THE RAW REVIEW
Last week, I thought it was too big a logical leap when, after screaming at Roman Reigns to leave the ring, Stephanie McMahon suddenly wanted Roman Reigns to get back into the ring simply because he’d turned his back on her (despite the fact that he was actually doing what she’d initially wanted). Roman’s “Act of Defiance” was so milquetoast and childish (made all the more ineffective by how amused & pleased with himself he was) that the scene quickly sapped him of the gravitas and the momentum he’d established the previous week.
What kind of momentum or connection would Stone Cold Steve Austin have established if two weeks after cutting his “Austin 3:16” promo he started smiling and laughing and reacting to adversity with lukewarm amusement?
At the end of TLC, Roman Reigns had his “Austin 3:16” moment. He still smiled and raised his arms one too many times (the performer a bit too happy with the result rather than staying in character) but it was a character-defining moment nonetheless that promised to propel Roman to new heights. That night, Roman Reigns said, "I am Roman Reigns and I'm a warrior who you cannot disrespect". Only he said it with chair-shots and crazy eyes.
On the subsequent RAW he became a Champion in convincing fashion, and that moment had the added symbolic weight of taking place in the same building where he’d won the 2015 Royal Rumble to the sound of unabashed disdain.
All of that hard work has been followed by two utterly ridiculous episodes of RAW that seem hellbent on negating reestablished goodwill.
This week’s opener between Roman & Vince made last week's exchange between Roman & Stephanie look like Shakespeare.
Vince and Roman had to deal with a Brooklyn crowd who wanted to make it very clear that they did not like what they were seeing for the majority of the episode. Boring chants abounded even during good matches with good wrestlers. While “smart” crowds could benefit from being smarter, the only reason that Brooklyn crowd took to disrespecting the show was because it was, top to bottom, a poorly booked show that never took into consideration its venue. Certainly there were successes (New Day’s segment, Kevin Owens’ brutality, and John Cena’s return), but this episode was destined to fail from the start.
The tone for the entire evening was set by the excitement-negating sloppiness of the opening skit. The mics weren’t working so no one could hear Vince McMahon cut a promo on Roman, and then when Vince finally could be heard he proceeded to hurl awkward, racially-charged insults at Roman Reigns and his family that had no basis in the already flimsily-constructed conflict.
“Your predecessors, The Wild Samoans, everybody remembers Afa and Sika…I’d like to remind you that you are just one generation away from a bone through your nose…”
He talked about purposefully “using up” Roman’s family, making money off their suffering, “owning” Roman Reigns and “owning” his family, and enjoying it. As interesting as Vince McMahon playing an “evil, racist promoter” could be, that particular tint to his character didn’t actually make sense given the circumstances, and Roman couldn’t really respond with anything other than a cartoonish squint-grin.
If Vince being a racist, evil promoter who regarded his talent as slaves was actually going to be his angle, then that’s something that could actually be explored and that’s something Roman Reigns could combat. But that’s not going to be Vince’s angle, and his hatred of Samoans wasn’t his initial reason for trying to ruin Roman’s life (it was Roman’s vicious attack on his son-in-law, Triple H). So the focus gets lost with little reward for doing so (reminiscent of the way Paige "went too far" insulting Charlotte's brother recently, without that fact ever being used again in their conflict).
As is, these insults served only to continue emphasizing Roman’s lineage (a trait of his character that fails to resonate with audiences), while also giving Roman a reason to get angry enough to push McMahon. But we’ve already seen Roman Reigns punch Vince McMahon in the face and kick his body out of the ring (and, it could be argued, for a lot less than what he said in this promo). So the heat gets lost because it won’t be used in the future, and because Roman’s response results in an old man flat on his back limply saying, “Help, help, my neck, my neck!”
It all plays like bad community theater.
It's supposed to be embarrassing but that doesn’t make it good.
The lack of a consistent emotional tone in this scene destroys any chance of anyone appearing strong, capable, or interesting. As a viewer, it feels like the booker wants me to hate Vince McMahon and feel sympathy for Roman Reigns, as though their opening exchange is a “serious moment”. But then, when Roman pushes McMahon and I hear McMahon say, “My neck” while shaking on the mat, it seems like I’m supposed to laugh or be satisfied that the old, angry evil person has been embarrassed. Despite the fact that all I see is overacting and embarrassing television, even fans less concerned with quality still aren’t getting a clear tone that allows them to become emotionally invested in the scene. If you don't know how you're supposed to feel then you don't feel anything too strongly. To rely too heavily on the inevitable pop that comes with a McMahon being arrested is to ignore the need for a story that justifies that turn in the plot.
Going this route also ignores that we've seen this dozens upon dozens of times already and none of it makes sense given the character Roman Reigns is supposed to be playing. Cops and cuffs makes sense with Stone Cold Steve Austin, because he's an anti-establishment beer-drinking, middle-finger-flippin' hell-raiser.
When I see Roman’s response to the old man on the ground is to screw his mouth up in that “Pffft”-face, and hold out his hand as if what he’s seeing is ridiculous, I certainly don’t see a WWE World Heavyweight Champion or a badass warrior. I see a performer who’s trying too hard, and I see a character who’s entirely unsympathetic.
I also see someone confirming my belief that what I'm watching is utterly ridiculous.
Then, when Stephanie comes out screaming “Dad! Dad are you okay! Roman! Roman! Dad!” with the utmost sincerity, it’s as though I’m supposed to be legitimately worried for Vince McMahon. Stephanie sells these ridiculous moments so well that she gets the sympathy even when she’s the heel. Then, when the cops come out to arrest Roman, it seems as though I’m watching another evil McMahon-family plan unfolding, as though this is exactly what Stephanie and Vince wanted all along so that they could have an excuse to arrest Roman. But then, when the head of security says, “No, we’re not arresting him” (even though, of all the people in this scene who could conceivably be arrested for what they did, Roman Reigns is actually the most logical candidate) we’re just supposed to be happy that Stephanie isn’t getting her way. Then the head of security threatens to arrest Stephanie simply because she’s yelling at him to arrest Roman.
Then McMahon gets back up and says, “I’m better” and it’s entirely unclear whether the character’s neck was legitimately hurt in the first place or if the character was lying in an attempt to get Roman Reigns arrested. It's impossible to know why any of what I'm seeing is actually happening.
Stephanie, having been threatened with arrest for no apparent reason, seems terrified, eliciting even more sympathy, and McMahon overplays everything with cartoonish grandeur. The way he grabs the head of security and sticks out his jaw is straight out of Looney Tunes. All the while, Roman Reigns mimes his way through the sketch until it’s mercifully concluded.
Are we supposed to be laughing? Worried? Vindicated? Loving Roman Reigns? What is the audience supposed to think about any of these people or the world they inhabit when anyone can be arrested for anything and one beat is played for laughs and the next beat is played for drama?
Is this really how the WWE thinks they’ll make Roman Reigns a WWE World Heavyweight Champion? Thus far his reign has consisted of him turning his back on a lady and shoving an old man.
And lots and lots of smiling.
And, beyond all of this, the viewer knows that Vince McMahon is the all-powerful creative overlord of the real-world WWE. In the fictional WWE, we know he's basically the same person as he is in real-life, and that he has the power to do whatever he wants.
When it's established that a character has the power to do whatever they want, it becomes increasingly difficult, if not entirely impossible, to create convincing conflicts around that character.
Vince can just fire Roman Reigns.
Vince can just strip the title from Roman Reigns.
He owns it after all. So why not?
An explanation has never been expressly offered for this simple criticism. We are to assume McMahon just enjoys torturing babyfaces while adhering to some of the rules of his own universe; rules like having pro-wrestling matches that require referees to decide a champion.
Why would Mr. McMahon need to be a guest referee in a match if his goal is to screw the babyface out of their Championship? He owns the company. He could just tell the referee what to do or, again, strip the title from Roman on the spot. There simply is no explanation for why heel authority figures acknowledge any of the rules of professional wrestling matches when they're the ones who made those rules in the first place and they're the ones who could reshape the entire show on a whim at a moment's notice.
In 2015, these are not questions that can be so easily dismissed. Today's audience will not pop simply because they're supposed to.
The thinking behind these Reigns vs McMahon’s segments is that the “babyface vs McMahons-dynamic” has worked in the past and so it will work for Roman. Clearly, this is not true, despite the success of Roman’s championship victory-episode. That was one-night that played to Roman's strengths and naturally followed-up on the previous pay-per-views events.
Now we are watching the incoherent cliff-notes of the past, regurgitated for the cheapest of pops at a time where the company has no understanding of itself in 2015. The result of attempting to recreate the magic of McMahon/Austin or Triple H/Bryan is the bastardization of segments that worked in different times for different audiences with entirely different performers with entirely different skill-sets.
The creative gap, the quality gap, and the fan-enthusiasm gap between Monday Night Raw and NXT epitomizes the organization's identity-crisis. The jumbled mess that has become the WWE's fictional universe is imploding week after week and these past two episodes of RAW are prime examples of impending creative disaster.
The head of security just kept saying “Jail” as if the mere mention of that word would pop the audience regardless of whether or not it made any sense for anyone to get locked up. The scene just wanted to get to the point where McMahon would be carried away in handcuffs so as to pop the crowd because that moment has popped the crowd in the past. The scene had no interest in making sense, building to that moment in a logical way, or establishing Roman Reigns as a strong, interesting character.
Vince McMahon doesn’t suddenly appear “in touch” by purposefully playing to the perception that he’s an “out of touch” old man. It just feels awkward and sad to watch.
In his attempt to right his ship by personally stepping out from behind the curtain to take the helm, McMahon created scenes that demonstrate exactly how out of touch the entire WWE organization remains. Next week he'll be back again...as a guest referee.
It all feels like a bad joke that an old man hopes will land by the fifteenth time he tells it.
At this point, Mr. McMahon’s motivation is entirely lost.
Roman Reigns’ motivation is entirely lost.
The League of Nations remains a depressing Frankenstein-Stable.
And the only people with any recourse in this narrative are Stephanie and Triple H. But they’re heels. Their cause for retaliation against Roman Reigns is so justified that it becomes increasingly difficult to cheer for Roman and not side with The Authority (especially when Roman is just passively yucking it up every week). Stephanie and Triple H are also better, more established performers than Roman Reigns. They’re able to improvise and they’re able to play even the most ridiculous angles with the utmost conviction. Today’s fans will continue to perceive that gap in ability even if they’re not really conscious of it, and that works against Roman.
At the very least, at the end of the night, when Roman Reigns ran down to the ring and faced Sheamus, he finally looked like the Reigns from TLC again. This was the one time in the evening his facial expressions matched his look, his aura, and his strength as a performer.
I cannot emphasize enough how much Roman Reigns needs to stop smiling.
It’s killing him.
I wouldn’t write this if I didn’t believe in him and support him. I want him to succeed. It's clear that he will not succeed (at least not with the support of the fans) if he keeps working against his character and, more specifically, his look. The performer either needs to stop listening to the people telling him to smile, or he needs to think about his character and figure out a way to play that character in a consistent fashion regardless of the circumstances he finds himself in. He can't be "funny Roman" when a scene is supposed to be funny and he can't be "serious Roman" when a scene is supposed to be serious. He has to be Roman.
Every week he is a different person. Worse yet, on some episodes of RAW, Roman Reigns is a different person from one segment to the next.
On this latest episode he was an obstinate brat who shoved his granddaddy and “funnily” held a microphone up to the head of security, but he was also a vengeful warrior hungry for battle.
This lack of definition and this lack of consistency defined the entire evening and resulted in the Brooklyn crowd turning on the show, even a match like Becky Lynch vs Sasha Banks.
This episode was a microcosm of the WWE in 2015; 90% utter nonsense that negates a lot of great work, 5% excellence on the part of the wrestlers that’s negated by poor booking, and then 5% that is actually legitimately good television. Those figures represent my biased experience of the product and my disdain for the lack of a central conceit, but the consensus, even among WWE-apologists, is that the majority of what we’ve seen on RAW in 2015 could easily be stricken from the record.
And it will be.
We will all forget how we spent most of our time watching RAW this year. That’s sad, because it demonstrates how far the company has fallen from creative grace (especially after a banner year in 2014), but it’s ultimately for the best.
We need to forget all of this so that we can just move on in the pursuit of something better.
Now more than ever, we need the WWE to start over.
The company's past has become a debilitating weight around everyone’s neck, stunting the company’s growth and the emotional investment of the fans.
For twelve months, I have chronicled the ups and downs of this television show on The Work of Wrestling, and it was my hope that by the end I’d be able to praise the company for embracing change and maturing out of the long, damning shadow of The Attitude Era.
Instead of evolving, once and for all, out of The Attitude Era-shadow, the WWE decided to end the year by diving headfirst into it. The company brought 2015 to an end with Mr. McMahon getting arrested, announcing himself as a guest ref, and then ironically shouting “Happy New Year” at his legions of viewers.
Last year, on the corresponding episode, The Authority returned in the last segment and ironically wished everyone a “Happy New Year” and then clinked glasses of champagne.
It’s time this nonsense stopped.
It's time that the "heel Authority figure" vanish forever.
It's time an Authority Figure of any kind who books matches on television vanish forever. This recurring character has damaged the product in ways most fans cannot perceive.
We're all well beyond the need for the WWE's booker to be symbolically represented as an actual character in the WWE-fiction. It doesn't make sense, in 2015, when the company breaks its own kayfabe every single time it shows an advert for Breaking Ground after a match, to pretend that matches aren't booked well in advance, behind closed doors. The show doesn't require any authority figure to hold the narratives together. To function, the show only requires a basic central conceit that's emphasized by commentary, maintained by unscripted promos, embellished by vignettes, and then carried out in professional wrestling matches.
Without that, you are failing your audience, WWE.
You have a global following at your fingertips and instead of sincerely moving them to The Moment of Pop you continue to reanimate dead narrative corpses and parade those corpses around on national television in the hopes of getting a ratings spike instead of investing in younger, livelier talent.
It’s time to throw a wrinkle in your never-ending story.
It’s time to wipe the slate clean, let the past finally be the past, and give us something worth watching.
There is no shame is listening to constructive criticism.
In fact, the ability to hear constructive criticism implies confidence in one’s work.
So be more confident.
Make 2016 a year we’ll remember.