Let’s not mince words: Raw has been plain bad lately. It’s not entirely WWE’s fault, to be fair—a lot of their main attractions are out, either on injury (Orton, Rollins, Bryan, Cesaro) or filming extracurricular projects (Cena). In the past this would be a prime opportunity for WWE to build new stars, throwing some of their more promising prospects into the deep end and seeing if they can swim. But in the “What else are you gonna watch?” era, WWE tends to stay the course and continue their strange dance of relying heavily on their audience of hardcore fans who will watch basically no matter what while at the same time writing a show that alienates those fans.
We have an unhealthy relationship of contempt with our own fans on Monday nights, MAGGLE!
There are a lot of mechanical problems within WWE, the writing being chief among them. One of the larger issues brought up lately is the “50/50 club,” a phrase coined by Dave Meltzer to describe the even-Steven booking that seems to permeate the mid card in WWE. While WWE focuses on one or two main event guys, everyone else languishes in the middle of the card, trading wins back and forth with each other. Sure, you can easily have good matches in this formula, and oftentimes we do—despite the injuries, the roster is still full of talented wrestlers. The problem is these matchups are only storyline driven in the loosest definition of the word, and the fans have been conditioned to know the matches on Raw rarely matter. Smaller guy gets a big upset victory on Raw? Don’t worry, he’ll be brought back down to Earth by losing to the same guy on Smackdown.
Pro wrestling often gets compared to comic books. They’re both storyline driven mediums using featuring larger-than-life characters who usually have a clear alignment and motivation.
So imagine if an arc in Batman went like this: Batman is doing something inconsequential. Joker attacks him for reasons that are never explained. The two have one fight every issue for the next five issues, where Batman wins one, Joker wins the next, and so on until Batman wins the fifth one and both guys just sort of forget about the beef and move onto other issues in their lives. Nothing is learned, nothing changes, and neither one is any closer to any sort of goal they may have had. That would be one crappy comic, right?
This “style” of booking makes up most of WWE programming. Wyatt and Cena traded wins a couple years ago until they both just moved onto other feuds. Same with Ambrose and Wyatt. Ziggler and Breeze do the same thing currently, and except for New Day, the tag team division is composed almost entirely of this. It’s impossible to gain momentum when no one gets the upper hand for more than one episode before evening off. No one is buried, but no one is elevated either.
It’s no surprise, then, that when several key main event players go down, it’s nearly impossible for anyone else to credibly take their spot. When Shawn Michaels had to take a four year leave of absence in 1998, Stone Cold Steve Austin was on a meteoric rise and fit into that top spot easily. When Austin went down with an injury, The Rock and Triple H were built strongly enough that it was easy to shift the title program to them. When Rollins and Cena are out, WWE is left with a sea of mid carders with little credibility, and one guy they are hellbent on pushing even though it isn’t working out as well as they may have hoped.
That means in quick order we are faced with a program where Sheamus is World Heavyweight Champion, after months of feuding with Randy Orton over god knows what and being made to look like a total geek on the same show he cashed in his Money in the Bank briefcase. And he’s flanked by King Barrett, whose wins since being crowned King of the Ring in April can be counted on one hand, Alberto del Rio, who never quite reached the levels of stardom he seemed destined to during his first run with the company, and since returning (reportedly for huge money) has been occupied by former nemesis Jack Swagger, who hadn’t been seen on Raw in months. They’re joined by Rusev, who is a victim of start-stop booking ever since his real-life engagement to Lana was made public knowledge by TMZ.
These are the opponents for Roman Reigns, a man who by contrast rarely ever gets pinned cleanly. It’s appropriate that Sheamus is supposedly going to have a role in the upcoming Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles movie, because his team of lackeys may as well be Bebop and Rocksteady—a group of bumbling buffoons who may look imposing on the outside, but never amount to anything of any merit.
To be fair, there are plenty of potential upsides to the newly-dubbed League of Nations stable. All four guys are clearly talented and could really benefit from the focus a main event stable gives them if it’s written correctly. Unfortunately, WWE’s track record with these sorts of things don’t exactly instill confidence.
This week’s episode of Raw was thankfully better than it has been in weeks past, but that’s an incredibly low bar to pass. It’s a bad sign when an absolute bare minimum of plot development is lauded as a good show. The logic in the show is sometimes downright baffling—for instance, why would the League of Nations intentionally get Sheamus disqualified, meaning Reigns won his match and thusly won the title matches for his buddies Ambrose and the Usos (and, strangely, his own title match. That’s right, he won a title shot by winning a match for the title). Wouldn’t the intelligent thing to do be getting Reigns disqualified, stripping the babyfaces of their title shots?
“Let’s cost Sheamus the match and intentionally give our adversaries exactly what this entire episode was built around putting into doubt. That makes sense!”
Never mind that in kayfabe this was the “main event” that for some reason went on at 10pm. Of course the eleven man tag (can honestly say I’ve never seen that before) ended up being the main event, but in storyline that was born out of the events of the Reigns/Sheamus title match. Are we to believe that The Authority booked a Raw that was going to end 40 minutes early? Or that Charlotte vs. Becky Lynch was the ‘planned’ main event?
Pro wrestling is a work and everyone knows it, but what makes it work is the suspension of disbelief. WWE has let the cat out of the bag and that’s fine, but they treat it more like SNL than RAW is WAR. There’s a level of logical consistency that is just plain missing from WWE programming these days, and it leaves even the better episodes of Raw ultimately feeling hollow.
Weirdly, WWE can and should take some cues from its distant cousin: reality television. In a lot of ways, reality TV is pro wrestling; it understands the concept of kayfabe way better, at least. Think about it: everyone knows, or at least heavily suspects, that the drama on a show like Jersey Shore is pre-planned by the producers of the show. It’s up to the housemates/contestants/actors/whatever you want to call them to react as genuinely as possible. And the biggest selling point is that these people do not break their version of kayfabe even outside the realm of the show. Mike “The Situation” still acted like a douchebag and Snooki like a ditz in public appearances. Granted, those are likely large parts of their personalities anyway, but remember, the best wrestling gimmicks are the wrestler’s actual personality turned up to 11.
As funny and shocking as Kofi Kingston saying it’s him and not his character speaking live on Raw, it ultimately detracts from the show. How can I as a viewer believe anything New Day does when Kofi just told me it’s always just his character ultimately reading from a script? I know that going into it, but it’s detrimental to constantly remind me of that fact. Imagine a scathing verbal tirade from Walter White on Breaking Bad, followed up by Bryan Cranston looking into the camera and saying, “hey guys, it’s me, Bryan. Can you believe my character just said that?!”
It’s obviously going to take you out of the element. Raw‘s a show that doesn’t know if it wants to be a drama, a reality show, or a variety show, and instead of being a good version of any of these, it’s a bad version of all of them.
Watching WWE these days is an exercise in supreme frustration. The talent is there for one of the greatest eras in wrestling history—it’s the aversion to risk-taking and the breaking down of the basic fundamentals of what has made wrestling work for over a century that is keeping it from reaching that potential.