THE RAW REVIEW
With the recent injury of Seth Rollins, the WWE has been forced to find a a creative way to crown a new Champion at Survivor Series. While I applaud the WWE for creating a Championship tournament and veering, for the third week in a row, into a more realistic, sport-oriented fiction for its primary titles, beyond the opening segment of this latest episode I could not shake the feeling that something was off about this Monday Night Raw.
I suspect that vague feeling of “offness” may have had something to do with the WWE editing down a rambunctious Manchester crowd. If that is the case, that edit severely affected the life of the broadcast. A show that seemed destined to inspire creative chants and a series of loud responses presented lukewarm enthusiasm and tepid pops. Such creates a disconnect in the viewer’s mind, especially a viewer who expects more from a UK crowd where some of the segments and some of the action (such as the New Day doing anything) seemed worthy of a more intense response.
Those viewers who aren’t cognizant of the UK’s lovably rowdy reputation are still cheated of a more energized, ultimately entertaining show. Perception is formed as a result of presentation. If the live audience seems to enjoy what they’re watching, the viewer at home is likelier to join in and get caught up in the experience.
If the subdued audience of #RawManchester was not the result of the WWE tampering with the show’s natural audio (and therefore fundamentally altering the story of the episode), then that means the crowd experienced the same aforementioned sense of “offness” that I and other viewers at home experienced as a result of what was happening in the ring.
There were five tournament matches last night, and it is difficult to remember any of them.
The matches, which could have been lengthy, emotionally powerful narratives that contributed to the larger championship story, seemed rushed and, at their worst, foregone conclusions. Regardless of how predictable the outcomes were due to the match-ups (Dolph Ziggler vs The Miz, Dean Ambrose vs Tyler Breeze, Kevin Owens vs Titus O’Neil, Roman Reigns vs Big Show, Cesaro vs Sheamus), at least one of these matches could have occupied a thirty minute block of the show and created some doubt in the viewer’s mind as to who would actually win. The booking presented no convincing obstacle for the heroes to overcome, save perhaps Roman Reigns. This episode serves as an example of how even a more realistic RAW built around a tournament can fail to create a sense of urgency and significance.
This first round in the tournament felt like a symbolic obligation rather than a first chapter. The company could have just as easily handed the WWE World Heavyweight Championship over to Roman and it would have amounted to the same experience. This reveals one of the primary flaw’s in the company’s approach to creating a top babyface.
Booking someone “strong” doesn’t simply mean booking them to win every match or booking them to defy authority or booking them to fight for the people.
To book a top hero strong, the entire roster beneath them needs to be booked strong.
And again, strong booking doesn’t just mean winning a match in the way Ziggler, Ambrose, Owens, Cesaro, and Reigns did last night. Strong booking means going up against an opponent who is equal to or better than you are, enduring a great deal of pain and perhaps even some psychological trauma in the process, and still finding a way to succeed.
Strong booking means good storytelling.
Imagine going to a Batman movie where The Dark Knight thwarts The Joker’s plan to blow-up Gotham City by discovering The Joker’s location after a little investigating, hitting The Joker in the jaw with a KO-punch, and then disarming the bomb. As much as you love The Batman and as much as you love watching him save Gotham, is that a satisfying experience? Does The Batman actually seem like a powerful person in that scenario?
Now imagine a Batman movie where, in the opening scene, The Joker murders Robin (Jason Todd) in front of Batman’s eyes, all in an effort to drive Batman insane, to push Batman to break his “one rule” and finally kill. The Joker, in this scenario, is not only willing to die, he wants to die so long as The Batman is the one who kills him; The Joker would be proven right about humanity’s insanity, and The Batman would be left broken and beaten, his family lost, and his moral compass compromised. It would be the ultimate victory for The Joker if The Batman murdered him; hence why The Dark Knight resists that daily temptation despite The Joker’s relentless evil (the battle between two good rivals is less physical and more about conflicting ideologies). Imagine that this film progresses to a climax where The Joker has the new Robin (Tim Drake) in his clutches inside an abandoned warehouse. The Joker has planted a series of random bombs throughout Gotham and these bombs are set to explode on his command.
The Batman enters this abandoned warehouse to discover a single revolver placed on a small table. A spotlight suddenly cuts through the dark to reveal The Joker sitting in a chair across the way. Robin, bound, gagged, crying, is seated on Joker's lap. The Joker has a knife pointed at Robin’s throat in one hand, and a detonator in the other.
The Joker offers The Batman three choices. Let Robin die and The Joker won't blow up Gotham City. Detonate the bombs and destroy Gotham and The Joker won't kill Robin. Or, behind dreaded door number three, The Batman can take the revolver off the table, shoot The Joker in the head, and end it all. He has a chance to save Robin and the entire city, but he'll have to compromise his one rule and prove The Joker right.
If this Batman finds a way out of this horrifying situation, if he manages to prove The Joker wrong, save the day, and maintain his moral righteousness, then he shall truly be a triumphant hero worthy of your emotional investment. This is due in large part to the fact that his nemesis has attacked his core. How Batman overcomes these obstacles determines the rest of his life. The stakes could not be higher.
That’s a well-booked Batman. And you only get a well-booked Batman if there’s a well-booked Joker, a well-booked Robin, and a consistently well-booked world around them.
I’m not arguing that any of last night’s five tournament matches needed to portray the kind of psychological depth or moral drama described in the Batman-scenario above. But I am arguing that a barricade or two needed to be broken or a table needed to be shattered or a match needed go the distance where both performers were left physically gutted by the exchange.
Instead, we got roll-ups and celebrities and inconsistent arm-injuries.
Blurred lines between heel and babyface-actions also negatively affected a few finishes, contributing to that sense that something wasn’t quite right about the show. Although the primary women’s segment ended well, the match ended with Becky Lynch pulling Paige’s tights to score a roll-up victory. Even though commentary sold it as “turnabout is fair play”, it was an ending that didn’t contribute to Becky’s benevolence in the slightest. Babyfaces aren’t babyfaces when they use the tactics of heels against heels. Imagine Batman kidnapping Harley Quinn and threatening to cut her throat if The Joker didn't release Robin.
Heroes do not stoop to the level of their opposition. They remain true to a higher moral ideal and manage to overcome, thus proving their perspective correct and defeating the soul of the villain. Becky might be a “tweener” and her actions could be explained by her desperation to hurt Paige, but none of that helps create a compelling hero, especially when we know so little about her and especially when, after last week, we were starting to warm up to her again.
Similarly, Dean Ambrose scored a roll-up victory on Tyler Breeze and Michael Cole said, “And Dean Ambrose stole one”. That kind of language contributes, in small doses, to that feeling of “offness”, creating a disconnect between the desired perception of Dean Ambrose as a hero and the perception resultant from Cole’s word-choice. Again, it doesn’t matter if Dean Ambrose is a “crazy person” or a “tweener” or that we can excuse that word-choice and rationalize a bad decision into being a good decision in as many way as we can fathom.
That’s what we obsessive pop-culture nerds do when we don’t want to accept that someone simply made a bad creative decision (see reactions to the ending of LOST as a prime example of this phenomena). We retcon in our minds, searching for some tangled reason to justify badness by way of semantics when, in reality, good stories never require that particular kind of effort on the part of their audience. Good stories don't require you to fill in the gaps of bad writers who didn't take the time to think their creation through. Good stories certainly inspire consideration and interpretation, but no good story requires fact-checking and prolonged explanations for why it's actually good despite any evidence to the contrary.
Dean Ambrose is a babyface.
He’s a hero.
He should be booked, consistently, convincingly, and strongly in that way. He should never score a forgettable, limp, roll-up victory on a relatively unknown opponent and that victory certainly shouldn't be described as “stealing one”.
If Cesaro and Dean Ambrose and Ziggler and Owens don’t really have to try too hard to win or if their wins are morally wonky or ill-fitting their characters, how does that affect Roman Reigns’ inevitable victory at Survivor Series?
If the first round is an afterthought, an obligation where we all just go through the motions to get to the point where Reigns “wins” or where Sheamus snatches the title from Reigns or whatever the planned outcome may be, then the vacated WWE World Heavyweight Championship’s value is diminished. The entire roster is diminished. And Roman Reigns, in particular, is diminished. The WWE is not as segmented into under-card, mid-card, and upper-card as it seems to believe. Every booking decision at every level of the card affects every other level and every other performer.
The New Day helps Roman Reigns just by being themselves and by making people happy to watch RAW. The good faith generated by a good New Day segment carries over into the next segment, regardless of how directly related the two segments are.
Kevin Owens cutting a good promo before his match about being a “prize fighter” and becoming WWE World Heavyweight Champion helps Roman Reigns because it demonstrates how coveted and important the title is.
Cesaro Section signs help Roman Reigns.
Good women’s wrestling matches help Roman Reigns.
Good commentary helps Roman Reigns.
Better backstage segments with better cameras would help Roman Reigns.
This is a booking philosophy that seems to escape today’s show-runner. Performers are booked in isolation to service their niche when, in fact, Monday Night Raw is a team-effort and should be booked as a massive communal organism.
The feeling of this all being a foregone conclusion can be avoided in any number of ways. The WWE just needs to put effort into telling a compelling Roman Reigns-story.
The company has revealed that they are not tapped into the pop-culture consciousness or, even worse, the company has revealed that they do not care what their diehard fans actually want in a pro-wrestling champion. This means that Cesaro, Ziggler, Owens, and Dean Ambrose don't actually stand a chance of winning this tournament.
The WWE wants Roman Reigns and so they will have Roman Reigns. Given that this is the case, I would encourage the WWE to go about this already questionable thought-process in as fresh and convincing a way as possible. A good story can prove critics wrong. There doesn’t need to be such a huge divide between you and your fans.
Last night’s promo between Roman and Triple H was a good first step.
Roman’s response was brief and to the point, as it should always be (if he has to talk at all).
If the company wants Roman as their man then they should convince us, intelligently, using their resources and their talent, that theirs is the right choice. They did not do this going into WrestleMania 31 and they have yet to do this these many months later.
Roman defeating Daniel Bryan at Fast Lane may have provided him a semantic obstacle to overcome on his Road to WrestleMania, just as this tournament provides Roman a semantic obstacle to overcome on his way to Survivor Series, but none of it will actually help get Roman over in the eyes of the regular WWE fan. We know that him going to the "back of the line" is nothing but lip service.
Victories over Big Show and Cesaro and Dean Ambrose will endear Roman Reigns to absolutely no one. It doesn’t matter if the WWE tells us that Roman Reigns "earned the championship because he won matches". In fact, the more the WWE tells its fans that Reigns earned his spot at the top, the less likely anyone will actually believe that. There is a chance with this tournament to mitigate the damage that’s been done to Roman’s character and the inevitably negative response fans will have to him as Champion.
The WWE needs to stop giving Roman Reigns monologues and start filming him working out and talking, in intimate interviews, about his wife & his daughter. A good Roman Reigns story is one that recognizes his weaknesses on the mic and in the ring and focuses on his athletic conditioning, his devotion to the WWE, and his sense of familial honor.
Apollo Crews is one of the most recent additions to the NXT roster. A series of vignettes helped establish him prior to his debut, contributing to a sense of enthusiasm for the character when he finally stepped into the ring. He quickly started out on a winning streak, and, after only a few weeks in NXT, "earned" a shot at the NXT Championship.
Conventional wisdom would suggest that the smark-crowd, especially in NXT, would quickly turn on Apollo despite him being booked as an athletic babyface. Conventional wisdom would say that Apollo being all-smiles and all-wins and all-flashy moves would quickly grate and the audience would only see backstage politics in a match between he and Balor.
And yet Apollo’s match against Balor was met with unanimous praise and cheers for both performers.
How does that happen?
How does a small audience of diehard wrestling fans embrace a character like Apollo who couldn’t have received a bigger push right out the gate, where a larger, more general and supposedly “casual” pro-wrestling audience turns on Roman Reigns after three years of “development”?
Why is Apollo cool and Roman green? Why is Apollo interesting and Roman a block of corporate wood?
Apollo Crews was booked to do more than just win matches and be pretty; that's why. He was booked to tell a story, and the story he told was that of “the hopeful rookie who managed to get his shot sooner than expected”. That’s a believable story. It’s a hopeful story. And that story was told through a series of carefully crafted, well-presented vignettes that showed Apollo talking about his time in the indies and his sister’s reaction to the crowd cheering for him. Apollo even cried in some of these vignettes, and we quickly learned that he was just a good kid with a dream. It was impossible to dislike him. We learned that despite being cut like a Greek God and despite being destined for greatness, he was a human being we could relate to.
So when Crews went against Balor last week, the crowd accepting the booking and got wrapped up in the fiction.
When RAW viewers simply know that a focus group thinks Reigns' blue contacts are more effective at selling tee-shirts, there is no fiction. There’s no reason to place our faith in him and the WWE squanders any potential excellence in him in favor of getting to their next charity event.
With a little time left until Survivor Series, the WWE must film and edit together documentary-style vignettes not only about Roman Reigns but about every competitor in the tournament. We need to know why the title matters to every single one of them and we need to know why they devote so much of their lives to the WWE.
We need to see Roman Reigns as Roman - not a bad actor.
No more lengthy promos.
None. Ever again. No more than two sentences at a time, spoken from the heart.
Longer, more physical matches with opponents who can actually go.
No more Big Show.
Do not have Sheamus cash in on Roman. This will not generate any sympathy for him and no real heat for Sheamus whatsoever. You must be aware of this. Avoid it altogether. Just have Roman win or lose clean at Surivivor Series in a respectful or purposefully underhanded fashion.
And when Roman does inevitably beat Cesaro in the tournament, Roman must acknowledge Cesaro’s excellence. Regardless of an attempt to mitigate smark-hate, it’s simply a better story if Roman Reigns shows Cesaro respect and shakes his hand after an incredibly physical contest.
That is the kind of decision that helps create the hero the WWE seems to think they already have by way of good looks and a cool entrance.
Roman needs to be a human being, not a comic book.
And although he’ll always have critics, as Triple H accurately stated in the opening segment, there is value in giving those critics less material to work with.
Help Roman finally get over. Tell a better story.