THE RAW REVIEW
On a show overflowing with experienced pro-wrestling talent, in a company designed to create “WWE Superstars” (which are, unavoidably, a particular brand of pro-wrestler) Stephen Amell, star of the hit comic book-inspired TV-series Arrow, was the most captivating part of the show.
That should never happen. An actor should not be able to come on RAW and show the roster how to perform.
I write that with the utmost respect (and genuine thanks) for what Amell gave me last night.
You entertained me.
I write that to point out how RAW has failed to properly support and properly educate its current roster of talent.
Amell literally jumped into the WWE’s comatose flagship series and gave me a reason to pay attention. He woke the show up with a display of believable passion. And I don't even watch Arrow. I was not predisposed to like Amell at all. If anything, I was predisposed to dislike him.
He made me believe what I was seeing and he made me care about the outcome. He did this because he believed, and because he skillfully navigated the confines of a script, displaying emotional truth and convincing fire in his segments.
He proclaimed himself “a man”, and I bought in.
He said he wanted a fight, and I bought in.
I bought in because there was a recognizable consistency between what I was seeing, what I was hearing, and what I was feeling; his body language, his tone of voice, and his facial expressions exemplified his intent. At no point was there a disconnect between the information actually presented to me and the information the WWE wanted me to believe.
Good performers who’ve learned how to maneuver a script or improvise in a short scene inspire faith in the viewer. I feel like I've heard thirty or more promos in the last year where a “WWE Superstar” says “I’m a man”, and this statement is supposed to somehow relate to their power, confidence, and ability to win a fight. I cannot think of one WWE Superstar who has said this trite line (which, when stated, typically implies someone’s “manhood” was in question in the first place - you don’t hear Brock Lesnar saying “I’m a man!”), I cringe at the insecurity on display.
I often think, “Nope…you’re not. Because you had to say it. You’re not showing what you think that means.”
There was no insecurity nor any fear in Amell’s performance.
I write that Amell was the best part of the show with respect to the excellent triple-threat match between Cesaro, Randy Orton, and Kevin Owens (I can already feel the reader thinking ‘Well what about that triple threat match?’).
While outcomes don’t always irrevocably taint an excellent match, in this particular case, Randy Orton’s victory was an egregious booking decision that sapped this RAW of life, reduced the significance of the match, and negated many viewer’s emotional investment in the main event.
I typically have no interest in backseat booking and nitpickingly going about what I regard as “bad booking decisions” but, in this case, from a narrative perspective, it’s worth pointing out that a main event match between Randy Orton and Seth Rollins lacks meaning, and creates less interesting opportunities for good television.
This is a decision that places far too much faith in people’s emotional investment in Randy Orton.
It’s a decision from 2008.
Yes, people cheer for Randy. They like him.
Yes, people chant “You look stupid” when Sheamus is on-screen.
But no one is printing out hundreds of “Orton Section” or “You Look Stupid” signs.
Even if the #CesaroSection contingent of WWE fans represents an “internet fringe”, that’s the “internet fringe” that’s actually doing something. That’s the “internet fringe” that helps transform Daniel Bryan into a star who draws the company millions of dollars.
Those fans who are passionate enough to do something about their passion are the fans who will, long term, make the WWE more money.
The fans that are passionate enough about Cesaro to cheer him despite the WWE’s best efforts are the same fans who will inspire those “casuals” to join in. The modern WWE fan who prefers modern WWE wrestlers like Cesaro, Kevin Owens, Seth Rollins, Ms. Charlotte, Dean Ambrose, Sasha Banks, Roman Reigns, Becky Lynch, Bray Wyatt, Sami Zayn, Finn Balor and many more is the WWE fan who gets other people to chant. That’s the fan who recommends their friends start watching WWE again. The wrestling fan sets the tone. The WWE has been programming with the flawed understanding that the general TV-viewing public sets the tone for their show.
The fans who benignly cheer Orton because he’s a babyface with an established comeback and chant “You look stupid” because Sheamus is a heel with a haircut are not indicative of an urgent desire and they’re not indicative of what makes for good TV.
Save their ardent fans and inevitable defenders, performers like Sheamus and Orton do not have that effervescent, timely connection with the crowd. And the booking (giving both random feuds and random wins and random losses these past several months) has done nothing to change that. If you take the pulse of the “WWE Universe” it will spike at names like Owens, Cesaro, Ambrose, Reigns, Cena, Rollins. And if you listen, specifically, to the intensity of the pops, and if you pay attention to what actually gets people talking and to what actually gets people happy, it becomes readily apparent that holdovers from The Ruthless Aggression era (save John Cena) are simply not on the minds of WWE fans.
I write this as someone who enjoys and respects both Sheamus and Orton’s work. I write this as someone who wants to see their skill-set booked intelligently, in a manner that gets them actually over, where the information presented to me does not conflict with reality.
And regardless of what anyone wants and everyone's "opinion", a main event featuring Cesaro or Kevin Owens vs Seth Rollins is must-see television because it’s harder to predict what will happen. It’s also something fans haven’t seen yet (or seen for what feels like the fiftieth time). It’s new. And new is more must-see than another RKO “outta nowhere”. A Cesaro or Kevin Owens vs Seth Rollins main event also helps Owens & Cesaro as they move further into their feud, elevating that rivalry. Everyone wins in that alternate universe. In our universe, I can't see who benefits from what happened last night.
The booker who still thinks it’s a good idea to end Monday Night Raw with Randy Orton and Sheamus trying to score finishers on one another is the booker who fails to see where the greatest narrative possibilities exist and where WWE fans hearts really are.
All of this kept Stephen Amell safe in his status as “the best part of RAW”.
He displayed a deeper understanding of character, bravado, strength, and intensity than many the locker room. The company should look at what he did and feel appropriately self-conscious for failing to create an environment where their talent feels able to match Amell's level of conviction and intensity. It is impossible to portray sincere emotions (especially emotions like hate and vengefulness) when you're afraid of being fired if you flub a line.
Amell even appeared more confident and capable than Triple H in their backstage segment.
Defenders of RAW could argue that the company booked him this way.
I’d argue that strong booking has, very clearly, little affect on the audience’s perception of a character if the performer doesn’t have the ability to make the audience believe.
There was truth and urgency in Amell’s eyes and actions, and he had the freedom to express himself.
He wanted something, and he wasn’t going to stop until he got it.
That is a perspective on a scene or a situation that a performer maintains within, a belief in one’s self that shines through and restores life to a flatlined fiction.
I emphasize Amell’s excellence for this RAW REVIEW because it perfectly demonstrates how WWE’s roster is not only creatively cut-off at the knees, but how being creatively stifled has stunted their growth as performers. RAW’s cast of characters doesn’t know how to exist outside the parameters of rigidly defined, corporate guidelines. Any explosion of creativity is quickly negated from one week to the next, remaining snuffed out and pent up.
It's an environment where talent has to be afraid of being good or being good in the "wrong way".
Roman Reigns and Dean Ambrose plod through their brosky promos about cold beer and “being crazy” in a manner that makes it painfully clear we’re watching their interpretation of someone else’s interpretation of their friendship. This forced, alienating style of performance defines the majority of the broadcast.
At three hours, this process becomes painful if you're not watching to turn your brain off or if you're not easily pleased by anything RAW decides to give you.
This is why I find RAW so often unwatchable. I despise seeing incredibly talented, creative people hold back.
I’m watching Michelangelo play it safe for fear of losing his commission.
I’m watching Mozart agree to the criticism “that’s too many notes”.
I’m watching Shakespeare cut a couple lines from a soliloquy.
That feels like a crime.
It's an unnecessary crime and the WWE's show-runner is to blame for creating that environment.
The company could stay as PG and sanitary and corporate as it would like without snuffing out creativity and entertainment (as they've demonstrated in countless, isolated incidents of goodness over the past year). The details of the booking and the politics behind the scenes are certainly worthy of criticism, but the deeper issue with RAW is that it has creatively stagnated.
It's a conveyer belt when it wants to be a roller coaster.
To change that, it needs a new architect.
It needs to be rebuilt...starting with the foundation.