THE RAW REVIEW
I only have so many sentences left.
Even if I live a long life, every time I finish writing a sentence, I’m getting closer and closer to the last one.
In that context, I can’t help but question why I would ever devote an extensive amount of time writing about a television show I regard as inescapably terrible. I know others find joy in the experience of RAW (even if they think the show is bad), but for me, the one who writes this, Monday Night Raw is a terrible, unwatchable television show that exhibits no real sign of genuine improvement and hasn’t in the four years I’ve been writing about it.
"Genuine improvement" means a creative overhaul.
A "creative overhaul" means an entirely different creative team with entirely different ideas from the ones currently making it on our television screens. Creative overhaul means never seeing another “invasion” angle or another “collusion” angle or anything anyone could easily identify as an “angle”. Creative overhaul means reconditioning the audience to be an actual audience rather than a cult of greedy, ignorant, self-important blog-babies who think summary-writing qualifies as writing and repeatedly using the word “nuance” is an indicator of intelligence and that the art of pro-wrestling is a “choose your own adventure” young adult novel.
Creative overhaul means a few contrarian points of view thriving in the WWE precisely because they’re contrarian, constantly pushing the WWE to reinvent itself and rethink everything from the way backstage segments literally look to whether or not every episode of RAW needs to be a live event inside an arena. A good RAW would be a RAW with ideas. Ideas result in engaging characters, interesting visuals, and memorable plots.
RAW has run out of ideas.
This is nowhere more apparent than in the way the WWE has debuted Luke Gallows & Karl Anderson. They “invaded” on their debut not unlike The Shield several years before them; just two random big dudes in black tee-shirts and jeans attacking The Usos. It wasn’t clear why they were on RAW nor what their reality was, but the presentation of their debut suggested that they were not necessarily under WWE contract but rather an outside entity come to wreck havoc. Even that wasn't really clear, however. Nothing was clear. Fans of The Bullet Club (the group that included Gallows, Anderson, AJ Styles, Finn Balor primarily in NJPW) were certainly happy because they’re familiar with Gallows and Anderson, and they’re able to fill in the blatant gaps in the WWE’s "story".
The next week, Gallows and Anderson appeared backstage and had a dialogue with AJ, explaining how grateful they were that he “put in a good word for them” and “brought them in” to the WWE. This contradicts the way their debut was presented, but, as so many fans insist, it explains, at the very least, why Gallows & Anderson are in the WWE and it makes it clear that they have some sort of bond with AJ Styles. They’re friends, and Anderson and Gallows are invested in AJ Styles’ success where AJ appears resistant to accepting their help.
This week Anderson and Gallows defeated The Usos in a tag match, beat them down after the match, and scuffled with Roman Reigns. At the end of the night, after AJ Styles and Roman wound up trading signature moves, it was left purposefully vague as to whether or not there was “collusion” between AJ Styles and Gallows & Anderson.
JBL, the heel commentator, seemed certain that AJ Styles was working with Gallows & Anderson. Byron Saxton and Michael Cole couldn’t really make up their minds. AJ Styles’ performance suggested that he didn’t intend to work with Gallows & Anderson at all, and, in fact, that he didn’t want their help. Roman Reigns’ performance suggested he trusts no one and wants to hold onto his title. Gallows & Anderson’s performances suggested they think they’re working with AJ, but are likely delusional.
None of these performances are the least bit aware of each other and none of them fit together to form a coherent story or tone. And yet all of this is meant to create an element of intrigue in the World Heavyweight Championship match and pull viewers into the upcoming Payback pay-per-view. "Intrigue" and "wait and see" are the bastions of bad storytellers and defensive fandoms.
Is AJ Styles working with Gallows & Anderson?
Does AJ want to stay friends with them, but make it on his own in the WWE?
How will Gallows & Anderson respond if AJ doesn’t accept their help, will they be insulted and turn on him for thinking “he’s too good for them”?
For some viewers, this is great. A shot of Gallows & Anderson walking ominously out of a room as the door slowly closes to reveal it’s AJ Styles’ dressing room will actually make some viewers go “Ohhhhh!” and call it storytelling. Pundits will go on their podcast networks and argue that AJ Styles is so much more interesting than Roman Reigns because he “has a story”, and that AJ’s relationship with Gallows & Anderson has enough going for it to make it interesting. We know some key details about their emotional states and their relationships, after all, and if we wanted to know anything deeper about them then “The Bullet Club” is just a Google search away.
Everything I’ve just described in the previous paragraphs would be defined as “bad” in any other storytelling medium. And pro-wrestling, even Sports Entertainment, is, unavoidably, storytelling. Any discussion or sincere analysis of what the WWE has presented becomes utterly pointless when faced with how logistically incoherent the show remains.
When a writer raises questions in her story such as “what is this character’s morality”, that writer should actually have an answer. Storytellers should know the story they want to tell before they start to tell it; they'll discover new details along the way, but they must have a general trajectory in mind at the outset. That’s a really simple, incredibly important concept that the WWE has completely abandoned. It certainly doesn’t seem like anyone behind the curtain has a clear idea as to what AJ Styles’ story actually is. It’s obvious they’re fiddling around with a puzzle week after week, trying as hard as they can to shove mismatched pieces together.
This is no different than what the WWE has done with every WWE Superstar in recent years. It is the absence of foresight in storytelling (such is also epitomized in Shane McMahon's bid for control of RAW).
For example, based on the way Anderson & Gallows debuted, did the WWE know how Anderson & Gallows would be presented the following week - as newly signed additions to the roster? Did the WWE know, before they started to tell this story, that AJ Styles “brought them in”? What does “brought them in” actually mean? What happened, in the fictional world, to get Anderson and Gallows into the WWE? Why did they attack from the crowd in their debut if they weren't "invading" the company? If you're a signed WWE Superstar, can't you just walk down the ramp? Did they have a meeting with Vince? Did AJ talk to Triple H and then Triple H gave them a tryout? Was Shane mad that they randomly attacked The Usos is were they just "making a statement"?
These are the basic narrative details the writers and the bookers should actually know before they put these characters on national television, even if those details never make it on-screen. It is irrelevant that the WWE has the demanding schedule they do (excuses should never be made for mediocrity). It isn’t impossible to know the story you want to tell before you start to tell. Even if you're rushed.
Nothing that's happening on the main roster seems to come from a storyteller's desire. When you watch a film, listen to a song, or read a book, you can feel that the author actually wants to be telling you a story and wants to do something important.
On RAW, what story about AJ Styles does the WWE want to tell? Is there anyone on their staff who has thought, "I want to tell the story of AJ's past coming to haunt him in the WWE"? Is anyone passionate about communicating an idea to the audience?
Like any other medium, pro-wrestling has its own means of communicating its stories; a toolset meant to maintain a larger narrative machine. It is not somehow immune to the tenets of good, effective storytelling simply because it tells stories about big, muscly men who play dress-up.
And that’s exactly where the lack of respect for pro-wrestling is revealed even among the people who create it and the people who love it. Pro-wrestling fans, in their gut, believe pro-wrestling operates outside the realm of other, more respected forms of storytelling. They believe, consciously or not, that pro-wrestling can “get away with” blatant badness because that badness is just a part of the medium’s “charm”. Not unlike a B-Movie. Perhaps this inconvenient truth accounts for why pro-wrestling is so popular among the irony-beards of millennial culture. Pro-wrestling is so rarely sincere in its presentation and in the way it's appreciated. Bad storytelling in the WWE, even if it involves fan-favorites, is not good storytelling simply because it exists in the medium of pro-wrestling.
People love to judge art “for what it is”.
Art should be judged for "what it does” not for “what it is”.
Art is not some high school talent show where everyone gets an award just for participating. Art is not a safe space - it is the opposite. Art is not some precious little child who needs to be coddled for fear of upsetting it with a dose of harsh reality.
Art doesn’t need us to always find a way for it to be good.
Some art is absolute shit.
And that is fine. We all need to make our peace with that.
You might like it, but that doesn’t make it anything other than absolute shit. To try and make it anything else does a great deal of harm.
If we go on encouraging bad art to remain bad, especially when it has the ability to be great, then we do a disservice to the medium or genre of that particular art. We undermine the value of genuinely good art and true creative achievement when we hand out gold-stars to mediocrity simply because “It’s good for what it is”. The fact that any WWE booker or any WWE wrestling fan would regard any of the current stories in the WWE as “good” or “good for what they are” is indicative of how our collective taste-level has been corrupted by thirty years of destructive reconditioning.
The WWE has encouraged you to lower your expectations of what qualifies as storytelling to the point where watching two random, overacting dudes walking out of a dressing room makes you pop despite how many times you’ve witnessed that exact narrative beat in the WWE. The pro-wrestling culture has conditioned you to believe AJ Styles deserves a WWE World Heavyweight Championship opportunity despite how new he is in the company, and that Roman Reigns, despite recently undergoing the best character-transformation of any WWE Superstar in recent years, remains "undeserving" and "boring".
Context can only color these tropes in with intrigue so much. At a certain point, no matter how fresh the context might be, it all blends into the same Sports Entertainment-paste; a beige narrative & cultural sludge that clogs up a mind’s ability to distinguish between banality and quality.
A pro-wrestling fan or a WWE-fan may struggle to see that reality and even take offense to the suggestion of its truth, and that’s because they’re inclined to flesh out WWE-stories in their own mind. A better storyteller wouldn’t demand its audience invent half the narrative, and a better audience wouldn’t make excuses for the storyteller who does that. But that's the norm of nerd-culture and it radiates throughout all forms of modern storytelling; the fans already know the story and so the storyteller is permitted to do less and care less all while making more money.
Pro-wrestling fans recognize the familiar motions of the WWE product. They see wrestlers standing on stages, having scripted conversations back stage, sitting at the commentator’s desk, trading finishing moves at the end of the night, and walking out of dressing rooms and pro-wrestling fans think what they’re seeing is good or interesting. These viewers are so indoctrinated into the cult, that they’re not even able to think, “Why would a wrestler ever stop wrestling and get distracted by a person on the stage?” Other fans who are self-aware just laugh this kind of familiar scene off, accepting, “That’s just the way the WWE is - if you can't accept it then you should look elsewhere” rather than arguing anything needs to really change about the product.
Others will argue, “If you hate it so much, stop watching.”
That is good advice, but it’s not that simple. For whatever reason, I feel it’s my responsibility to protect art. That is the charge I've given myself, and nothing will take that from me.
I see in the WWE so much potential to be good, that it pains me to see them settle for mediocrity without even realizing it, and it pains me even more to see a generation of intelligent fans passively-ironically accept the blatant badness of Monday Night Raw. It pains me to watch a remarkably talented roster of athletes I greatly admire break their bodies for no substantial narrative return.
It’s a badness that’s not limited to the way WWE books its talent. It’s a pervasive mediocrity that informs the lighting, cinematography, editing, writing, acting, dialogue, length of running time, structure of the show, entrance music, wrestler-names, wrestler-attire, tone, atmosphere, psychology, and ideology of the product.
If we consume one thing for so long and just accept that one thing is “good for what it is” then we lose sight of reality. We start to see everything through an obscured lens, and it becomes normal for all the arts to remain safe, unoriginal, colorful messes that distract us from a more vibrant truth. Art becomes safe. It becomes rote. Fans become consumers. Originality becomes a buzzword. The best in us gets bought and sold back to the worst in us. Everyone gets a cape and a gold star and no one has to work for anything.
RAW, through its relentless badness and consistent mediocrity, contributes to that kind of world.
Certainly, a lot of WWE fans recognize that RAW is not actually good television, and keep watching despite that. But, in recent weeks, I’ve noticed the climate around RAW change despite the fact that the show hasn’t changed at all. I’ve noticed fans giving the WWE some “creative leeway” and arguing that “this new creative direction” is good and exciting. I’ve noticed people more inclined to call RAW “good” or “good for what it is”. Even I thought the WWE was on the right track following the RAW after WrestleMania.
This "good for what it is" and "baby-steps" mentality isn't fair to pro-wrestling. It's encouraging the WWE to go on doing everything people criticize the WWE for. It permits Monday Night Raw to stay behind he curb, a relic from a bygone era while people watch innovative shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Flash, Arrow, DareDevil, Jessica Jones, How To Get Away With Murder, Scandal, Game of Thrones, The People vs OJ Simpson...
It's not fair to pro-wrestling that its largest distributor remain unaware of popular television. It's not fair to pro-wrestling that the WWE organization can't see how it fits into the modern television culture, consider what's better about all of these other shows, and then strive to overshadow them. It's not fair to the art of pro-wrestling that the medium's largest distributor remain stagnant simply because, "No one else does what we do". That's simply not an accurate statement; hundreds of other television shows and legitimate sporting contests do what the WWE thinks it does, and they do it excessively better than the WWE.
It's also not fair to pro-wrestling when a wrestling fan argues RAW shouldn't be compared to other shows like Mad Men, Breaking Bad, Walking Dead, Game of Thrones, or other legitimate sporting events.
There’s inherent disrespect in the idea that Monday Night Raw shouldn’t be judged against other better, more effective television shows. That’s a thought that could only be had when you set different standards for what qualifies as “good” in your mind, when you compartmentalize your opinions to ensure you get the result you're looking for regardless of whether or not it reflects anything real. RAW should be able to survive a fight with Game of Thrones. But it wouldn't. It would fail immediately.
When we judge art “for what it is” it ceases to matter whether or not it's actually good or bad, and whether or not it achieves what its medium demands. The idea that one shouldn’t judge RAW against the excellence of obviously better experiences like Game of Thrones or Mad Men or Monday Night Football or UFC or the NBA or even the beauty of a sunset, is an idea born out of Vince McMahon’s insecurity. It's a mentality born out of the idea that pro-wrestling is not actually an art, but rather a cartoonish carnival sideshow that thrives purely through spectacle and gratuity - we can't judge it against good art because pro-wrestling is "it's own thing"!
Vince McMahon didn’t think enough of pro-wrestling to create a product that made you think better of pro-wrestling. Vince McMahon’s taste-level has not evolved. His taste has remained kitschy, base, and self-indulgent. Given that he presides of a massive organization that has an Orwellian-Nightmarish-ability to shape people's perceptions, might it be possible that he's negatively affected the taste-level and expectations of his viewers?
He has not created an environment of undeniable quality the way any good innovator or show-runner would. He has not changed people’s perception of professional wrestling no matter how hard he’s tried. In fact, he’s helped create a negative perception of professional wrestling. His content encourages people to call it "soap operas for men". Anyone who watched a recent episode of RAW and labeled it "soap operas for men" would be absolutely right. It's not "fake" (I can't bring myself to use that word even against RAW), but it's certainly not authentic.
Vince McMahon has created a terribly flawed television show that currently caters to a niche; and that niche has been conditioned to praise or accept mediocrity as the norm. RAW is a testament to one man’s desire to have dominion over an incredibly small world where everyone tells him he’s right...even when they’re telling him he’s wrong.
Pro-wrestling deserves a better.
Pro-wrestling can be better.
And that’s what I’m going to spend the rest of my sentences on. My goal has always been to explore the art of professional wrestling, to prove its worth and merit.
I've explored Vince McMahon's bad art enough. In many ways, writing a weekly review of Monday Night Raw is counterproductive to the entire conceit of this website and my podcast. For my own sake, for the sake of this site's continued growth, and for the sake of what's morally & artistically good, I can't keeping writing RAW REVIEWS simply because I've always written RAW REVIEWS.
That's the robotic mindset this terrible television show encourages.
Unlike RAW, The Work of Wrestling is malleable. It evolves over time in the pursuit of honoring its mission-statement, and providing its author something to be genuinely passionate about. My passion for pro-wrestling remains, and so I'll continue writing and talking about professional wrestling. But there's so much more to be done than agonize over one strange, old man's bad taste.
I can't proclaim that this is the last RAW REVIEW, but I can confidently write that my creative efforts are be better served elsewhere.
Every editorial I've written on this website has not only performed better than any RAW REVIEW I've ever written, I enjoyed writing them more. The writing in my editorials tends to be more inventive, stimulating, and conversation-starting.
And that's because I wrote them entirely by choice.
I had an idea, I wanted to share it, I worked on it, and I made it a reality.
I'll write about RAW again when it does the same.