THE RAW REVIEW
I don’t like reviews that summarize the story being reviewed.
Far too often a critic can put three SEO-friendly paragraphs up on a site that describe exactly what happened in a video game or a movie or a television show and pass that off as analysis.
I assume you’ve watched what I analyze. There is respect in that assumption.
I assume you don’t need or want three paragraphs telling you what happened, because I know that if you wanted that you would not read this. You would just go to wwe.com’s results page.
Also, seeing the show is not a prerequisite to comprehending criticism. Think of all the reviews you’ve read that are plodding and empty, child-like in stating over and over again, “And then this happened and I liked it and then this happened and I didn’t like it…” inevitably culminating in a metaphorical, reductionist rating system that strips away all the nuance of an actual opinion and leaves you with a vague suggestion about what to do with your money.
Thumbs up…thumbs down…4/5 stars…7.5 out of 10…A, B, C…
We’ve tricked ourselves into thinking that’s criticism and that it’s useful.
A lot of writers on the internet have careers thanks to this style of writing, forging ahead because the thought of doing anything else has simply never occurred to them.
Because that's just the way it's done.
But those writers still complain in the comments sections of their own reviews about how no one reads their reviews, that people only scroll down to the “number”, that reductionist score that encapsulates their experience in an instantly recognizable, simpleton way.
That process, for the writer and the reader alike, and the patterns of thought that result from it (I find myself rarely reading these reviews and instead skipping ahead to the number as well, because the quality of the summary writing can’t hold my attention) is the death of inspiration.
We’re living a world with very few genuine opinions despite how often we remind everyone that we’re just sharing our opinion. “In my opinion” and “It’s just my opinion” is supposed to be some kind of carte-blanche, idiocy-cure-all that grants us free access to metaphorically spit in other people’s faces and call that spittle truth.
Summary reviews and most internet writing encourages that kind of environment to thrive.
Simply existing on the internet is inadvertently encouraging that environment to thrive, because despite the fact that my writing isn’t designed to appeal to mass audiences, I still occasionally get the kind of knowitallism Twitter-responses to any thought I express, a contrarian point of view shoved in my digital face simply for the sake of shoving itself in my face and proving me wrong about anything when there was absolutely nothing to go against in the first place and when I wasn’t, even in the slightest, encouraging any kind of response.
It's now just assumed that someone expressing any kind of thought is encouraging a response.
Writing “I like John Cena” is not necessarily an invitation to a discussion.
There’s no argument to be had there.
That's someone stating that they like something.
You can't dispute what someone likes.
Consider that simple reality for a moment.
You cannot tell me that I'm wrong about the fact that I like John Cena.
My like is not an argument. It's not even an opinion. It's a fact about me as irrefutable as my hair-color and my height and my weight.
And yet the phrase “I like John Cena” could inspire hours upon hours of childish sludge masquerading as the expression of opinions.
I object to this digital world that regards every statement of feeling as an invitation for anonymous users to express their statement of feeling in response.
I believe that is a destructive world that stunts the development of our thoughts, a world where everyone is taking the easy way out in one hundred and forty characters or less; this belief of mine is an opinion, an argument I'm making that I can support by directing your attention to a wide assortment of examples.
I see the symptoms of this societal sickness thriving in Monday Night Raw.
I see patterns of thought and patterns of expression and patterns of reaction that are so transparent that labeling them “predictable” would fall short.
I feel positively clairvoyant when I watch Monday Night Raw.
The WWE and the wrestling world surrounding it is more repetitive now than I, personally, have ever seen before.
Even though the quality of the actual broadcast isn’t the worst it’s ever been, and even though the main roster is overflowing with superb talent, I cannot remember a time where RAW was so lifelessly retreading its own material while the fans lifelessly responded in kind.
We are all operating in a very rigid lane today, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to experience anything (wrestling aside) that’s genuinely thought-provoking, anything that deviates from the all-powerful norm and inspires real depth of emotion. We find joy in memes and gifs and those brief moments of amusing goodness on RAW that could result in memes and gifs. We slip into that conveyer belt of after-the-fact-experience and the WWE plays to that style of thinking and the result is something that's, on the surface, lighthearted and fun, but, in actuality, deeply incoherent and devoid of meaning.
Imagine experiencing something so good that you didn’t even know how to react to it.
Imagine watching something so fascinating that you didn’t even think to Tweet about it.
Imagine hearing someone else’s perspective and then thinking about it instead of instantly searching for a way to prove them wrong.
Imagine a world where we didn’t know exactly what was going to happen on next week’s RAW or, at the very least, a world where our predictions would be less accurate.
Currently, we seem to be living in a world where we genuinely believe it’s impossible to do anything “new”. I'm afraid of that thought and the culture it's producing.
We seem to be living in a world that believes “every story has been told” and so we've stopped trying to tell new stories.
We seem all too comfortable in a world where it’s impossible to be inspired because the attempt at creating something new isn’t even a thought anyone has anymore.
The WWE is a microcosm of this larger issue, and each of us owes it to the health of our minds to stop believing “this is just the way it is”. You owe it to yourself to deviate from your own patterns of thought, to search for something useful within that deviation.
I’ve hit a wall when it comes to writing this review.
But I still want to write it.
I have found something useful in that conflict.
There is absolutely no depth to an episode of RAW like the one I watched last night.
There is nothing to be gained by pretending there was anything worthy of artistic criticism.
This week’s Work of Wrestling podcast guest, Al Monelli, asked me to text him for the first hour of the show, summarizing what took place so as to keep him in the know while he made his way home. The more I described what I was watching, the clearer it became to me that everything that transpired on last night’s show was, very simply, absurd.
And not absurd in the kitschy-fun way professional wrestling sometimes is.
As I wrote texts describing the actual plot of this episode, I began to experience RAW in a different way. I stopped simply accepting that this is the way RAW is and I saw it, on a much deeper level than usual, as an unintelligible experience that had no business being on television from eight to eleven on a Monday night.
I do not write this out of anger for the WWE or Vince McMahon, or to hurt them in some way.
I write this because there’s nothing else for me to write.
And I know it's true that if you boil almost any plot down to a few sentences it will start to sound absurd, but that's not a good argument against what I'm writing. It does not excuse how legitimately incoherent RAW becomes when you start to make inquiries about its plotting, and it also doesn't change anything about the actual quality of the show.
I’m honestly perplexed that something as silly and devoid of logical-structure could be produced by an organization as powerful and capable as the WWE.
And as I wrote these texts during the show, describing the action, I realized that simply and honestly describing what was happening on RAW was, unexpectedly, the best form of criticism I could possibly offer this episode.
RAW began with The Authority walking down to the ring.
Seth Rollins and Triple H then cut a lengthy promo, reminding viewers of what had taken place over the course of the past several weeks - ensuring that everyone comprehended the story. Triple H presented a contract for a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match at Elimination Chamber, and said that all Dean Ambrose needed to do was come down to the ring and sign it (keep in mind the entire Authority was in the ring, ensuring that Dean would likely be attacked before he could sign the contract and solidify his title opportunity).
Roman Reigns arrived to support Dean Ambrose.
Stephanie McMahon then booked a tag match between Dean Ambrose & Roman Reigns and Seth Rollins & Kane.
Following the match, Dean Ambrose’s backstage interview with Renee Young was interrupted by J&J security.
Dean got into some fisticuffs with J&J and in the midst of the fight he punched a cameraman.
Later in the evening, The Authority, with cameraman and police officers in tow, accosted Dean Ambrose.
The cameraman, under duress, begrudgingly admitted that Dean hit him and so this resulted in Dean Ambrose being carted off to jail for assault.
A giggly Seth Rollins & Triple H insinuated that this was all an elaborate plot to prevent Dean from signing the championship contract.
The entire evening revolved around this premise; The Authority desperately wanted to prevent Seth Rollins from defending his championship at the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view (the motivation for this entirely unclear - do they truly not have faith in Rollins? Do they not plan on interfering in the match regardless of who Seth's opponent is?). While they had verbally agreed to give Dean Ambrose a title match last week, this week they wanted to find a way out of that agreement while still maintaining the facade that they were fulfilling their verbal agreement. So they provided Dean an opportunity to make it official with a written contract, but, because they didn’t actually want Dean to have a title match, they placed obstacles in his way, attempting to keep him locked away before RAW went off the air (which meant 8pm - 11pm was, for unexplained reasons, the cutoff point for signing the contract).
Later in the evening it was revealed (via YouTube clip filmed by...someone) that Seth Rollins shoved the cameraman into Dean Ambrose, thus provoking Dean to turn around and attack the cameraman (Dean obviously thinking that he was being attacked from behind).
After this YouTube clip hit the internet, Dean was instantly cleared of all charges (Michael Cole said this), and returned to the arena moments later, driving the paddy-wagon that hauled him off to jail earlier in the evening, wearing a police uniform and wielding a nightstick. This implies that he broke out of jail and stole the van (a much severer crime) or that, after being cleared of all charges because the police had seen the YouTube clip, Dean talked the policemen into letting him take the van back to the arena and they agreed that such would be a good gag.
Dean then attacked The Authority and with the help of his friend, Roman Reigns, signed his championship contract, thus solidifying his opportunity against Seth Rollins at Elimination Chamber.
This means, within the world of the WWE, that Seth Rollins and Triple H and J&J (and perhaps other members of The Authority) had the following thoughts:
We’re in a bind because we gave Dean Ambrose a verbal agreement. There’s a loophole though, because it’s not official until he signs a contract. How do we prevent him from signing a contract? He’s clearly a hothead and unstable. Let’s try to get him off RAW for the rest of the night by manipulating his instability. Let’s provoke him in some way that gets him arrested. Let’s have J&J get into a brawl with Dean and then, in the midst of that brawl, shove a cameraman into Dean’s back (because crew apparently haven’t signed waivers and are able to legally press charges against pro-wrestlers despite the environment in which they work), and then Dean will naturally attack that cameraman and then we can twist that cameraman’s arm to press charges against Dean Ambrose. He’ll never make bail before RAW concludes, and so he’ll never sign the contract, and so we’ll get what we want.
This is not storytelling.
This is not writing.
This is not something I or you should be watching.
I understand that I’m just not supposed to think about it.
I understand that there are those who will get wrapped up in the fun of it, the fun of Dean Ambrose wearing a police uniform and eventually signing his contract. I understand that there are those who see only the broad strokes and enjoy those broad strokes; villains try to hurt the hero and the hero overcomes.
I cannot delight in any of that, because I cannot escape the simple fact of it being an inherently bad story that damages all those who participate in it. I cannot delight in something that I know is relying upon my willingness to overlook everything that's bad about it simply because I like Dean Ambrose and simply because I like the idea of Dean Ambrose breaking out of jail.
It should not be so easy to completely unravel a plot with one simple question…
What if Dean didn’t attack the cameraman?
And that’s not the only question that unravels the entire premise of this episode, but it does directly point out the entirely unrealistic, unnecessarily convoluted leap of faith The Authority characters are taking in following through with this particular scheme.
The Seth Rollins character himself stated that The Authority has the power to simply fire Dean Ambrose.
Why don't they?
Introducing that fact into the reality of the fiction undermines the drama that follows.
Why doesn’t Triple H just tear up the contract on SmackDown?
What power does the contract actually have that could possibly affect The Authority or set a championship match in stone at Elimination Chamber?
Why would The Authority even bother maintaining any sort of facade when their nefarious deeds are, consistently, unapologetically, transparently nefarious?
We saw Triple H and Seth Rollins giggling after all.
They’re on national television, their plotting and planning broadcasted on a massive screen to an arena-full of human beings with eyeballs and brains not to mention millions of viewers at home.
Why not just shove Dean’s head through concrete again?
That’s something Seth Rollins did under Triple H’s direction not too long ago.
Does the waiver Dean Ambrose signed to perform in the WWE cover attempted murder?
Why didn’t Seth get carted off to jail for that one?
Why not just blow Dean Ambrose’s brains out in the middle of the ring and be done with it?
Here's one of the better questions that unravels it all, posed by Al:
The WWE writers and the WWE could answer all of these questions.
I know that we could all find ways to fill in the gaps of this plot.
And I also know that asking these questions goes against the point of the show.
I know I’m not supposed to think.
I know that I’m just supposed to have fun with it.
Not thinking should never be a prerequisite to enjoying the kind of television show RAW attempts to be for three hours on a Monday night.
If I have to not think to enjoy anything, that doesn’t bode well for the quality of the thing I’m trying to enjoy.
I’m aware that there are almost always plot holes in a story.
I’m arguing that I simply should not be able to ask these question.
I'm arguing that the WWE has created a fictional world riddled with mistakes, mistakes so glaring that it's becoming increasingly difficult to become emotionally invested in the fiction.
This particular story is so blatantly flawed, especially given how the characters themselves openly question the validity of their actions by pointing out “The Authority can do whatever it wants”, that this elaborate Authority-scheme shouldn’t have even occurred to the writers.
Viewers and the writers and the bookers should not have to scramble to plug up the holes made apparent by asking a few simple questions about the story and the motivations of the characters.
A story shouldn't need to be defended.
If the storyteller or the passive, unquestioning fan of the storyteller has to rush to the story's defense then there is something wrong with that story.
And all of this is resultant from the sad, tired, far-too pervasive philosophy that “this is the way it is”. I am watching, over and over and over again, a show (written by teenaged boys who have very little life-experience) attempt to recreate something that worked in 1999.
An authority-figure villain puts obstacles in the way of a beloved babyface.
The babyface overcomes those obstacles.
The heel looks a fool.
A vehicle that may or may not shoot something out of a hose is occasionally involved.
Everyone goes home happy.
Some of us yearn for something more.
Some of us want to feel real feelings and have real thoughts and be moved to recommend others partake in an enlightening, entertaining experience.
That enlightening, entertaining experience can be incredibly serious, incredibly silly, incredibly flawed, or incredibly precise.
But a truly enlightening, entertaining experience will never be same-old, same-old no matter how familiar it might be.
Worthwhile experiences are created by people who know that there will always be a new story to tell and a new way to tell it.
Worthwhile experiences cannot be easily summarized.