THE RAW REVIEW
It is very hard to watch a television show that mocks itself. It’s even harder to watch a television show that mocks the viewer for watching it. This week (and for far too many weeks in 2015) the WWE committed both of those sins at the same time. While I doubt Vince McMahon and Kevin Dunn sit in an underground lair twiddling mustaches and ominously petting white cats while thinking, “How can we insult everyone watching our show” it’s very difficult to not feel that way for many WWE viewers. It’s far likelier the reason a great episode of RAW (like last week’s) is consistently followed by an abysmal episode of RAW (like this week’s) is due to a self-fulfilling prophecy many storytellers & television producers fall prey to; we can’t top that, so let’s try something different, or just accept this won’t be as good.
The problem is that WWE’s “something different” after “something serious” is inevitably a retread of familiar, lighthearted through-lines that fail to follow through on the urgency established in previous episodes.
Last week Roman Reigns punched Vince McMahon in the face. For that infraction, this week Stephanie McMahon booked Roman Reigns’ friends in a series of unfair matches. The response is not only not proportionate, it’s not interesting. It’s a familiar Authority story that Roman himself has endured countless times. It’s also an action he laughed off. He wasn’t the least bit worried about his friends, especially Dean Ambrose who’s so crazy he’d love to fight in a steel cage! The importance of last week’s quality storytelling gets traded for a patchwork episode that had no interest in continuing a more sincere, serious throughline.
“The show feels schizophrenic”.
That’s a common critique of RAW and of Vince McMahon. It’s a good adjective that sums up our experience as fans, but I suspect the reality behind the scenes is more akin to “planned obsolescence” than schizophrenia.
Time and time again in 2015, something significant and fun will happen on RAW (like Brock Lesnar destroying the commentary team, cameramen, and J&J Security) only to have the intensity of that event “cooled off” in the interest of “buying time” or “saving the rest” for the pay-per-view or for the RAW before a pay-per-view. The WWE consciously dolls out the goods piecemeal because they know their show never ends and they have three hours to kill (just on Mondays along) every single week. That thinking does not excuse bad television. That thinking places too much faith in the viewer’s willingness to watch episodes that ultimately don’t event attempt to matter.
Viewers need to be able to place their faith in the storyteller. Trust is paramount in our experience of art. If the storyteller asks us to trust them, to believe that the payoff will come…eventually...the storyteller is asking a lot…perhaps too much.
Fans get blamed for having “short attention spans” these days. Yes. People have short attention spans. But, also, bad television is bad television. The WWE can preach “slow burn” all it wants, not telling a story at all is not the same as telling a long story.
When the storyteller breaks the trust of their audience, or when the storyteller becomes trapped in a “wait and see” loop, they forsake something sacred and they deserve to suffer the consequences of their actions.
The television show LOST will always epitomize this problem. The show made promises it never intended to keep. The show kept saying, “wait and see, it’s coming”, and it gave viewers just enough at key moments in its six-season run to make them think the show was telling the truth. It was not. Even at the very end, the show told a very clever lie in an attempt to justify its blatantly terrible booking decisions, suggesting that the story had always just been about the characters and not the mysteries of the island, that “everyone is happy” should be good enough.
Some will find that lie comforting while others will forever be disgusted by that show.
Imagine believing in a God. You go to that God’s church every Sunday. You kneel. You pray. You confess. You preach the virtues of your God to others. You convert others to your cause and you make them believers too. You go to war for your God. You bleed for your God. You lose limbs for your God. You remain true to your God despite the occasionally questionable decisions He makes. You decide that his knowledge is superior to your own, that he works in mysterious ways. And so you wait and you see and you smile, believing everything will work out in the end because that’s what people tell you.
Now imagine that God appearing before you at the moment of your death only to say, “I do not exist. I’ve never existed. And you are a fool for having placed your faith in me. Goodbye forever”.
Professional wrestling is my religion, so when I see Roman Reigns smiling like a loon and raising his fingers for an “air-drink” like a bro, I can’t help but feel forsaken. The WWE had convinced me, through good storytelling, to place my faith in Reigns as a vengeful, valiant badass who had the guts to start chair-whacking and superman-punching his bosses.
The WWE had convinced me to pop when Roman Reigns won the WWE World Heavyweight Championship. This week, because they decided not to capitalize on the previous week’s events, they told me I was a fool for having popped. They convinced me that I was stupid for ever thinking they would follow-up on last week’s excellent episode with another excellent episode.
The Moment of Pop is sacred. It is a form of enlightenment. It is orgasm. It is nirvana. It is the universe contained in a moment that is simultaneously fleeting and infinite. When you move people to The Moment of Pop you are conditioning them to believe in your power as a creator. When, as the creator, you fail to appreciate the sacredness of this process you create legions of dissatisfied followers who question your every decision and refuse to continue placing their faith in you. You lose your flock. And you deserve to lose your flock.
It’s not hard to sympathize with the booking struggles of the company. They have a massive amount of programming to create, and when you create with that kind of frequency there will inevitably be some duds. But the creator must never actually think that way. The creator should never accept a dud or think “we have to cool this off for now”. The creator should never not want to give people the absolute best show possible. And despite the rhetoric, it is impossible to believe that the bookers in WWE actively try to create the best possible show every single time the cameras roll. This website, biased as it may be, offers enough evidence to the contrary.
Why should viewers be subjected to episodes of RAW that are lackluster by design simply because the WWE is worried about giving away too much for free? Why should viewers ever get excited about something good in the WWE anymore when it’s obvious they cannot, in the slightest, rely on that something good to stay something good.
This week’s Slammy-centric episode of RAW was an entirely unnecessary self-hating, fan-hating diversion into a maddening kaleidoscope of irony from which, when examined too deeply, there is no escape. This came at the most inopportune time possible, and it embodies the WWE’s willingness to forsake the faith of its fans in the pursuit of filling its collection plate over a longer period of time.
The great joke is that there are so many better ways to fill their plate.
There is no reason, even with the show being three hours, there couldn’t have been, minimum, two good episode of RAW in a row this year. But there weren’t. One of the primary reasons for this, apart from WWE’s form of planned-obsolesce-booking, is that the show focuses too much of its narrative on the WWE World Heavyweight Championship.
In the future, if the company books a significant event related to the WHC (like Roman Reigns winning the title on RAW), and doesn’t want to overexpose the title or run out of story, then the company should change its championship-focus on the next episode.
A better RAW this week would have had Roman Reigns in a talking head interview, sharing his thoughts and feelings about being champion and finally winning over the crowd.
A better RAW would have focused on The Intercontinental Championship, building the A-Story around that title, and the ongoing wars between Kevin Owens, Dolph Ziggler, and Dean Ambrose.
A better RAW realizes that variety is inherent in the program if and only if the focus changes on occasion. Overexposure and underexposure plague the main roster and this results in fatigue (on everyone’s part), and greater risk of creating situations that break the trust of fans.
If fans were conditioned to accept that not every episode needed to be about the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, then they would feel less worn down by the show and they would be encouraged to support a wider variety of wrestlers. Possibility would make a triumphant return. Viewers wouldn’t know what the show was going to be about until they tuned in, creating an incentive to do so.
And, thinking practically, why wouldn’t the WWE occasionally have The Intercontinental Champion or the Tag Champions or The Diva’s Champion carry an entire episode? Would that experience not help prepare them for future episodes where they’re carrying more important titles? Even though Roman didn't wrestle on this episode, appearing only in the opening and closing segments, the show was still about him in a tangential way that undermined his renewed importance as well as the individuality and strengths of those wrestlers serving as his "friends".
As we near the end of the year, my faith in the WWE continues to be tested.
I know next week’s episode of RAW will be better than this week’s thanks to the reliable pattern the company has established.
But that’s the trouble with a predictable God.
When you see the strings, it gets harder and harder to believe.