THE RAW REVIEW
“Was RAW good?” my wife asked when she noticed the show fade to black on my laptop. I could hear the hope in her voice, the earnest desire of any good spouse to know their partner is happy.
“I don’t know,” I sighed. She laughed in reply, accustomed to the sometimes indescribable angst any episode of Monday Night Raw inspires in me.
“It was crowd pleasing…” I explained, “…but that doesn’t make it good.”
And that sums up my experience of this week’s RAW. I can’t honestly describe it as legitimately good, but I recognize, perhaps all too easily, how this episode was designed to make me, and other “internet fans” happy. That’s certainly an improvement over Authority-run episodes that lack structure, sincerity, or any sort of positive emphasis on the talent roster.
The Authority, as characters, simply can’t believe that the entire roster is made up of interesting, exciting, strong athletes capable of one day being “top gal/guy”. The Authority must regard the roster as expandable cogs in a self-sustaining corporate machine; that’s their gimmick. The inherent flaw in that dynamic is that the presentation becomes the reality; almost everyone in the WWE, save a select few, seem like failures destined to rot in mid-card oblivion when Triple H & Stephanie are “in control” of Monday Night Raw.
That's why it's best for The Authority to end during this transitional period in the roster. For the WWE to successfully re-shape itself and bring life and excitement back to the show, the emphasis must remain upon the excellence and the potential of its talent. Shane McMahon brings that positive perspective to the show. This episode weaved Shane McMahon throughout RAW in a more coherent way this week. He had a more tangible affect on the episode’s events. Cutaways to the back revealed a world that exists beyond the arena-exterior, where Shane is slowly and steadily gaining control of the WWE’s flagship series along with an influx of fresh talent whose personalities and remarkable athleticism brings life to a once creatively stagnant, three-hour slog.
Matches like Cesaro vs Owens, and particularly Zayn vs AJ Styles were thrilling, logical tangents to the WWE World Heavyweight Championship story. Natalya and Charlotte had an excellent Women’s Championship match that continued to help define the Women’s Division as the opposite of everything the WWE conditioned its audience to expect from women’s segments in the past (that match had the best organic pop of the night when Nattie avoided Charlotte’s moonsault and locked in The Sharpshooter). And the main event tag match that ended with Roman Reigns and Bray Wyatt staring each other down hinted at what might come in the future; this interaction contributed to the sense that Roman has a target on his heart, and that every member of this young, passionate roster is gunning for his Championship.
The positives are obviously there, and mostly outweigh the negatives.
It’s easy to label any criticisms leveled against this episode or this creative direction as “splitting hairs” or “jaded” or “cynical”, but it’s still important to consider how much power the WWE keeps giving its “WWE Universe”, and whether or not that’s a good idea.
The conceit of this episode was that “Due to overwhelming social media support” Shane McMahon would once again be in control of Monday Night Raw.
Should this really be what Monday Night Raw is - a kind of choose your own adventure, audience-participation extravaganza?
The irony is that Shane was "put in control" of RAW most likely because that's the story the WWE is currently telling. It had nothing to do with reality and nothing to do with social media (I hope), and if it did, it's simply because Vince McMahon, in real-life, decided to keep Shane as the figurative showrunner. That Tweet about "social media support" is a work (staged), and yet a large portion of the audience will believe it's true. So any casual fans who are still watching are encouraged to become "internet fans". And even those who know it's a work are still emboldened to believe they're "making it happen", that they're affecting change in the WWE. They recognize it's the kind of work designed to appeal to them. It's a form of audience manipulation that has a negative result; the storyteller willingly gives up their power, falsely thinking it's a means of maintaining power.
At what point am I no longer watching a television show about “WWE Superstars”? At what point am I watching a television show about a main character named “The WWE Universe”?
I can’t relate with a crowd of indiscernible faces. It’s even harder to relate or emotionally connect with an idea like “social media support”. I know what it is and I know what it means - I use Twitter & Facebook & Instagram and I interact with readers, listeners, and pro-wrestling lovers in typically quick, fun exchanges about why certain things are great and why certain things aren’t so great. I see gifs, emojis, abbreviations, hashtags, and hearts serving as the modern hieroglyphs - an abstract, yet quick means of summing up the nuances of human emotion.
I enjoy it. But I enjoy it on the platforms & mediums they're meant for - not as an integral part of a scripted television series. When I watch television, I want to see human beings physically act out the emotions that emojis simply can't (and aren't really designed to) encapsulate. Professional wrestling, even Vince McMahon's "Sports Entertainment", succeeds through representing the nuances of human emotion and human psychology.
More and more, Monday Night Raw has become about social media, not about characters. It's less RAW and more @Midnight.
Every time a babyface wrestler looks to the crowd for permission, every time Shane McMahon says, “Because of you...”, and every time commentary starts talking about “the crazy crowd”, a regrettable disconnect occurs; the actual story ceases to be about the conflicts in the WWE’s fiction and it instead becomes about the real-world moods of WWE-viewers expressed at live events and through social media.
The Authority does what they do to infuriate “The WWE Universe” and Shane McMahon does what he does to satisfy “The WWE Universe”. That doesn’t really represent change. That's not the "new creative direction" the WWE sorely needs. That's just two extremes, and extremes ultimately blend into the same perspective.
Most diehard fans will just see “The WWE is finally listening” or “The WWE is giving us what we want”. Let’s wait and see what happens when Triple H and Stephanie inevitably return. Let's wait and see what the armchair critics have to say about the show then. We’ve been here before, following the Survivor Series where Dolph Ziggler put The Authority out of business. The episodes of RAW that followed were run by a series of random General Managers like Daniel Bryan and the Anonymous RAW GM.
Those weren’t good episodes of television (in fact, I dare anyone to remember a single one of them); those episodes were symptoms of the WWE’s obsession with the spoiled children they've created over the past fifteen years. These latest crowd-pleasing episodes are certainly better, and indicative of incremental improvement, but they're not too different. There is an extremely fine line between “The WWE is giving us what we want” and outright pandering to the already bloated ego of “The Internet”. We're trapped in a creative loop, and only time will tell whether or not that loop is finally breaking.
As is, it’s still all about "The WWE Universe”, and that is not nearly as interesting or engaging as those moments where characters interact with one another due to some disagreement they have or an alliance they’ve struck.
For example, Shane McMahon’s exchanges with Kevin Owens were spectacular in this episode because it wasn’t about anything other than what motivated Kevin Owens. Shane got the opportunity to flex his muscle as The Showrunner, throwing Owens out of the building, and Owens got the chance to continue building his heel personae (incredibly important after taking a loss in the first match of the night).
This heated exchange also carried into the match between AJ Styles & Sami Zayn. Shane’s desire to protect Sami from Kevin and preserve the match revealed how much Shane cared about the match, which then made the match seem that much more important. Following Sami & AJ’s match, the glimpse into the back where AJ pat Sami on the back, and Shane congratulated both of them on a great contest, provided closure to that particular thread and also continued to flesh out four distinct personalities. It was also an original moment to see two wrestlers, post-match, in the back, the victor giving the loser a pep-talk of sorts, and then the showrunner thanking both of them for their effort.
This is the kind of segment - a self-contained, hour-long drama in the center of RAW - that demonstrates a certain degree of confidence and strength on the part of RAW’s storytellers. There was no need to check in with the crowd to see how they felt about every single narrative turn - the crowd was primarily the auditory accompaniment (the way it should be).
In future episodes, it would benefit the WWE to rely more on that narrative model rather than one where the mood of the crowd is more important than anything else.
We have witnessed, again and again, the kind of disrespectful audience born out of the perspective that “The WWE puts smiles on faces”. Those smiles inevitably turn to frowns, because masses of needy consumers who’ve been conditioned to think “it’s all for them” find ways to become complacent, obnoxious, and hijack and disrupt shows even when those shows are blatantly giving them everything they’ve always wanted.
When the crowd is represented as the primary agent of change in the WWE, then that creates a missed opportunity for a beloved professional wrestler to become a top babyface. Agency is stripped from the roster, and WWE Superstars morph into expendable cogs in yet another massive machine; they become bump-puppets fighting for "This is awesome" chants rather than the conductors of a pro-wrestling symphony.
How is that not another form of the unattainable "brass ring" or the unbreakable "glass ceiling"? In that kind of WWE-world, the crowd ends up cheering for themselves, not for their chosen heroes, and wrestlers take greater physical risks.
The WWE simply needs to restore power to the roster, and start telling good stories about interesting characters rather than making some smark behind a keyboard happy or miserable. It has never made sense to defer to that kind of wrestling fan; but that’s what the WWE has been doing for quite some time.
Fortunately, the company now has a solid foundation to build upon, one where “The WWE Universe” is no longer the end all be all of RAW, but rather the background noise they’re meant to be. Roman Reigns is steadily defining his character, Shane McMahon’s positive perspective on the young roster contributes to a more energetic atmosphere, excellent talents are getting enough time to have memorable matches, and the Women’s Division is incredibly strong. All of this allows the company to divert attention away from “social media” and “crowd reactions”, and keep the emphasis on the dramas and conflicts of WWE Superstars where it belongs.
A “crowd-pleasing” RAW is a RAW that can be too easily undone by the return of a heel authority-figure, and that’s why I can’t regard RAW as “good television” just yet. There is some permanence to “good television”. It’s reliable, and it’s not easily dictated or derailed by the whims of its audience or even the whims of its showrunner. It’s just good, and it knows it’s good.
I look forward to the day when my wife asks me, "Was RAW good?" and I can reply, without qualification, "Yes. It was."