead and made more convoluted booking decisions based on that feedback instead of breaking the cycle altogether and doing something new and interesting.
Everything is predictable, even that which seems shocking. There’s nothing wrong with predictable so long as it’s satisfying within a story (we know the good guy is usually going to win, but we want to be convinced there's a chance he won't, so that when he does, we pop), but we’re experiencing the kind of predictability a suppressed society experiences when it’s been reduced to a race of drones serving the all-powerful Overmind.
We’re supposedly so passionate about pro-wrestling and the people working within the WWE are supposedly so passionate about their sports entertainment, and yet there’s a shocking lack of energy most nights. This is partially due to the audience fancying themselves too smart to get swept up in the moment, and also due to the company either reacting too much to the smarks or producing genuinely hokey television.
For example, Triple H called out Sting. What happened next was awkward, confusing, and the kind of theater one sees around lunchtime at Six Flags during The Batman & Robin Experience.
After Triple H cried out for an answer from Sting, a shadowy figure appeared in the aisle entryways up near the rafters. The imagery itself was interesting and a nice homage to Sting’s stalking of the NWO during The Attitude Era.
The crowd did not seem to get what was happening though, because they were expecting to see the actual Sting and instead they got what the WWE has labelled "Sting Imposters". The reaction was, initially, muddled. The shadowy Sting-figure then appeared at another arena entrance.
In theory, this seems like it should be effective. But the blend of the crowd not really getting it, combined with the hokey presentation, made it all feel like a joke…as if Triple H was ribbing Sting.
Then, when a clearly not-Sting man dressed up like Sting appeared suddenly in the ring and walked toward Triple H, it seemed even more like this was definitely a rib. Triple H was going to pretend to be scared, but then it would be revealed that it was actually a painted Seth Rollins, and Triple H and Seth would embrace and laugh to a chorus of boos. While that would have been same-old-same-old, it would have been better than what actually happened. It wasn’t a rib. What we saw is supposed to be taken as reality.
Are we supposed to believe that Sting can teleport? In 2015? Does Vince McMahon really want us to believe that? Or are we supposed to believe that Sting has minions of some sort, that he hired these kids to play mind games or something? I suspect Vince's response would be something like: just enjoy it! It’s cool.
The problem is it’s not cool. It just looks cheap.
Spectacle is only effective when it’s done well and not presented as something it’s not. For example, when The Undertaker makes his entrance, we know we’re watching pyrotechnics and dry ice. We don’t need to be convinced they’re anything other than that to be emotionally moved.
I’d be much more willing to accept that Sting had magical powers if it had actually been Sting in the ring with Triple H or had it actually been Sting in the arena at all. But it was clearly just some dude. And it's unclear what the dude is supposed to be or supposed to represent.
This is where one needs to be a child, or genuinely not care about these details at all to actually enjoy the spectacle and the theatrics of the WWE.
Up until this point, Sting hasn’t had any supernatural powers. He’s been a man with a painted face who shows up at important times and points at people. And that is all he needs to be. An image of the actual Sting standing in the rafters, and a message on the Titantron “I accept” would have not only told the story more effectively, it would have been believable.
When the WWE tries to sell you on the supernatural, the company’s creative reach exceeds its grasp, but to do so and not use the actual guy and some kind of stunt double for a quick flash is just off-putting. And it’s confusing. What does it mean? Who are these Sting-guys? Was it supposed to actually be Sting? Did Sting drop the lighting guy a ten-spot? Did Sting learn Final Cut Pro and spend his weekend toiling away at the computer to cut together his cryptic vignette of acceptance?
You're thinking too much, is the only defense for this scene. If someone is supposed to not think in order to enjoy something, if someone has to negate their natural desire to understand what they're seeing in order to enjoy the experience then that experience is hollow and devoid of purpose.
I understand that children and people who just "go along for the ride" don't care about these details. Maybe that is the majority of the WWE's audience. Regardless, details offer opportunity for more interesting storytelling. An attention to detail moves that supposed casual viewer to pop more effectively than the entertainment mush that defines RAW. The proof is in the tepid live-audience reaction to much of what the WWE produces, especially this latest Sting segment.
If the WWE is good at creating content for a casual, majority audience then why are their ratings so abysmal? Why did they struggle to attain a million Network subscribers? Why did it take that crowd so long to start chanting "We Want Sting"? The defense for RAW's minutiae and mind-numbingly juvenile television being created for a general audience or a childhood audience is not an adequate defense for the product, because it's simply not working for the company. Everything they've done since the end of The Attitude Era has simply not worked in the company's favor, as it relates to really catching on with any kind of audience.
And it's because, at the end of the day, RAW isn't good TV. And it's a product that simply does not understand its inherent appeal, denying the fact that anyone who tunes in to RAW is doing so in the pursuit of professional wrestling. Nothing else.
It’s clear the WWE doesn't consider the humanity of its audience as much as it doesn't consider the humanity of its characters.
The emphasis is not on considering what human beings do in an actual fight and purely on creating a “show”. That hokey spectacle not only undermines the quality of the product, it’s much less interesting than reality, because thinking about these people from a realistic perspective offers more chances for relatable, emotional human drama. Humanity, reality, a well-told fiction brings people to the moment of pop more effectively than a blatant lie.
Why does Sting want to disrupt The Authority’s operation? What does the actual man, the pro-wrestler who wrestled exclusively for WCW, want to achieve in the WWE? Why has he strapped on the trench coat and put on the face paint for one final run? Might he be chasing a match with The Undertaker, as he has stated in very public interviews since signing with the WWE? Is he furious with how the WWE has tried to rewrite pro-wrestling history by bashing WCW every single day on the Network?
Instead of any of that, Triple H just wound up looking foolish, the crowd was confused, and it’s unclear what Sting actually is.
This entire scene encapsulates the lack of mental-effort and lack of creativity both within the company and in the actual audience.
They produce bad television, we moan. They bring Sting into the mix, even if they do it badly, we cheer "We Want Sting!"
They don’t push a guy like Ziggler, we make “funny” signs.
And it’s boring.
And that’s a shame because good work was turned in by guys like Wyatt, Ziggler, Bryan, and Reigns, yet a going-through-the-motions quality permeates the product.
Had the WWE followed-through on what they established three weeks ago during the special edition snow-day RAW broadcast from WWE headquarters, the road to WrestleMania could have avoided being plagued with the same roundabout storytelling that has defined pay-per-views for years.
The WWE could have taken the fan’s feedback in the right way, for the right reasons, and figured out a way to book and sell Roman Reigns versus Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania. They could have embraced their proposed Reality Era and presented that fight like a realistic championship match where both fighters train for the battle for months in advance.
Now, we’re watching yet another patch-work pit-stop where the WWE has created as many booking outs for themselves as possible instead of just sticking to something and making that something the most interesting thing we’ve ever seen.
Meanwhile the rest of the card has suffered.
Almost everyone at all levels of the card is haphazardly bouncing from meaningless match to meaningless match, tethered together by a script written by people who have no idea what it’s like to shove someone’s face into a mat, presided over by a bossman who, by his own admission, has always struggled to understand his audience.
To leave you on a positive note, I regard all of this as an incredibly slow, frustrating teething process. It has taken years and it will continue to take years before the WWE finally remembers what it is and starts producing consistently good television.
Criticize as I might, the product is better now than it was just two years ago. It only needs to get out of its own way and stop steadfastly, stubbornly, self-consciously, weakly putzing around with itself and just commit to some authentic storytelling.
And NXT washes bad RAW memories away each and every week, reminding you that when the WWE decides to put on a pro-wrestling show, they do it better than anyone else.
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Photos via WWE.