THE RAW REVIEW
When Stephanie McMahon shouted “Noooooooo”, denying the fans their desired WWE World Heavyweight Championship match after having rallied them into an excited frenzy, my heart sunk and my enthusiasm for this episode of RAW could not recover. It became background noise. That is the affect the schizophrenia of RAW's characters and the back and forth nature of RAW's quality has on me. Heat is not earned by heels. Absolute disinterest is earned.
Last week Stephanie McMahon and Triple H were, for the most part, babyfaces interested in giving people what they wanted. The word “Authority” wasn’t used once (credit goes to Al Monelli for noticing that). It seemed as though the company had finally evolved beyond the destructive, nonsensical perspective that the WWE should be represented in its own fiction by grating, manipulative, wishy-washy, ironic villains who, for indeterminate reasons, hate their viewers and hate their television show.
I knew this week’s RAW would not be as good as last week’s. I didn’t need it to be.
But, despite the company's track record, I genuinely did not expect to see Stephanie and Triple H revert back to the ratings-killing characters they’ve been for the past few years.
These characters suck the life out of the viewer in a way that goes beyond the notion of “earning heat”. These characters actively mock the viewer for wanting to enjoy Monday Night Raw.
Imagine watching a bad television show where the cast occasionally looks into the camera and calls you an idiot for continuing to watch this bad television show.
Wouldn’t you just stop watching?
It would be fine if Triple H and Stephanie were consistently villainous characters whose motivations were instantly recognizable (their war with Daniel Bryan was excellent). I don’t hate them because I’m supposed to hate them. I hate these characters because they’re terrible characters without any discernible motivation who will not settle on a single portrayel.
Last week they were exasperated with Seth Rollins, rolling their eyes at everything he said.
This week they liked him.
These terrible characters continue to show up for one very simple reason; they stand in the tall shadow of the Mr. McMahon villain.
Steph and Triple H try to earn heat whenever they can, flip-flopping back and forth from one week to the next, clouding their characterization because the company and The USA Network refuses to move on from the 1990s.
Regardless of the inconsistency of these two characters and the narrative can of maggots their flip-flopping opens up, if I was channel surfing at 9:30pm on a Monday Night and came across a television show where a grown woman was rubbing another grown woman’s face into a dead fish-carcass, I would linger for a moment with a perplexed, slightly irritated expression on my face, attempt to process the visual (just for a moment) and then I would quickly change the channel. I would not even think to watch further so as to understand the purpose of this scene and the motivations of the characters. Such is a scene that simply cannot hold my attention.
And yet this is the kind of thing I often sit through when I watch WWE’s flagship series.
And such segments are no longer supported by the likes of Attitude Era talent who prided themselves on their ability to improvise in the midst of a trash-TV, juvenile revolution where crude antics and silly television segments were indicative of the larger popular culture. While we remember much of The Attitude Era through rose-colored glasses it was, at the very least, consistent with the entertainment world at the time.
Today, on RAW, I watch scripted, self-conscious attempts to understand what made the silliness of the 1990s entertaining.
I can accept a scene that’s birthed from a closed-doors meeting between a talent and Vince McMahon where Vince says to that talent, “Take this fish and do something entertaining with it”. That’s still an asinine way to run a television show about professional wrestling and it sets one’s expectations for what the WWE can achieve incredibly low, but there’s something interesting in that kind of madness, especially when good improvisational performers like The Rock, Mick Foley, Steve Austin, or Kurt Angle are running the scene. I cannot abide, however, watching such a dumb scene that came out of pen touching paper and shackled athletic actors reciting “funny” scripted dialogue. Amusement happens by accident or as a result of tacitly endorsing the WWE's low opinion of itself and its viewers.
I can’t justify watching that, especially when so many other television shows work magic with their scripts.
The WWE can no longer produce blatantly bad television and chalk it up to “Jerry Springer is the most popular TV show on Television and we’re mimicking it” or “we’re just going out there to have fun and entertain people”.
That makes these sketches and these promos and these stories and these shows all the worse.
Not just because they’re created by people who don’t understand wrestling and not because performers aren’t speaking for themselves, but because a team of writers actually writes this stuff. Worse yet…it gets approved. If RAW's pitfalls were accidental then there would be a reasonable explanation. But it's scripted.
As WWE fans we just passively accept “this is the way it is”. Steph and Triple H can do a 180 from one week to the next. Lana can shove a face into a fish. Bray Wyatt can cut three promos in one promo for ten minutes before ever mentioning his rival all in the name of creating a “cool mood”. If Dean Ambrose gets his shirt ripped off and does something “crazy” then there’s reason to make Gifs and be happy. John Cena breaks his nose and that’s all we remember - the saving grace of an episode where absolutely nothing happened until he showed up and worked his magic, while Seth Rollins' poor, pitiful reign plummeting every single day thanks to the bad booking surrounding him.
So many fans would think I’m ridiculous for harping on a fish or for harping on the inconsistency of Stephanie and Triple H’s characterization. So many fans would think I should just stop thinking and have fun with it, or that it’s just one episode and next week’s will be better.
That’s being too easy on the WWE, especially when, just last week, they revealed what they're capable of.
Conversely, nitpicking everything is shortsighted.
But I simply cannot abide watching this kind of RAW- a slow, by-the-numbers, plodding episode booked by a completely different booker than the one who ran last week’s show. And the ratings reveal that I am not alone in my absolute disinterest in this wayward broadcast.
The defense of downright poorly written and poorly performed pro-wrestling segments on RAW episodes is often an unspoken understanding that “this is just the way pro-wrestling is”. Sometimes it’s thoughtless, stupid, juvenile, and bad.
“That’s just pro-wrestling” or "that's just the WWE" and that’s something we’re all supposed to have a good chuckle over from time to time.
That perspective sells the medium short, sells the company short, and sells our minds short. We’ve been seduced into accepting that RAW is the way it is without considering how completely removed RAW is from modern television.
WWE is completely out of step with the pop-culture landscape. We don’t recognize this and we endorse their consistently bad television program because we’ve been trained to regard the WWE as a unique entity that can do whatever it wants.
And yet no one wants to watch Jerry Springer anymore.
No one even wants to watch Jersey Shore anymore.
What’s popular today, on television, is well-made, psychologically grounded serial dramas and experimental comedies that explore the nature of the human soul. These episodic narratives receive limited, 12-15 episode runs with the intent of preserving consistent quality. Well-known actors and well-known movie directors find new life in such television experiments, able to flex their creative muscles in a way they’ve never been able to before, and the viewer is able to watch such shows through a wide assortment of streaming services. The emphasis is entirely upon creating quality, creating artistic freedom, and then providing as many ways for viewers to find this well-made program as possible.
Gone are the days of laugh-tracks, paternity tests, and twenty-four episode seasons.
People have gradually come to accept that quality is more important than quantity - and this actually allows for a wider variety of television shows dispersed throughout the entire calendar year, appealing to a wider variety of viewers.
Those incredibly old methods of television are dying quickly, and the future will see a continued emphasis upon quickly-consumed, stylized, well-made, focused creative efforts that encourage binge-watching and water-cooler discussion.
Other wrestling promotions (and even the WWE’s own NXT) recognize this.
Today’s Monday Night Raw doesn’t fit anywhere in the television landscape. It’s neither a consistent episodic adventure nor a formulaic super hero movie. It continues to remain entertainment-mush that’s beholden to a philosophy of production that died over fifteen years ago. There’s no reason to re-watch an entire episode of RAW, especially from the past fifteen years. There’s only reason to re-watch some matches and perhaps one or two segments.
Now that’s partially because pro-wrestling is inevitably a different animal than a series like Breaking Bad or Mad Men, but it’s mostly because the WWE does not and has not produced a consistently intelligent, engaging, inviting, fun, and thoughtful television program that comprehends the strengths of its own medium.
If this week’s RAW REVIEW is to be an argument of any kind, it’s not that “RAW is bad” and the WWE needs to change that.
This week’s RAW REVIEW is an argument in favor of viewers not accepting the notion that it’s “okay” for the WWE to go about this deeply flawed business.
We’ve been conditioned to believe mediocrity and stupidity is perfectly acceptable between the hours of 8pm and 11pm every other Monday.
You can listen to topics such as this discussed on The Work of Wrestling podcast. New & free episodes every single Monday available in iTunes.