THE RAW REVIEW (12/15/14)
The main event of this week’s RAW was the best final RAW-segment of the year.
Even on consistently good shows, it’s difficult for the moving parts in any narrative medium to coalesce into a climax that satisfies and surprises viewers. But this RAW achieved just that, a finale as well-crafted as it could be, utilizing the best top talents on the main roster.
Getting there was a long, arduous, and, at times, downright painful experience, however. But don’t worry, WWE, I’m “fixing to put you back over” in the end.
The WWE has been teaching me a lot of lessons in 2014.
The primary lesson I’ve learned is that one should always withhold judgment until having a complete experience; a valuable lesson. I’ve lost count of the number of RAWs where I had written the episode off, even turned the television off because the segments were so grating, only to have the experience radically shift into enlightening excellence thanks to a Paul Heyman promo or a surprise visit from The Rock or a surprise visit from Mick Foley or an unexpectedly remarkable match between Seth Rollins and anyone.
To adequately assess the strengths and weaknesses of an episode of RAW, to arrive at an impression of the show’s overall quality, it is essential to stick around until the very last image.
That is a problem on a three-hour broadcast where it is simply impossible to sustain quality.
While I appreciate the WWE for teaching me this lesson, beating me into becoming a more patient man, it’s come at the cost of my endurance.
A fan should not have to endure forty percent of a show they desperately don’t want to watch so as to enjoy that other sixty percent they do want to see.
There is absolutely no other media outlet, content creator, or medium that struggles so thoroughly to listen to and understand its audience. Bad television is bad television for everyone, even casual viewers. The thinking seems to be that there are smarks who want to watch good segments all the time and that they need to be occasionally appeased, and then there are casual viewers (the vast majority) who want to watch silly shenanigans and just “have a good time”. The thinking seems to be that there’s room for everyone.
That would be true if the silly shenanigans were objectively enjoyable television, and it would be true if the WWE actually had casual viewers.
Appealing to a “general audience” has served as a defense for undeniably bad television for far too long. And it makes even less sense because there’s no such thing as a “general audience” for professional wrestling (and make no mistake, the WWE is and shall forever be a creator of professional wrestling). You’re either a pro-wrestling fan or you’re not. There’s no one who doesn’t already want to watch Monday Night Raw who is tuning in every week because they’re fascinated by The Bunny. That person does not exist and if that person did exist that is not the person who is going to pay for the WWE Network. That is not the person who is going to buy Kevin Owens' latest tee-shirt. That is not the person who is going to pay for a ticket.
That is not the WWE’s audience. I am the WWE's audience. I am the watcher of RAW, SmackDown, NXT, and various documentaries. I am a subscriber who browses the WWE's extensive library and tunes in to every pay-per-view every month. I am the buyer of tee-shirts and hoodies. I (and my reactions to the show) represents the majority of people who love the WWE, and especially the people who want to love the WWE but have decided to watch more "serious", legitimate athletic competitions that respect their intelligence.
The time has come for WWE fans to start watching RAW because of something and not despite something.
That final, amazing match between John Cena and Seth Rollins should not feel like a reward for having watched genuinely dull, entirely unenjoyable segments. And while I’m incredibly pleased to write that this was, ultimately, a good episode of RAW, there was at least an hour’s worth of content that should have been completely stricken from the record.
RAW should not be the place for gimmicks to work out their kinks or for the untested to putz around with a script that cuts them off at the knees. RAW is the flagship. It's supposed to represent the absolute best the WWE has to offer, and if not for Brock Lesnar, Paul Heyman, John Cena, and Seth Rollins this episode (along with TLC) would have been completely upstaged by the WWE's farm league show, NXT.
Detroit was genuinely angry, fans were bored, and I was worried about what The Raw Review would be. I now get frustrated with a bad RAW (genuinely angry and disillusioned at times) less because I’m watching terrible TV and more because a bad RAW makes it incredibly difficult for me to do my job well. I refer to myself as an “analyst”. If I’ve got nothing to analyze then these reviews devolve into a litany of complaints and that’s not interesting to read and that’s not interesting to write. I very much want to delve into the allegorical nature of pro-wrestling and convince you of its cultural significance. But I can’t do that if all I’m seeing are bad matches and bad segments and bad gimmicks.
At one point during the broadcast, when Adam Rose was making his entrance, I became fascinated by the grandiosity of the badness I was watching and considered doing a write up about how impressed I was with just how bad the episode had become. I have so much love and respect for the WWE, but no one does bad television quite like they do bad television and no one does bad television on the scale that they do. And while that might make some snicker with sadistic pride, that’s not something to be proud of.
There were moments of the show that were so difficult to watch (New Day’s unfortunate gimmick falls a little farther with each appearance, and such is a shame for those talents) that it seems impossible for “the people in the back” to not know that they are producing a minimum of sixty subpar minutes of television a week. In fact, given the odd ebb and flow between bad gimmicks and bad segments and effective crowd-service and great matches, it seems entirely possible that the WWE, on episodes such as this, might purposefully put forth bad television for about an hour (sprinkled throughout like bits of dead skin) so as to make the good bits look, sound, and feel even better. At least a part of me hopes that’s what they’re doing, because that would mean there is some craft behind it, that it’s not just a random, schizophrenic stream of events.
Such is a very risky, and ultimately unnecessary booking strategy (if this is their booking strategy), because, again, a fan should not have to endure badness so as to receive goodness. Segments like those involving Heyman, Lesnar, Cena, and Rollins will always be appreciated. Do we really want to appreciate them more because we’re absolutely relieved we’re not watching The Bunny “go over” someone? There’s a difference between manipulating viewers to feel something and jerking them around from terribly low lows to incredibly high highs. The WWE fans need to be able to place their faith in the WWE for those three hours.
Each week we sit down to the altar of “sports entertainment” (pro-wrestling) and we worship. What we ask for in return is the knowledge that, at the very least, our time and intelligence are respected and that we’re not being lied to. That's all. Fans love the WWE so very much, but more often than not that love feels taken for granted.
When I watch RAW and one moment I’m seeing backstage segments involving Bunnies and the next I’m seeing Brock Lesnar F-5 John Cena, I find it hard to place my faith in those three-hours. I simply can never know if I’m going to get something good or downright atrocious. I'm either going to see one of the best segments I've ever seen or I'm going to see the absolute worst television on television. That's too big a gap. And now that I’ve learned I simply must endure the bad so as to hopefully arrive at the good, the sense of uneasiness is even stronger because the final segment of RAW is rarely anything like it was this past week. So, as a viewer, my relationship with the show and the company becomes strained. I feel as though I’m asked to devote a relatively massive block of my Monday Night to a show that doesn’t always seem to care too much about what interests me. I’m asked to watch undeniably bad television that I would absolutely never watch simply because the other hour and a half of television is something I very much want to see, and then I'm also asked to pay ten dollars a month and buy a bunch of tee-shirts. The WWE knows that it’s creating something I don’t want to see and moves ahead with it regardless, giving me what I do want to see piecemeal so as to keep me engaged just enough.
That situation represents an abusive relationship.
Now I’m not suggesting the WWE is literally abusing me or doing anything to me, specifically, and I’m not suggesting they’re even doing any of this on purpose. And I want to to be clear to readers, and especially anyone in the company who might come across this review, that I think the product is the best it’s been since 2001, and I believe this is one of the best rosters in the company’s history. 2014 has been the most enjoyable year in the WWE, for me, since The Rock and Austin built toward WrestleMania X-7.
But that third hour needs to go. Immediately.
That third hour dangles from the WWE’s body like a pulsating, cancerous growth, a mutant appendage that serves absolutely no purpose for anyone (not the company and not the fans). It's killing RAW. Genuinely killing RAW.
That third Monday Night Raw hour likely exists purely for the revenue it generates through advertising. I can appreciate this, but I can’t see how it’s helping the company in the long-term.
I’m no businessman, but I imagine a consistently enjoyable two hour-broadcast would generate a great deal of interest in the WWE’s modern product. I imagine a consistently fun, exciting, thrilling two-hour broadcast that told focused stories and that showcased only the absolute best, tested, experienced, reliable talents the WWE had to offer would bring back a lot of viewers and more than make up for whatever revenue is lost by dropping that third hour.
Everything about New Day is desperate and untested. This gimmick should have ran on SmackDown for a few months before even setting foot on RAW.
I cannot emphasize enough how much that third hour must go. If at least sixty minutes of content was cut from this particular episode of RAW, this would have been one of, if not the absolute best episode of the year.
“Go back to two hours!” is the battlecry of your entire fanbase, WWE.
“Go back to two hours!” is the battlecry of the people who work in your own company, WWE.
“Go back to two hours!” is the battlecry of the workers who made your company what it is, WWE.
That third, terrible hour prevents you from making even more money in the long-run, and it emboldens your audience to chant, “CM Punk!” and “This is awful!” and “NXT!” during your flagship show.
Stop giving them a reason to chant those chants.
Did you hear any of those chants when Paul Heyman was out there or when John Cena and Seth Rollins were putting on a “Match of the Year” contender or when Roman Reigns was tearing into Fandango?
This is an important RAW for many reasons. But one of those reasons is that this episode serves as a perfect example for why the flagship should go back to its more comfortable, infinitely more reliable two hours.
Now that I have thoroughly bludgeoned my point into your brain, dear reader, let’s move on.
Brock Lesnar’s arrival was an unexpected treat. Given Paul Heyman’s presence, Lesnar’s appearance didn’t even seem possible (or necessary) as Heyman’s promos and Heyman’s character stands in perfectly as the advocate and representative of the absolute power in the WWE, The Beat Incarnate and the reigning, defending WWE Heavyweight Champion of the World, Brock Lesnar.
But this couldn’t have been a more perfect time for Lesnar to make one of his special appearances, and this may be the most satisfying RAW appearance he’s made since his run as champ began.
Chris Jericho was the general manager, and while it’s always nice to see Jericho joke around, his main contribution to the show was taking a F-5, and an important F-5.
(There were several other matches and segments, but few offer up anything worthy of dissection, so if you’re interested in results click here.)
Seth Rollins continues to stand out as the top heel in the WWE, a relentlessly impressive athlete who has been delivering the best matches on the card every single week.
John Cena vs Seth Rollins, right now, is the best match on the main roster. Their personalities clash perfectly, and their in-ring styles mesh in a way that I have not seen since CM Punk/Cena. They glare into each other’s eyes with intensity and sincerity. They start off with a flurry of punches and kicks, and then build and build to a point where every move is massive, and every moment is worthy of an exclamation of joy.
Rollins, shockingly, kicked out of Cena’s finisher, The Attitude Adjustment. Why commentary did not immediately erupt in shock following this moment is beyond me. Perhaps I’m too much of a purist, but kicking out of a finisher, especially on RAW, must always be a remarkable moment that sends Michael Cole into a frenzy.
Within the fiction, Rollins kicked out of a move that has put many a man down for the count for over a decade. And yet the momentousness of that occasion is presented as just another normal moment in a match.
The in-ring action was fluid and frantic throughout, consisting of genuine wrestling and obligatory spots on top of the cage and in the doorway. All of these spots felt organic.
Eventually, the battle came to a standstill when Cena gave Rollins a remarkable AA off the top turnbuckle. The two lay dormant on the matt.
It’s moments like these when a fan’s foreknowledge and imagination kicks in.
“Brock Lesnar should come out. Brock needs to come out. Please get Bro—”
And that’s when The Beast’s music hit.
Lesnar did not wear the championship belt earlier in the night, so it was good to see it with him here.
Lesnar and Heyman sauntered down to the ring, the title on Lesnar’s arm, an image that will always carry great significance. Heyman raised the title up as Brock entered the cage, his reverent visage equal parts hilarious and compelling.
The WWE, and pro-wrestling, owes a debt of gratitude to Heyman.
He has been the keeper of the flame, he has been raising the WWE World Heavyweight Championship up (literally and figuratively) for nearly three years now. His promos, his performance, the nuances of every facial expression and gesture, contribute to not just the WWE, but, specifically, to the legacy of that championship belt.
The combination of CM Punk, John Cena, Brock Lesnar, and Paul Heyman has maintained the narrative significance of the WWE Championship since 2011, keeping it at a place of prominence where it belongs when, without them, it might no longer matter at all.
That belt is and must forever be the most important storytelling device in professional wrestling. It is the touchstone, it is the driving force, the McGuffen, the narrative fuel, the epicenter of it all. That belt is the nucleus of the WWE Universe and everything revolves around it like fast-moving protons and electrons.
And every time Brock Lesnar carries that belt and every time Paul Heyman raises that belt up, you believe in that belt. Only a cynic or someone tapped into the smark-hive-mind is unable to see how that belt has been protected by Lesnar, Punk, Cena, and Heyman for the past three years.
To see Lesnar decimate Cena with a trio of german suplexes, a perfect allusion to their infamous SummerSlam battle, is incredibly satisfying for those who have remained invested and engaged in the WWE’s top feud. What once seemed like an obligatory “big draw” match-up at the expense of pushing a younger generation, now exists as one of the most powerful rivalries in the company’s history.
Although there have been detours on the road to Cena vs Lesnar III (technically IV), this rivalry has been, appropriately, the top story and it has dictated the narrative events for a large portion of one of the WWE’s best in-ring years.
I wrote many months ago that this has been the story of John Cena’s demise. Whether we were aware of it or not, we have been watching Superman slowly drown in the grim light of his Kryptonite. And that is an important story for John Cena, Paul Heyman, Brock Lesnar, and the younger generation clamoring for that top spot.
The Road to WrestleMania has already begun, ladies and gentleman.
Everything that happens from now on matters.
And that makes it an exciting time to be a fan of the art of professional wrestling.
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