THE RAW REVIEW (12/8/14)
I typically approach viewing "special" episodes of RAW like a Slammy Awards Show with dread. In the past I've found such episodes hard to stomach.
So I decided to experiment with the way I watched RAW. I decided that I would go into it with a positive attitude, that I wouldn't be overly critical, that I would judge it based on exactly what it was, and just find joy in whatever was enjoyable. I wouldn't question why the WWE didn't create an entirely separate Slammy Awards special for the WWE Network. I would instead just "go along with it", all the while ensuring my brain was still engaged.
Perhaps my viewing was helped along by the abridged HuluPlus version, but I found this week's RAW to be fun to watch, and effective-enough in building the TLC pay-per-view's card.
Where a short three-week build into a pay-per-view might normally be cause for concern for the way the various narratives and rivalries are supported, in maintaining the significance of the events of Survivor Series (and the disbanding of The Authority) the WWE has done a better job this month remaining focused on the matches that matter and keeping characters rooted in consistent goals.
The company always attempts to create a delicate balance between three storytelling (and marketing) components:
- Build/advertise the next month's pay-per-view following the last month's
- Allow the events of the last months' pay-per-view to inform the segments and matches on shows like RAW & SmackDown that lead into the next pay-per-view
- Keep rivalries and segments fresh for four weeks
The WWE almost always achieves the first (in terms of marketing the next PPV), occasionally does the second, and struggles with the third, thus contributing to the accurate criticism that the company is schizophrenic.
But perhaps the three week build, combined with how impossible it would be to ignore the disbanding of The Authority has worked in the company's favor. Segments and matches involving the top feuds have remained pertinent and varied enough to sustain their respective builds.
Viewers today desperately crave continuity (either because "continuity" has become a recognized aspect of storytelling as a result of the popularization of franchises and comic book movies or because continuity rewards viewers by recognizing their commitment to a story). In allowing the events of Survivor Series to factor into this month's abridged build, the stories make a little more sense and the segments flow a little better.
This is not to suggest that this has been a stellar three weeks or that everything has been done exactly as it should have been done. To be clear - it just means that the events of the previous pay-per-view have resonated more thoroughly these past three weeks, and this is something that should be more common.
Nothing at TLC feels astronomically important, but everything that's happening at TLC makes narrative sense because everything that's happening at TLC is directly related to the events of Survivor Series.
So while the significance of a match between Seth Rollins & John Cena isn't fully realized given what their match will be and given the pay-per-view where it will happen, it builds off of Survivor Series. The result is a kind of mixed emotional bag. It's exciting that Rollins might headline three pay-per-views in a row. It's exciting that Rollins will fight the top face in the entire industry. It's satisfying that this match is connected to a series of narrative events that stretch as far back to Spring of this year. And yet it's dissatisfying that the two haven't had any truly memorable segments aside from hitting one another with a few finishing moves (last night's closing segment was the best yet, though). It's dissatisfying that the first time we'll see these two fight at a pay-per-view it will be in a gimmick match. That doesn't mean the match won't be awesome, it just means it's worth questioning whether or not this is the best way to bring this potentially awesome rivalry to fruition.
The sense of unrealized potential is one that has permeated the product for quite some time and actually informed some of the action this week.
Following Stone Cold Steve Austin's interview where Vince McMahon questioned the drive and tenacity of today's superstars, several wrestlers addressed the idea of "stepping up". It's simply ludicrous that John Cena would address this call to action, because this call to action has absolutely nothing to do with John Cena. No one thinks John Cena isn't "stepping up" and no one is asking John Cena to "step up" in the way that McMahon and Austin were saying (both McMahon and Austin like John Cena and praise his "hellacious" decade-long run at the top). So hearing John Cena say, "I'm going to show them what stepping up is all about" represents that frustrating break from reality where viewers are suddenly supposed to believe that John Cena is some underdog of sorts who has a chip on his shoulder.
John Cena should be the guy defending the locker room. John Cena should be the guy saying, "I've been stepping up for ten years. My entire team at Survivor Series stepped up! We're all stepping up every single time we run down to that ring!" He's done such things to help put younger guys over on the mic in the past, but this week he reverted to that strange, character-defying place where he acts like an eager newbie when he's anything but.
Roman Reigns also talked about "stepping up" when he accepted the "Superstar of the Year" Award. And while I personally enjoyed Roman's brief speech and while it was good to see him live and in person, the way the younger generation even addresses the "stepping up" issue compromises the intensity and the confidence of the characters they portray.
The writers latched onto this idea of the younger generation not "stepping up", the notion that the millennial generation is weak and unsure of themselves (an interview that shouldn't even be mentioned on Monday Night RAW, because it was an interview that completely destroys the illusion of kayfabe). But the writers, and the performers, didn't actually think of a way to convincingly make it seem like the younger generation is actually ready to "step up".
They put the words "step up" in John Cena's mouth and made John Cena the poster boy of someone stepping up (something that couldn't make less sense), and then they had other younger stars self-consciously proclaim that they would "step up". So everyone is talking about how much they're going to "step up" without doing anything that's actually compelling television. It just makes them look even weaker, like inexperienced children trying desperately to prove their daddy wrong.
And that's the kind of promo someone should cut:
"There's a lot of talk about stepping up -
I'm stepping up, I'm making a name for myself, screw you mommy and daddy, I'm gonna be a star. Let me tell you something; you can all say whatever the hell you want, McMahon and Austin can say whatever they want about me, about my locker room, and about my people. The truth of the matter is that there's a reason I'm standing in this ring and they're not. Their time has past, and this time belongs to me and me only, and their fear and their jealousy shows every time they ask someone to step up, and all you weak little boys and little girls who buy into their bad 'step up' gimmick do nothing but prove their point. So go on, keep talking about stepping up, keep begging daddy Austin and daddy McMahon for respect. I got no time for you and I got no time for them. What I do have time for is someone with the guts to come down that ramp, get into this ring, and fight me for something that means something!"
How good would it be to hear the breaking glass, and then have Austin come down to the ring and challenge this theoretical upstart to a match at WrestleMania?
Maximus is ready:
WWE 2K15 professional wrestler and our social media ambassador "The Gladiator" Maximus.
The fact that Roman Reigns won "Superstar of the Year" is yet another in an increasingly large list of examples as to how the WWE completely disregards reality.
There is great potential in Roman. If I may break reviewer-kayfabe for a moment, I can honestly say that I am a Roman Reigns fan. And I'm an almost-thirty heterosexual male. But the WWE is doing everything they can to make me hate Roman Reigns. I won't hate him, regardless of how much they might ruin his face-push, but almost everyone else who represents the massive demographic that I represent will almost definitely hate Roman Reigns if the WWE continues down this unrealistic path.
Here is a quote from long time friend and long time RAW REVIEW reader
(and someone who also enjoys Reigns):
"So Roman Reigns...well the WWE officially confirmed my thought that any and all voting is (or can be) rigged. How is Roman Reigns even a nominee for superstar of the year? The only two people who had a decent year are Daniel Bryan and Brock Lesnar. I understand why they did this and it's obvious Reigns will be in the main event of WrestleMania to beat Lesnar. However, this clearly shows how WWE is not in touch with their audience at fucking all. This actually gives Reigns heat (not sympathy) because we know he's not deserving of the award. It makes people want to boo him. The smart fans will completely get behind Lesnar in this feud. Lesnar should have won superstar of the year and not have showed up to receive it. That would get him heat. It would remind us that he doesn't care about WWE and how he's not here. It would make him the heel. It makes him dominant and more mystical because he was too good to come. Boosting up Reigns in such an inauthentic way does not bode well for his baby face run they are preparing for. They better have big plans to make the fans hate Lesnar and really get behind Reigns...because coming back and winning the Rumble immediately will not be good for him. I hope it doesn't turn into another WrestleMania 22."
I quoted Al because I believe this sums it all up perfectly. Just as there are various kinds of untapped potential in various WWE "superstars", there is untapped potential in transforming Roman Reigns into a "franchise player" the predominantly young male demographic actually likes. There is potential for Roman Reigns to be a character that kids like, girls like, and men like - all ages, all creeds, all colors, all socioeconomic backgrounds...everything. He has a universal appeal, but the only way that universal appeal can be effective is if his universal appeal isn't blasted on a massive billboard in front of our faces.
The more people are told to like Roman the more they will despise him. The result will be the loss of a potentially important talent. Reigns will be forced to trudge along with whatever the WWE gives him, forced to ignore reality along with the WWE, and the fans will be forced to see something they simply don't want to see when, if handled properly, the fans could be convinced that Roman Reigns vs Brock Lesnar at WrestleMania 31 is the greatest main event of all time.
The stakes with the Reigns character are high, and the WWE must exercise a deeper sense of awareness for its audience and itself to get that character over. Blindly forging ahead despite the apparent boos, or forcing Reigns into an ill-fitting heel role will contribute to an already hostile relationship between the company and its fans.
Much like the build into TLC itself (something that's adequate, but not too powerful), this was another week of decent, occasionally messy, and somewhat forgettable matches.
Ziggler vs Seth Rollins had a couple visible mistakes that seemed to throw off their rhythm, but the finish was excellent (J&J security shoving Ziggler off the turnbuckle while the ref was distracted, leading into a curb stomp from Rollins).
Rollins then interrupted the Slammy Awards ceremony, cutting an excellent, brief promo and stealing Sting's award. Each week he becomes a purer and purer heel despite being shackled to a script that limits his potential on the mic.
His subsequent segment with Paul Heyman was another excellent moment of the night, with Heyman continuing to expand upon the John Cena/Brock Lesnar rivalry in a subtle, deviously entertaining fashion.
The two heels bantered back and forth about the future, the power of Lesnar, the Money in the Bank briefcase, and, finally, Cena. Heyman plays the villain to perfection, slithering up close to Rollins and inflating the young gun's ego by agreeing that he is "the undisputed future" of the WWE. Heyman insisted that it isn't Brock Lesnar, but John Cena who stands in the way of Rollins realizing his dream, and that he must leave Cena "rooted firmly in the past" at the upcoming TLC pay-per-view.. This theme of past versus future has been the most consistent recurring theme in the company and it consistently creates the best segments and best stories (as covered in previous RAW REVIEWS).
Once again, just by making a few-minute appearance, Heyman helps build TLC, he helps build the Cena/Lesnar rivalry (because he wants Rollins to destroy Cena because Cena is the number one contender for the Heavyweight Championship), and he adds yet another layer to his character and to the Rollins' character.
Rollins becomes a pawn, something that he could conceivably use as motivation in the future against Heyman and against Lesnar. But Rollins also does want to destroy Cena for himself. And Heyman might be whispering in Rollins' ear not because he's afraid Cena can destroy Brock, but because he's afraid Rollins can destroy Brock. In keeping Rollins focused on Cena, Heyman directs the youth away from his client and the championship. There is a blend of evil wills, a blend of nefarious designs and it is all indisputably the most interesting part of the show today.
Ziggler took home the Slammy for Match of the Year (Survivor Series main event). I'm quick to criticize the results of the Slammy Awards, but then I remind myself it's a fake awards show - and by fake I mean legitimately fake in that it in no way reflects the importance of anything.
Ziggler's speech was decent at first, but as someone who thinks pro-wrestling works best when it exists within the structure of a simulated sports competition, hearing Ziggler say, "I did everything I could to entertain you" is a direct affront to the fiction of professional wrestling. He also breaks the fiction of pro-wrestling every time he makes his entrance and screams, "They hear you! They know, oh they know!" He's telling his fans that the people who control the booking are paying attention to the cheers of the crowd.
All of this is not necessarily Ziggler's fault. It represents the direction of the entire company, where the illusion of pro-wrestling and the WWE being a sports competition just doesn't seem to matter anymore.
Ziggler could have said he wanted to "entertain" us on a Slammy-specific show where it was understood that kayfabe and the fiction of pro-wrestling didn't exist in the least. But on Monday Night RAW, when he's playing a character, when the most basic form of kayfabe is inescapable, when he's portraying a professional wrestler, to hear him say that his goal was to "entertain" and not to "win" does actual damage to the art of professional wrestling. He seemed to deliver the speech naturally enough, and it's hard to believe that he was forced to say "entertain" versus "win". It didn't even seem like something Ziggler would consider - either because he doesn't care about kayfabe or because he's been trained to not care about kayfabe (unless I completely misunderstand him and his performance).
And so the very heart of the debate between the use of the terms "sports entertainer" and "professional wrestler" or "sports entertainment" and "professional wrestling" is epitomized.
If Ziggler did what he did to "entertain", then why did he win "Match of the Year"? Why didn't he win "performance of the year" or "athletic entertainment moment of the year".
The fundamental heart and soul of professional wrestling is lost in today's WWE. I do not mean that it's a corporate evil that we should all renounce. I mean that the most basic story pro-wrestling tells resultant from what the medium actually is has been corrupted and perhaps completely lost.
Every time Ziggler says "they hear you!" he's breaking the forth wall. He's doing so in a likable way, but he's saying, directly, "this is not a competition, this is a performance, and the creative powers will put me in more matches if you keep cheering me based on my performance". This contradicts the idea that these characters fight their way to the top. This contradicts the ideas that wins and loses have any significance whatsoever.
This is the embodiment of what's wrong with the term "sports entertainment".
Sports entertainment accurately describes the medium of professional wrestling. But professional wrestling must call itself professional wrestling so as to maintain the illusion that it's a legitimate sport. A critic or an analyst or a company-man outside of the fiction could call pro-wrestling sports entertainment, but the characters within the fiction should always refer to their "sport" as professional wrestling if they care about maintaining the integrity of the medium and their characters in the least.
Animal of the Year makes more sense than Best Actor
We should be watching athletes competing for the right to earn championship gold.
Instead we're knowingly watching athletic actors battle the politics of a publicly traded corporation so as to earn more money and a better spot on the card.
That's much less interesting. That's actually quite boring.
The Attitude Era and previous eras worked so well because the fiction of pro-wrestling was the emphasis, not the dealings of a massive corporation.
In reality, The Rock and Austin faced one another because they were the top two guys in the business, but within the WWF (World Wrestling Federation being a moniker that maintains the fiction of pro-wrestling), they were two athletes working for a sports organization (like two sports teams within a league) who competed in a series of matches so as to earn their top standing at WrestleMania (the World Series or the Super Bowl). Any politics that went on were weaved into the story in such a way that it earned heat, but also existed within the confines of the most fundamental pro-wrestling conceit.
Today, absolutely none of that matters or exists. Everyone is encouraged to be a smark, everyone is chastised for being a smark, and no one watches professional wrestling in a pure way and the WWE doesn't produce pro-wrestling in a pure way despite inevitably being a "pro-wrestling content-creator".
This is a shame given how much potential there is for amazing pro-wrestling stories today thanks to a superb roster.
From Bray Wyatt all the way up to John Cena, the card is overflowing with potentially amazing rivalries and amazing matches. Lack of ambition or lack of talent is not the reason this roster has not achieved success (even Cena hasn't achieved the kind of cultural significance of The Rock and Austin and Hogan despite being considered on their level within the company). A corporate structure that misunderstands the most basic tenets of the medium in which it works combined with closed-minded, out-of-touch dictates stifle an entire generation's creativity (even John Cena's).
Hope exists in the form of stars like Seth Rollins, who continues to perform within the parameters of the pro-wrestling fiction. His presence at the top of the card represents hope for the future, a chance for the future to thrive despite the restrictions of a script and overly micromanaged product.
Rollins, Reigns, and Ambrose have all been protected by the company and supported with big matches and big angles. But they're all (knowingly or unknowingly) restrained in a way their forefathers simply weren't. And this makes any success they attain that much more precious.
Fundamental change must finally come.
And it can only come from within, when the word "entertainment" stops being a part of pro-wrestling's vocabulary.
Thank you for reading. Do you agree or disagree with the points I've made? Who do you want to see as the next face of the WWE?
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All photos via WWE