THE RAW REVIEW
This week’s episode of Monday Night Raw perfectly demonstrates why a three-hour running time is (to put it kindly) too long a running time for Monday Night Raw. No matter how good an episode might be, by the end of the second hour, RAW has used up its energy and most of its goodwill, and the audience becomes noticeably exhausted and increasingly disinterested. It is an impossible length of time to contend with, especially for the “average viewer” the WWE relentlessly pursues.
Around 10:00 pm, I feel my attention and my emotional investment wane. I become full, but the WWE insists on serving another entree, cramming four or five matches into a forty-minute time-span, building toward a main event that today’s WWE-viewer simply doesn’t want to watch. And that is a shame, because had the show been two hours it would have certainly been the best, most coherent episode of the year thus far.
Once the obligatory scripted promos were finished in the first segment, a thoroughly entertaining Fatal 5-Way match for Dean Ambrose’s Intercontinental Championship was underway.
This match is exactly the kind of fun, perfectly paced contest today’s roster can create and it’s exactly the kind of thing WWE fans want to see on RAW. Although none of the participants have had the benefit of extensive, unscripted promo-time or actual angles to help flesh out their characters the past several months, they all managed to tell an accessible story and spotlight their individual strengths. Each of them worked together to create several memorable spots, namely Kevin Owens performing a cannonball to each opponent in the corner, and the rapid-fire finish where Dolph Ziggler hit the Zig-Zag on Dean whilst Dean hit Stardust with Dirty Deeds, clearing the field for Owens to score the Pop-Up Powerbomb on Tyler Breeze for the victory.
As easily as I could point out how invalid Dean Ambrose's title reign was, and how insignificant the title remains, I'm inclined to celebrate the fact that Kevin Owens can now call himself a "Two time Intercontinental Champion" and that he'll surely have a significant mid-card bout at WrestleMania. He's one of, if not the absolute best active talent on the main roster today and he's been directionless for several weeks.
Now he is on the path toward a WrestleMania match that he deserves.
Every time Monday Night Raw decides to ground its fiction in simple, sport-focused stories rather than random “entertaining” skits, it transforms into a more watchable program. The transitions in the first two hours were particularly effective, cutaways to commentary that flowed directly into the next match or the next segment, each of these asides redirecting the viewer’s focus on a new story. Even Renee Young looked into the camera after interviewing Dean Ambrose and “threw it back” to the commentary team. That’s the kind of detail that makes RAW easier on the viewer, a more cohesive experience that seems in control of itself.
The basic, overarching story being told was that “WWE Superstars fight in professional wrestling matches to prove that they are the best in their division”. There wasn't a single match that wasn't somehow justified by a connection to previous or future events; Big E faced Mark Henry because Mark walked out on The New Day last week, The Miz faced AJ Styles (in an excellent bout) because AJ had knocked one of Miz's teeth out a couple weeks ago, etc.
That foundation allows for several tangential narratives to intersect, break apart, begin anew, or flow into entirely unrelated yet comprehensible directions. These kinds of episodes happen at random, once or twice every two or three months, sometimes before or after a pay-per-view; it’s the most reliable pattern in the WWE today. The company seems to sense when fans become completely irritated by the sketch-heavy, nonsensical norm where matches and titles matter less than commentary and catchphrases, and so the booker occasionally “throws us a bone”, providing a television show that actually makes sense.
Despite all of the content the WWE must produce, it seems unfathomable that RAW couldn’t be consistently grounded in this way. The fact that the company is able to occasionally produce episodes that are coherent and rooted in the importance of athletic realism means that they’re capable of depicting that perspective. It means someone in the back knows what I’m writing about. And yet, this instantly accessible, user-friendly conceit rarely applies to RAW.
Stephanie McMahon replied to Dean Ambrose, “Oh we’ll get to the fighting, this is Monday Night Raw!” So, right from the start, she established that Monday Night Raw is a fighting show. That is what even the most casual of WWE viewers is looking for when they tune in to Monday Night Raw (not Miz TV segments or backstage shenanigans).
Simulated combat is what the WWE has to offer. That’s what makes it unique. That’s what makes it money. So that’s what they should do...consistently.
The promos were still over-produced and inauthentic, everyone straining to hit their tiny target and some succeeding better than others. That persistent, affected tone inevitably gets in the way of the talent’s ability to express themselves and really get over. Even a well-booked show like this one still creates several barriers between the viewer and the talent’s expression of real, human emotion (ironic considering the show’s title).
For example, Roman Reigns continues to smirk his way through every single one of his segments these days. It’s a visual that directly conflicts with his gimmick and what people have typically found entertaining about him.
It's hard not to think, "Who is this guy?" when he makes faces and gestures like this one:
His two reigns as WWE Champion have been completely forgotten by viewers and, seemingly, by Roman Reigns himself. He’s not the least bit angry about losing the title, doesn’t seem to care that he ever had the title, and continues ignoring the fact that a large portion of the audience refuses to accept him as a top babyface.
His exchange with Paul Heyman attempted to raise the stakes of the Fastlane Triple Threat Match, providing Roman Reigns a moral conflict in fighting for his family or fighting for his friendship with Dean (the only two defining traits of Roman up until this point, both of which get in the way of what's actually appealing about his style/look). Not only did Roman’s grinning and recitations undermine whatever drama that conflict was supposed to create, the segment ended with two awkward exchanges that made it completely unclear how anyone felt about anyone.
Roman Reigns and Paul Heyman shook hands and quietly nodded at one another, backing away in what I can only assume was an attempt to build Roman as a respectful, confident fighter? Then, after fending off The Dudley Boyz, Roman and Dean “joked around” about the fact that they’ll be fighting each other at Fastlane - once again grinning and milling about the ring.
Why is no one in the WWE World Heavyweight Championship story taking their own actions seriously? Would it be so bad for these characters to want something, to fight for something without behaving like good-time-loving wise guys?
Dean Ambrose continues to be proud of himself for punching Brock Lesnar in the balls (infringement on Taker's gimmick, of course), and he actually wants to be beaten up by Brock Lesnar because "he's just so crazy!"
Roman Reigns continues to be an entitled, implacable pleasant bro who might as well be shooting finger-guns at his fans when he enters the arena.
And Brock Lesnar is defined less by his beastly feats of strength and more by the fact that his penis is vulnerable to attack.
Triple H, the current WWE World Heavyweight Champion, has vanished from the space-time continuum.
The title might as well be vacant.
None of this means WrestleMania will be bad. In fact, if previous years are any indication, the build into WrestleMania will continue to be an incoherent mess that squanders everyone's potential, but the event itself will be nothing short of spectacular. That's not a sustainable model. And awkward segments where heels do babyface things and babyfaces do heel things and commentary sells none of it and Roman and Dean act like giddy teenagers serves to negate any potential emotional investment from the audience.
These moments lingered in the empty air, searching for an appropriate emotional response despite having created situations where there was no appropriate emotional response. The stank of awkward theater looms over such exchanges, a disheartening sense that someone messed something up and everyone is hoping no one noticed.
Viewers feel that in their bones, even when RAW is predominantly good. It’s not as though complacent diehards are more aware of this disjointed tone than the casual viewer. No one likes to see someone try too hard, especially when that person is booked as the best performer in the entire industry. These emotionally awkward scenes that fail to hit their mark result from a combination of writers/bookers who misunderstand the strengths of the performers and performers who haven’t had the time to develop a deeper understanding of their characters in a less visible, more contained environment.
The WWE and WWE fans demand pro-wrestlers be great at everything today.
That damages the television show.
It’s impossible for anyone to be great at everything. That environment encourages performers to waste their time trying to become decent at things they’re bad at rather than great at things they’re good at.
For example, Roman's obvious discomfort on the mic shouldn’t actually be a problem. But because the WWE and the WWE fans have been conditioned to believe in the all-important power of the mic, a guy like Roman is inevitably placed in situations that instantly detract from his allure. An entire generation of fans is chomping at the bit to see Roman flub a line. Or they're cringing their way through every single Roman-segment and just “hoping for the best”.
The WWE is in complete control of whether or not these situations exists, and yet every single week they shine a massive spotlight on everything Roman Reigns clearly isn’t comfortable with.
Imagine if I decided it was important to insert original poems into every single RAW REVIEW. Every week I’d expend so much energy on a task that I had created for myself, believing that it was one of the primary ways I'd get my point across. I would demand that you read these poems and I'd demand that you judged them based on the fact that I was “doing my best”. That would be an incredibly bad idea, a complete waste of my time, a complete waste of your time, and a complete misunderstanding of my strengths as a writer and why you read this review in the first place. I'd stunt my own growth and drag you down with me.
Roman should be focused on doing one thing incredibly well, and the story should be booked around that one thing. It’s unfair to everyone to do anything else with him. Scenes like his exchange with Paul Heyman are destined to leave a bad taste in viewer’s mouths and reinforce the criticisms of Roman Reigns and the criticisms of the company.
“Roman cuts a promo” should not even be a thought anyone running the show has at this point.
That's a lesson that should have been learned sixteen months ago.
Sadly, this is the kind of constructive criticism that’s instantly dismissed as “internet nonsense” or being “a hater”.
It’s nonsense to ignore frank observations of reality. Doing so transforms fans into disgruntled, disinterested former fans.
The WWE might think their fans demand that WWE Superstars be great in-ring performers and great talkers and have great physiques, but that’s only true if the WWE allows it to be true. If the company simply started telling stories based on the strengths of its performers, it would radically improve its content. Combining that simple directive with the basic narrative foundation of “simulated athletic competition”, and dropping that dismal third hour would cure a lot of the WWE’s present ills, and reinvigorate a beleaguered fan-base. The show would not magically become legitimately great, thoughtful, award-winning television if these changes were set in motion, but it would become, at the very least, watchable.
I can feel some commenters already tapping away about “advertisement revenue” and “The USA Network” and the “size of the roster” with regard to how that third hour will never be dropped. None of those observations make the third hour good. I have yet to hear an actual argument in defense of why Monday Night Raw should remain three hours. Whatever reasons the third hour persists, it continues to be one of the WWE's biggest, most unnecessary hurdles.
All of the WWE's issues are resultant from the WWE's choices - nothing else. The WWE creates the conditions under which they must produce, and every week it seems like they're struggling to cope with an increasingly difficult, increasingly grueling schedule.
It's no coincidence that the roster behaves in a manner that reflects the behavior of the company.
Cut the chaff, WWE. Much like your talent, you're demanding too much of yourself. You're attempting to do five hundred things adequately instead of doing five things better than any other company in the world.
You have the power to simplify your process, to reign in your creation, to shine a massive spotlight on your strengths, hide your weaknesses, and encourage your viewers to start having fun again.
They'll applaud you for it.