THE RAW REVIEW
This year’s WrestleMania card is fairly well-rounded, promising several potentially satisfying bouts designed to appeal to a wide range of wrestling fans. From The Divas Title match to Shane’s war for control over RAW (and several narratives in-between) the stakes are appropriately high and fans will likely be treated to some pop-worthy, memorable moments. Even the main event fight for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship between Roman Reigns and Triple H may overcome expectations (and biases) to deliver, at the very least, a good professional wrestling match.
On paper, this is one of the more solid cards in years despite how inconsistent and, at times, unexciting the build has been.
And that’s where the WWE can learn a valuable lesson if it dared to critique itself. WrestleMania will likely be a success despite everything Monday Night Raw has been for the past several years (let alone several months). Very little of what television viewers have actually seen on RAW has helped build these potentially exciting matches at WrestleMania 32. There is very little direct correlation between RAW’s promos, vignettes, matches, and backstage segments and the reason people will watch WrestleMania.
For example, The Divas Title match is one of the most anticipated matches. Is that because of what fans have seen Charlotte, Sasha, and Becky Lynch do on RAW over the past month or is that because ticket-buyers and Network-subscribes are also NXT fans who saw these womens’ stories play out in a more coherent fashion in 2014 when they still wrestled in NXT?
Save the match between Shane McMahon and The Undertaker, none of the stories for these matches have been carefully laid out in a consistent manner that builds toward the promised Mania climax. We’ve seen very few vignettes and heard very few promos related to the primary matches. And those promos and vignettes and backstage segments that we have seen, particularly revolving around the WWE World Heavyweight Championship match, feel oddly disconnected from a painfully obvious reality.
For weeks, Triple H and The Authority have been hammering home the idea that we (the audience) are “just like Roman Reigns”. Over and over, promo after promo, The Authority has droned through the blatant boos in the disingenuous attempt to convince viewers that WWE fans and Roman Reigns are synonymous. We wouldn’t boo ourselves after all. And we have to like a guy who is just like us, someone who hates The Authority and dreams of becoming WWE World Heavyweight Champion…right?
Choosing to tell the story in that manner ignores the larger, real story of how a vocal portion of the audience refuses to accept Roman Reigns as the WWE’s top babyface. In telling a story that directly contradicts that oppressive reality, the WWE negates the potential for an emotional investment in that main event for all viewers (people who like Roman and people who hate Roman). Had the WWE audience’s reaction to Roman been somehow woven into the fabric of his battle with Triple H, then there would be a direct correlation between the events of Monday Night Raw and the inevitable reaction he gets at WrestleMania. Instead, the company has opted to play deaf and dumb and forge ahead, hoping that the audience would eventually get on the same page as the transparent booking.
In professional wrestling storytelling, purposefully ignoring the response of audiences breaks the medium's established fiction, strengthens the disconnect between storyteller and listener, and fails to capitalize on organic heat. Imagine watching a film where the hero inexplicably trades places with the villain in the last thirty minutes without any explanation whatsoever. That would be jarring, and it would contradict everything viewers had witnessed prior.
That’s exactly what we’ll be getting in the main event of WrestleMania, and that represents not merely a failure to humbly take input from the audience, it represents a failure to tell a story in the medium of professional wrestling.
In professional wrestling, the audience is inherently a part of the medium’s fiction. Crowds are kayfabe, even if they don’t realize it. They’re there to attend a sporting event to watch titles change hands and their favorite athlete win, lose, or draw. In allowing a large portion of their audience to go on booing Roman Reigns without incorporating that response into their fiction in the slightest, the WWE continues to compromise the integrity of their established fiction and permit fans to be abstract observers responding to booking decisions rather than contribute to the story as a form of narrative accompaniment.
The WWE’s current booking philosophy allows audiences to appear smarter than the WWE. And that’s why it’s so confounding that the WWE wouldn’t incorporate crowd reactions into its fiction to its own benefit. The company eventually did so with John Cena, to the point where hearing “Let’s go Cena/Cena Sucks” is a draw. The fact that that duel-chant is a draw is not indicative of Cena’s success as the universally beloved white meat babyface the WWE booked him to be, however. That chant being a draw is indicative of the WWE audience finding a way to entertain themselves despite the WWE’s failure to successfully create the characters and tell the stories that they originally wanted to.
With Roman Reigns, there currently is no way for audiences to entertain themselves outside of seeing how loud and passionately negative the response to him will be at WrestleMania. Some fans are salivating to hear just how bad it’s going to be. Fans are excited to help make it as bad as it can possibly be. Roman’s supporters certainly want to see him defeat Triple H, but they’re also inevitably contending with his detractors. They’re cheering to fight the naysayers, to try their hardest to get a “Let’s go Roman” chant going.
No one is invested in a story, though.
They’re just invested in their reaction.
That does a disservice to the championship Triple H tries his hardest to raise up as an indicator of athletic greatness. That does a disservice to the WrestleMania main event which has continued to epitomize Vince McMahon’s blatant disconnect with television viewers for the past several years.
Despite all of this, I’m still confident I’ll enjoy watching WrestleMania.
You can’t choose your family, after all, and in the world of professional wrestling the WWE is my family. Promotions like Insane Championship Wrestling and Lucha Underground are my friends. As difficult as it is to live with your family, as angry as they make you, as stubborn and foolish as they might appear, you can hopefully still have some fun with them on Christmas morning.
And WrestleMania is the WWE family’s Christmas morning…
Normally, I would end on that note. It's a good go-home sentiment for this RAW REVIEW; something halfway between hopeful and frustrated, summing up exactly what it's like to be a diehard WWE fan.
Instead, I will write that the WWE is not my actual family.
WrestleMania is not Christmas morning.
WrestleMania is a show.
Monday Night Raw is a television show.
I could choose to stop watching it.
I could choose to cancel my WWE Network subscription.
Instead, I choose to give the WWE my money and my viewership primarily because I write this weekly column. That’s why I do it. Not because I enjoy RAW, and not because I think it’s good television worth sacrificing three hours of my life every single week when I could be spending that valuable time with my wife and my dog.
I love writing this column. I love my website and I love my podcast. I love the fact that I get the chance to reach people every single week in an effort to prove that professional wrestling is an art. We bond over this shared passion, reaffirming why it's good to be a wrestling fan.
That’s my incentive every week. That’s why I go on writing when I absolutely do not want to write.
I love professional wrestling and the WWE just happens to be the Disney of professional wrestling. It’s just there, whether it’s good or not. But if I didn’t have this website or my podcast, rest assured, I would not be watching at this time. I would have taken a hiatus as I have many times in the past before I had created my own incentive to remain engaged with the product. It is, very simply, a bad television show that fails to tell stories using the tools of its chosen medium.
The idea that the “WWE is my family and that I’m stuck with them whether I like it or not” is the group-think nonsense that the company wants me to believe. That’s the power of massive Disney-Mac-Marvel-like organizations. They can re-write reality and re-write your mind, manipulating you to believe what they want you to believe in an effort to loosen your pursestrings and nab a few extra coins. That's the only effective story the WWE tells anymore.
I can’t safely write that the company doesn’t have that hold on me to some degree, but I can confidently write that The Raw Review, The Work of Wrestling, and the people who read and listen to what I create has a much stronger hold on me than the WWE’s Sports Entertainment family-fantasy.
I'm still doing this because I love writing, not because the WWE is my "family".
Every time you hear Triple H or Vince McMahon or Stephanie McMahon break kayfabe in some WWE 24 Network special and talk about how the fans are their “focus group” and how “none of this would exist without the WWE Universe” and why, at the end of the day, it’s all for “us”, remind yourself how true that actually feels, remind yourself of how pleasant that fiction is, and how, in those moments, you feel happy to be a “member of the family”, and how, despite all the bad times, despite how unbearable RAW remains, you go on looking forward to Christmas morning, and you’re happy to pick up a couple tee-shirts along the way, make a few signs, and “do whatever you want” from the cheap seats.