Raw Improvements In The New Era
- INTRODUCTION -
The WWE has embarked upon its self-proclaimed "New Era".
The past two months, this idea has taken concrete form in a strict separation between the shows Monday Night Raw & SmackDown Live (separate rosters, brand-specific stories, brand-specific championships, and brand-specific divisions), a renewed focus on the significance of earning a Championship opportunity or victory, showcasing talent that might typically be underutilized, new General Managers in the form of Daniel Bryan for SmackDown & Mick Foley for RAW, and a variety of structural and aesthetic changes to both shows. It is an experiment still in its infancy, and like many experiments it results in some successes and some failures.
It is my goal with this piece to espouse the benefits of these changes, allowing positive reinforcement to serve as a guide for how to address the implied negatives. Viewers, and the company are already well-aware of what's ineffective about the current program (the lengthy run-time, indistinguishable gimmicks, relentless slapstick humor, increasingly niche viewership etc). It will not be helpful in this piece to expand upon and reiterate criticisms that the fans and the company have already heard adnauseum.
Instead, let's focus on RAW, and carefully examine what's working in an effort to provide the WWE, its fans, and professional wrestling with some useful observations.
- LAST WEEK ON RAW -
One of the best additions to RAW over the past two months is the "Last Week on Raw" vignette that plays before the show even begins. It's well-edited, scored with good music, and contextualizes the events of the previous week in an easily comprehended way. It helps provide the continuity that RAW has occasionally lacked in the past, and it sets up what viewers can expect in the episode that follows. Even if a viewer didn't enjoy last week's episode, this replay condenses the most important and enjoyable aspects of that episode into something instantly entertaining and easily comprehended.
- SQUASH MATCHES -
"The fact that a squash match is a foregone conclusion is not actually a problem..."
Squash matches consist of a relatively unknown performer losing to a much stronger or larger opponent. These are highly focused match-styles that, over time, can yield positive results for a talent. Viewers become familiar with the winner's move-set and her or his characterization, and, whether they realize it or not, the viewer starts to believe in that talent's unbeatable power. Pro-wrestling works best as long-form storytelling, where the rules of a fight and the cause-effect relationship between wrestling moves and the damage they cause becomes habitual.
The squash matches that Braun Strowman and Nia Jax have had since the beginning of the "New Era" achieve that purpose. RAW fans are being conditioned to believe in Strowman's reverse choke-slam and Nia Jax's leg drop, that these finishing moves are devastating blows that guarantee victory. It's important that this connection between finishing move and victory be established so that, in the future when Strowman or Jax face more capable opponents, it's actually significant if their opponents manage to avoid or kick-out of those finishing maneuvers, and helps reaffirm the monster's power when their opponent cannot kick-out.
Also, when the audience has come to understand the strengths and weaknesses of a character, they become emotionally invested in that character's opponent finding ways to exploit those weaknesses. For example, Sin Cara and Strowman have recently put on two excellent matches because Sin Cara subverted the viewer's (and Strowman's) expectations. His speed and high-flying style presented a challenge to Strowman because Strowman had never encountered that style before. He still handily defeated Sin Cara after some back and forth, but those victories demonstrate how the character is resilient and how he can overcome a new challenge with relative ease when it's presented. He can continue to work his way through new wrestling styles, conditioning the audience to believe that no matter how athletic or intelligent Strowman's next opponent may be, his sheer size and brute force will always win.
Modern wrestling fans have been conditioned to expect every match on RAW to be a twenty minute five-star, high-flying masterpiece these days, and that's why some may not respond favorably to a squash match. The match being a foregone conclusion makes it "boring" in this kind of fan's eyes (evidenced in their "boring" chant). The fact that a squash match is a foregone conclusion is not actually a problem.
It's not as though a squash match is making a mistake by being a squash match. It's designed to be a foregone conclusion. It's not boring. It's effective. That's its purpose and that's how it builds talent over time. Unlike other wrestling matches on the show, these specific encounters tell the story of an unbeatable monster or a talent on the rise. The fact that they're facing inherently weaker opponents is a non-issue because the purpose of these matches is to demonstrate the grandeur of size & power or the power of a "mean-streak"; that only happens when we see a juxtaposition of sizes and personalities.
Squash matches also provide some much-needed juxtaposition in the match-card itself. Because so many RAW-matches today are pay-per-view caliber extravaganzas overflowing with suicide dives and high spots, a good old-fashioned squash match provides some variety to the viewing experience. Because RAW is three hours, many of the simulated battles, no matter how excellent, start to blend together into an indistinguishable Sports Entertainment haze. To be experiencing something that is literally different from everything else on the show makes RAW easier to consume.
It's a palate cleanser served during a multi-course pro-wrestling meal.
- RINGSIDE & POST-MATCH INTERVIEWS -
"A post-match or ringside interview keeps the viewer engaged in the "now!", contributing to a sense that RAW is live television..."
RAW is the Monday Night Football of pro-wrestling (or, as WWE dubs it, Sports Entertainment). Given that this is the case, it only makes sense that RAW start to look, sound, and behave like an actual sport regardless of the pomp and circumstance behind its presentation. In organized sports, interviews are an effective means of intensifying the fan's investment in their chosen team by fleshing out the psychology & motivations of the players, and providing segues between innings, rounds, or quarters. Not unlike a squash match, the most basic benefit of an interview is to break up the monotony and repetitiveness of any sport. On RAW, although wrestling interviews are staged, they serve the same purpose; insight into the psychology of the wrestlers and a respite from monotony. Although they're still less frequent than they could be (e.g. every WWE.com exclusive should actually be on RAW itself), the post-match and ringside interviews of the New Era have been incredibly effective.
In the seventeen years I've been watching RAW I can't remember a time when ringside or post-match interviews had a consistent presence on the program. Almost all interviews or "talking segments" have taken place in the backstage area, far removed from the electricity of the arena-audience, or the characters insist on explaining their thoughts and feelings in lengthy monologues or in skits like Miz TV, The Highlight Reel, The Ambrose Asylum, or contract signings.
While each of these segments can definitely provide entertainment and insight into the characters' minds, they take place in highly controlled environments or they play out in an inevitably contrived manner that contradicts the natural emotions and unpredictable nature of athletes. There's a rigid progression from point A to point B. Even if that progression goes well, it still feels less alive. Such segments allow for too much distance between the audience and the wrestlers (literally and figuratively), and such segments allow far too much distance between the wrestlers and their own legitimate emotions.
A rigid structure to a talking-segment also flies in the face of how human psychology actually works, and even the way people talk. Human beings, in terms of their emotions, rarely progress from point A to point B in a manner that's logical, predictable, or indicative of control. People are erratic, especially when they're participating in an athletic contest, and especially if they were to compete in the over-the-top fictional universe the WWE has created. People are driven by base instinct, and viewers are interested in seeing how those instincts evolve and even disrupt the status quo. A segment that's designed to behave like a straight line also increases the potential for failure; a performer either hits their mark or they don't.
A segment that's designed to account for the natural rhythms of a performer increases the chances for success because success can come in a variety of forms rather than a single, simple outcome. A ringside or post-match interview captures that unique, believable emotion a Superstar is legitimately experiencing in the moment. It's an exchange that makes the show feel more real, because it is real. There are fewer contrivances and barriers between the emotions felt and the emotions expressed. This alleviates the pressure of memorizing dialogue and hitting a particular beat; it's improvisational and natural. A post-match interview also doesn't have to work too hard to justify its own existence the way a scripted segment does. The viewer doesn't have time to wonder why they're seeing what they're seeing because they're accustomed to athletes expressing themselves before and after their victory or defeat. There's no need to analyze what they're seeing, and that means less eye-rolling, less complaining about the writers, and less changing the channel. It means a deeper connection with the Superstar, and it means the Superstar has more time to flex their improvisational muscle and become more comfortable on-screen. The show becomes jazz, taking on an emotional rhythm that feels purposeful and controlled while also maintaining an organic, unpredictable tone.
A post-match or ringside interview keeps the viewer engaged in the "now!", contributing to a sense that RAW is live television, and that if one looks away for too long, they'll miss something magical. It's much easier to turn off a heavily scripted segment, especially if it's not clear what the motivations of the characters are or how that segment contributes to the larger narrative of an episode. Viewers know that heavily scripted segments have only a few potential outcomes: someone is getting beat up, someone is retreating from a fight, someone is going to announce a match. This is why RAW would benefit from less heavily scripted segments, and an increased focus on simpler, more realistic storytelling mechanisms informed from legitimate sport.
- THE CHAMPIONSHIP FOCUS -
"The fact that all of these wrestlers share a common goal also creates an environment for their personalities to spring forth..."
Viewers can only form strong emotional bonds to characters when those characters have explicitly clear, easy-to-relate-to motivations. Slowly but surely, the desire to be a Champion has returned to RAW's roster. This is a natural motivation for wrestlers to have, even in a fictional, entertainment-based organization like the WWE. Superstars inevitably do battle in the ring to work out their differences or advance in the company. They don't win by applause or by a panel of judges evaluating a flip. The basic fiction remains that a referee counts to three when someone is pinned to the mat. When characters in that basic, athletic structure are transparently motivated by their desire to "entertain" wrestling fans, the most basic and beneficial fiction of pro-wrestling is cast aside and the potential for real emotional investment declines.
RAW has made efforts to reorient its focus, and the focus of its characters, on the importance of winning contests in the pursuit of becoming a title holder. The Universal Championship is presented as an object of great significance, Charlotte continues to maintain a stranglehold on the Women's Championship as she faces new challenges, the Cruiserweight Championship has returned, Roman Reigns, the WWE's chosen "top guy", is going after the United States Championship, and Cesaro and Sheamus went through hell in a best of seven series that will now transition into the tag division. At all levels of the card, being a Champion (at your level, whatever that is), is the most important part of your existence in the WWE (as it should be).
While it will take time to flesh out this concept and increase the significance of all the titles, now that WWE's Superstars have discernible motivations related to what they actually do in the ring, it will become even easier for viewers to bond with them. The fact that all of these wrestlers share a common goal also creates an environment for their personalities to spring forth. For example, Sheamus and Cesaro are motivated by the same desire to be a champion and ascend out of midcard limbo. But it's in how they specifically go about achieving that goal that reveals their individuality; their moral code or lack thereof, their level of desperation, how they deal with success, how they deal with failure, and their understanding of what it would mean to achieve their goal.
- THE MICK FOLEY/STEPHANIE McMAHON drama -
"All of these questions provide incentive to tune in the next week and the week after..."
The best open for a New Era episode of RAW was an exchange between Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley in the backstage, discussing Triple H's interference in the previous week's main event championship match. Mick and Stephanie drew upon their legitimate past to infuse the scene with greater emotional depth. Mick described the first time he ever saw Stephanie; immediately following his infamous Hell in a Cell match where she gave him a "shy smile" in the backstage area. A desperate Mick wanted to believe that Stephanie had nothing to do with Triple H's interference in the previous week's match, that she was still the "girl with the shy smile", and that he could trust her as RAW's Commissioner despite how she'd been ignoring his calls and texts throughout the week. Stephanie, in a display of welcome vulnerability, pleaded with Mick to believe she had nothing to do with Triple H, that she was still that girl he remembered, and that the only reason she'd been avoiding his calls and texts was because she genuinely didn't know what to say. In this moment, the monolithic Stephanie McMahon became a human being. The character grew. Mick Foley had a realistic motive. The entire episode was elevated by this initial exchange.
It kickstarted a narrative that could lead to a great emotional payoff in the coming months. Each week, viewers are being prompted to question whether or not Stephanie is using Mick as a pawn in some evil game, or if Stephanie is turning over a new leaf. The viewer is also still left wondering why Triple H assisted Kevin Owens in becoming Universal Champion.
Is it a power play indicative of Triple H's bid for control of RAW following the success of NXT? Is it merely a display of the power he already has, demonstrating that while he's not been anointed Commissioner or GM, his dominion overrides all simply because he chooses to make it so? How does this make Mick Foley feel, especially given his past rivalries with Triple H? Mick has always played a well-meaning character who's more cunning and resilient than people gave him credit, while remaining vulnerable to manipulation due to his desire to be loved.
To learn that Stephanie is manipulating Mick, perhaps to provide viewers the illusion of power and fan-service, would be devastating (all thanks to the fact that we had that scene where their first, legitimate meeting was described). To discover that Stephanie is, in fact, on Mick's side and going against her husband would similarly be a rewarding revelation because the viewer is so invested in Mick Foley's heart not being broken.
But, what if Mick has learned from his past mistakes with the McMahons? What if it comes out that all along Mick knew he was being manipulated by Stephanie and Triple H and, in the end, bests them and restores balance to RAW? What if Mick Foley is destined to put the final, definitive nail in The Authority's coffin and usher in an era of peace and prosperity?
All of these questions provide incentive to tune in the next week and the week after. So long as there is a natural progression with hints being dropped, doubts being raised, and bonds being tested, this has the potential to be one of RAW's better angles in years. And, most importantly, it has the potential to build one of the biggest top babyfaces the company has seen in a decade...
- SETH ROLLINS AS A BABYFACE -
"He is a performer who can sustain an entire episode of RAW, disrupting established norms and giving viewers more than just a great match on free television..."
Seth Rollins, if his motivations become explicitly clear and if he finds a definitively villainous rival, is on the path to becoming the top babyface (hero) of the WWE. The WWE has lacked a consistent, reliable hero whom fans and the company were equally invested in since the departure of CM Punk and the retirement of Daniel Bryan. Despite the company's intent to propel Roman Reigns into that role, his character is finding greater success as he works his way through the midcard and ascends back to the main event in a more gradual manner.
Seth Rollins is already popular, which is a key ingredient when attempting to further a performer's career. Fans know who he is, and despite his cowardly heel gimmick, he's beloved by the company's diehard base (WWE's primary audience at this time). To see Seth Rollins evolve into a brave, battle-hardened, confident hero hellbent on revenge is not only natural, it's a good story that rewards fans for their already existing emotional investment in the performer. It's also a story that might intrigue viewers who currently aren't watching; the best athlete in his "division" strung along and, ultimately, cast aside despite his blatant superiority.
Over the past two years there has been a wedge between the Seth Rollins portrayed on-screen and the Seth Rollins fans actually like in real life. Because so many fans follow today's performers on social media, and because so many fans are "smart" to the business, they've been forced to reconcile their natural desire to cheer Seth with the company's desire to have Seth booed. Smart fans also have a tendency to cheer a good performance rather than a good (in the moral sense) character, even if the good performer is portraying a villain.
This makes it that much harder to establish "hot" heels and sympathetic babyfaces when the crowd and the company aren't in agreement about who & what a particular character should be, and how their actions are to be received.
That conflict between reality and fiction stunts the growth of the character and it also decreases the viewer's emotional investment in the performer. Although Seth Rollins gave a good performance as a heel and could continue to do so if he chose, viewers just don't want to boo him anymore, and the smarter members of the audience will never boo him. Those cheers of smart fans (again, the WWE's primary viewership) are like hurdles preventing other viewers from feeling, wholeheartedly, how the WWE wants them to feel. The viewer's natural inclinations becomes irrelevant, and so, rather than becoming invested in a character's journey as either villain or hero, viewers become invested in ancillary, real-world social media details that exist outside the WWE's programming. Rather than caring about the conflicts of characters between the hours of 8-11pm every Monday Night, fans tune in strictly to see what the booking decisions will be, and then invent narratives for themselves based on Tweets, Instagram photos, and kayfabe-breaking YouTube videos..
To cut through all of that, it's essential to push, without hesitation or reservation, toward a universally beloved, brave, tenacious, intelligent, and capable incarnation of the Seth Rollins character. He is a performer who can sustain an entire episode of RAW (as evidenced by his run as Champion), disrupting established norms and giving viewers more than just a great match on free television. Rollins can give viewers great scenes that expand upon his character and positively affect the rest of the show. There's a believable character in Seth Rollins if and only if his real-world personality and priorities are integrated into the proceedings, allowing the already present love he receives to radiate throughout the entire broadcast.
- CONCLUSION -
There's definitely a lot the WWE can do to continue improving upon their various shows, but the aforementioned changes have been beneficial to the broadcasts thus far. Although I've pointed out specific aspects of the show that are working to the WWE's benefit, it's the essence of why those aspects work that should inform the rest of the show's structure.
The New Era has made it explicitly clear that television viewers want to see established characters engaging in conflicts (both moral and physical) through intense matches, but also (and perhaps more importantly) through interviews, exciting segments, and thoughtful scenes that culminate in believable stories.
WWE fans seek the WWE's specific brand of high-drama-sports-spectacle, a style of storytelling that only the WWE is capable of delivering. Embracing that simple directive, and continuing to expand upon these productive mechanisms is a recipe for continued success, and a means of strengthening the fan's emotional (and financial) investment in the brand.