THE RAW REVIEW
Last week I found an enjoyable solution to the problem of writing about RAW; ignore everything that was terrible about the episode and focus entirely on the excellence (Bexcellence) of Becky Lynch.
I could employ the same tactic this week. Charlotte & Becky were certainly the best part of the show, and not just because the rest of the episode was so grating. Even on a great episode, Charlotte & Becky’s exchange would have stood out. Becky’s promo was biting & sincere. It’s not easy to throw insults at Ric Flair (even a blatantly heel Ric Flair) and not have the crowd turn on you. Becky managed to walk that tightrope with poise and conviction, continuing to flesh out her character as a fearless competitor quick to speak the truth.
And Charlotte, with her purposefully dainty and regal demeanor throughout the scene, seemed her most comfortable and confident on RAW since debuting on the main roster. This battle for The Divas Championship remains the most consistent, rewarding story on RAW. In fact, it represents the only story on RAW as every other seeming narrative has become frayed beyond repair.
As much as I would like to ignore how the WWE has quickly and steadily sapped the WWE World Heavyweight Championship of significance, I can’t avoid it this week. The pull of this episode’s awkwardness, and its confounding conclusion, is like a black hole from which there is no escape.
In the depths of that infinite chasm is a scene where Stephanie McMahon and her father pretend to select the number one entrant for this year’s Royal Rumble.
This scene epitomizes how disjointed, illogical, and incongruous the WWE’s storytelling has become. We’ve seen the WWE make use of the tumbler to select superstar positions for past Royal Rumbles. It would seem this latest segment relied entirely upon your familiarity with that trope to make any sense out of what happened.
It began well enough (in terms of logic), with Stephanie McMahon making it clear that the purpose of this segment was to decide the number one entrant in the thirty-man rumble next Sunday. Things started to go awry as soon as McMahon attempted to explain “the odds” of Roman Reigns winning The Royal Rumble. He likened Roman’s victory to someone in the audience “winning the Powerball Jackpot”. The Powerball Jackpot has been featured prominently in the news of late due to the enormity of the fortune. McMahon obviously wanted to draw some heat from the crowd by rubbing it in their noses that they’d never win that fortune. He leaned into that statement, expecting to hear a chorus of well-timed boos. The boos did not come; just the sound of disinterest and confusion.
Vince glared out into this sea of uncooperative humanity, lingering on this jab, waiting and waiting for it to land, until finally saying, “Yeah” and returning to the matter at hand.
This is one of the most uncomfortable moments I’ve witnessed on television. And that's not millennial-hyperbole. This is a low-point for the WWE.
The WWE’s heels consistently attempt to elicit heat from audiences by merely mentioning recent events in popular culture; everything from local sports teams to pop singers. It’s a tired, increasingly ineffective means of getting heat especially after opening segments (like the one between Chris Jericho, Roman Reigns, and The League of Nations) anesthetize audiences within the first five minutes of the three hour broadcast.
The fact that McMahon thought mentioning the Powerball Jackpot would actually get this audience riled up is a perfect demonstration of exactly how “out of touch” he is. Also, doesn't he have as good a chance of winning the powerball as we do? It's not as though we're going to hate him because his odds of success are greater than ours.
This audience wasn’t even thinking about winning the lottery. Why would they be thinking about that? They’re at a professional wrestling show, wanting to see a show that properly builds The Royal Rumble pay-per-view with a series of quality matches and interesting promos. At no point are they thinking, “Man I really want to win the Powerball”; at least not if the WWE was doing its job and keeping them entertained with compelling drama (but I doubt McMahon was trying to capitalize on the possibility that he’d bored his viewers into contemplating their odds of winning the lottery).
It’s painful to watch the WWE, particularly Mr. McMahon, strain for relevance in this way. It’s even more painful to see the crowd lulled to sleep by it. They weren’t even being defiant with their non-reaction. It’s not as though they refused to boo or cheer in a display of rebellion against McMahon’s increasingly absurd booking. The WWE fan has simply been beaten into mental absence.
The WWE is steadily working themselves into a bigger and bleaker hole with segments such as these. The flagship series appears inept in the eyes of the viewer. The World Heavyweight Championship has been tainted by the stank of constant shifts in tone and quality from one week to the next, and an ever-changing perspective on who Roman Reigns is and who represents his actual opposition.
Is Roman Reigns feuding with Vince McMahon or Brock Lesnar or Triple H or Stephanie McMahon or Bray Wyatt or the League of Nations or the entire roster?
"One versus all" might sell tee-shirts but it doesn't make for a good story.
Not once have we heard Roman Reigns suggest that he's "the best" in the WWE.
Not once has Roman Reigns indicated that the championship has a direct relationship to the effort he displays in the ring.
It is transparent that the belt resides on his shoulder because the real-world Vince McMahon likes the way the kid looks.
And yet we're meant to believe they're feuding? We're meant to believe it matters that Roman Reigns fight to retain the championship at the Rumble?
If the WWE continues to transparently tell booking decisions rather than stories, why even bother suggesting the possibility that Chris Jericho could win the Royal Rumble?
It's clear, even in the WWE's paper-thin fiction, that matches aren't made according to who wins and who loses anymore. Paul Heyman's promo spelled out, in no uncertain terms, that WWE matches are booked based on how well a match will sell the WWE Network.
The company has told its viewer that the outcome of pro-wrestling matches is entirely irrelevant. The company has established that even in its own fiction all that actually matters is the name on the marquee (hence why a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match could be booked as a midcard title bout if wrestlers like Lesnar or Undertaker are fighting on that same card).
It's impossible then, for anyone to believe there's even a slim chance that Chris Jericho would actually main event WrestleMania in 2016. We know that he is back purely for nostalgia and purely to get the crowd chanting things like "Rooty tooty booty".
So him winning the Rumble shouldn't even be offered as a fictional option. It's just a waste of our time.
The same goes for ending this episode with Bray Wyatt and The Wyatt Family scoring a symbolic victory over the other wrestlers in the final segment.
The WWE has demonstrated over the past three years that they have absolutely no plans for Bray Wyatt, and even the most casual of fans knows Bray Wyatt doesn't have a snowball's chance in hell at being booked for the WrestleMania main event. So why bother suggesting it with this episode's ending? Why waste people's time and energy with a nonexistent possibility?
Why does the WWE even bother with "storytelling" at all anymore? They're working with narrative scraps anyway, and they can't even maintain the coherence of those scraps?
The pro-wrestling fiction of the WWE is so far gone that Vince McMahon might as well come out on RAW and announce who will main event WrestleMania at the beginning of every year, and explain that his decision is based entirely upon who he thinks will draw the biggest payday rather than go through the laborious motions of The Royal Rumble and Fastlane.
While the general audience might not articulate their frustrations as “your characters don’t have clear motivations” or "you're telling us booking decisions, not stories", the audience has certainly articulated their frustrations in responding to Vince McMahon’s attempts at heat with tepid disinterest.
There was a time when Vince McMahon told legitimately entertaining stories with convincing passion alongside Bret Hart, Shawn Michaels, Mick Foley, and Stone Cold Steve Austin. He used to be self-aware (or those around him had the guts to keep him self-aware). He regularly undermined the Mr. McMahon character, revealing him to be a despicable, lying buffoon hellbent on maintaining a corporate visage at the expense promoting talents who went against the grain.
Life, it would seem, has imitated art to the point where Vince McMahon simply is the Mr. McMahon character from The Attitude Era. He appears to be motivated by a desire to prevent creativity, ingenuity, and intelligence from dictating the direction of his show. He has created a world where another Stone Cold Steve Austin isn’t even possible, and then he has the gall to imply today’s millennial generation lacks the drive Austin’s generation had.
This is not The Reality Era.
This is The Totalitarian Era; a creative landscape devoid of possibility.
The Mr. McMahon character from 1997 who hated defiant, creative personalities, who admitted to not understanding why people loved Stone Cold Steve Austin so much, has won.
He bled over into reality and snuffed out the spirit of The Rattlesnake, the spirit of professional wrestling. He has created a modern WWE devoid of passion, a WWE where pro-wrestlers fear expressing their passion and where fans have nothing to be passionate about save their disdain for this world of "wrestling entertainment".
And McMahon and Stephanie’s number-choosing skit embodies the kind of non-entertainment The Totalitarian Era breeds.
The scene was supposed to suggest (I assume) that Vince McMahon had rigged the tumbler so that Roman Reigns would be the number one pick. But the character, for unclear reasons, wanted to make it seem as though it was “legitimate”, and so he picked from the tumbler two more times and both times Roman Reigns' name was selected.
It was never established that any WWE Superstars names were in the tumbler more than once, so it became abundantly clear that all of the names in the tumbler were "Roman Reigns". The McMahon character wouldn't necessarily want it to be so obvious that the tumbler was rigged, and yet he continued to forge ahead as if the idea he was attempting to convey was comprehended by the audience. Not only did the character not seem successful in his attempt to cast a veil over his nefarious plotting, the suggestion that he had any plot in the first place wasn't made clear.
A scene that was supposed to create the sense that The Authority was sneakily screwing Roman Reigns wound up suggesting that the WWE, McMahon in particular, just didn't understand what they were trying to do.
And the bleakness of this scene is summed up in the look on Stephanie McMahon’s face.
As Vince McMahon struggled to open one of the plastic balls supposedly containing the names of WWE Superstars, Stephanie said, “At least there’s no phones, it’s not like McMahon’s Millions, okay, we’ll get this, don’t worry.”
She broke kayfabe to acknowledge that the segment was an absolute disaster.
That acknowledgement did not, in the slightest, suddenly fix the segment. It just made the affair downright sad for everyone involved. I can appreciate how the acknowledgement reveals, at the very least, Stephanie is cognizant of what’s going on here, but it certainly doesn’t make me happy to be a WWE fan.
The Authority has acknowledged the badness of their show before in an ironic manner, suggesting, “Welp, this is just the way it is, let’s get through this”.
Lately, I’ve been watching a lot of RAW episodes from 1997 and 1998.
There isn't a single ounce of “let’s just get through this” in any minute of those episodes.
There is only an urgent need to tell a story and create the best television show possible for two straight hours. There is an overarching goal that unites a variety of carefully crafted stories, all building to a climax that embodies everyone’s collective effort.
Today’s RAW is a passive collection of incoherent ramblings and neutered cartoons shrugging their way through the badness, and the only viewers who could possibly be happy with any of it are of the fanboy/fangirl variant who pop every time they see potential for a new gif or a new meme.
How are the vast majority of viewers (people who simply want to escape into a world that’s fun to watch) supposed enjoy a television show that directly asks them to “bear with it”.
Stephanie McMahon basically said, “At least this isn’t as bad as that other bad thing we once did. Don’t worry, it’s almost over”.
“McMahon’s Millions”, while no masterpiece, was better than this tumbler-sketch because it didn’t directly tell me that I was an idiot to be a WWE fan.
This one moment represents the nadir of RAW.
I don't blame Stephanie for the failure of this skit. It's not her fault. It was ill-conceived and ill-advised before the two ever walked out onstage. It's obvious she was trying to make light of the situation, but that attempt to appeal to millennial-irony represents the company's admission of guilt.
Stephanie wasn’t even breaking character and pointing out the badness of this sketch to purposefully rub it in viewers’ faces. Typically, the badness of RAW is used as a means of getting heat (a truly despicable practice but, at the very least, an active practice). Here, Stephanie was sincerely trying to let us know that it would all soon be mercifully over.
WWE fans are not McMahon-fans.
WWE fans are not a collection of people who want to see a patriarch and his offspring yuck it up on national television because they love “playing bad guys”.
WWE fans want to watch professional wrestling.
WWE fans want to be told stories.