THE RAW REVIEW
A vicious little game is often played by the WWE and the WWE fans.
The WWE excuses dissatisfying episodes of Monday Night Raw or cliffhanger conclusions as “slow-burns”, chastising the fans for not having the patience to wait for the payoff while the fans, so dissatisfied with so many different aspects of the flagship product, wield their hatred like an oversized, flaming long-sword, attacking anything and everything without regard for the real enemies of progress and good television. The result is that the WWE often makes the slow-burn argument or the "it's three hours of television" argument at the expense of addressing valid criticisms, and the fans go on slashing with their IWC Twitter-sword of hate at the expense of addressing valid criticisms.
Last week, I was one of those wielders of the flaming long sword, relentless in my rage, picking apart every little detail of Monday Night Raw that failed to hold my attention or move me to any kind of happiness or experience of entertainment.
While detailing my utter disinterest and dissatisfaction with a particular episode of RAW might accurately relay my experience of the show that approach is, ultimately, ineffective. Anger and frustration doesn’t make for a compelling, convincing read. Everyone’s head gets chopped off by the sword and no one walks away feeling enlightened or excited about anything.
My mission is not to make you feel how I might feel when I watch RAW, it’s to examine why RAW makes us feel the way we feel and attempt to convince the WWE, through that careful examination, why this weekly review is worth reading and why RAW deserves better.
The Work of Wrestling aspires to straddle that middle-ground between the WWE and the critical WWE viewer, pointing out the blatant flaws in the WWE’s narrative style and dated presentation, while also pointing out what the WWE does do well when the fans, blinded by their rage, become incapable of making a convincing argument. It’s very difficult to remain impartial and emotionally detached (as I’ve demonstrated in the past), because our childhood history is caught up in our experience of the WWE. The WWE also fluctuates, from one week to the next, from one segment to the next, rapidly between excellence and mediocrity. That emotional back and forth, twist and turn, tug and tear can really wear someone down. It’s a pattern of constant flux that mimics the pain of existence; the only quality of life that’s reliable is how unreliable it is. We turn to art to make sense out of that unreliability, to provide us a satisfying structure that we simply can’t have in our actual lives. We turn to weekly television broadcasts, in particular, to give us an experience of consistency. And I know that the inconsistency of RAW unsettles me, sometimes so deeply that I lose all sight of what I’m trying to do here on The Work of Wrestling.
My deeply personal pet peeve with Monday Night Raw (and what I’m certain is a valid criticism of the television show when presented in a respectful manner) is that Raw simply lacks a unifying principle.
There is no overarching tone, theme, through-line, or seeming goal of the broadcast.
One moment we’re watching Kane’s moral plight and the next we’re watching Fandango gyrate on a table.
Now there is room for both experiences on a television show, but, as they are and tend to be on this entertainment hodgepodge known as RAW, these moments exist as disparate segments designed to hold the attention of two entirely different viewers so as to get a ratings spike on a graph that some suit is obsessed with.
There’s a lack of artistic vision, a disinterest in understanding the fictional world in which RAW exists, a willingness to let RAW remain a variety show influenced by an assortment of disconnected genres instead of constructing a storytelling-framework that provides the much-needed illusion of organic narrative growth.
To make it perfectly clear what’s lacking on RAW, I direct your attention to what NXT possesses in abundance; a singular perspective on the pro-wrestling/sports entertainment fiction. NXT reinforces again and again and again, whether in the way backstage segments and backstage interviews are filmed or in the way vignettes embellish and explain the histories of the characters or in the length of the matches themselves that NXT is about one thing and one thing only; competition.
This principle of competition radiates throughout the product, informing the tone of the show, the themes of the various stories, the way the show is run by General Manager William Regal, and even how the show looks (the camera used for many backstage interviews and the dim lighting is more convincing and respectable than what we see on RAW).
Pro-wrestlers, even the gimmicky pro-wrestlers like Tyler Breeze, all exist in the same world and they are all motivated by the same goal; become Champion.
Now each pro-wrestler has their quirks and their personal obsessions.
Tyler is one of the broadest gimmicks in NXT, pushing the boundaries of believability in a world that is grounded firmly in reality. He still works despite the fact that he’s a caricature because his performance is so consistently entertaining and he’s still a great athlete eager to be the champion. Tyler is also, very clearly, a not-so-subtle critique of the times - there is a recognizable meaning behind the existence of Tyler Breeze. He holds a mirror up to our self-obsessed, selfie-culture, revealing us for the unrealistic buffoons that we are. The more outlandish Tyler becomes, the more accurate his critique becomes. Just recently he cleverly added a bedazzled, furry selfie-stick to his ring-entrance. This pops the crowd because the crowd is aware of this new, ridiculous selfie-stick phenomena in the culture. It makes Tyler appear that much more insanely delusional, and it utilizes popular culture in a relatable way that enhances the meaning of a gimmick and the theme of that gimmick.
This is the true brilliance of Tyler Breeze. He's clearly aware of the audience and his awareness combined with his creative freedom makes NXT appear as though the brand has its "finger on the button". NXT's bookers seem to be cognizant of what gets over in 2015, because they regard Tyler as a viable performer who gets pops. A viewer is more willing to place their faith in a product that seems to be actively attempting to understand and satiate the viewer. A viewer is more likely to pop as a result of their investment, as a result of this authenticity in presentation and this concern for what the viewer wants to see.
Tyler is a character informed by the times, critiquing the times, and earning pops through laughter and an excellent in-ring performance. He is resonant and likable because even though he’s borderline cartoonish in a world that’s presented as a shoot, he’s a gimmick that respects the foreknowledge and intelligence of the audience and manages to earn their sympathy because he never loses sight of his championship dreams.
On RAW, a character like Tyler Breeze would likely never indicate that he was even interested in being a champion. He would parade around the ring for a few weeks with his cell phone, earning a few pops from the occasional knowledgeable crowd, JBL or Michael Cole would mock the selfie stick and mock Tyler and reinforce the fact that he was destined for failure, he may score a valet in Summer Rae or Eva Marie, he would repeatedly job to mid-carders or get sacrificed on the alter of pushing a more important feud with top guys, and then he’d stagnate and languish…career all but extinguished, regarded as expendable and having failed at getting himself over.
Where RAW would look at Tyler and see a character meant purely for gags, a cartoon to be presented as a cartoon and nothing more, NXT sees a professional wrestler who’s hungry for glory. What separates these two perspectives is respect, intelligence, and awareness.
If RAW had a unifying principe with regard to its fiction such as “Everyone is fighting to be champion” or “This is a sports league where athletes are competing for the top prize” and if the people who produced RAW respected the performers, no matter how broad, intelligently booked those performers, and remained aware of the times and aware of the mentality of modern wrestling fans then RAW would be a spectacular or, at the very least, more consistent television program.
The A-story of this particular episode is a perfect representation of RAW’s inconsistency.
Corporate Kane was posed with a moral dilemma - take a dive for Seth Rollins and maintain his position with The Authority or embrace his true, demonic self and fight back.
Now most fans who would dislike this story or abhor Kane will simply go on and on about how tired The Authority angle is or how it’s all just kind of silly. And it is kind of silly. But why is it silly?
On paper, this is a long-form story with some actual depth.
Kane is a human being who, as a result of a trauma he experienced in childhood, donned a red mask for years, torturing and maiming and destroying everything and everyone he could get his hands on. Then, gradually, he transformed (along with the WWE) into a corporate evil, becoming a neutered lackey in the process. Think of Demon Kane of the 90s/early aughts as good old fashioned fire and brimstone, Paradise Lost Satan. Corporate Kane, then, is a reflection of our society's evolving concept of evil. What once was a magical demon lurking in the shadows is now a man in a suit relentlessly toying with our sense of peace. This is the kind of allegory professional wrestling can present, and it can present it, rather effectively, with costumes and pyrotechnics and matches.
Increasingly fed up with helping The Authority's poster-boy in the coddled Seth Rollins, Kane is pushed too far when he is asked to sacrifice his manhood altogether and lay down and take a dive for Seth. Kane resists this at first, fighting back, refusing to lay down, but then, in the midst of his rage, he negates his self-actualization, decides to protect his job, and inevitably does the deed for Seth (despite having reduced Seth to an unconscious heap), laying down for the one, two, three. We watch Satan decide to suppress his animal-self and remain a cog in a larger corporate evil. Contributing to the depth of this story is the fact that the audience is rooting for Satan to just embrace who he really is. We want evil to be honest with itself. The thing human beings can't stand more than anything else is someone deceiving themselves or not thinking highly enough of themselves...even if it's The Devil.
All of this is obviously setting up the inevitable face-turn for Kane. This is all building towards that unreliable payoff where Kane transforms back into a demon and helps dismantle The Authority.
This is the story of one man’s struggle to realize his truest self all the while attempting to cope with societal, political, economic, moral, historical, and cultural pressure.
Kane’s “manhood” was brought up so many times on this episode, from Daniel Bryan’s backstage pep talk with Kane, encouraging him to “be a man”, to Seth Rollin’s closing argument that a “real man knows when to lay down”, that it was made abundantly clear what the story was about and what the stakes of the story were.
On paper…this all doesn’t sound half bad. In fact, it’s pretty relatable and interesting. We all struggle with the same issues Kane’s currently struggling with.
In practice, this story plays out in a series of disjointed backstage segments that are so heavily scripted that the emotional resonance is completely sapped from the narrative. While Kane and Daniel Bryan and Seth Rollins are excellent performers, they’re not thespians who can adequately convey these big ideas and these big themes in a collection of brief skits. The potential depth, the potential pop Kane’s struggle might earn is undermined by the lackluster style of presentation, by a misunderstanding of the strengths of the performers and a misunderstanding of the strength of the pro-wrestling medium.
We’re watching a song try to be a painting.
We’re watching a novel try to be a sculpture.
We’re watching a pro-wrestling show try to be a movie.
And this is where RAW’s lack of a unifying principle comes into play. This is why I keep asking - are the characters aware of the camera in backstage segments?
RAW is not a one hour drama where characters work out their psychological problems through dialogue, and yet it often tries to be. Watching Kane and Daniel Bryan talking in a locker room, as if they’re suddenly characters in a play that’s disconnected from the world of the arena, the look and style of these moments appearing cheaply constructed, there being no regard for the cinematography or how the world of RAW should inform the cinematography, represents a disregard or a disinterest in how a “sports simulation” tells a story.
When I see these moments, I see Vince McMahon and John Cena’s proud refrain, “We make mini-movies every week”.
That perspective disregards the power of the pro-wrestling medium.
RAW does not need to be a movie to get over.
RAW needs to be RAW - a pro-wrestling show that incorporates spectacle and the colorful characters in a thoroughly entertaining way as only the WWE can.
When this Kane drama played out in the ring with Kane choke-slamming Seth Rollins and knocking around J&J, it became the most compelling it could possibly become given the scripting. Kane teasing the throat-cut taunt was actually a nice symbolic moment.
With one simple, familiar gesture, he visually conveyed the emotional and psychological state of his character. This moment respected the foreknowledge and intelligence of the audience and it was informed by the history of the character.
We eagerly leaned forward in our chairs, hoping to see Kane complete the throat-slash gesture, embrace his truest self, and give Seth Rollins a Tombstone Piledriver.
That is how pro-wrestling can tell a story. Through a few choice words on the mic, a few gestures, and a physical exchange between rivals in the ring a surprisingly complex story is told about a man choosing to sacrifice his honor so as to keep his job.
The one narrative flaw here is that we don’t know why Kane cares about his job with The Authority. We do not know if he wants to keep his job because he has a family to support or because there’s something about his old gimmick that he disdains - we just don’t really know why he’s so reticent to change or what it is about his position with The Authority he finds rewarding enough to even struggle with whether or not to put Seth over in such a castrating way.
One might argue that the deeper meanings of this in-ring exchange would not be understood if not for those backstage segments where Kane fought with Seth or argued with Daniel Bryan.
That may be true, but that does not change the fact that the style of presentation and the delivery of the scripted lines in those backstage segments remain disconnected from the world of the arena and undermine the seriousness inherent in this narrative.
Imagine if The Godfather was filmed on a cell-phone - you’d not be so inclined to become invested in Michael Corleone’s transformation. Lines like, “It’s not personal, Sonny…it’s strictly business” would fail to resonate. Kate’s dejected expression as the door closes might appear cheap and disingenuous - you might even snicker or chuckle at the fact that such a serious, psychologically deep moment is portrayed with such sincerity in such a cheap fashion.
The work-around for the WWE enhancing their in-ring stories with ancillary scenes of dialogue would be to embrace their world of fictitious sport.
How does the world of legitimate sport tell a story?
ESPN is a never-ending story where interviews and press conferences and mini-documentaries and pundit commentaries craft a narrative that allows viewers to form emotional attachments to particular athletes and particular teams. Then, when it comes time for the big game, viewers are that much more emotionally invested in the outcome. They’re aware of the stakes, they’ve picked a favorite, and they’re eager to see what happens next.
Renne Young could have periodically checked in with Kane throughout the night as he paced in the backstage area. He could have slammed his dressing room door in her face, we could have heard him smashing his things behind that slammed door, and we could have also occasionally checked in with Seth Rollins to hear his reaction to Kane’s moral quandary. All the characters would always be aware of the fact that they are being filmed, that they're athletes on game-night and not characters in a broadcast that occasionally becomes a play where they pretend there's a forth-wall.
In-between those brief interviews or vignettes, viewers would then be treated to a series of professional wrestling matches, each match booked and promoted in advance (so that any manipulations to the card will be that much more shocking), and then, eventually, Kane’s story would play out on the pro-wrestling canvas as it inevitably did.
My described style of presentation inspires a deeper emotional investment because it’s more sincere. It’s not trying to be something other than a sports simulation. It’s also not relying on pro-wrestlers to suddenly transform into excellent actors who not only remember all of their lines, but also know how to capture the essence of believable drama.
In my style of presentation, questions are asked and questions are answered and each of those questions and each of these sights and sounds builds up in the audience's collective mind so that when it comes time for the moment of pop they are instantaneously moved and they are that much likelier to believe whatever they witness thanks to a consistency in presentation.
The way Kane’s story played out in reality, viewers are encouraged to roll their eyes, regard it as silly nonsense that goes nowhere, and go on complaining that the WWE has no idea what they’re doing.
The WWE does know what they’re doing in specific areas.
There clearly was a story that involved a collection of characters with relatable motivations and conflicts and those characters came to blows in the center of the ring.
But surrounding that simplicity is a complicated series of flaws that must be pointed out and comprehended if RAW is ever to achieve what it can in the modern age.
Kane’s relatable story was mired in needlessly wayward booking, where a promoted match between Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler inexplicably transformed into a match between Dolph Ziggler and Neville, backstage visuals and backstage scripts and backstage performances that undermined the depth of the plot, and perhaps a little too much faith in people’s interest in the character’s conflict altogether.
This is but one very specific piece of the show that I’ve decided to focus on for this review.
The issues here can be applied to the rest of the lengthy broadcast.
The best moments of the show are always those that feel like a pro-wrestling performance.
Paige’s post-battle-royal victory promo was the highlight of the night - an honest human being talking about how much she loves the business and her home country. This was followed by an unexpected, and excellent, heel-turn from Naomi who thrashed Paige several times against the barricade. Naomi then cut a promo later in the night, detailing, in a very lucid, believable way, why she did what she did and what her goals are.
The clarity and the simplicity of this presentation is a perfect example of pro-wrestling’s strength as a medium.
This is what we see every single week on NXT.
And many will argue that RAW has to be the way RAW is because it’s three hours and directed at a casual audience.
There is no such thing as a casual viewer of pro-wrestling.
There is no such thing as a person who tunes in to Monday Night Raw not looking for a professional wrestling show. That person has never existed and will never exist and the belief in that fictitious viewer is damaging to the product. The fans are responsible for the belief in this fictitious viewer as much as the company, the IWC far too insistent in their knowledge and their expertise and their greatness, stating that "the casual fan" is ruining the business.
We're all pro-wrestling fans whether or not we Googled the phrases "shoot", "work", and "buried". We all want to watch pro-wrestling and that's the message we need to give the WWE.
The WWE and the fans far too often excuse RAW’s schizophrenia for its length.
Any show, no matter how excellent, would wear on anyone when it’s three-hours long.
But NXT would still work at three hours because it would be a singular experience where the variety of characters determined the emotional ebb and flow of that experience, not the highly regimented, disjointed style of presentation.
The problem with RAW is less the length and more the lack of this unifying principle, the lack of an appreciation for the art of professional wrestling and the intelligence of the RAW viewer. Three hours simply tests your endurance and exacerbates the deeper issue with the product.
It is my humble hope that as the years go by that the WWE will embrace the ways of the current world, and realize what it is people want from pro-wrestling and the WWE in 2015.
People want to see fantastical characters in extravagant worlds who are grounded by emotional and psychological realism. People want to see consistent, believable fictions that are fleshed out, specific, and confident.
There’s no reason, save the aforementioned adherence to an outdated style of presentation and a disconnect with the audience's desires, that Monday Night Raw can’t be every bit as compelling and culturally significant as the latest season of Mad Men or The Walking Dead. That is not to write that it should try to be those shows.
It can’t achieve the resonance of other popular genres by mixing up all of those genres in a stew (reality TV meets game show meets sports competition meets thirty-minute-sitcom meets one-hour-drama) and then spooning that stew into the open mouths of a subjugated fanbase.
For RAW to succeed, much like Kane, the show needs to confidently embrace its truest self.
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