THE RAW REVIEW
First impressions are important.
Your first encounter with someone can define your relationship with that person. Over time, your initial assessment of their character might prove to be incorrect, but it’s impossible to be wrong about how you feel. “I like this person” or “I don’t like this person” isn’t connected to anything objective about the person who inspires those feelings. You might hate someone who is “good” and you might love someone who is “bad”.
The same holds true for artists and their works of art.
“I like this” or “I don’t like this” has nothing to do with a work of art’s actual quality. That is an inconvenient truth that doesn’t sit well with our “opinion-as-fact” culture. Your “like” or “dislike” has nothing to do with reality. Your “like” or “dislike” can’t turn water into wine and it can’t make a bad promo a good promo. Your “like” or “dislike” has to do with your taste, and your taste reflects your psychology. Your psychology isn’t static (hopefully). Your psychology is ever-changing, evolving over the course of your life as you’re exposed to new stimuli and as you have new experiences.
People can be conditioned to have good first impressions, though. If you consider the environment you’re about to enter and you behave accordingly, you can “get over” with almost anyone. Clothing choices, accessories, perfumes & colognes, hairstyles, mood, and word-choice all contribute to “The Work of You”. These embellishments are meant to distract from your weaknesses and emphasize your strengths. Your “Work” is an argument for why people should believe in you.
It is a seduction, and it all starts with that first impression because human beings don’t have access to any objective reality. The majority of human beings see through the lens of their likes and dislikes and that determines what they regard as truth.
The WWE has not considered any of this for quite some time when debuting a new talent.
The art of first impressions seems to have left the company’s consciousness. In professional wrestling, especially in the WWE, first impressions are not the soul responsibility of the performer. As a massive multi-media empire with virtually unlimited resources and entire teams of marketing executives whose soul purpose is shaping public perception, it is the WWE’s job to design effective first impressions - to make it clear who someone is, what someone wants, where someone comes from, and why someone does what they do.
If a casual WWE-viewer sees the debut of a professional wrestler and thinks, “Who is that?” then that professional wrestler becomes “Who is that?”
When “Who is that?” is not instantly answered in an unwavering, transparent way on a television show broadcast to millions of viewers, then that professional wrestler, who may objectively be the best professional wrestler who has ever lived, suddenly has to work against “Who is that?”
That professional wrestler, through no fault of their own, no matter how good an impression they might make with what little they’re given, now has to work three times harder than they should ever have to.
Last night, Sami Zayn, the best performer currently working in any pro-wrestling organization today, made his definitive debut on Monday Night Raw.
And it was glorious. He stormed down the entrance ramp to uproarious applause, and immediately attacked Kevin Owens. The two traded blows before breaking apart, Michael Cole screaming about how Kevin Owens had “seen a ghost”. Adrian Neville shook Sami’s hand in welcome. All of it made a wonderful amount of sense, serving as a fitting transition for Sami from NXT up to the main roster. On WWE.com Sami got an exclusive interview to explain himself, and allude to his long-standing rivalry with Kevin Owens. His excitement and his sincerity was as palpable as ever - speaking the way a human being actually speaks (something we so rarely get in WWE today).
Barring any unforeseen (or regrettable) creative decisions, it would appear Sami Zayn is already on the path to a significant mid-card title match against Kevin Owens at WrestleMania (a much-deserved pay-per-view debut).
It’s impossible to be unhappy about this.
But what does the way WWE structured Sami Zayn’s first impression to the “WWE Universe” reveal about the WWE’s ideology? What does Sami Zayn’s re-debut reveal about how the WWE thinks about Sami Zayn?
I certainly loved Sami’s re-debut. I instantly got caught up in the drama. I pumped my first. I smiled-wide. I felt at peace, breathing a sigh of relief, thinking, “Okay…finally…let’s do this.”
I then immediately went to WWE.com because I was sure he’d have an interview on there, and it engaged me on yet another level and got me even more excited for WrestleMania.
But I’m not the casual viewer.
I’m not the viewer the WWE should be trying to draw in with this particular angle.
I’m the guy who's watched NXT since the summer of 2014. I'm the guy who knows who Sami Zayn is and why he’s got beef with Kevin Owens. I’m the guy who knows they were once El Generico (unconfirmed reports) and Kevin Steen. I’m the guy who will take the time to go to WWE's website and sift through several articles and videos before finally finding Sami’s two minute interview. I’m also the guy who will go to YouTube just to get a usable link so that I can share that video on my pro-wrestling website where I write a weekly review of Monday Night Raw and attempt to prove the artistic merit of professional wrestling…
I’m the guy who reacts to this debut in exactly the way the WWE wants me to.
I’m the “internet fan” who has no other choice but to rely almost exclusively upon the internet to learn more about Sami Zayn’s story.
If I did not have the internet or if I had no interest in sifting through pro-wrestling internet history or if I didn’t have ten bucks a month to spare on the WWE Network or if I had no interest in NXT whatsoever, then the only thing I’d know about Sami Zayn is that he doesn’t like Kevin Owens. I would be confused as to why he attacked Kevin Owens, why he shook Neville’s hand, and why he was even on RAW in the first place. Although casual viewers certainly spend a lot of time on the internet, casuals do not engage with pro-wrestling on the internet in the way diehards do. Casual viewers need incentives to be created for them by the company that's supposed to design those incentives.
If I was a regular human being who just wanted to watch a good television show between 8pm and 11pm on a Monday, then I would have no idea why I was supposed to care about this new guy named Sami Zayn, and why he seemed important for three minutes out of three hours. I would probably forget Sami even attacked Kevin Owens, and I’d continue watching the remainder of RAW’s laborious three hours hoping to find something that actually entertained me.
The best case scenario in terms of a casual viewer's reaction to Sami’s debut is for that casual viewer to think, “He seems kind of cool”. That’s the degree of emotional investment the booking is designed to elicit from a general audience. “Kind of cool” does not do justice to any talent, least of all one as important as Sami Zayn.
The booking reveals the WWE’s perception of Sami Zayn-like talents. Shane McMahon (who has already introduced himself to newer viewers and made his priorities clear) got the vignette-treatment on this episode the way a debuting talent must. The “Indy Wrestler” and “Internet Darling” got a passing mention meant to satiate smarks. Despite Sami’s objective talent and his inherent mass appeal, he’s instantly relegated to the role of “good worker”, not “potential superstar”.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Sami Zayn should be instantly presented as “the top guy”. This is an argument for a style of presentation that allows for the possibility that he actually could be a “top guy”.
Based on the presentation of this debut and the fact that Sami was never once seen or heard from again on this show, his appeal is clearly not regarded as universal by the WWE brass. For the WWE, guys like Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are "specialty products”. They’re what you get when you decide to become a “Gold Member” of the WWE Universe Club. Special as they may be, they’re not treated like future flagship products currently in the beta-testing stage.
They're marketed as perks because that’s the philosophy behind the presentation.
The impression becomes the truth for the majority of television viewers.
The WWE will argue that they’ve gifted Sami Zayn with an incredible opportunity, not unlike the way a manipulative parent works a classic guilt-trip upon their child. It’s hard to argue against this debut being a “great opportunity” without coming across as a bitter, perpetually dissatisfied internet smark. That’s how the guilt-trip works. They’re traps designed to invalidate reality.
Although I have the utmost confidence that Sami Zayn will continue to get over and unleash his pro-wrestling mastery upon the masses, I have no confidence that the WWE will book him accordingly. As Vince Russo recently described on Steve Austin’s podcast, the WWE is catering to the “internet wrestling community” with this kind of booking. Fans such as myself don’t really need anything more than what this episode of RAW offered to remain engaged. The WWE has my money and they even got my URL clicks following Sami’s debut.
They even have this…literally what you’re reading right now is inadvertently helping them shill their schlock. For us, Sami’s debut is a raging fire of awesomeness, but it’s little more than a fleeting spark for the vast majority of people watching television - the people who actually determine what "over" is. And this is precisely why the WWE has failed to create convincing top WWE Superstars for the past sixteen years.
The WWE and professional wrestling fans alike are so obsessed with the division between diehard and casual, IWC and general audience that Monday Night Raw has become a fragmented mess without a unifying marketing principle.
If the WWE only sought the viewership of diehard wrestling fans then the show would be much better. If the WWE only sought the viewership of the casual wrestling fan then the show would be much better. If the WWE knew what it wanted to be and knew with unwavering confidence who its desired audience actually was then the show would be much better.
As is, RAW is two bad television shows running in parallel and at an exhausting length of time that only a diehard audience could stomach. If the WWE truly wanted to create top talent then they would invest in telling the story of those talents rather than merely “giving opportunities”. Because the WWE has this divisive perspective, talents who could have mass appeal and serve as great ambassadors for the company end up spinning their wheels in the mid-card.
If I went to the opera, and the director snatched me out of the crowd, shoved me out on stage and said, “Make it work!” is he giving me an opportunity? Or is he misunderstanding his job?
When I see a debut like Sami Zayn’s on this latest episode of Monday Night Raw, I do not see a “great opportunity”.
I see absolute incompetence on the part of the WWE to support its talent and create viable stars.
Next week we very well may get the Sami Zayn vignette or the Sami Zayn promo or the Sami Zayn explanation we needed to get on this episode of Monday Night Raw. Even if we don’t, Sami will likely have an excellent match and casual viewers might start to see why he’s an impressive talent and they might choose to get invested in his story. Sami Zayn might even manage to transform a casual fan into a diehard fan; the only way anyone, at this point in time, will ever be able to fully appreciate what he has to offer the WWE and a wide television audience.
Professional wrestlers can always make a second first impression. But they shouldn’t have to.
What the WWE and diehard wrestling fans continue to fail to realize is that casual viewers and diehard viewers want the exact same thing…
Who. What. Where. Why.
Diehards might comprehend the nuances of that story and become invested in that story in a way that casuals don’t, but the desire remains the same and so the presentation should remain the same. Everyone is susceptible to the charms of effective persuasion.
Turn on NXT and that’s what you get; the epitome of pro-wrestling for a casual audience.
And that’s why it’s good.
It’s accessible and no one, smark or mark, is left wondering “Who’s this?”
A Sami Zayn vignette on Monday Night Raw wouldn’t have alienated anyone. A Sami Zayn promo following his attack on Kevin Owens wouldn’t have prevented diehard internet fans from going to WWE.com or WWE’s YouTube channel in the slightest. A Sami Zayn vignette or promo on his debut episode would have served only to help all viewers understand and appreciate exactly who he is and why he’s embroiled in a conflict with Kevin Owens. Just a little more information about Zayn for the casual viewer watching RAW would have helped Sami begin the process of “getting over” and transforming into a draw for mass audiences rather than remain a perk.
I should not have to explain to you why Sami Zayn is the best professional wrestler in the world today. My unwavering stance on the subject should not serve as a self-fulfilling form of salesmanship where I convince myself that WrestleMania is worth $9.99 a month and the Intercontinental Championship now magically has meaning.
That’s not my job.
That’s the WWE’s job.
And that’s precisely why we didn’t get a Sami Zayn vignette or a Sami Zayn promo on RAW.
If WWE wants their “specialty product” to remain a “specialty product”, they’re not going to present it as anything other than that. If WWE doesn’t want a casual audience to regard Sami Zayn as a potential top superstar then they’ll give him three minutes of wordless screen-time and they’ll start calling him an “Underdog”. If WWE wants their fans to formulate a warped perception of Sami that’s in keeping with the company’s mission statement, then the WWE will do whatever it can to ensure their desired result at all costs.
They’ll keep the Sami Zayn character on WWE.com for those annoying little internet fans, and they’ll stay the course with their mainline product. They'll go on claiming we're their focus group and giving us scraps. They’ll make decisions based on their likes and their dislikes and they'll call it reality despite a more lucrative reality staring them in the face.
But considering how the WWE has had to recall Roman Reigns for two straight weeks…how’s that marketing strategy working out for them?