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
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
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
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
Raw is more than just "bad
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
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
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
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
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
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
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,
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
Or the badness drives viewers
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
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
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
Why is this kind of badness,
even if we're being nice and call it "kitsch", so normal
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
Raw lacks even that basic
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
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
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
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