THE RAW REVIEW
Monday Night Raw seems to be run by two people.
Those two people seem to have very different ideas about what makes for good storytelling, what makes for good television, and what makes for good professional wrestling.
One person seems to book matches and segments at random, no narrative foundation for those matches beyond the vague notion that “wrestling” occasionally happens on a three hour prime-time cable television series dubbed RAW. There is no noticeable fiction that serves as a connective tissue for matches such as Big Show versus Mark Henry or Sheamus vs Neville or Barrett vs Swagger or segments where Dolph Ziggler and Lana take to the stick and publicly proclaim their newfound love for one another. The majority of RAW’s three-hours exists as a variety-show that jumps, without reason, from one segment to the next, the only concept holding it together being that it all exists “for your entertainment”.
This is not something we typically consider when we watch RAW because we’re so accustomed to what RAW is and what RAW offers. We rarely judge the show against other forms of serialized fiction, and we rarely consider what is happening on this very odd television show produced by a company that calls itself, in reality and in its own fiction, World Wrestling Entertainment.
Why are matches happening?
I can easily imagine long-time fans or Vince McMahon scoffing at this question or looking at me with an upturned eyebrow, a bemused expression suggesting I was unintelligent.
The perspective that would drive a WWE-booker or storyteller to scoff at the question, “Why are matches happening?” is the perspective that results in tepid crowd-responses, squandered character-momentum, “What” chants during promos, and audiences booing what they’re supposed to cheer and cheering what they’re supposed to boo. The booker who does not understand why I’m asking, “Why are matches happening?” is the booker who has, unfortunately, never asked that question themselves or that booker stopped caring to ask that question long ago.
The person who runs this random RAW offers no justification for what transpires on-screen or in the arena. The mere fact that RAW is RAW is not a justification for a scene where Dolph Ziggler is compelled to inform wrestling fans about his developing relationship with Lana.
How did the Dolph character get that screen-time and why did Dolph get that screen-time?
These are hypothetical questions I do not want answered on screen. They're hypothetical questions meant to illuminate how there's no one in the WWE asking these basic questions of the WWE-fiction.
These are the hypothetical plot-hole revealing questions a good mentor asks an aspiring writer in an attempt to get that writer to fundamentally change the way they think about writing and become better and more intelligent.
Why did the Dolph Ziggler character do that?
An athlete wrestling in a sports organization would never do that.
But Dolph Ziggler is not an athlete wrestling in a sports organization.
He’s a “sports entertainer” fighting to “entertain” you.
How is that relatable or even easily comprehended, let alone a justification for his cringe-worthy segment with Lana?
What are Lana and Summer Rae?
What is their actual job in the WWE and what justifies their presence on this television show?
There is no instantly accessible answer to those questions. The only answer is that the wayward booker thinks it's entertaining to watch "hot women" pull each other's hair.
I can easily imagine a reader arguing that I’m too demanding of the show or that I’m expecting too much from wrestling.
That’s the perspective that keeps RAW where it is; thinking, “It’s wrestling, just enjoy it!”. That’s the perspective that results in phrases like, “It’s just TV” or “It’s just supposed to be fun”, all of them tantamount to “stop thinking”, as if wrestling simply can’t ever be that good because it’s wrestling.
While there’s merit in not overanalyzing things and just “enjoying what you’re watching” I find it impossible to do so when the show I’m watching simply does not regard a basic understanding of its fictional world and the events therein as even slightly important.
This is the reason people struggle to connect with RAW and why RAW’s ratings have been less than stellar for many years. Either consciously or subconsciously, deep down in their gut, viewers recognize that there is no narrative framework for this wayward booker’s RAW.
There’s nothing to connect to.
There’s nothing to point to and say, “This is what RAW is!”
On this wayward-RAW, everything from the characters to the viewers wanders aimlessly through a landscape whose only edict is “Entertain!” The show lives and dies by “Entertain”. Hence the schizophrenia of the broadcast. It either fails in utterly abject fashion or it gives you the greatest thing you’ve ever scene.
In such a world the characters are not protected by a structure that supports them and supports the events around them in the most basic of recognizable fictions. There is no unifying principle for the events that transpire on Monday Night Raw, and I contend this is the primary problem with the television show. Not that it’s three hours, not that commentary is grating, and not that the right guys and the right gals aren’t winning matches. Those are all problems, for sure, but easily fixed problems and they're subjective in nature. The deeper problem with RAW is a little more objective, a sickness that's much harder to identify and so it's much harder to cure.
Because this is a complicated, conceptual issue, I’ll describe a hypothetical unifying principle, a basic narrative framework that’s easy to appreciate, and that a television show could emanate from with great success:
WWE is a sports organization where men and women compete for the right to be called champion. RAW is the WWE’s version of Monday Night Football.
Clearly this is not true of the real-world WWE or the real-world RAW.
Clearly the WWE is a not a legitimate sports organization.
But, when producing its television shows, the organization could present itself as a legitimate sports organization so as to ground its stories in a more relatable fiction.
This hypothetical narrative foundation (WWE is a sports organization) justifies the existence of wrestling matches on a television show.
The reason you’re watching wrestling matches in such a world is because wrestlers are trying to ascend through the ranks to earn their spot at championship gold. Every character in this world suddenly becomes more relatable, understandable, and entertaining because they’re motivated and passionate about something that matters to them. Everyone’s personalities become incredibly important in this world. This allows audiences to more easily pick favorites because the emphasis is upon what separates these athletes from one another as they pursue the same goal.
No one can actually justify, based on any recognizable fictional principle, why what’s happening on RAW is happening on RAW when it’s booked by this Entertainment-obsessed booker.
A RAW booked by someone who understands that the fictitious, on-screen events need to be grounded in something people can relate to, that there actually needs to be a reason wrestlers walk down the ramp and get into the ring and that the reason needs to relate to the fact that they’re wrestling (wrestling inherently being a form of athletic competition, not performance), is a RAW that engages with an audience.
A RAW with a conceit is a RAW that gets over.
To be clear…the viewers do not need to understand, intuitively, that RAW is presenting itself as the WWE’s version of Monday Night Football. This does not need to be made explicitly clear in the same way characters in a movie need never remind viewers that they’re watching a movie. Viewers will gradually comprehend this shift in style emotionally, and this will result in them feeling more inclined to tune in every single week to witness how their chosen athlete continues to ascend. Viewers of this sports-RAW would also feel more inclined to recommend RAW to their sports-obsessed friends for the show would suddenly appeal to all those sports-fans alienated by segments such as Ziggler/Lana.
It’s imperative that the writers and the bookers comprehend a conceit that informs their show.
And my chosen conceit of “The WWE is a sports organization like the NFL or the MLB where athletes compete for gold” doesn’t need to be the major conceit of RAW.
There just needs to be some kind of conceit for the show.
The conceit could be that RAW is a three-hour therapy session where disgruntled cartoon characters work out their psychological issues.
The conceit could be that professional wrestlers are super heroes stripped of their super powers, attempting to recapture the magic they once knew by creating a television show centered around athletic competition.
The conceit of RAW could be almost anything so long as it outlines the structure of a fictional universe that justifies the events that take place in that universe. The wayward-booker's RAW only emanates from "This show is supposed to entertain you - be entertained by this show”.
And this brings me to the RAW that’s booked by the other person, the person who seems to understand exactly what I’m writing about and the person who knows how to engage with an audience, an audience who wants to watch events that are grounded in a recognizable conceit that propels the fiction forward.
This booker is represented in everything that ever happens between John Cena and Kevin Owens. This booker not only allows for consistently excellent wrestling matches that play to the strengths of the performers, this booker protects talent through logical finishes that retain the viability (and marketability) of a particular character.
Last night, as John Cena and Cesaro began wrestling, I mentally checked-out for a few minutes.
My regrettably smarkish mindset perceived that, thrilling as a match between Cesaro and Cena would be, it would ultimately amount to little more than a collection of shallow high spots and near falls, culminating in a finish where Cesaro appeared weak, insignificant, and his character muddied by unclear presentation.
I was wrong to think that, because the United States Championship continues to be booked by RAW's better-booker.
Cena and Cesaro did put on a spectacular show, but it was a show grounded in the desire to be champion. It was a fight between two men, and their displays of athleticism were accentuated by an emotional intensity that only comes from a story with a solid foundation.
In the end, Kevin Owens' interference in this match is not the result of the better-booker squirming to find a cheap way out of their poorly-planned segment, a conclusion that ensures the challenger doesn't look stronger than the company's babyface or a non-finish altogether due to an inability to commit to an idea.
Kevin Owens interfered in this match because the Kevin Owens character wants to be the man to beat John Cena for the United States Championship. And so Kevin appears even more powerful and even more devious than before.
Cesaro becomes a man who could conceivably beat Cena, a man with a reason to hate Owens, a man with a reason to engage both Cena and Owens in future conflicts.
Owens’ promo puts Cesaro over, implying that Cesaro was going to become the new United States Champion.
And Cena remains the champion who continues stealing shows with his ever-evolving displays of athletic prowess.
That's the result of the better-booker's work.
The result of the wayward booker's efforts are the exact opposite; wrestling characters appear weak and confused at the hands of the wayward booker, stories lack direction, and fans struggle to find someone to cheer or boo.
The better-booker makes money.
The wayward booker slowly, but surely bleeds money or makes money despite himself.
The better-booker understands the nuances of preserving talent while pushing the story forward. But beyond the particulars of that Cena/Cesaro finish, the entire segment flowed from that recognizable place of athletic realism, the story centered on the idea that athletes want to fight for the right to hold championship gold.
That and that alone is the primary reason this segment was not only successful, but brilliant.
The sports-narrative foundation allows everyone to shine.
It's a foundation that orients the crowd's focus on everyone’s strengths, hides everyone's weaknesses, and results in a television show that has a purpose.
The better-booker also seemed to be behind Seth Rollins’ story on this particular episode.
Obvious efforts have been made the past two weeks (on RAW and SmackDown) to restore Rollins to a place of viability, to make him an active participate in his fate, an athlete who is good at what he does and succeeds when he puts his plans into action.
The lengthy opening segment walked that fine line RAW far too often walks where purposefully grating television is put forth as a means of garnering heels heat, oftentimes resulting in simply bad television not worth watching.
This was that rare, good kind of grating, however. Rollins, very simply, gave an excellent performance.
His slithering self-importance oozed throughout the scene, enhancing his every word so that the sound of his voice became synonymous with slow-moving nails on chalkboard. Juxtaposed with his self-congratulatory antics was the ever-reliable J&J Security hamming it up after getting new watches and a new car and Kane excited about the prospect of hurling animals into a volcano during his Hawaiian vacation.
All of this was incredibly silly.
But it wasn’t the typical nonsensical, purposeless silliness of a RAW with unmotivated characters. This was a segment that had the trappings of a wayward RAW, but the core of a RAW that wants to present a grounded fiction populated by characters with goals.
The scene was played with absolute sincerity, as if everything that was happening was entirely real - as if Seth Rollins had used his connections with the WWE head-office to transform RAW into a "Monday Night Rollins" game-show where he rewarded his friends for helping him decimate Brock Lesnar last week. And the gifts he gave demonstrated a certain amount of awareness of characterization on the part of those creatives behind this scene (Rollins has been feuding with Kane for quite some time so sending him off to Hawaii is an ironic gift).
The closing segment similarly presented Seth Rollins and The Authority as active participants in a fictional world with structure. The A-story still isn't the more inviting sports-world-structure of the Owens/Cena-world, of course, but, on this RAW, a structured fictional universe nonetheless.
It was a bleak ending, but it was earned.
It wasn’t bleak because it was bad, poorly written television where bad athletic actors delivered their dialogue in stilted fashion as commentary undermined everything on the screen.
It was bleak because the villains had successfully beaten the heroes into submission.
It was bleak because a truly despicable champion set his mind to decimating his former Shield brethren and he succeeded.
He wanted to tag with Kane. He was excited about what he was doing.
It is always more entertaining to watch characters who want to do things than to watch characters who begrudgingly plod their way through a convoluted story.
Even though the fictional world of The Authority is the epitome of RAW’s schizophrenia and RAW's inability to set forth a few basic fictional principles that govern the separation between the real and the unreal, The Authority is now a motivated body made up of focused characters who are good at what they do, not bumbling idiots who fail their way to success because the wayward-booker is taking it easy until SummerSlam.
In 2015, the better-booker wins.
In 2015, the pro-wrestling fan who regularly consumes relatable fiction elsewhere, the pro-wrestling fan who wants to see an intelligent WWE that understands the importance of narrative principles, the nuances of such concepts, and the value of a consistent world with a strong adherence to continuity is the pro-wrestling fan the WWE must start satiating if the company wants to remain pertinent.
It’s time for the better-booker to take the reigns, and steer the ship in the right direction.
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