Jan 16, 2019
I skimmed this week's Raw, and came away feeling...weird.
This was, at the very least, a new emotional response.
I felt less like I was watching WWE's flagship series and more like I was watching a parallel universe's vague facsimile. It’s not that I think the booking decisions were bad or that the performances were totally bad. I'm especially encouraged by the introduction of the Women's Tag Team Championships and The Universal Title match shake-up that pits Finn Balor against Brock Lesnar.
It's that ever since Raw acknowledged, in-narrative, its failings a few weeks back, the show has veered into an even more creatively convoluted universe where common fan-criticisms both are and aren’t addressed.
For example, fan favorite wrestlers may get better match-opportunities and more interesting promo settings (in-ring, in-gorilla, direct address), but those matches are still announced after an overlong opening segment and those promos are still heavily scripted and awkwardly delivered.
Topics like Seth Rollins “carrying Raw” and Vince McMahon never believing in wrestlers like Finn Balor are routinely discussed by WWE fans online. While it’s interesting such topics are now discussed on the show that inspired them, by the characters who inspired them, it remains to be seen whether or not the cause of those discussions is genuinely considered.
Raw openly acknowledges WWE’s problems (or, better put, Raw openly acknowledges the fan’s negative perception of various aspects of the real-world company), but Raw doesn’t actually do anything to fix those problems.
While it’s true, in life, the first step towards fixing a problem is acknowledging it, in terms of a television show like Raw, simply acquiescing to the fact that “Raw sucks” doesn’t actually contain any intrinsic value.
That acknowledgement may provide a brief, visceral satisfaction for disenfranchised fans, but it doesn’t increase the watchability of the show. It's still three hours. It's still overwritten. It still has a late-90s aesthetic. It still lacks authenticity and visual competency.
WWE's creative team has the power to address these problems however they see fit. The McMahon family didn't need to appear on Raw as a "united front" and frame the show's failings as "absentee management" in order to improve it. In the real world, behind the scenes, they needed to just make tangible decisions that addressed valid criticisms, and then allowed fans to naturally experience the fruits of that labor.
To have the show’s low ratings, disgruntled employees, and frustrated fans woven so deeply into the fabric of its overall fictional universe (and not merely contained within a single angle) creates a sense that every on-screen performer is doing their best to answer a nagging demand destined to go unfulfilled.
There was a claustrophobic degree of self-consciousness in this week's episode, resulting in odd timing and stilted interactions between characters. It's as if the normal cadence of “being human” has been totally forgotten.
That’s why I felt as though I was staring into a funhouse-mirror universe - everything was slightly...off.
There is a remedy to this problem: wrestling.
Wrestling must be wrestling for it to work - not a symbolic representation of a particular family’s fake-business, nor the means by which a specific subset of fans experience emotional validation.
This latest (incredibly slight) creative pivot from the company does nothing but extract the value of wrestling from wrestling.
It continues the unfortunate trend of making "WWE THE COMPANY" the main character of Raw. This is to the detriment of a highly talented roster who, as an ensemble, could forge a more entertaining identity for the brand. This is also to the detriment of the art of wrestling itself, for it continues to position wrestling as "lesser than", an obligatory pretense in reaction to something larger, rather than the primary reason fans watch at all.
Ironically, this fan-obsessed approach (both the kayfabe & shoot versions of that obsession) works more like a burden than a relief. It's alienating. It trains audiences to place far too much stock in their own emotions, distracting them from the simple pleasures of watching graceful athletes tell resonant stories.
The fanbase becomes as self-conscious as Raw's characters, and the experience of being a WWE-fan mutates into a self-obsessed feedback loop.
Because the company refuses to make any substantive changes to its format (e.g. no more backstage segments, no more 15-minute opening promos, no more GMs nor commissioners, no more McMahon Family Drama), all “change” reads as disingenuous.
We end up watching the same old thing, while being told it’s okay to feel angry about watching the same old thing.
That is a new, and decidedly weird way to watch wrestling.