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Tim Kail's Raw Review

Jun 23, 2018

 
For the first time in several months I endeavored to watch a (partially) complete episode of Monday Night Raw via Hulu. What began as a curiosity inspired by Ronda Rousey, quickly transformed into a curiosity inspired by what I can only describe as uniquely bad television.
 
I marveled, mouth agape, eyes ever-widening, at the sheer magnitude of the badness. The writing. The directing. The cinematography. The blocking. The motivations of the characters. The commentary. And, especially, the acting in backstage segments. All so stunningly bad.
 
The only thing that wasn't bad about the show was the actual wrestling (and the aforementioned Ronda Rousey). The wrestling is always good because good wrestlers tend to be good at wrestling. No surprise there. It's everything else about Raw that represents the unique badness.
 
You should know, up front, that I do not write this to hurt Raw, to hurt the WWE, to hurt its staff, to hurt its wrestlers, or to even hurt its legion of beleaguered writers. I also don't write this to vent any of my own frustrations because I'm not invested enough in the current product to be frustrated.
 
I derive no pleasure from this show being bad nor from stating that it is bad.
 
I write this because I believe there is actual value in accurately identifying terrible art as terrible art when that terrible art has fundamentally re-wired an audience's expectations of what qualifies as "a thing worthy of an audience".
 
It's nothing new to claim "Raw is terrible", but not enough time is spent considering the harm the show does to the minds of its viewers and, more importantly, the harm the show does to the medium of pro-wrestling itself.
 
Raw is more than just "bad television".
 
Raw (at least the episode I watched this week) does not qualify as "a thing worthy of an audience", and yet it serves as the ultimate, mainstream ambassador of all things wrestling. That's not good for wrestling, nor wrestling fans.
 
The only way for Raw to qualify as "something worth watching" is for me to accept the WWE's warped standard of worthiness. That standard starts and stops with the fact that Raw merely exists. I am supposed to place my faith in the inherent value of longevity, and then derive satisfaction from Raw's persistence more than I'm supposed to care about whether or not it's actually any good.
 
It's like a bad, tenured professor. He doesn't really show up to teach, but he's a fixture of the institution because of some important paper he wrote decades ago. I signed up for his class because of all the good stuff I heard, and that one lecture I liked, but now I'm just here, in this rapidly emptying classroom, wondering what I'm doing with my life.
 
As a result, I believe Raw is doing a disservice to our actual brains, effectively lowering even our lowest standards of quality without us fully realizing it. It brainwashes us into listlessly watching and accepting scenes that are so poorly written and poorly performed they'd leave any average person feeling a little embarrassed.
 
That's ultimately how I felt after watching Bayley try to chase down Sasha Banks in the backstage area after their "blow up" in the ring. Bayley kept pleading with Sasha, pawing at her arms like a weak child as Sasha kept refusing, ultimately driving off in a car to leave Bayley staring awkwardly into the distance.
 
This tangential drama began in the locker-room where Bayley consoled Sasha after her loss at Money in the Bank (while simultaneously reminding viewers they could watch Money in the Bank on their phones). From then on, I just felt bad for everyone involved because there was no way for any of it to be good television. It was the kind of earnest, yet irredeemably bad acting common in high school plays and freshman year student films. The basic concept of why the characters were struggling was never clear. The motivations of the characters were never clear, and so these characters did not possess any discernible identity. The filming techniques and the scripting were equally amateurish, making it that much harder for a good performance to even be possible.
 
 
They were like colorful marionettes moving their eyes and mouths and limbs in vague impersonations of humanity, as corresponding sounds emanated from their bodies. It had the same tone of unintentionally terrible movies, but it had none of the joy that defines the appeal of such movies. 
 
The only way to explain why any of this happened between Sasha and Bayley (and I know some readers are just itching to do so) is to be so accustomed with the motions of Raw that you're able to accurately interpret the intent of those vague bursts of sound and color. Basically, wrestling fans have seen wrestling simulate this kind of "friendship falling out" scenario so many times that they don't really need to see or hear much detail to get all they need. And wrestling fans are so accustomed to this bullet-point style of storytelling that they're unaware of how ineffective it is for anyone not already indoctrinated into the fandom. I suppose any average viewer with a modicum of observational ability could assume Sasha is "the mean one" and Bayley is "the nice one", but that's not a safe assumption given it's impossible to know anything about their history if one watches this scene in isolation. And neither of them seems especially mean or especially nice. Bayley, "the nice one", attacks Sasha the instant she doesn't get a response she likes, after all. It just doesn't make sense outside of pro-wrestling's low threshold for "making sense".
 
The same could be written for every scene involving Kurt Angle, and the convener belt of identityless superstars who wandered in and out of his static, waist high GM-camera angle. Each of these performers offered their own strained attempt at articulating their portion of the script, doing their best with what they had been given, all while appearing to have forgotten how to be.
 
Kurt's story centered on the fact that he couldn't "get control of the show". His commitment to conveying that idea was obvious and even somewhat amusing, but it's impossible for that idea to be fully realized when all of his scenes take place in locations that have been lit and blocked in Raw's precise backstage-segment aesthetic (which is not so much an aesthetic as it is bad filmmaking). The emotional turmoil he's experiencing is not reflected in the visuals, and so his emotional turmoil rings hollow. Often on Raw words like "chaos" and "mayhem" will be used to describe events that lack any semblance of either. Commentary and characters just repeat such words in an effort to convince the audience of what they say.
 
Finn Balor, an excellent wrestler and interesting person, smiles with an unnerving commitment to the expression. It's as though the company thinks the audience would forget he's "the good guy" if he didn't smile.
 
He looks like he's in pain. He's not alone either. Each performer appears to be trying to hit a very specific yet completely elusive target, their stiff movements, gestures, statements, and expressions all informed by a sad sense of desperation.   
 
 
All of these characters could have literally grunted and cooed like Sims, and the end-result (in the viewer's mind) would have been exactly the same. I don't fault the wrestlers for this (although I struggle, at times, to understand why they would continue participating in such terrible art). They're wrestlers, not actors. Grunting and screaming and simulating big emotions works great in a wrestling ring.
 
Given the persistence of this badness, it's a wonder anyone still watches this television show, right?
 
Well, not really. Raw still provides good wrestling, and it still provides the vague trappings of a thing wrestling fans think they want from the WWE. The badness becomes a reluctant yet necessary concession for the fan, an element of WWE-viewership that people either learn to tolerate or ignore.
 
Or the badness drives viewers away completely.
 
There are really only two ways to justify watching Raw despite how objectively terrible the show remains. The first is simple, and it's something I understand wholeheartedly: the ritual of watching itself is entertaining, often far more entertaining than whatever is watched, and the act of participating in that ritual provides a reason to keep coming back.
 
The second way (which is rarer) is to mount an earnest defense of the show, even if one knows it's bad, and rationalize why it's somehow "okay" for it to be the way it is.
 
I contend that such a defense is only possible if one is seeing the show through Raw-goggles; a kind of drunkness that permits oneself to participate in the active lowering of their own taste-level and standards.
 
And I don't write that in the snobby, "Can you imagine the level of mind that watches wrestling" sort of way. I love wrestling, and Raw does do good things (it even did some good things in this episode). I mean that all of us, whether we subsist on a diet of mental junkfood or feast on psychological ambrosia, have a kind of internal barometer, an innate ability to distinguish between good and bad.
 
We develop our individual value system based upon that gut-mechanism, and that value system becomes the foundation for our thoughts, opinions, and tastes.
 
I believe Raw's unique badness reaches directly into our souls, and breaks that mechanism.
 
It ruins our ability to distinguish between "great", "good", "bad", and "downright unworthy of our time". The show does wrong by our minds, no matter who we are, and it convinces us that it's okay for something so bad to exist. Or (and this is a clever little trick) the WWE tickles our exposed wrestling-fan nerves by making us feel as though it's us against the world. Our loyalty to the art and the joy it provides are weaponized against us.
 
The idea of our fandom becomes more important to us than whether or not our time is being wasted by a television show we should just turn off.
 
"Yeah, it's bad sometimes, but I'm having a great time with my wrestling friends because I love wrestling and I get it, and screw you, world! When it's good, it's really good! Wrestling isn't fake!"
 
That's the same point of view I remember Don Draper, a great character from a great show, rejecting when research suggested "living dangerously" could be an effective marketing strategy for selling cigarettes.
 
 
The WWE takes your pure, basic desire to watch good wrestling, and injects into it something corrosive; a willingness to regard substandard television as normal.
 
Why is this kind of badness, even if we're being nice and call it "kitsch", so normal in pro-wrestling?
 
We don't tolerate it in other forms of entertainment. When shows get bad we turn them off. When movies get bad we forget them or walk out of the theater. But, with wrestling, we stick around. Why?
 
We just shrug if we notice something is terrible and chalk it up to "wrestling being wrestling", or we don't even notice it because we are in it with our drunk-wrestling-goggles firmly in place. You might think that wrestling has just "always been this way", but that's not entirely true. Yes, the carnivalesque nature of the business has always been there, but strains of seriousness and self-respect have informed professional wrestling at various times in various ways. And let's ask ourselves, honestly, when is pro-wrestling really at its best? 
 
Just think of the greatest matches ever - are they objectively terrible and silly and not taking themselves seriously? Why is it that the goodness of wrestling is doled out piecemeal where the badness is never in short supply?
 
The vision of Raw's showrunner, and the dominant force in wrestling, is squarely to blame. If he thought wrestling needed to be better...it simply would be.
 
It may sound reductive to pin all this badness on the taste of one flawed genius, but consider the influence that one person has had on an entire medium the past four decades.
 
I don't believe it's a conscious effort on Vince McMahon's part to "make wrestling bad". I just think his particular taste-level, his particular value-system (and the values of the people he surrounds himself with) inevitably becomes our value system.
 
Why?
 
Simple - we've been absorbing his version of wrestling for the majority of our lives. What he thinks it should be becomes what we expect it to be. And it's not as though the larger "general public" who doesn't watch wrestling thinks wrestling is any good. They think it's pretty dumb, and when they turn on Raw, and it's terrible television, their preconceived notion is confirmed and so wrestling remains "a dumb, fake soap opera for men".
 
McMahon's vision becomes inescapable because there hasn't been a competing vision of wrestling since the 80s. Literally my entire life, all I've known is Vince McMahon's version of wrestling as the medium's default mode. Even his stiffest competition in the 90s existed in the shadow of his pyro-filled melodramatic take on the medium. 
 
That process has had a negative effect on the audience's ability to judge and appreciate wrestling, and it has kept wrestling buried in the discount DVD-bin of the pop culture consciousness regardless of whatever mainstream success it has ever enjoyed.
 
 
And before any readers rush forth in the name of Lucha Underground, New Japan Pro-Wrestling, or any other promotion that purports to respect its audience, it's not like those promotions are bastions of consistent, unabashed quality either. No promotion escapes the disease of wrestling's low self esteem, and no promotion is popular enough to challenge the WWE's stranglehold on public consciousness.
 
We've been conditioned, many of us for our entire lives, to regard wrestling as a sometimes great, sometimes abysmal, often silly soap opera for men. It shouldn't even bother trying to be better than that because it's too busy being "sports entertainment". In fact, if it tried to be better, it wouldn't be itself anymore. We internalize that way of thinking so thoroughly that it becomes the way we discuss, evaluate, understand, and create wrestling.
 
That limiting and disrespectful perspective frames pro-wrestling as "something inherently lesser", and when that perspective becomes normal so too does this unique badness become normal.
 
I could only appreciate how abnormally bad this latest episode of Raw was after having spent the past four months watching film & television and playing video games (of various genres and styles) that were of a certain objective quality. Even the film, television, and videogames I experienced that weren't very good all possessed a basic degree of creative competence.
 
Raw lacks even that basic competence. 
 
That sad reality is confirmed not only by other media, but by many of the WWE's own products. I turned on NXT: Take Over Chicago the same night I watched this awful Raw, and I marveled, mouth agape, eyes ever-widening...but for all the right reasons.
 
Excellence defined everything I saw at Take Over, and there was no self-conscious chip on its shoulder preventing it from ascending to a place of unapologetic goodness.
 
That demonstrates to me that goodness still resides within the soul of professional wrestling. It's buried, but it's there, and all it needs is a little push.
 
 
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