THE RAW REVIEW
To tell a good story, it helps to have a basic respect for human beings.
It also helps if the storyteller appeals to the most intelligent members of their audience rather than assuming everyone is a wide-eyed, open-mouthed, passive buffoon who wants to see anything happen.
When human beings are told, convincingly, that “B comes after A” they settle into a place of comfort. They start to like the idea that B comes after A. They start to rely on the idea that B comes after A. Before long, the idea that B comes after A transforms into an irrefutable fact in their minds.
So, when it's unexpectedly suggested that B does not necessarily come after A, a part of their mind breaks. Their mental and emotional investment in something they once regarded as a fact is shaken, and they are left confused, angry, and, at worst, utterly disinterested.
Last week, the WWE very clearly, very definitively told its viewers that Dean Ambrose was going to face Brock Lesnar in a No Holds Barred Street Fight at WrestleMania.
Last week, the WWE very clearly, very definitively told its viewers that Triple H was going to face Roman Reigns for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at WrestleMania.
This week the WWE told its viewers all of that…maybe, kinda sorta, might not actually happen even though it’s actually, probably, definitely still going to happen.
Rather than build upon the solid foundation that had been set in place just seven days prior, the WWE halted construction of its primary narratives and broke them off into inevitably useless tangents transparently designed to squeeze in another Network special before Mania. And if these tangents actually do materialize into something new and more reliable, then the company will have invalidated the good of last week’s RAW (if they haven’t already). This upcoming Network special is appropriately titled Roadblock, as it represents a completely unwanted narrative roadblock that the company never needed to create for itself. Or, it’s a story that should have been told last week, before the idea of Dean Ambrose facing Brock Lesnar was ever put in people’s minds. Forget for a moment that you’re likely a smart mark who can work out all the reasons that the WWE is going down this little Dean Ambrose vs Triple H path prior to Mania, and focus instead on what the WWE is actually offering its viewers.
We are told that Triple H is facing Dean Ambrose at Roadblock for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, but we are also constantly shown graphics (on RAW, WWE.com, and social media) that continue promoting the already established Mania matches between Brock & Dean and Triple H & Roman Reigns.
All the while, none of the characters in the WWE’s fiction expressly wonder, “What happens to those Mania matches if Dean Ambrose defeats Triple H?” Dean alluded to this possibility during his opening promo with Triple H, but nothing was made clear in the slightest, and commentary barely addressed this possible outcome, instead simply reiterating that the match might happen.
The casual viewer will certainly ask that question, and they’ll be worked into a state of confusion not anticipation for Roadblock or WrestleMania. The smart viewer will roll their eyes at the tease of Dean potentially winning, and recognize Roadblock for what it is; a last ditch effort at Network-buys. Then another sect of viewers will sincerely wonder, “Well what if Dean does win because WWE doesn't want the WrestleMania crowd to boo Roman's inevitable victory? Will they make the WreslteMania main event a Fatal Four-Way match between Triple H, Dean Ambrose, Roman Reigns, and Brock Lesnar?”
Suddenly, everyone is guessing what’s going to happen (in a bad way) or complaining about what is happening instead of listening to a story. Last week I remember how excited viewers were that Brock Lesnar was going to face Dean Ambrose at WrestleMania. I recall no consensus among WWE-viewers this week other than the fact that this episode of RAW was terrible. The goodwill and the excitement created by a good episode of RAW has once again been negated.
That represents absolute failure on the WWE’s part. Fans should be absorbed in a story, eager to see where it goes rather than questioning where it’s going. The Roadblock drama is entirely nonexistent and two of the biggest WrestleMania matches suddenly have the stank of inconsistent booking. Nothing seems as important as it once did just seven days ago.
Characters who seemed decisive and passionate last week now seem stupid and incapable.
The negative reaction to Triple H vs Roman Reigns at WrestleMania was mostly quelled by Shane McMahon's return and Triple H's bloody Roman-beatdown at the conclusion of last week's episode. Everything was fine. No extra fiddling was required. Everything was finally, at long last, on the right track and we could all be excited about WrestleMania again.
This was a week where other stories leading to other WrestleMania matches should have been fleshed out; Kevin Owens currently has no Mania match and he's getting count out against The Big Show while the New Day are now defending their titles against Y2AJ next week while Kalisto is sometimes a singles competitor and sometimes still a member of The Lucha Dragons?
Last week Dean Ambrose wanted to face Brock Lesnar enough to endure a F-5 to the floor. This week he wants to be WWE World Heavyweight Champion because he thinks Triple H is afraid of him?
What happens after Roadblock? If he loses, does he go back to wanting to face Brock? How does that make Dean Ambrose (an increasingly cartoonish and indecisive gimmick) look? How does this make Brock Lesnar look? Is he a Beast hungry to decimate the man he thinks ruined his chance to fight for the title at Mania, or is he an afterthought eating Triple H’s scraps? Then there’s Roman…made conspicuous by his absence, despised by diehard fans, limply supported by others, grinning his way to the top. How does he factor into this as anything other than the company’s chosen babyface who possesses very few babyface qualities and who fans just don't like as much as Dean Ambrose (or even Triple H).
The company has revealed in the past that despite announcing matches several weeks in advance of a pay-per-view, they have no qualms about completely altering stories, negating logical threads, and re-writing what’s been written in an effort to make it look like “that’s what they had planned all along”. The main event at WrestleMania could still, very easily, become anything despite the posters and the graphics and the definitive announcements and the stories that have been told for the past twelve months. It is utterly impossible, at this point, to rely upon anything the WWE tells its viewers; tell the audience that a match is happening, immediately cast doubt on that announcement simply to drag out the experience, return to the original announcement anyway or, in the eleventh hour, completely rewrite the booking to accommodate an unnecessarily convoluted plot. No other successful organization promotes itself in that way.
This style of promotion represents an absolute marketing failure.
WWE viewers shouldn't have even seen Triple H and Dean Ambrose in the same ring at the same time unless the company had serious designs to put Dean in the main event.
Fans have labelled this process the WWE’s schizophrenia, an inability to commit to a creative decision and let it play out over the course of several weeks in a coherent fashion. While some of the WWE’s decisions are obviously resultant from poor creative, this haphazard style of booking is more the result of the company’s efforts to rewrite the fundamental nature of professional wrestling (or its brand of pro-wrestling dubbed “Sports Entertainment”).
The WWE wants to be McDonalds, shoving fast, sanitary experiences through a tiny window into the mouths of its patrons. The experience doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting in and getting out as quickly as possible, coherence and quality be damned - the food doesn't need to look like the picture on the menu, it just needs to get close enough.
Some critics might argue that today’s viewership demands that kind of experience, that it’s all “short attention span theater”.
Audiences demand good stories - now and forever. And any storyteller who objects to this is not a storyteller but a cheep charlatan who’s not as smart as he thinks he is and is content to create the wrong kind of audience in the first place.
Sometimes stories are fast. Sometimes stories are slow.
But they have to be stories; not vapid, meaningless flashes of style devoid of substance. Professional wrestling is not fast food, and it fails when it tries to be. Even the WWE’s Disney-brand of pro-wrestling succeeds only when style enhances substance. And this latest cheap trick, this attempt to capitalize on the fact that people prefer Dean to Roman is a blood-curdling “creative” decision that gets in the way of everything people were excited about last week.
The trust between storyteller and listener is sacred, synonymous with the bond between deity and disciple. To violate that trust, to manipulate the disciple into tossing a few extra coins into the collection plate is nothing short of disgusting. It’s also an inherently flawed business model. It’s a dumb way to get people to give you more money, because it’s easy to see through. The smart way to get sheep to be sheep is to make them feel good about being sheep, not to guilt them or cajole them or fiddle with the pleasant fiction they’ve already accepted. There are very few WWE fans who feel really good about being WWE fans today. We have to excuse our fandom. We have to rationalize why we keep watching.
A successful storyteller strengthens the bond their audience has with an already established fiction rather than tacking on a paywall designed to distract from a complete lack of confidence and creativity.
Even though Roadblock simply should not exist, there’s a way to sell Roadblock that doesn’t contradict what the company set in motion on last week’s RAW and that doesn’t inevitably detract from WrestleMania (and even Fastlane - why did Fastlane happen if it didn’t set the WrestleMania card in stone?).
At this point, why bother announcing any WrestleMania match before the day of Mania itself?
Some fans, and even the WWE, might argue that we just need to “wait and see”, that there’s a good reason Dean and Triple H are facing each other and that it could actually enhance the announced WrestleMania matches. That kind of excuse-oriented thought-pattern and phraseology is the bastion of bad storytellers. Telling an audience to “wait and see” or attempting to find a way for the WWE to not be wrong is an incredibly easy way to build a creative trap door and distract from the fact that a good story just isn’t being told.
Good storytellers don't rely on excuses or explanations or anything other than the story they tell. They're strong and confident and inviting.
If the WWE's design, all along, was to create anything other than Triple H vs Roman in the main event and Dean vs Brock in a street fight then they should have told that story. They should have made it clear that the WrestleMania main event was still up in the air following FastLane, rather than expressly state, in a myriad of ways, that Triple H was defending his title against whomever won the triple threat between Dean, Roman, and Brock Lesnar.
Why doesn't Brock Lesnar just get in Triple H's face next week and demand a title shot?
Why doesn't everyone on the roster follow Dean's lead now and just irritate Triple H into handing out title shot after title shot for Network special after Network special leading into WrestleMania?
If the plan remains to stick to the stories established last week, why sully them with tangents that just don't matter?
The WWE doesn’t seem to care that telling a consistent story is the path toward creating a deeper emotional investment and, therefore, receiving a greater financial investment from their viewers. They get just enough support to keep doing nothing other than rely upon their past glory whilst dangling a series of shiny objects in front of fans’ faces.
Shiny objects certainly convince some people to buy in, but that style of salesmanship ignores the kind of viewer the WWE spent thirty years creating - the kind of viewer who is already subscribed to the Network and who already tunes in to Monday Night Raw despite the blatant vapidity, inconsistency, and downright idiocy of the flagship program.
For me, Roadblock simply does not exist…because it doesn’t. It could very easily amount to nothing. And, if it amounts to something, there’s no guarantee it won’t similarly amount to nothing just a week later. There is no reason to believe the WWE. There is no incentive to care about what the WWE does on The Road To WrestleMania.
That’s the problem with trying to become something you are not.
You lose your identity and transform into a non-entity, a non-factor that is easily dismissed and easily disregarded as a shadow of its former self.