THE RAW REVIEW
Following the 2014 Hell in a Cell pay-per-view where a “Ghost” interfered in the main event (bringing Seth Rollins & Dean Ambrose’s career-defining feud to an unceremonious close) the WWE’s flagship series gradually devolved into a predictable variety show that served rote promos, frayed story-lines, a disjointed tone, incoherent “comedic” segments, unimportant matches, and inconsistent characterization. These issues led to increased viewer-discontent, the stunted growth of a variety of talents, and stalled Superstar-ascents that were, during the Spring & Summer of 2014, nothing short of meteoric.
These issues persisted all the way through to the final episode of 2015.
The best modern episodes of RAW are always those that deviate from a lame, established norm. RAW's lame, established norm is the WWE’s antiquated, ineffective perspective on professional wrestling: RAW is a “sports entertainment” show where everyone is just trying to have a good time and nothing really matters!
This is a perspective that negates the viewer’s emotional investment in a narrative and, ironically, decreases the chances of actually entertaining someone (especially when a WWE wrestler's character is thinking of his match as a chance “to entertain the audience” rather than a chance to “win a fight”). If the WWE downplays the inherent violence of their fictitious universe and presents “fights” as “fun” then their product feels more “family friendly”, which seems to be their current creative mission. Even though such presentation disrespects the physical, mental, and emotional sacrifice of the wrestler (I doubt those chair-shots are “fun” for Sheamus), it’s a Disneyfication-effect that’s very much a product of its times as much as The Attitude Era was a product of its time.
All forms of art are being funneled through increasingly smaller, increasingly tepid, increasingly safer perspectives for fear of alienating anyone and for fear of missing out on the biggest payout possible.
All daring has been sapped from almost all mediums, and our inventiveness as a species pays the price.
The problem with this perspective is that it’s more alienating than just being honest with one’s self, and it leads to the death of creativity. “For your entertainment!” is a needy way to tell a story, and it completely ignores how storytelling actually works.
Good storytellers accept that not everyone is going to be happy. Good storytellers know that everyone doesn't even need to be happy.
The best WWE storytellers of 2015 were those who did not allow the WWE’s “sports entertainment” perspective to pollute their gimmick (or, in the New Day's case, subverted that perspective to such a delightful degree that they got over). Seth Rollins was, at all times, an athlete striving to prove he was the best athlete. Brock Lesnar was The Beast, a decorated, legitimate fighter driven by greed, blood-lust, and vengeance. Kevin Owens was a self-proclaimed “prize-fighter”. Roman Reigns, when booked intelligently, was an Achilles-like warrior. Even John Cena, the paragon of the PG-Era, was a champion fighting to defend his “symbol of excellence”.
It’s no coincidence that the most compelling episodes of RAW and the most compelling WWE Superstars in 2015 all remained true to the fundamentals of pro-wrestling storytelling; pro-wrestling is a legitimate, violent, athletic contest where combatants fight for dominion over the ring or control over the WWE organization.
A good episode of Monday Night Raw is one that emphasizes the personal significance of Championship belts, keeps the focus more on wrestling matches than backstage shtick, has commentary espouse the virtues of the babyface and condemn the villainy of the heel, permits wrestlers to speak from the heart in mostly unscripted promos, spotlights carefully crafted vignettes that accentuate the tone of the show or the urgency of a particular rivalry, and manipulates the audience’s expectations by offering an unexpected narrative-twist or an entirely new perspective on a familiar concept.
This is the basic model for a successful RAW, and this week's episode was mostly a success because it followed this format. If the WWE makes a conscious decision to produce more episodes like this one, where titles matter, matches matter, emotions and beliefs matter, then it will bring back its audience in 2016.
If, next week, Roman Reigns starts laughing it up with Dean Ambrose backstage or The Miz interviews Becky Lynch & Charlotte again or Michael Cole gives birth to a hand or Dolph Ziggler “fights to entertain” or Kevin Owens starts cracking wise about his weight then the good of this week’s RAW will be undone. And that was the story of RAW in 2015; a good episode focused on the reality of pro-wrestling was immediately followed by an un-watchable variety-show that had nothing to do with the previous week’s focus. This happened so often that it started to seem purposeful, as if the show-runner refused to allow the series to ever get “too serious” or “too real” or “too good”.
I urge the WWE to break that pattern, to deviate from their 2015-norm, and to listen to the argument of their own latest effort.
As Stephanie McMahon walked down the entrance ramp, my first thought was, “Oh no…another fifteen minute Authority promo”. Just as my eyes started to roll, Roman Reigns’ music hit, cutting her off. This seemingly small break fundamentally transformed RAW into a program where anything could happen. The WWE manipulated my smarky brain, refusing to let me get too comfortable with my preconceived notions. This kind of environment draws viewers in because the viewer cannot rely upon their past experiences to prejudge what’s currently on the screen.
Roman Reigns cutting off Stephanie’s arrival with his own, more spectacular arrival is an act of subtle defiance that’s also more in keeping with his character than his previous interactions with Stephanie. Roman portrays “the strong silent type” incredibly well when scenes are booked around this strength. It doesn’t make sense for Roman to crack-wise and say things like “You guys want to see her really get mad?”, and then turn his back on Stephanie in the most milquetoast rebellion imaginable.
Roman tells a story with his eyes and his body language and his grace of motion.
Interrupting Stephanie’s entrance, breezing past her to stand on the turnbuckle and raise his title, is the kind of PG-rebellion that actually builds his character and demonstrates a degree of confidence and strength.
His comment, “We don’t need you out here, Steph” forms a bond with the audience in a far more effective fashion than the previous week’s comment, “But they don’t want me to leave!”
The latter comment is deferential and passive, something a child would say.
The former, “We don’t need you out here” is confident, declarative, and something an athlete would say. Roman Reigns is not a character who seeks the approval of the audience (why would he? He certainly doesn't look like he needs our help); he’s a man on a mission, and his focus and his determination builds support over time. His acknowledgement of that support need never extend beyond the occasional fist bump he offers or declarative statements that incorporate the word “We”.
Although in the past I've written that unnecessary mentions of his "family" fail to humanize him in the way the WWE wishes, this week, Roman weaved his family into the WWE Championship in a manner that finally gave the belt some significance upon his shoulder.
"This is my life" he proclaimed. And it was believable. It felt less like Roman was working his way to the next line, and more like he was speaking his truth. Suddenly, when Roman Reigns defends the WWE World Heavyweight Championship, he's defending his life. Now his matches matter more than they ever have before thanks to one simple, sincere phrase.
This entire episode showcased Roman Reigns in the manner he deserves to be; short, intimidating promos, a consistently steely-eyed stare, no smiling or laughing, stiff ring-work, and quick bursts of unexpected brutality.
Smarks may like to think up excuses for why the San Antonio crowd was chanting “Roman! Roman! Roman!” that diminish his ability (he’s the lesser of two evils, anyone can get cheered going against Vince McMahon etc, etc), but that crowd was sincerely chanting for Roman, and it’s because good booking that plays to a performer’s strengths and offers something unexpected produces positive results.
The main event itself contained a moment that exemplified the value of the unexpected. After realizing Vince McMahon had no intention of “calling the match clean”, Roman moved to set Sheamus up for The Spear. He yelled at Vince, telling him to watch, as if his Spear to Sheamus would be symbolic of what he wanted to do to Mr. McMahon and The Authority. Roman, and many wrestlers, make these suggestions, often saying things to a ringside rival like, “Watch what happens” or “This is for you”. After charging forward, Roman stopped midway, spun around and gave Vince McMahon another Superman Punch. Roman sold this swerve incredibly well, luring the viewer into thinking he was going to Spear Sheamus to “show Vince what’s what!” As the match disintegrated into chaos, Roman Reigns once again reverted into a red-eyed beast-warrior eager to destroy everything in sight, even knocking Stephanie McMahon down using her own father as a javelin.
Where last week Roman Reigns seemed an unsympathetic prankster laughing at a senile old man’s misfortune, this week it didn’t matter whether or not Roman Reigns was sympathetic. Vince indeed appeared hapless, weak, crazy, and old, but that didn't make Roman seem any less heroic or powerful. The intrigue of Roman Reigns is in watching him take action against his enemies, not in assessing the morality of his actions. That’s the difference between Roman’s character and Cena’s character, a character for more mature audiences and a character for children.
So long as WWE stays the course, not just with Reigns, but with the rest of the roster, 2016 could be a great year for the company. RAW simply needs to remain in keeping with the inherent appeal of pro-wrestling.
For the most part, this episode did and there were moments that were genuinely enjoyable to watch. Rivalries like Charlotte & Becky Lynch and Dean Ambrose & Kevin Owens gained some much-needed steam headed into a revitalized SmackDown and the upcoming Royal Rumble pay-per-view. Another millennial-hipster-post-post-ironic-jobber-stable in the form of The Social Outcasts was born. Chris Jericho returned, declaring his entry in The Royal Rumble. The New Day did their thing, mocking the PG-Era with their unique brand of psychedelic forth-wall-shattering Lisa Frank weirdness.
And Vince McMahon, resolute as ever in his desire to get Roman Reigns over, has booked The Royal Rumble match to be a contest for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship instead of the traditional means of determining the no.1 contender for the title at 'Mania.
This is sure to upset a lot of WWE fans. The impulse is to doubt this decision, to see it as another transparent attempt to create an "impossible situation" for Roman to “overcome”.
Upon consideration, I welcome the unexpected change to this year’s Rumble.
The WWE is in sore need of change. While the change it needs is much deeper than re-writing the rules of one of its greatest traditions, at least we’re going into the Rumble with new thoughts and new feelings. We haven’t had to think about a booking decision in a while. We haven’t had to consider an announcement in a while.
Usually, we either know what’s coming due to a leak or we can see straight through a story to its easily predicted, wonky finish. After Vince McMahon announced that Roman would defend his title against twenty-nine other superstars, I realized that I had to change the way I thought about this pay-per-view. I couldn’t snarkily, passively roll my eyes at an easily predicted conclusion. I couldn’t so easily dream up scenario after scenario about how it would inevitably disappoint me.
Unlike the majority of pay-per-view main events in 2015, this Royal Rumble is not a “monster of the week” episode where the main-event participants quickly vanish from programming the next night or go their separate ways without much consideration. This will be a significant chapter in a long-form story.
This is a story about Roman Reigns being forged in the fires of athletic hell (if they continue booking it that way). It's not the story of an "underdog overcoming the odds" or a "rebellious employee" stirring up trouble; it's the story of a lone warrior taking on an entire army and it should stay that way so as to avoid easily drawn comparisons to more beloved angles.
Behind the scenes, I suspect Vince McMahon wants to tell the story about how he changed people’s minds and got Roman Reigns over at the same event where he was booed out of the building the previous year. That could be a compelling real-world story, but it’s more important to tell the fictitious WWE-story about how Roman Reigns journeyed to hell and a returned hardened champion. This Royal Rumble should be less concerned with answering criticisms about last year’s conclusion and more concerned with creating an interesting, believable, powerful WWE World Heavyweight Champion who can hold the title with pride as he journeys into WrestleMania.
A number one contender for the WrestleMania main event will inevitably be decided, (perhaps by default at the conclusion of The Royal Rumble match) so I'm unconcerned that a PPV we look forward to every year has suddenly changed, especially considering that the past two traditional Rumbles ended in disaster.
Although there’s no guarantee this year will be different, the fact that it’s being booked in a fundamentally different way creates, at the very least, the possibility for something new and exciting to happen.
And that’s what we need in the WWE.