THE RAW REVIEW
This week’s RAW, right from the start, demonstrated the value of deviation.
One of the most consistent and entirely accurate constructive criticisms leveled at WWE’s three-hour broadcast is that the show adheres to its formula at the expense of offering unpredictable, exciting content for its regular viewers. This is a good constructive criticism that comes from respectable minds and respectful fans - not just from an angry internet contingent who behaves like an unruly, spoiled child. The people who offer this criticism are sympathetic to the difficulties of creating a massive “Sports Entertainment” spectacle like Monday Night Raw; they simply want the show to be as watchable as possible.
RAW resets each week, sometimes seemingly ignoring the events of a previous episode or a recent pay-per-view, returning to a format designed to help a first-time viewer understand what they’re watching rather than inviting regular viewers into a living, ever-evolving world.
Fans have been conditioned to know they’re going to get a twenty-minute promo, an insignificant undercard match, a backstage segment where The Authority tries to encourage a sniveling Seth Rollins to “be a man”, another promo of indeterminate quality, a Divas segment that may or may not live up to the promised “revolution”, one or more six-man tag matches, another backstage segment, one good singles match, a John Cena promo and/or a John Cena match that’s typically the well-booked highlight of the entire evening, and then an inoffensive ending that serves as a soft segue into the next week.
This unrelenting formula conditions viewers and performers to become disinterested and complacent. It creates an environment where everyone is too smart for their own good, going through the motions and doing what’s expected of them on both sides of the stage, and the joy of “What’s going to happen next?!” becomes virtually nonexistent for all involved.
Professional wrestling, even under the guise of "Sports Entertainment", is an inherently improvisational art that thrives when well-trained performers have a certain degree of creative freedom and when the booking patterns are not so easily predicted nor so unapologetically repetitive.
People love sport for the thrill of discovery - anticipation builds as we approach game-day, pouring over every detail of our team and our players and the opposing team and the opposing players, wondering how this deep history that’s both factual and emotional will affect an entirely unpredictable outcome.
Professional wrestling is sports theater and tends to be most successful when it more closely emulates the qualities of legitimate sport that captivate viewers while infusing its brand of unique theatrics with relatable human drama and relatable human psychology.
To box professional wrestling into an overly rigid structure, even Vince McMahon’s brand of pro-wrestling, is not unlike trying to thrust a square peg through a circular hole. It just doesn’t fit.
So when this RAW began with a promo between Bray Wyatt and Roman Reigns, I found myself instantaneously intrigued. A midcard feud was opening the show. I was not hearing a purposefully laborious or manipulative or condescending promo from The Authority or Seth Rollins that then transitioned into the booking of the main event.
The television viewer in me had a reason to stop browsing the internet and genuinely watch what was on the screen.
I was seeing a game Roman Reigns speak in very straightforward, human terms to his enemy.
I saw Roman create something. I saw Roman believe in something.
While Paige’s promo is what this RAW will be remembered for (justifiably), “Let’s just fight,” remains the best line of the night for me (and an organic catchphrase/tee-shirt for Roman should the company wish to capitalize), for it perfectly summed up exactly what I wanted to see and what I always want to see when I tune into Monday Night Raw. Roman, whether on purpose or not, expressed a pervasive sentiment in the professional wrestling community - let’s cut through the nonsense and fight for something real.
The opening battle between Roman, Dean, Orton and The Wyatts quickly slashed through all cynical expectation, reorienting everyone’s focus on something simple, fun, and legitimately entertaining.
For the very first time since their feud began a few months ago, I found myself drawn in by Roman’s war with Bray. All the theatrics and the team-building and the reveals and returns had done nothing to arrest my attention - their narrative, even with the addition of Dean Ambrose and Braun Strowman, had felt hollow, reeking of the bookers throwing two guys together because there was nothing better for them to do.
But on this night, right at the start of the show, boiled down to the simplest and most honest form, I watched something that mattered. I watched something important, and something that didn’t need to do anything broad to make me care.
And the same was true for that audience. They popped for Roman, they counted as Roman thrust his arm into Bray’s chest, and they wanted to see Roman finish the fight.
None of this would be possible if the segment had been lost in the midcard shuffle.
The deviation from the norm invited pro-wrestling fans to pay attention. The callous thought, “Oh another twenty minute promo” simply was not had, and no one felt as though they could look away from the screen and not miss a beat.
The performers, likely enthused to be placed at an important spot on the card and encouraged by how the scene played to their strengths, were as energized by this deviation as the crowd. They performed with greater fire, behaving with greater sincerity and greater honesty, eager to get the audience hyped for the rest of the show. There was a motivation.
For far too long RAW has begun with a segment designed, purposefully or unwittingly, to negate your enthusiasm for having tuned in. That can be incredibly crushing when you realize there are three long hours left. It seems such a counterproductive formula that earns WWE’s flagship series the bad kind of heat, the kind of heat that results in viewers seeking refuge in entertainment that puts obvious effort into satiating their desire for satisfying narratives. If you tuned into an AMC drama where the first scene consisted of the lead characters staring into the camera and actively mocking you for wanting to enjoy the show, you'd quickly turn that television show off.
For far too long “Welcome to Monday Night Raw!” has been shouted ironically, insinuating that you’re a fool for wanting to watch this show.
Paige's promo is another scene that demonstrated the value of deviation, but a scene that also revealed how the recent lack of deviation has fundamentally altered the WWE fan’s ability to accurately judge what they're seeing and hearing.
This promo deviated from the norm in that a woman actually spoke her mind. A character said her piece, and the speech appeared to be infused with cornels of truth. It was active and it was honest, not passive and conciliatory. And, most importantly, Paige’s words will have consequences. She expressed sentiments that cannot be so easily dismissed. Paige wove herself into the world of the WWE and succinctly, confidently made the #DivaRevolution more than a lip service. She made herself important and, in the process, made Charlotte more important and Becky Lynch more important and Natalya more important and The Bellas more important and Team Bad more important. She has given everyone a reason to fight.
This is not the CM Punk Pipebomb (also called “The Shoot Heard Round The World”).
This is not AJ Lee’s Pipebombshell.
This is a good Paige Promo.
And that’s all it needs to be and all we ever needed for #WomensWrestling.
I fear that the simple value of a good promo is lost on today’s hashtag-obsessed generation.
I’ve seen people’s reaction to this promo, and most of these reactions are disconnected from reality and disconnected from what’s actually excellent about what Paige did.
So obsessed with the company’s history and a chance to capitalize on something trendy, fans bicker about the #PaigeBomb, connecting it to a pivotal point in WWE’s history that took place over four years ago. This reveals how the WWE has trained its audience to be unable to appreciate a straightforward, good promo. A good promo tinged with anger has now become synonymous with a former WWE employee who spoke for his time and his circumstances and from his perspective. Good, honest promos are so rare these days that regardless of context and regardless of whether or not a comparison is fair, fans instantly callback to Punk's work. That is the WWE's doing for not giving a microphone and more freedom to more of their current employees.
It should not be so shocking that a professional wrestler would cut a promo on other professional wrestlers.
And yet it is in today’s world.
And so we're emboldened to thoughtlessly cut something down by arguing the semantics of what makes something a “Pipebomb” or we thoughtlessly raise something up as the best thing that’s ever happened in the history of the human race.
In this case, a deviation from the norm reveals how uninspired the norm has become.
In this case, a deviation from the norm, ironically, doesn’t allow us to simply see how Paige cut a good promo all on her own, entirely unconnected from any CM Punk pipebomb. And if you feel your fingers rising to the keyboard to tap out in the comments section how Paige started the #PaigeBomb trend herself, allow me to preemptively respond that I am aware of that.
Paige can Tweet whatever she likes. She's not wrong for connecting her work to Punk's, just as Punk wasn't wrong to wear a Austin 3:16 tee-shirt when he cut "The Shoot Heard Round The World". Advocating for a "Women's pipebomb" isn't wrong in the least. "Pipebomb" has simply become an integral part of the WWE vernacular. Paige is honoring tradition, and she's proud of her work.
But we're bickering like fools entirely incapable of just appreciating a good wrestler's current efforts. We're not allowing something to exist, fully, as a unique, meaningful event.
Paige is a character in entirely different circumstances with an entirely different perspective and an entirely different goal than Punk or AJ Lee. Her promo was good storytelling that didn't need to do anything other than what it did. It pushed the Diva Revolution narrative into a more interesting, complex space that capitalizes on people’s frustration with WWE’s historically sexist view of the female gender.
What could easily have been nothing more than mean-girl complacency, was elevated to something more akin to Steve Austin’s infamous “3:16” promo than any forth-wall breaking Punk “Pipebomb”.
A comparison to Steve Austin is a more accurate compliment to pay her. This was her “becoming”, her stepping forth to say, in character, “This is who I really am, and I’m going to whip your ass”.
That is what we need to see more of on RAW.
We don’t need “pipebombs” that aim to dismantle the corporate lies of the WWE as some who criticize Paige's promo want.
We’ve been there, we’ve done that, and it was superb when we had it. But it’s gone and it feels out of place in 2015. Punk brought change in a myriad of ways and now, within the fiction, we must move on and see the fruits of that labor carried out by a new generation.
Paige, the WWE women, and today’s roster can offer us something new and pertinent to the present. Today’s roster, given more creative freedom, can bring about a return to the basics of good pro-wrestling and good television. Paige operated within a script, within a structure, but did so with honesty and intelligence, infusing the scene with truth as a result of the freedom she did have. This can help create an environment where a good promo is not some unexpectedly godly occasion that’s cause for a parade in the streets. A good promo is a passageway into a pro-wrestler's state of mind. That access helps create a complete world and it helps stimulate the viewer's imagination and it helps create matches that actually mean something.
A good promo sells pay-per-views.
A return of regular, good promos where professional wrestlers simply express their thoughts (whether those thoughts are the truth of their characters or the truth of their real selves or somewhere in-between) is as key to the success of this millennial roster as a return to regular, good pro-wrestling matches.
Paige brought emotion into the women’s division.
Paige brought passion and anger and competition into the women’s division.
And that’s what comes from a good promo - scripted or not. We now all know who Paige is and the joy that follows is discovering how we feel about her.
Does Charlotte’s connection to Ric Flair and her tearful victories work against her in this environment?
Does Paige become the unlikely hero of the frustrated masses?
These questions provide incentive to tune in next week, and you can’t get these questions from adhering to a predictable formula.
We're in glorious uncharted territory.
The previously wonky booking of the division where it was impossible to tell who was heel and who was babyface from one week to the next has now evolved into a powderkeg of complex emotions. The female wrestlers are fighting to get their time, to develop their characters. The fans boo and cheer according to whom they sympathize with in the heat of the moment. They’re not halfheartedly trying their best to pay attention to segments that superficially preach change.
And the day after this particular episode of RAW, Paige is all the fans are talking about.
Deviation from the established, destructive norm is why they’re talking.
Fans are not talking about Kane dragging Seth Rollins down into the ring - at least not with anything other than an ironic eye-roll or a chuckle.
Kane’s reemergence and the unavoidably cheesy theatrics that go along with it represent a return to a norm that simply does not have a place in 2015.
As enjoyable as an overly happy, smiley, synthetic Corporate Kane might be, the thought-process behind The Authority’s backstage segments and the Sports Entertainment-theater that ends with Kane coming up from the bottom of the ring does not result in the reaction the WWE is hoping for. Today’s fan (who is smarter to the business than ever before) can only appreciate these scenes for their kitsch-appeal or simply for Kane’s reliable delivery.
Gone are the days where anyone is legitimately wowed or horrified by the sight of Kane dragging Seth Rollins into hell. When today’s viewer sees smoke coming up from the hole in the ring, they see a guy beneath the ring holding a smoke-machine. That’s why today’s pro-wrestling fans wants to see pro-wrestling - you can’t fake professional wrestling.
When today’s viewer sees Kane and The Authority discussing mind-games, as enjoyable as some viewers might find it, they’re not witnessing a style of presentation that’s on par with the excellence of the performers nor indicative of the level of visual quality the WWE is capable of; viewers are seeing familiar, easily produced, easily digested bits of Sports Entertainment, scenes that fit far too comfortably in RAW episodes from the 1990s. Fans are watching an anachronistic form of storytelling that has not evolved with the changing landscape of television.
Even those who enjoy seeing Kane drag Seth Rollins down into the ring for its nostalgic charm or kitschy appeal are not reaching the emotional high that Kane and Rollins are actually capable of inspiring when freed from the comfortable spectacle of Sports Entertainment.
Today’s viewer (and especially today’s viewer who has given up on WWE) would be much more open to a narrative where Kane wasn’t presented as a legitimately demonic, otherworldly being, but instead represented as an aging professional wrestler fighting for one last run at the title. That’s actually how today’s viewer looks at Kane anyway - we root for Glenn Jacobs, not The Demon.
We believe in Glenn Jacobs. Not The Demon.
The WWE has not accounted for this change in their audience's perspective.
Today’s viewer would find genuine sympathy in a Kane who has evolved into a man who still donned the mask because it provided him the much-needed confidence he needed to keep fighting - not because of the supernatural powers it endowed him with.
That’s the line the WWE crosses, the line where an adherence to their own fiction compromises the believability of the narratives and the sincerity of the characters. It becomes impossible to be moved emotionally, and we’re forced to rely on “it’s just entertainment” when it could be so much more and so much more entertaining.
Last month I watched Seth Rollins try to find his statue.
This month, I’ll watch The Authority try to get Kane’s mask back.
I recognize the appeal of these backstage segments and these Kane-stories, but the level of taste, the attention to detail, and the style of presentation does not do the talent nor the medium nor Monday Night Raw any justice.
There is a truly great performer in Kane and a truly great performer in Seth Rollins and both deserve a platform that plays to what’s honest and real in their souls - not superficial horror-movie-schtick.
We’ve seen, again and again, how the WWE’s writers think about Kane.
We remember what happened to Zack Ryder.
We remember the regrettable scenes where Kane stalked Daniel Bryan and Brie Bella.
We have seen enough of Seth Rollins begging The Authority for help.
We have seen enough of Kane dragging people to hell.
We can predict, very easily, where all of this is going, and it can only be a success despite itself.
And that’s why a deviation from the norm is more necessary than ever.
It’s time to see something real.
I’m twenty-nine years old. I can no longer justify watching this if it’s going to give me dated parlor tricks and gimmickry antithetical to the power of professional wrestling. I want to be proud of what I’m watching and I want to feel it’s time well-spent.
When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I understood like a child, but when I became a man, I put away childish things.*
With respect, I hope the WWE does the same.