THE RAW REVIEW
This week's episode of Monday Night Raw, as well as this build into WrestleMania 32, embodies the WWE's failure to craft coherent, entertaining television in 2016. Everything that I've critiqued about the flagship series for the past several years has escalated in recent weeks, making it harder and harder to sustain any interest or passion for the product.
There are certainly fans who enjoy the show in its current state, fans who don't "get" what all the fuss is about, fans who have fun cheering who they're supposed to cheer and booing who they're supposed to boo. I have no intention of begrudging those viewers their fun, and I also have no interest in championing those who relentlessly complain about every one of WWE's creative decisions.
I will always analyze and celebrate the WWE's successes as passionately as I analyze their failures.
But there are some unavoidable basics about this television program that are getting in the way of it being (at the very least) watchable, let alone legitimately "good TV" comparable to other engrossing modern dramas or sporting events. Beyond the two extreme perspectives that make up today's WWE audience - the WWE can do no wrong because it's "just entertainment" and the WWE can do no right because "Vince McMahon is out of touch" - remains a simpler, more realistic perspective on the current product.
Monday Night Raw is simply inaccessible at three hours long.
Many viewers explain that they DVR the show or watch it on HuluPlus (as I did this week), so as to skip everything that's clearly non-essential. Viewers of any television show should not have to do that to enjoy the product. Like consuming a meal, a patron must taste and savor the entire experience in order to adequately have that experience. If the patron stops eating mid-bite, gets up and leaves the restaurant for fifteen minutes, comes back and eats the rest of their cold dinner, gets up and goes to a different restaurant for thirty minutes, and then comes back for dessert, then they're not having dinner in the way dinner's fundamental nature dictates.
No viewer, casual or otherwise, should ever need to go beyond what the program itself (or the art itself) offers in order to have the full experience. Similarly, no viewer should ever need to disengage from the program in order to have a manageable experience of that program.
When you watch Star Wars, you don't need to go to www.starwars.com to comprehend why Luke Skywalker wants to leave Tattooine. You don't need to take a break from watching Star Wars because it's just "too long" or there's too much "filler". It's all there, in a self-contained experience, catering to the basics of how human beings consume a story and absorb art.
Star Wars tries, every single minute, to keep you engaged by telling an accessible story.
Monday Night Raw is attempting to shove a square peg into a circular hole, defying everything people know about good storytelling, and particularly everything they know about good pro-wrestling. At three-hours, the fundamental construction of the show dictates that it be consumed piecemeal, that viewers fade in and out, catering to their own attention span, picking and choosing what interests them or catching up via YouTube clips or WWE.com results posts the next day. Nothing that happens live on RAW is essential anymore. By design, it's obsolete, asking that the audience define their own experience of the product.
That basic construction (which is an abject failure) means the show cannot do what it must do in order to tell a story.
A good story demands unbroken attention. A good story has structure. A good story provides incentives throughout its telling, luring viewers in and encouraging them to remain engaged. "Fanboys" and "fangirls" and "haters" provide their own incentives to continually watching a non-story like Monday Night Raw. They fill in the blatant blanks. They will do the work the WWE requires of them to remain an engaged viewer. Defending their point of view and seeing what they want to see is their form of entertainment.
That process is not experiencing a story. It's experiencing yourself.
The WWE is making suggestions, not stories, in an effort to convince you, consciously or otherwise, to continue having a narrow experience of your specific point of view: watch WrestleMania, please. Cheer Roman Reigns, please. Or boo Roman Reigns, you can do whatever you want. Roman Reigns is just like you, isn't he? The Divas are more important now, because that's what you wanted, right? Kevin Owens is a prize fighter, isn't he? This Sami Zayn guy is fun, huh? AJ Styles is phenomenal! Check out this new original show on the Network, please. Watch Total Divas, please. Come back at the top of the hour, please. NXT is awesome, right?! Tee-shirts are 20% by the way! Show your WWE-pride and your personality by purchasing this new Kevin Owens shirt.
Storytelling is telling...not a limp suggestion designed exclusively to generate clicks, hits, and dollar bills. It takes confidence and intelligence and foresight to tell a good story.
Pro-wrestling, the medium Vince McMahon works in no matter how much he hates that simple fact, does not work when it is shoved into the construct of variety television. It is impossible for a general television audience to sustain any interest in RAW for three consistent hours, and the WWE knows this, and the WWE embraces this to its own misfortune (this is without evaluating the quality of the performances, the dialogue, the art direction, the camera work, the commentary, the delivery, and the entire conceit, or lack thereof, of this flagship series).
All of this comes down to one man's bad taste.
Vince McMahon's taste-level is revealed in a product that flows primarily from his unchallenged point of view. He's created a television monster that doesn't aspire to sustain a viewer's interest for the entirety of its broadcast, an incoherent, rambling patchwork of "entertainment" that's as shallow as it is uninspired. And the only way in which he and the company is effective is in cultivating a relentless group-think among its fanbase and re-writing their expectations of professional wrestling and their understanding of what qualifies as "entertainment".
When RAW was informed by different perspectives, strong personalities who would challenge Vince McMahon's booking, creative people who had a vested interest in understanding what general television viewers actually wanted, and confident, experienced performers who knew how to capitalize on creative freedom, it was good television.
There were certainly regrettable, nonsensical segments in 1997 & 1998 too (and those were similarly indicative of Vince McMahon's poor taste), but the successes outweighed the failures because people more talented and intelligent than Vince McMahon helped build an entertaining television show.
The WWE continues to be what it is because the taste-level and the intelligence of the people running today's show simply isn't where it needs to be for RAW to ever compete (in any capacity) with the rest of modern television. Turn on any other network or streaming service and you will find an avalanche of undeniable quality, intelligent shows of all genres appealing to all audiences, diverse and inviting dramas and thoughtful comedies brought to you by show-runners and producers with coherent visions, an unwavering confidence in their products, and an understanding of what their established viewership craves.
Last night, I spent my time by watching one such show with my wife instead of watching RAW. I didn't care about WWE in the slightest for those three hours. I didn't give WrestleMania a second thought.
That's what happens when you defer responsibility to your audience's attention span and train them to pick and choose how they consume your product.
Eventually, they just stop caring.