A Raw Awakening

In the midst of a blizzard that wreaked havoc on television production this week, WWE produced a three hour Raw that replayed the entire Royal Rumble, as well as the outstanding Triple Threat match for the WWE Championship that had aired on Pay-Per-View 24 hours prior, all done from inside WWE studios, complete with live interviews that progressed the stories they wanted to tell. And amazingly, despite the emergency nature of the show, this was the most entertaining Raw from start-to-finish in months.

There is are many reasons why Raw won “Worst Television Show” in the Wrestling Observer Newsletter Reader Awards this year, and you’ve read, said, and heard it all before – It’s a three hour mish-mash of distraction finishes, shilling, 50-50 booking and Divas’ matches that are impossible to care about. It’s all true, and it feels so tired. And that’s why Raw this past week was an awakening. The show has evolved throughout the years, and with a writing team forced to churn out so much per week, they rely on formulas, set structures, and a proven format. We feel a general malaise watching the show, largely because that’s what it was written with.

Not so this past week. They were shitting bricks, they had to scramble, they had to work, and they had to get creative because their hand was forced. No doubt in my mind, everything on that show came off stronger for it.

WWE has been executing live wrestling so smoothly for so long now we take for granted that there is certainly more than one way to format wrestling on television. In watching Raw from early 1996, many of the negative elements of today’s product exists then – a lack of stars, dead crowds, an overall flat feeling to the show. But the one thing that slaps you in the face is how much better the focus is. Even with only 42 minutes, the main angles, the wrestlers, the upcoming Pay-Per-View, it’s all promoted so much more efficiently. Part of that is due to Vince on commentary, who is brilliant at explaining what’s what. But even an act as simple as throwing to Jim Ross or Dok Hendrix live from the studio to hype up an upcoming show provides a gravitas we’re currently missing. It’s crazy to me that even with three hours, we rarely get something as elementary as a video montage detailing every match on Sunday’s Pay-Per-View with the announcers talking over the top. There’s no rush at all. They just neglect to do it.

Going back even before the creation of Raw, WWE had Prime Time Wrestling on Mondays, where a moderator (Vince McMahon) would discuss and debate current events in the WWF with a panel of heel and face personalities (Monsoon, Slick, Heenan and Perfect), and they would throw to matches and interviews that supplemented the conversation.

ECW Hardcore TV is another classic example, and Joey Styles was superb in his role as the man to explain the narrative from the studio. You still got the great promos, the exciting matches, the crazy atmosphere and all the hype, but you have somebody giving you the context, and a chance to understand what we were supposed to feel. Raw never does that now. We never get context on Raw. We’re always moving on, plugging the next thing, shilling the next product, joking around, all of which gives a lesser sense of consequence to what we see, and thus, less emotional investment in return from the audience.

It was amazing to see how much better Michael Cole was in this setting than he usually is on Raw. There was so much more focus to his performance, because he had a clear mission in every segment. It was an extra wake-up call to see how useful a personality Renee Young is as a conversational interview, rather than asking one question and holding a mic for sixty seconds, looking pretty.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not suggesting that Monday Night Raw should be transformed back into Prime Time. But this blizzard forced WWE to prove that they could do a show that did promotion and got talent over outside their typical close-minded formula, and they did it with an ease and style that defied belief when you consider what we usually get on Mondays. Ultimately, there is a place for this type of show in the landscape. Wrestling fans want to be taken on a ride, to get caught up in a story. On Raw, despite being painfully long, there’s no ride to jump on. Tell us a damn story.

So, why not give Smackdown a facelift? Nothing happens on that show anyway, it’s currently the most missable show on the WWE docket. But with some good talkers, cool video packages, matches with a purpose, and set-pieces along the lines of what we saw on Monday, it could be more than enjoyable – it could be damn valuable. The WWE hasn’t shot a major angle on Smackdown in forever, so you’re losing nothing by taking the all-live format away, and you have a chance to give some rhyme, reason and context to what’s happening in the WWE. They could tape Smackdown the exact same way they do right now, and the stuff from the studio adds what it’s currently missing anyway, and that’s importance. You have absolutely nothing to lose.

The inherent problem, I suppose, is that you won’t always have a blizzard, and a show with the importance as the night after the Royal Rumble, to force such a focused effort and production. Inevitably, with the structure of WWE television and their writing team, if they were to move to such a format, it could very possibly become lazy and throwaway within four weeks.

But dammit, if they’re not going to try and engage their audience, then they shouldn’t be surprised when their fans’ attention wanders.