For the first time in about two years, I had unapologetic fun watching Monday Night Raw.

And although it was the “Raw after Mania”, which is often a good episode, the fun I had wasn’t related to the raucous post-Mania crowd (quite the opposite, in fact). The audience is usually the main attraction of the post-Mania RAW, but this week the crowd only managed to get in the way of the show. RAW was better than the crowd this week and that’s the way it should always be because the crowd is the crowd…they’re not performers risking their lives to tell stories.

For too long the WWE has permitted the crowd to be “more important” or “better than” the show itself, and that stems from a modern booking philosophy designed to make money from the "internet fans" rather than tell good stories for a general, television audience.

Despite what the WWE tells you during Hall of Fame speeches about how “none of this would be possible without you”, I promise you that it’s entirely possible without you.

We members of the audience are not, and never will be, as important as the people wrestling inside the squared circle. This goes for all arts and all audiences.

Sure, most artists want an audience and, if they’re not a dick, they’re grateful for that audience. They don’t want to be the proverbial tree in the woods that no one heard. That would negate the purpose of most art. But also, good artists don’t do what they do for feedback or specifically for their fans or because they find a reason to do it through the presence of an observer. Bad art tends to be art that transparently answers the requests of the audience. Self-conscious, weak art lets you think you have a hand in shaping that art, and that your reaction to it is somehow integral to the fact that the art exists in the first place.

The medium and the work is the reason good artists create.

All that comes after is secondary. Good audiences understand that and they don’t feel any need to resist that. They find joy and satisfaction in their relationship with the artist and the moods that artist's work inspires. If a particular member of an audience does have an issue with that simple reality, and they don’t like the idea that their voice is inherently less important than the voice of the artist, then they’ll hopefully be inspired to create their own art and find their own audience rather than insist the artist cater to their needs.

That’s how things used to be...before the internet made it so easy for people to believe every thought they have (no matter how underdeveloped, stupid, or insulting) is worth expressing.

Thanks to comments sections and the ease of access audiences have to artists, the audience now thinks it has the right to dictate what the artist does, and the audience even thinks it knows the work better than the artist who created that work. This becomes a self-fulfilling and destructive prophecy wherein originality and talent goes to die, and complacency thrives. The line between constructive criticism and useless mind-sludge has been blurred, and people have been emboldened to believe everything they say, think, and do is incredibly important without the need to put much work into the formulation or expression of their thoughts.

Wrestlers aren’t paying to see us sit in folding chairs and scream in unison, “Hey, we want some Bayley!”. And they never will. The WWE can’t afford to sincerely tell you that your “clever” chants are incredibly annoying and disrespectful, and that those chants are so much less important than what the talent says and thinks and does.

But I can.

You don’t make professional wrestling happen.

Professional wrestling makes you happen.

You are not better than RAW and you should not be encouraged to think you are better than RAW. The fact that you currently think that is resultant from the fact that the WWE has conditioned you to think that. For the past several years they’ve encouraged you to believe you have the power, that your smile is the most important part of the experience, and that your pick for “top guy” should always be the “top guy”. That pandering lie is designed to make the company more money.

It’s a business model, not the truth.

That business model has simply revealed itself to be less effective than one that places an emphasis on the importance of the talent rather than the importance of the "WWE Universe". It's a business model that has led to a disconnect between the storyteller and their audience, where the audience believes their valuable input isn't being taken into consideration rather than a situation where the audience merely observes the evolution of a story. It's a business model that diminishes the value of the wrestler and puts too much value on the fan.

And that’s the very simple reason why this episode of RAW was so much better than so many others. The talent roster, not the WWE fans, was the main attraction of the episode. That, and that alone, distinguishes this RAW from almost every other episode in recent memory. Ironically enough, the crowd will think the WWE designed this episode according to the crowds wants and needs when, in fact, this episode was designed first and foremost to service the talent working for the WWE.

The structure of this episode placed an emphasis on the wrestlers, taking the time to explain who they are, what they want, why they want it, and where they’re likely to go on next week’s episode. From the word-choice of the commentary team when describing this talent, to the simple fact that so many members of the roster got enough time to cut promos and flesh our their characters, this week the WWE presented its talent roster as passionate, intelligent, and capable young athletes worthy of an emotional and financial investment.

That perspective is only possible when the person running the show genuinely believes that to be true, and regards all WWE Superstars as passionate, intelligent, and potentially capable of greatness. When the person running the show seems to think the RAW-cast is made up of complacent millennials afraid to “grab the brass ring” who can’t figure out how to “get over” with the crowd, then the show becomes a slog, a spiked entertainment-club attempting to bludgeon everyone into submission rather than a television show telling good stories.

When it’s just a television show presenting itself as incredibly important, it actually starts to feel like it’s incredibly important. That’s the simple takeaway for the WWE after this episode; presentation becomes reality. When the little opinions of the "WWE Universe" are raised up as the most important part of the show, then the show devolves into a meandering fan-service mess that fails to hit the promised entertainment-target. When the show confidently raises up its talent and shines a spotlight on them through quick promos and logical squash matches and thrilling main events, it is an instantly inviting program and genuinely fun to watch.

This episode of RAW wasn’t exactly perfect (what is), but if a viewer analyzes this show and attempts to break down exactly why it was a fun, mostly successful episode, the answer inevitably leads back to how every single character was presented in a serious, respectful light, and as someone worth watching and listening to.

I can’t emotionally invest in a sea of indistinguishable faces. That’s why stories aren’t told about crowds of people. It’s so much easier and rewarding to become emotionally invested in individuals who are engaged in a tangible conflict.

For example, Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, AJ Styles, Chris Jericho, Zack Ryder, The Miz, Shane McMahon, Vince McMahon, Baron Corbin, Enzo Amore, Colin Cassidy, Xavier Woods, Big E, Kofi Kingston, Roman Reigns, Amy Dumas, Charlotte, and Natalya all cut promos that made it clear who they were and what their conflict or purpose was in the WWE.

And these promos all felt like they came from the heart.

When these promos were backstage, Renee Young would simply ask wrestlers questions and, as if they were athletes in a sports organization with real lives worthy of documentation, the wrestlers would sincerely answer those questions.

That’s it.

No need for scripted quips, puns, or wordplay transparently designed to pop the crowd. Just a style of presentation that confidently says, “This is what this is! Watch and listen!”

The way the wrestlers chose to answer Renee’s questions revealed their personalities, and that is how an audience starts to bond with a character.

Kevin Owens revealed himself to be an obnoxious, self-important, bad human being unafraid of anyone, and positively appalled that Sami Zayn won’t “leave him alone”. Owens points at himself when he speaks in violent, punching gesture. Spittle flies off his lips. He screams one minute, and then he screams even louder the next. He leans in toward Renee during their interviews, and he seems to overwhelm her with his massive presence. This visual emphasizes his heelish, brutish, bullying nature, and it also creates a dramatic tension where the viewer fears for Renee Young’s safety.

Sami Zayn, conversely, revealed himself to be an earnest, passionate “Underdog From The Underground”. He’s a good guy you can’t help but like, but he’s got an intensity in his eyes and an energy in his movement that makes him seem tougher than your average white meat babyface. When he speaks with Renee, he’s almost hunched over, pointing into his own palm and at his chest in a delicate way, his volume remaining consistent and respectful throughout. His body language and his aura unconsciously reassures Renee, and the viewer, that they are safe and that there’s nothing to fear. Where Kevin Owens literally expands during an interview, Sami Zayn literally contracts, the camera zooming in tighter and tighter on his face while he carefully, passionately outlines his plan to become WWE World Heavyweight Champion.

Last night, fans in attendance reported that Sami Zayn ran into the back, holding his shoulder after diving to the outside of the ring in his segment. Fans were worried that he’d been injured yet again. Later in the night, Kevin Owens attacked Sami on-screen, taking him out of the Fatal 4 Way number one contender’s match and setting up the return of Cesaro.

This likely means that Sami Zayn running into the back holding his shoulder was a work, an event specifically designed to get the internet worried about Sami and whether or not he'd compete later on in the episode. Those same smart fans who Tweeted about his potential injury would then later see Kevin Owens attack Sami Zayn backstage and assume that the scripted attack was quickly written into the story to explain why Sami (following an unexpected, legitimate injury in his segment) wasn’t able to compete in the main event. Put more simply, the story was designed to lead "smart" fans to believe in their smartness, go get them to "work themselves into a shoot", and then buy-in to the story hook, line, and sinker.

That complex design reveals a degree of foresight and intelligence on the part of the person running this episode. That person intimately understands the behavior of the modern wrestling fan and how that fan communicates about pro-wrestling via Twitter.

This is The New Kayfabe; the manipulation of internet fans who are smart to the business and who can unknowingly help sell the fiction through their intense emotional reactions.

In the process, another chapter in the Sami Zayn/Kevin Owens saga has been written, and it makes perfect sense. Sami Zayn once again starts his climb to the mountaintop of professional wrestling only to have Kevin Owens knock him back down to the bottom.

This story was one of many threads that linked back the primary narrative related to Shane McMahon’s bid for control of Monday Night Raw. The opening promo from Vince, and the fun way he turned “control” over to Shane with a “…well let’s see what you got!” perfectly established a narrative foundation for everything that would come after.

That initial act was the fuel for the episode, and it carried viewers all the way into the main event. The only aspect of this episode that didn’t fully capitalize on such a good, simple structure was in how Shane McMahon was literally underrepresented on-screen. Apart from booking a main event in a quick backstage segment (a choice in presentation that instantly undermines the significance of that action), it was never exactly made clear how Shane McMahon was actually controlling the episode and the role he played behind the scenes. Brief glimpses into the director’s truck or behind gorilla position that revealed Shane interacting with the staff, the crew, and the wrestlers (we wouldn’t even need to directly hear him, his dialogues could be slightly off-mic) throughout the entire show would have contributed to the sense that he was pulling the strings and that there was a more direct correlation between the goodness of this episode and the presence of Shane McMahon.

The WWE wants us to think Shane is the reason this episode was good; that's the story. But it didn't quite show that to be true.

There was only one quick cutaway that revealed Shane giving Apollo Crews a fist-bump before Apollo’s debut. Commentary then suggested that Shane might be responsible for that debut, but a suggestion is never as powerful as an outright statement of fact. Shane was merely a suggestion in this episode, making it seem like he inherited an episode that was going to be good regardless of him rather than because of him.

The lack of Stephanie McMahon and Triple H, or any significant mention of them, also seemed to leave the events of WrestleMania entirely open-ended, and possibly as though the main event was even less important than we were led to believe. Although The Authority should most definitely come to an end, the excellent characters of Triple H and Stephanie McMahon deserve some form of resolution or reinvention, especially considering how Roman Reigns inadvertently speared Stephanie McMahon in the Mania main event. That resolution will hopefully come at some point rather than the company pretending The Authority never happened (perhaps Triple H will invoke his rematch clause for a more significant pay-per-view) otherwise those years of watching The Authority would feel even more emotionally taxing.

Beyond these two constructive criticisms, this episode of Monday Night Raw was an absolute joy to watch due in large part to how young it felt. A youthful, hopeful energy radiated throughout the broadcast and this is, once again, due to how the talent's personalities dictated the course of the show. With the exception of those talents on the bad end of squash matches, everyone seemed happy to be there and excited to fight, eager to win an athletic contest.

Several stories were set in motion that could lead to satisfying pay-offs, from Natalya stepping up to challenge Charlotte, The Wyatts dismantling the League of Nations (sans Wade Barrett), to The Miz snatching The Intercontinental Title from the perpetually heartbroken Zach Ryder.

Even Roman Reigns managed to create a new version of himself that makes sense in the larger WWE fiction.

“I’m not a bad guy…I’m not a good guy…I’m just the guy” is a gimmick that makes complete and total sense as it relates to his strengths & weaknesses as a performer. It's not unlike Seth Rollins proclaiming, "I didn't sell out...I bought in!"

That statement perfectly explains why Roman's always grinning and why he was so blasé about everyone who challenged him for the championship in this episode. That statement explains why the audience boos him out of the building and also why there is a contingent of fans who support him. It's a statement that matches his behavior.

It’s an actual gimmick. It’s an actual character. That’s what’s been lacking for the past two years with regard to Roman Reigns; not move variety. To see that new character forged in the fires of opponents who might teach him some humility (like AJ Styles) presents an opportunity for compelling television and compelling wrestling matches (regardless of what Roman’s critics think about his push). He always just needed to be a character with a point of view that matched his style, and an opponent who felt fresh and interesting. Whether or not Roman deserved anything and whether or not he was good in the ring or on the mic was less important than the story of him being challenged by a roster who regarded themselves as superior to him. The story was more interesting than the chorus of boos.

This episode felt like a larger version of NXT. I wanted to see what was coming next, I didn’t hate anyone (for a shoot), I didn’t think anyone out there didn’t deserve to be out there, and I was engaged by almost everything I saw. For the first time in years, the excellence of the episode didn’t seem like a one-off where next week’s show would squander the good of this week’s.

Perhaps the presence of The Authority is to blame for the badness of RAW, after all; the real-life booker behind the scenes seems to book RAW according to his fictional, on-screen proxy. Maybe the only way RAW can be good at this time is when the WWE attempts to narratively justify that goodness with an on-screen booker who seems to “give the people what they want”.

Regardless of what happened in the on-screen fiction, behind the curtain a model for success was carefully outlined in this episode. It was like watching a very elaborate PowerPoint presentation for how Monday Night Raw should be booked in 2016 using this basic 5-Point-Plan:

  1. Consistent A-Story that’s occasionally referenced, serving as the glue for the show
  2. Quick promos where wrestlers sincerely express their points of view, answering the simple questions of “who, what, where, how, and why”
  3. Squash matches that present debuting talent as serious contenders
  4. Quick video packages that build up to a wrestler’s debut or flesh out existing conflicts
  5. An exciting main event match that showcases the best talent on the roster

No big twists or turns, no soliloquies or monologues, no excessive fireworks or superpowers.

Just a confident proclamation that this is the show and this is the cast.

That basic perspective can save Monday Night Raw from a banal, pandering existence. Tell the crowd Monday Night Raw is important, prove that statement true by relying on proven talent, and the crowd will believe again. They'll stop wanting to hijack shows, they'll stop believing their own hype, they'll start paying attention, and they'll be better, more easily manipulated professional wrestling fans.

This was an episode of Monday Night Raw invested in getting its roster and itself over. And it succeeded. That kind of passion and effort could easily shape the WWE’s future.

And for the first time in a long time, I’m unapologetically looking forward to next week’s episode.