THE RAW REVIEW
Imagine we’re by a campfire; you, me, and a few other campers.
We’ve been hiking all day, and now we’re sitting down together to eat and drink and talk. The moonlight splinters atop the forest canopy, falling to the dirt like strands of silk. Twigs and leaves snap and rustle in the dark beyond our campsite, reminding us that we’re not alone. The campfire-light holds us in a warm, orange bubble, as we pull apart bits of jerky and laugh as gram crackers and marshmallows and chocolate dissolve in our mouths. A bottle of Jack Daniels passes from mouth to mouth, and that’s when the stories start.
You tell a funny story about a woman you met in college. Someone else tells a story about that time their kid’s toe was eaten by an iguana. Another camper tells a scary story about the crazy old man who’s rumored to live in the caves nearby.
Then it’s my turn to tell a story. I smile, lean forward on my log, and warm my hands in the glow of the fire. You can tell, by the look in my eye and the crook of my smile, that I’ve got a really good, perhaps even important, story to tell you. You lean forward on your log too. The other campers put down their food-plates and settle into their blankets, eager to listen.
And that’s when I say, “I’ve got a really good, important story to tell you about this legendary group of warriors. They were old friends who journeyed throughout the world, from the sandy beaches of the west, to the hallowed halls of the east. But before I begin, make sure you have internet access, because you’re going to need to Google a lot of what I talk about to understand it.”
Breaks the mood doesn’t it?
That’s the WWE today.
The only difference is that where you would likely roll your eyes at someone by a campfire who required that you Google aspects of their story in order to fully appreciate it, the WWE’s current audience is perfectly fine with that dynamic - they’re the sort of fan who will use Google as a means of fleshing out non-stories, and populating those non-stories and those limp booking decisions and those poorly formed gimmicks with an imagined reality far more interesting than the actual reality presented by World Wrestling Entertainment and the USA Network.
While some would argue that “everyone is a member of the IWC today” (a stance I’ve maintained in the past), and that “everyone” will use Google to find out more about new pro-wrestlers, I now maintain that this idea is only true of the diehard wrestling fans who are already watching the WWE. The mind that thinks “everyone interacts with this the way I do” is the rigid, self-important perspective of the smark.
In reality, as evidenced by RAW’s continued low ratings, the vast majority of television viewers, even in today’s internet age, do not want to go beyond the experience of the actual story they’re being told to get what they need from that story. Most people just want to keep sitting by the campfire. They want to listen to the person sitting across from them, and they don't want to have to sift through Reddit, subscribe to a service, or circumvent a paywall to get to the goods.
Most people just want a storyteller to tell them a story while they listen.
That’s the traditional relationship between storyteller and audience; it’s a relationship that’s much easier and less demanding on the audience member and much harder and more demanding on the storyteller.
In today’s WWE (and throughout popular culture), that traditional relationship has been inverted. The audience has to do more to remain fully engaged, and the storyteller has to do less, relying on that audience’s willingness to do internet research to fill in the inevitable narrative gaps.
The passionate, diehard, unwavering internet fan thrives in this kind of environment because they’re encouraged to think they’re actually affecting what the storyteller does. The more engaged they are, the more they know about the minutia of the product, the more valid their opinions appear and the more they’ll understand the half-story being told to them.
The hack thrives in this kind of environment because they don’t need to be good at storytelling. The hack knows exactly what the internet fan wants, what gets them riled up, what makes them happy, and how little the internet fan actually needs from a narrative to keep watching.
This kind of inverted relationship is cleverly used as a means of making more money from the diehard fans bred through nerd-culture and integrated fictional universes. Happy as comic book readers, gamers, fanfic writers, zombie-enthusiasts, anime-lovers, retro revelers, vintage hipsters, and pro-wrestling smarks may be in a world that seems to cater to their every need, it’s all simply designed to extract as much money as possible from the consumer. A purposefully fragmented story stretched across various mediums and various iterations within a single medium necessitates the audience spend the most amount of money possible over the longest period of time.
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Story now resides behind an internet connection, a paywall, and an alienating self-important, nerdy hive-mind that revels in its supposed superiority.
That’s the mind dictating the style, tone, and narrative of today’s RAW. This kind of fan is permitted to go on existing in their little world of unchallenged rightness, while the WWE is permitted to go on existing in its little world of unchallenged narrative absence.
Both audience and storyteller are so necessarily blind to the problems of this environment that they’re incapable of identifying any problem in the first place. The WWE clearly does not have a staff member in any position of power who is even capable of thinking, “We need a genuine creative overhaul here, and that requires more than a new RAW General Manager. What if we did away with the idea of General Managers altogether? What would the show look like then? We need to make good, interesting, inventive television with the resources and talents at our disposal and we need genuinely new ideas. What if we re-imagined the open of the show, the structure of the show, our cinematography, our writing staff, our conceit, our commentary, our gimmicks, our feuds, our promos, and even whether or not every episode of RAW needs take place at a live event inside an arena? What if we did more than simply debut NXT talent?”
The WWE fan clearly does not need to question whether or not the show is legitimately good television because they'll keep watching even when it’s clearly bad television. And when it is “good”, it’s “good” because Shane McMahon tells them how important they are or “books” main events like Dean Ambrose versus Kevin Owens regardless of whether or not the match has any meaning. It’s “good” because “indy talent” is being featured prominently on RAW.
And so the bar for "good" reveals itself to be incredibly low.
While this week’s RAW certainly wasn’t the worst episode, it is yet another symptom of an environment where the art of storytelling has become less important than the emotional reactions of insider nerd-culture.
For example, it was only on this episode, a week after their debut, that Anderson and Gallows were given a bit more to work with, but even that was sparse. Certainly, one can argue that “we’ll learn more about them over time”, but that doesn’t really qualify as effective storytelling - that's demanding too much from all those who simply have no idea who all of these new people are.
The WWE Network might have a million subscribers but that's only a million people, and there's no way of knowing how many of them watch NXT or indy wrestling, and so there's no way of knowing how many of them have formed any sort of an emotional attachment to Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Baron Corbin, the other NXT talents who've recently debuted, or talents from the independent scene. The way these talents have been presented the past few weeks assumes that the audience already knows who they are. When that quality of the show is criticized, many internet fans rush to the show's defense because they feel personally attacked. They're offended that "casuals" don't know about indy wrestling despite the simple reality that these indy wrestlers do not have fleshed out characters on the television show titled RAW.
Imagine being a fan of Breaking Bad. Now imagine that in an episode of Breaking Bad, Don Draper from Mad Men suddenly appears and instantly becomes an essential character in the plot (but he's been provided no significant backstory, and his reason for being on Breaking Bad is summed up by Walter saying to Jesse "I brought him in to help us"). Imagine this occurs despite how disconnected Breaking Bad and Mad Men are and despite the fact that not everyone who watches Breaking Bad also watches Mad Men and vice versa. The only thing that actually unites the shows is that they're dramas on AMC.
Given that viewers would not understand or even like this kind of event in any other television show, why are internet fans so accepting of it on RAW?
It’s not as though a vignette or a promo about these new people would alienate anyone.
It’s not as though the lack of detailed information gets people more excited for poorly defined characters.
No one should need to go to WWE.com or YouTube or Google or subscribe to WWE Network to really know who someone like Sami Zayn really is.
The best part of this episode was Roman Reigns...
"You lost me at the best part of this episode was Roman Reigns" someone plans on typing into the comments section.
Maybe they'll send me that gif of Dean Ambrose saying "Nope".
That's fine. They'll have that reaction because they're proud of their passion and they've been trained to regard a differing opinion, no matter how fleshed out, as inherently wrong or combative and therefore deserving of dismissal.
But it's all too easy to predict that kind of reaction to an article like this.
It's easy to predict that kind of reaction because diehard fans and the things diehard fans love tend to lack creativity and originality, instead basking in the warm glow of sameness. It's an instinct I understand, but it's not one people should be too proud of.
The interactions between Roman Reigns and AJ Styles helped flesh out their characters, and that is why their scenes represented the best part of this RAW.
Every week, Roman’s demeanor continues to compliment his strengths as a performer more effectively, and he appears to be settling into the role of Champion. His line-delivery isn't perfect, but there’s greater confidence in his eyes and his new gimmick creates a degree of intrigue. We do not know exactly what he's going to do or say, and we don't know exactly how he's going to do or say it. He is clearly absorbing the boos of the crowd, and it appears to make him stronger. Some people can go on thinking he's boring, and others can go on thinking he's awesome, but it finally works because the character fits in with that reaction.
And AJ Styles finally got some decent mic-time to reveal himself as an earnest, crowd-pleasing competitor. The contrast in Roman and AJ’s personalities, and the drastically different responses they receive from the crowd helps build a WWE World Heavyweight Championship match at Payback that's not only exciting, but one that actually makes sense. It feels important because it’s an event the fans genuinely care about, and it’s an event that Roman and AJ obviously care about given how the Championship relates to their careers. From the perspective of an average television viewer who may have tuned in during AJ & Roman's segments, the scenes would have played like serious, intriguing dialogues between athletes fighting for a prize.
When that same average television viewer tuned in at 8:10 pm, how does the opening Ambrose Asylum skit seem like anything other than silly nonsense? How does that skit read as sincere and worthy of one's time? How does that skit not instantly prove every criticism of pro-wrestling correct, and give power to all those who would label wrestling "fake", "stupid", or "soap operas for men"?
Unless you’re a meta-hipster-internet-smark who’s going to immediately start posting gifs on Tumblr and making memes about Ambrose’s plant, then it’s difficult to find any actual humor in Ambrose’s jokes and his delivery. Because it’s not actually funny. And the fact that it's not funny doesn't make it funny.
Although there’s been a supposed change in RAW’s on-screen show runner, there remains a severe lack of seriousness, intelligence, and sincerity in the flagship series. All the constructive criticisms leveled at RAW (commentary squandering heat, 50/50 booking, overly scripted promos, few to no vignettes, bad SNL-like skits, inconsistent presentation) are still very applicable to the product.
And set aside for a moment the unending argument of who represents “the majority” of WWE viewers and this distinction between casual audience and diehard audience. Just examine, frankly, whether Monday Night Raw is a good storyteller.
Let's go back to the campfire. Imagine RAW is one of those people sitting with us on a log. Imagine he starts telling you a long-winded, three-hour story that rapidly switches perspectives, main characters, conceits, tones, and styles throughout those three hours and then asks you to pay him ten dollars a month for the rest of your life.
Do you keep listening...do you pay...or do you get up and leave?