THE RAW REVIEW
This felt like the RAW I’ve been fighting for.
Overnight, the WWE’s flagship transformed for the better, improving in all areas of presentation and focus, inciting unanimous excitement and joy in both the Kansas City crowd in attendance and the viewers at home. There have been good episodes of RAW this year, and in the year’s following the birth of The Reality Era. But many of those RAWs were isolated incidents and not necessarily indicative of a creative overhaul or a new direction for the show. Really good RAWs over the past several years have had a fleeting feel to them, inspiring a sense of uneasiness as much as joy for fear that the following week would fail to capitalize on that renewed interest.
This RAW didn’t feel like that.
I know commenters will tell me to curtail my expectations and calm down, that next week could see a return of the same-old, same-old, and that it's shortsighted to assert that positive change has finally, definitively arrived.
I'm not so naive to think everything is fixed. But I'm also not so naive to remain in that same, sad place of searching for something to be upset about.
Time will tell, but I’ve not been this optimistic about the show since I first began writing THE RAW REVIEW three years ago.
This RAW felt like it was the beginning of a lasting shift both in style of presentation and tone for the WWE’s Monday night series, and I've never experienced that before in all my years of consistent viewership.
That level of intensity and that “special episode” feel can’t be duplicated every single week, and shouldn’t be, so as to maintain the significance of such RAWs. But the basics of what made this episode great (clarity in every story, a sense of urgency and authenticity, relatable motivations leading opponents to physical altercations, and promos and backstage scenes that kept the stories grounded in human truth) will hopefully inform the show from now on.
This RAW is an excellent pitch for future episodes, the best argument for change in the company than any I, or any backseat-booker, could ever make. This RAW felt like an internal argument in support of change, as though a younger, fresher perspective was handed the reigns for a week and resoundingly delivered. And the proof of the effectiveness of this episode’s argument for change is apparent in how genuinely excited viewers now are.
WWE fans have been downtrodden and frustrated and complacent for a long time.
Now, finally, the majority-voice is one of renewed interest and joy.
That’s not a random reaction resultant from random choices.
That interest and that joy is resultant from excellent, long-term booking decisions that reward viewers with a strong sense of continuity and recognizable emotional intensity.
Despite whatever issues there have been over the past several months, there have been a variety of excellent, incremental changes that have built toward this particular episode.
Whether it’s Brock Lesnar versus The Undertaker, John Cena’s United States Open Challenge, Kevin Owens’ continued ascent to the top, Cesaro proving his main-event worth, commentary calling actual moves and preserving talent after a loss, or the Womens Wrestling revolution, fans have an abundance of reasons to be excited for Monday Night Raw again.
It feels as though the company has turned a corner, remaining true to their perspective on what works for them while addressing many of the fair criticisms leveled at their show. The backstage segments were especially emblematic of this shift. Triple H and Stephanie were not The Authority heels we’ve come to know and disdain (that disdain coming from a discontent with the story surrounding those characters, not the kind of good-heat created by the heels).
They were simply Triple H and Stephanie McMahon, the show-runners of Monday Night Raw.
They were passionate, powerful people with a purpose.
They cared about their show and they were excited for their SummerSlam main event.
It will always be more exciting and entertaining to watch people who want to do things and people who are excited about the things they do than people who ironically plod through their existence.
They were stern with their roster, telling them to keep Undertaker and Brock Lesnar apart, but not needlessly grating. They were interesting, inviting characters because they were playing something that seemed closer to themselves. And their investment in keeping Undertaker and Brock Lesnar separated lent even greater significance to a truly epic and extravagant pull-apart brawl that will be forever remembered by WWE fans.
After almost twenty years of watching Stephanie and Triple H work, it’s impossible for me to dislike them.
No modern WWE fan wants to hate Triple H & Stephanie McMahon at this point.
That means there’s money in embracing that simple truth.
When the WWE tried to make me dislike them, I just felt the heavy-hand of an inconsiderate script ignoring my natural desire to cheer. That awareness of the script might come from the fact that I’m the kind of fan who looks at the business the way I look at it. But the “casual viewer” is still capable of registering a sense of discomfort, a sense that they’re watching something that isn't actively trying to entertain them by embracing their desires.
To see Stephanie and Triple H in their previous Authority roles was counterintuitive.
When Stephanie McMahon shouts “Welcome to Mon-day-night-RAW!” my inclination is to get excited. I don’t want that excitement negated when Stephanie inevitably has to follow that invitation up with an insult, no matter how superb her heel performance was.
Smart to the business or not, in today’s age of transparency where Stephanie McMahon’s own Twitter bio describes her as “playing a bad-guy on TV”, that insult felt at odds with who Stephanie really is.
That’s the basic mindset of the fan - we hear something like “Welcome to Monday Night Raw” or we hear a match being booked and we want to like the person who says it or the person who books it, especially when that person is so familiar to us. Irony earns a peculiar kind of heat where the viewer just thinks they’re watching an ungrateful television show or, worse yet, a bad television show. We find ourselves in an awkward place where we feel discouraged for watching the show we want to watch and then we can’t quite figure out how we’re supposed to feel about the characters we’re watching.
The relationship between viewer and show becomes needlessly strained and contentious.
Stephanie’s love and Triple H’s love for the business is abundantly clear in the real-world. But as Authority heels they always had to inject that grating irony into their statements. As ambassadors for the show, both in the real-world and in the fiction, it was strange that the people running the show would hate the people watching their show, and it was strange that they couldn’t actually be excited about the show they were producing.
Why would I want to watch people who hated what they were creating and hated me for hating them? Everything becomes hate in that environment, real-world hate even if it's sparked by fiction.
The purest example of The Authority’s problematic nature was in the early days of the Network. The WWE, recognizing the repetitive “9.99” sales pitch for the Network would grate, Steph & Triple H had to use it to earn heat. This created an aura of negativity and disdain for the Network, something that people naturally wanted to love and get excited about. The benefit of the Network was lost entirely on the fan, the joy the Network promised traded for a symbol of contention between the company and its audience.
I’ve been convinced for a long time that this counterintuitive sales dynamic has resulted in less Network buys and less interest in Monday Night Raw. It becomes difficult to justify watching a rather lengthy show that tells me it hates me for watching it every Monday.
Even though people know Vince McMahon, Stephanie McMahon, and Triple H are playing characters, the fictional characters they’ve played are still representatives of a real-world company called the WWE.
Every time I buy a WWE tee-shirt I feel a bit uneasy. I'm left with a bitter taste in my mouth. And I know, smart as I am to the business, that uneasy feeling in my gut has a lot to do with the fact that the WWE, in its fiction that I've regularly consumed since childhood, has trained me to regard the WWE as a corporate evil run by a crazy person.
This is why almost all of my wrestling tee-shirts are NXT-shirts. The psychological relationship established between the viewer and the NXT product is one of pure acceptance and joy. It is a loving relationship where each interaction results in a sense of rightness.
That makes it a lot easier to hand over $20. That also makes it a lot easier to get emotionally invested in the pro-wrestling stories and the characters.
To have the WWE present itself as a villain in 2015 creates an unnecessary barrier between the audience and the product.
On this RAW, that barrier was torn down and everyone was permitted to have the fun they naturally wanted to have.
The Undertaker opened the show with a straightforward promo that had just the right amount of old-fashioned WWE promo-camp and new-fashioned narrative gravitas.
He was still the Dead-Man, but the intensity in his eyes and the way he slowly built toward his catchphrase “Rest In Peace” positioned Taker in a place of power, quickly catapulting this rivalry with Lesnar to his best conflict in years.
Heyman’s rebuttal, and the subsequent pull-apart brawl to end all pull-apart brawls was exactly what RAW, the WWE, and SummerSlam needed to create a must-see event. Lesnar was not needlessly transformed into a heel. He remained the Beast and Mayor of Suplex City. The crowd was permitted to cheer his accomplishments just as much as they cheered the resurrection of The Undertaker.
The sheer awesomeness of Lesnar and Taker will sell the match, not a desire to see good overcome evil or the cowardly heel get his comeuppance. This is a superb, long-form story that is getting the most it possibly can out of The Undertaker's WrestleMania streak being broken. The fans aren't being strong-armed to feel one way or the other. The fans are simply being rewarded for their commitment, for having witnessed the slow, powerful evolution of these two bitter rivals.
The company allowing the fans to cheer both performers is an incredibly encouraging sign for the success of this angle.
And Sasha Banks and Ms. Charlotte and Becky Lynch and the rest of the WWE women demonstrated, yet again, what happens when the time and the booking matches their greatness. The cheers these ladies earned with their displays of athletic excellence demonstrate that people do not want a Divas match to be synonymous with a bathroom break.
Sasha Banks, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch, combined with the talent already established on the main roster, have injected life into WWE's main roster women's division. Anticipation and possibility now define the division. Each week now feels like another chance to witness something new and life-affirming.
For all those who watched Banks, Lynch, and Charlotte grow in NXT, their presence on RAW is perhaps the most rewarding ascent in a generation.
As I heard that Kansas City crowd “Woo” to Charlotte’s chop, and scream in shock at a Sasha Banks-slap, and pop for Becky's hot-tag, a smile spread across my face and stayed there for the rest of the show. I saw their work teaching the crowd to think differently and, perhaps even more importantly, teaching the company to think differently with regard to a woman’s role on the main roster.
I saw the next generation of women’s wrestlers in the crowd, little girls in attendance or watching at home inspired to pursue their dream. I saw young men who’d normally roll their eyes at the idea of women wrestling lean forward in their chairs and change their minds.
When I see them work, I see a better world.
That’s what these ladies are doing, and it seems the company is finally behind them.
It’s our job as fans of the art of professional wrestling to keep cheering, to let the WWE know that there is no turning back, that there's money in these great decisions, and that the age of consistent excellence has finally arrived.
This RAW and people’s reaction to this RAW reveals the dormant love WWE fans have for the company’s characters and the company’s stories.
This RAW revealed how eager WWE fans are to cheer if only given that right reason, that compelling conflict and that inviting, easily-enjoyed story.
This RAW shows how successful RAW can be when it embraces the love of professional wrestling fans.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to comment below.
Have yourself a very nice day!