THE RAW REVIEW
After Paul Heyman’s promo ended, I gently pushed the power button on my remote and walked away from the television. The more distance I put between myself and the television, the happier I became. The divorce from RAW felt merciful and proper.
Paige and Naomi were rolling around on the mat surrounded by their mean-girl-team-accompaniments while Michael Cole tried to convince me I was witnessing a “revolution”, and I decided I’d had enough.
I cannot abide watching a television program that lacks a central conceit (a basic fictional framework) when it needs to have one. If there’s no real reason for a match to be taking place then there is no reason for me to watch it. Spectacular as the moves may be and entertaining as the performers are, I cannot bring myself to invest in a match when it is transparently presenting itself as “entertainment”.
Once I accepted that I had no interest in watching anything else #RAWSanJose intended to offer, a seductive calm washed over me. It was like being dipped into a pool of rejuvenating lotion. Possibility thrived in that calm place, an unexpected awakening to the great and mysterious Other Things!
I recorded an episode of my Lost podcast.
I played Destiny with my friends.
I walked my dog.
I went to bed.
The world didn’t suddenly seem like a series of problems in desperate need of solving. There wasn’t a vicious boogeyman shoving a purposefully mediocre meal down my gullet.
There was only the crisp, cool reality of deciding to live the life readily available to me if only I turned the television off and realized the WWE’s ongoing troubles are not actual problems in my life.
But that’s how I watch the WWE.
I watch it the way I live moments of my reality. A bad episode of RAW or the recognition that the WWE’s attempts at change are ineffectual is like being betrayed, in reality, by a best friend.
I watch it with a nagging frustration that, until this RAW REVIEW, I haven’t fully been able to articulate. I’ve only been able to write on this site and say in my podcast that RAW has become a show "not for me".
But, as you will discover in this review, I’ve realized why that is, and I've even come to make my peace, for the moment, with Vince McMahon’s Three-Hour Sports Entertainment Extravaganza.
JBL’s overbearing, insistent drawl combined with the relentless adverts combined with the litany of Tweets combined with the never-ending stream of nightmarish cartoon characters dance-fighting without reason gave me something close to a migraine.
Not only did I become happier when I stopped watching, the weight of the WWE’s barely defined fictional universe leaving my shoulders, I literally started to feel better.
I realized that I decide to give RAW’s nonsensical nature meaning.
I make RAW bad simply because I am the person who I am.
I cannot help that allergy I have for the kind of television show RAW is.
I resist the fundamental nature of the show. I refuse to just “go along for the ride” because I can see the ride will make me vomit. Others can ride it without pause. Others are inspired to cheer and laugh and smile as they ride the ride. Others clutch the hand-rail and silently quiver, going along passively because they have no choice.
Most people watch the show and either think it’s stupid television or they think it’s good mindless fun or they think it’s the best way to consume a familiar form of pro-wrestling. For the most part, people find RAW, even at its worst, pretty harmless.
I find RAW’s lack of a recognizable conceit insulting and offensive.
I find a RAW that offers matches like Mark Henry vs Rusev and Wade Barrett vs Zack Ryder entirely disrespectful to the basic fact that I’m a human being with eyeballs.
I'm not being needlessly hyperbolic to take out my anger on the WWE. This is simply an accurate description of the intensity with which the show grates on me during its three hours.
I’m willing to admit that this is my problem.
It feels entirely pointless to criticize something simply for "being what it is".
For example, what can be gained by telling someone who you don’t like, “I don’t like you and I don’t really know why - who you are simply offends me for some reason”?
That’s fruitless and hurtful and revealing of an unwillingness to understand someone. I want to understand RAW.
It’s difficult to arrive at an understanding when I see the “Divas Revolution” is actually nothing more than a “Slightly More Time For The Divas Revolution”. I can feel my blood pressure go up when such realities become all too clear.
To recognize that The Divas Division is in no way different than it was prior to the arrival of Sasha, Charlotte, and Becky Lynch, that it remains a division of women who hate women for superficial reasons, women who group themselves together for superficial reasons, women who are only capable of functioning in a competitive world if they have their sorority backing them up, I feel like I’m watching a lunatic take a knife to the Mona Lisa. That lunatic and his knife confuse and infuriate me and I feel it’s my duty to human history to smack that lunatic in the face and call the police. I can’t just sit back and watch the lunatic ruin the Mona Lisa because he’s telling me he’s making something really, really good that I just can’t envision at the moment.
When I see the main event is a six man tag match, I know that there is no fundamental reason to watch.
Let me emphasize that I'm a big fan of almost everyone in this match and respect their work greatly. I'm not criticizing them. I'm pointing out that they have no story (beyond "babyface fights heel") and I have no time for that.
Watching that six man tag match is not unlike going to a movie to see only the special effects (a big CGI spaceship here, a convincing animatronic there) and nothing else. No substance. No story. No context. No reason. Just - ISN’T THIS SPECIAL EFFECT REALLY GOOD?!
Yes. Sometimes the special effect (a Bray Wyatt entrance, a Superman Punch, an Ambrose second rope rebound clothes-line) is really good. Sometimes it’s just good enough to distract from the fact that there is no story behind the execution of such special effects. Sometimes I can trick myself into filling-in the narrative gaps and believe there’s substance thanks to rambly promos and occasional run-ins. Sometimes my mind, which has been conditioned to accept, without question, WWE’s familiar formulas, can give the lack of story a pass.
Certainly this isn’t new. In some ways, what I’m describing and criticizing is the basic nature of pro-wrestling (or the WWE’s brand of pro-wrestling). But I’m not so sure that it’s ever been so transparently broadcasted that everything you’re watching on RAW is designed to entertain you - that there actually doesn’t need to be any meaning or context for segments and matches beyond anything other than it being something on TV for you to watch. Or perhaps it's always been this way and I'm just finally cognizant of it because the performers don't have the creative freedom to distract me from the pitfalls of an overly scripted RAW.
And this point has led me realize why I find RAW so offensive, grating, noisy, irritating, and, sometimes, downright alien. After much effort, I feel I finally understand RAW and why it is "not for me".
Monday Night Raw is the last variety show.
The variety show was a form of popular television starting in the 1940s and continuing into the 1980s. These shows, typically hosted by comedians or popular musicians, consisted of a variety of acts, skits, sketches, puppet shows, cartoons, musical performances, monologues, and celebrity guest appearances. These segments were often entirely unrelated, existing purely under the umbrella of “The Variety Show”. The performers weaved in and out of forth-wall breaking direct addresses to the audience and scripted or improvisational scenes that required them to be in-character. Organic, narrative transitions between these segments, whether they be musical performances, comedy sketches, or monologues were entirely unnecessary because the audience understood that it was a variety show.
The variety show justifies its various segments because it requires no narrative through-line. Each segment is an isolated entertainment incident that succeeds or fails to achieve its desired aim, quickly moving on to the next isolated entertainment incident. The closest thing to continuity in such a show is a "running gag" or ongoing joke.
The format of the variety show lives on in Saturday Night Live and other late night television shows, but it is a form of entertainment that has almost entirely vanished from public consciousness. There have been attempts to revive it, but it’s a format and a style of presentation that fails to resonate with modern audiences.
Elements of "Variety" can be successful, but a pure variety show feels old and awkward to modern audiences.
RAW trudges along with this variety show format without significant reprisal (save continued low-ratings) because people don’t think of RAW as a variety show. The company, because of its history in professional wrestling and because it inevitably deals in professional wrestling, avoids the “variety show” label because it’s a genre younger viewers aren’t aware of or a genre viewers would never want to associate with professional wrestling.
People often comment, myself included, on how RAW feels schizophrenic.
I no longer believe RAW is schizophrenic because the writers are bad or that Vince McMahon changes his mind at the last minute or that there are political struggles behind the scenes. While all of that is certainly at play, RAW is schizophrenic because it’s a variety show.
Variety shows, by design, are schizophrenic. Variety shows are transparent about their schizophrenia. In fact, a variety show that isn’t schizophrenic is a bad variety show that fails to deliver on the “variety” it promises viewers.
And this is why RAW fails to connect with today’s viewer (myself in particular).
RAW masquerades as a mini-movie that’s sometimes soap opera and sometimes sports drama. It’s not open about the fact (or even seemingly aware) that it’s a variety show because that format is antiquated. It’s a format that’s entirely unrecognizable, even fundamentally off-putting to people who grew up watching television in the 90s and 2000s.
And so the age of the people running Monday Night Raw is revealed.
It becomes unsurprising that RAW is a variety show when we consider that Vince McMahon came to prominence in a time when the variety show was a cornerstone of American television. For people who were born in the forties and fifties “entertainment” meant an “EXTRAVAGANZA”!
Entertainment meant a collection of “musical numbers” and “acts” and “sketches” and “skits” (not brooding, thoughtful anti-heroes), transitioning from one entertaining moment to the next in a manner that would seem entirely foreign and odd to today’s viewer. There didn’t need to be a narrative justification for anything that happened because the viewers understood that the jokes and the acts and the numbers justified themselves because it was all just “entertainment”.
I dare the reader to watch this entire 2 minute and 34 second collection of clips from the popular variety show Laugh-In (1968-1973).
This show, and shows like it, are bigger influences on the structure of RAW than anything in the history of sports or the history of professional wrestling. When I watch Laugh-In, and I hear its relentless, purposefully obnoxious, purposefully weird brand of entertainment, I am reminded of how I feel every single Monday between the hours of 8pm and 11pm. It's hard for me to watch this. I cringe at Laugh-In and recoil in the way I might if someone was pelting my face with a handful of bright, neon ping-pong balls.
I'm not so closed-minded to not understand why a particular person from a particular generation would find Laugh-In appealing. But that doesn't change how unwatchable I find it and how uncomfortable the variety show format as a television-structure makes me.
Listening to Vince McMahon’s style of commentary from the 80s and 90s, watching Vince in old videos (like this sketch from an episode of David Letterman), and seeing him perform his Mr. McMahon character with such broad gusto, it becomes clearer why RAW is the way it is.
I'm watching something indicative of Vince McMahon's taste in entertainment, indicative of what he grew up watching, indicative of what he absorbed from his popular culture.
I've been criticizing a man's taste, trying desperately to get him to understand why his taste is bad and my taste is good. Put in those terms, I'm not so sure there is any foreseeable fix.
I'm not going to start liking variety shows. Vince McMahon isn't going to start making the Mad Men or Breaking Bad of professional wrestling.
What makes this all the more frustrating is that Vince McMahon is clearly an intelligent human being. He does know what good is, and he’s smart enough to let good moments exist as evidenced in this video where he describes the value of silence:
But he also, very clearly, loves a form of entertainment that just doesn’t exist anymore.
If you find yourself frustrated with RAW’s schizophrenia or confused with the show’s ever-winding narratives and frayed, loose-ends, it’s because you’re attempting to reconcile your understanding of what qualifies as entertainment with Vince McMahon’s understanding of what qualifies as entertainment.
The mind born out of 1950s television is clashing with the mind born out of 2000s television.
Frustrated as I remain, I find peace in realizing the reason there is no reason on RAW.
I’m watching a variety show in a time when variety shows have long-since died.
We of the wrestling community often like to gripe that Vince McMahon is “out of touch”.
I would like to offer a refinement to that point; Vince McMahon has a fundamentally different understanding of entertainment than we do.
We are a generation that has grown up watching serial dramas where continuity, clarity, and psychological depth reign supreme. Even our live-action cartoon characters are philosophers with fists.
McMahon grew up in a time where randomness, absurdity, and hilarity defined television.
So it's not as simple as Monday Night Raw is “bad”.
Monday Night Raw might be a bad professional wrestling show.
Monday Night Raw might even be a bad sports entertainment show.
But Monday Night Raw is a damn good variety show.