THE RAW REVIEW
For the first time in a long time, I felt good after Monday Night Raw ended.
In fact, the show faded to black to the sound of my sincere laughter at the image of Kofi Kingston, Big E Langston, and Xavier Words gyrating and trombone-playing in celebration of their dominance. I’m no sadist. I’m no post-ironic hipster. I did not smile because I wanted to see the evil triumph over the good or because I think dancing and singing is inherently funny. I want to see today’s roster, which is the best the WWE has had at their disposal since The Attitude Era, booked in a way that helps them get over.
And, for this particular episode's climax, that’s what I saw.
I’m an advocate for good storytelling that celebrates talent rather than destroys it.
From the moment Big E challenged John Cena for The United States Championship to that final celebration on the entrance ramp, The New Day was elevated beyond their customary, likable slapstick and into the realm of legitimate heel champions. They did not deviate from the entertaining characters they’ve established, but they also added a touch of viciousness and sincerity to their final encounter with The Dudley Boyz, John Cena, and Dolph Ziggler.
They wanted to cause pain. And they succeeded.
Success has become far too uncommon on the main roster.
Success, either in a single professional wrestling match or in a goal established by a professional wrestler has all but vanished from the WWE’s fictional universe.
Success encourages an average viewer to continue watching your television show and buying your Network.
To put it as simply as possible, it’s much more fun to watch successful people than it is to watch absolute failures. It’s much easier to become emotionally invested in people with aspirations than it is to empathize with people who rely on semantics and excuses to explain their failures or their triumphs. It’s easier to connect with people who care about what they’re doing and find success, in some form, in the pursuit of their goals.
This truth applies to villains as much as it applies to heroes.
For example, people love Heath Ledger’s The Joker in The Dark Knight. Apart from the brilliance of Ledger’s delivery, viewers love The Joker and anticipate every scene he dominates because he is good at what he does. The Joker is a success story in that film (until The Batman finally proves him wrong). The Joker cares about his work and goes to great lengths to torture The Batman, and whenever his plan does not succeed, he twists the truth in his favor, revealing even greater villainy and cunning in the process. In The Dark Knight, The Joker attempts to create an environment wherein he cannot be proven wrong, and he seduces the world into regarding his madness as prophetic, correct, or even entirely sane (meanwhile the simple reality of the character is that he’s a murderous psychopath who relies on Batman to give his life meaning).
Not only does this character’s success and his aptitude make him more enjoyable to watch, his success makes him a greater challenge for the hero to overcome. The more intelligent and capable and evil The Joker gets, the more intelligent and capable and good The Batman must become. If The Batman wins the fight, then that means The Batman is that much more deserving of our love and admiration and that means the sacrifices Batman made on the path to victory are that much more painful and important.
This battle brings out the best in both sides.
The war of good rivals is a war of escalation, where each side pushes the other to become better and better at what they do, culminating in an explosion of unparalleled greatness that must be seen to be believed.
The incentive to continue watching (or buying) this war is built-into it from its inception - each encounter promises to be greater than the next and it becomes increasingly difficult to predict who will actually succeed (take the only well-booked feud currently on the roster; Undertaker vs Brock Lesnar).
Pro-wrestling is (or should be) no different.
Pro-wrestling, when booked as professional wrestling, can tell stories as effective, uplifting, rewarding, timeless, and thought-provoking as The Joker versus The Batman.
And yet, today’s main roster is, very clearly, not usually booked that way.
That’s why I was so surprised and entertained by last night’s Monday Night Raw conclusion. I saw a story that was logical and effective. I saw intelligent, capable human beings succeed.
In definitively destroying their opposition, the championship titles around The New Day’s wastes increased in value. The titles are now indicative of dominance. The titles are indicative of a team’s tenacity, intelligence, and strength - not a team’s ability to make people laugh. The titles tell a story; the team who holds the titles got them because they are the absolute best at what they do. The team who holds them might be horrible, despicable, and violent, but they are the best at being horrible, despicable, and violent.
The New Day’s dominance and the viciousness they displayed last night forced many who had cheered New Day’s more lighthearted villainy to reevaluate their position. This draws the viewer in, inspires that viewer to feel new emotions. The audience is pushed into that delightfully uncomfortable space where they have to actually think about what they’re watching and choose a side. And now, because The New Day has revealed they’re able to destroy the heroes in the story, the heroes have a believable obstacle to overcome.
John Cena, Dolph Ziggler, and The Duddley Boyz have to push themselves to be better. The viewer then has a reason to tune in, because the viewer will want to see how the hero is going to rise to the occasion.
The viewer is not complacently aware of booking patterns. They're invested in a story.
The inevitable triumph of the hero feels earned when the villain they overcome is a successful villain. If The Duddley Boyz manage to defeat New Day for the Tag Team Championships it will actually mean something now. That victory will represent one team’s struggle to ascend, a hero’s ability to prove benevolence right and lead their followers to glory.
When the hero overcomes a villain who “succeeds” by way of accident or due to circumstance rather than ability, the hero’s struggle is completely invalidated - hence why Seth Rollins has not had one good rival, nor one legitimately engrossing angle since becoming WWE Champion despite his unmatched excellence.
He hasn't been booked as someone who is good at being bad. He's been booked as someone who fails upwards, despite the cunning and excellence he's randomly permitted to reveal. Because the character is not good at anything he plans to do (save executing high-flying moves), we don't actually experience the satisfaction the WWE wants us to feel when he receives his comeuppance (see Night of Champions). He just comes across as a pitiful fool, and then the audience feels sympathy for Seth Rollins (the human being) for getting booked in a way that inherently squanders his ability and robs him of any legitimate rivals.
It becomes easier to see then why the WWE doesn't currently have a Stone Cold Steve Austin of 2015, and why they keep going back to an ancient, familiar well.
This is the age of the cowardly or buffoonish heel, a gimmick that undermines championships and makes the entire roster look weak because everyone wins or loses as a result of accident.
It’s impossible to be an interesting and capable hero when you consistently fail as a result of convoluted booking. And it's equally impossible to be an interesting, capable heel when you rely on convoluted booking to save you. The heel remains a hesitant, weak-minded idiot refusing to take part in any fight and incapable of winning a match without assistance (thereby negating the symbolic significance of the championship he holds, for he is not the best at anything he does save perhaps profiting from blind luck more than others) and the babyface has nothing to rely on but excuses.
And so we see that the main roster is booked to fail.
No one wants to connect with a cast of limp, unintelligent, confused characters. And the fact that today’s roster has been booked in such a fashion is entirely inexcusable given how talented and capable they are, while RAW show-runners place the blame on the roster for not grabbing the brass ring. The brass ring is the great fiction of this particular generation, for there are no brass rings in a world where “success” does not actually exist.
Success represents the human struggle to ascend, to achieve one’s purpose, to learn about one’s self through strife and eventual victory. The viewer learns about the character as they watch the character evolve during that process.
The viewer can learn nothing about a character and therefore cannot connect with a character when that struggle to achieve success isn't even shown.
When an unpredictable overlord presides over the universe, handpicking who is deserving of success and who is not, then the true, inspiring, inviting and money-making concept of “success” (a concept that has been the cornerstone of every effective story ever told in human history) gets corrupted and negated.
I cannot emotionally invest in Vince McMahon's idea of the perfect WWE Superstar.
I can only become emotionally invested in watching a human being strive to be the best human being.
Today’s style of booking, combined with the glaringly obvious, purposeful burying of stars who actually do achieve success in an organic fashion (such as Cesaro or Damien Sandow) creates the hostile environment we’ve all come to know and disdain; a complacent audience who can see the strings while the puppet-master shouts, “be entertained or die!”
And the puppets get the worst of it. They can do nothing but go on dancing for fear that the master will cut the strings on a whim.
This environment becomes one of pure frustration and fear, for even when the fans do connect with someone despite the booking, in the back of the fans' minds, they know that their unwanted cheers could lead to the quick disposal of their chosen hero. The World of Wrestling Entertainment has encouraged you to not cheer for the ones you love.
When you journey too far down this rabbit-hole it’s easy to become dejected, and maybe even a little depressed. The WWE, despite having the most direct, intimate access to their viewer’s state of mind, has rendered their viewership’s point of view almost entirely meaningless. And they go on telling the viewer that their voice matters; that’s the great, hideous rub. It’s hard not to feel that hypocrisy in your guts and simply change the channel. The process of watching the show can become one of refusing to participate altogether or admitting defeat, and being bludgeoned into passive acceptance.
We children of professional wrestling desperately want to join together and sing our song of wrestling love.
But, for whatever reason, our father hates our music, and he seems hellbent on breaking our spirits. And we preach logic and commonsense and we cite precedent and every week we try in a myriad of ways to break through a thick barrier of disdain and communicate to our father that there’s good reason to simply listen to what we all have to say. We tell him that we love being a part of this family and we tell him that we love everything he has given us, and that all we want are a few simple changes that will actually improve the quality of everyone’s life (including his).
Our grandmothers and our grandfathers and our uncles and our aunts and our cousins and our brothers and our sisters all agree on what needs to be changed.
We just want our home to be a happy, hospitable place.
But our father is deaf and blind.
He’s cut out his eardrums and ripped out his eyes, and left us out here in the dark with undying hope in our hearts and dreams of a distant, promised land.
The only respite I have is that we are together, still singing.
We all know the truth.
We all know what’s really going on, even if we can’t all talk about it.
Like children of an alcoholic parent, our world is run by fear, anger, uncertainty, love, and a prayer that someday, things will be different.
And while it takes time, I can tell you that things will be different.
We will take back our house and we will burn it to the ground.
And then we will rebuild it in our image.