It’s disheartening.

That’s the best way I can think to completely describe this week’s edition of Monday Night RAW. The show was doomed from the start for two reasons: It’s a WWE go-home show and it’s a WWE show live from Corpus Christi, Texas. Neither of those reasons actually excuses WWE for its terrible showing with this week on RAW, but the odds were never in this episode’s favor.

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Go-home shows are just not modern day WWE’s forte. That technically shouldn’t be the case when the entire point of wrestling (in this particular context) is to lead to the pay-per-views, but as WWE runs out of creative steam by the time it gets to these shows, whatever good will there may have been in the build-up to said pay-per-view usually fizzles out. “The pay-per-view is on Sunday, so everybody just chill out” is the impression that these go-home shows give off, not necessarily with regards to the ring work (see: Sami Zayn versus Sheamus and even Rusev versus Roman Reigns) but in terms of actual storytelling on WWE Creative’s front. John Cena, for all of his more frustrating qualities, is the WWE’s master of the go-home show recap and this week’s RAW could really use his handiwork. Because while Paul Heyman is also a master of the same art, he has the task of hyping up a match that honestly doesn’t need the hype—while the rest of the show has to sink without that.

And with a go-home show that takes place with a crowd like this one’s, you really, really need that go-home show master recapper.

You see, Corpus Christi is a notoriously terrible WWE crowd in this first place, and this week’s RAW proves it’s for good reason. Typically, the argument for a weak crowd is that WWE gives them nothing to care about in the first place, but after years of Corpus Christi stops, it’s obvious that WWE just plans accordingly when it comes to this town. Corpus Christi crowds tend to be a quiet bunch, only not in the respectable Japanese wrestling fan way. They also find it nearly impossible to coordinate a chant when they finally get the idea to get on board with one (outside of “WHAT,” the ultimate sign of terrible wrestling fan tendencies). These may sound like generalizations you could put on any bad crowd, but just go back to any Corpus Christi RAW or SmackDown! in the past few years, and you’ll see it. But aside from going to Corpus Christi again, the biggest misfires on this week’s RAW—which also take up the most segments—come from the stories of two men who should technically be RAW’s aces and the ones to fill that aforementioned go-home show master roles, Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns.

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Before I continue, let me just ease into things with a segment that’s completely atonal to the rest of this review and show:

In the case of Rollins, the misfiring is both in the micro and macro when it comes to RAW’s presentation and the build for SummerSlam. On the micro-level, it makes absolutely no sense that “The Man,” the Superstar who was RAW’s number one draft pick, and supposedly the face of the brand has nothing to do other than go “Demon King”-hunting. It’s a simple lapse of logic that unravels once you even touch the string: With how hands-on both Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley supposedly are, how do they not have their franchise player scheduled for any segment (whether it be a match with an enhancement talent or another Rollins Report or even a damn contract signing) before he walks into their office? Technically, WWE (both on RAW and the pre-show) advertises Seth’s segment calling out the “Demon King,” but those graphics and announcements never line up with the actual story taking place, in which Stephanie and Mick goad Seth into calling out Finn Balor’s alter-ego in the middle of the ring. The sound guys don’t even know to play Seth’s music until Mick Foley walkie-talkies them the command, which—as nice of a touch as it is to have that kind of demand shown—is the type of “little” thing that this “New Era” should be getting away from. The littlest bits of logic go the longest ways, and in true WWE fashion, they’re the the things that stick out the most when they’re not used.

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As for the actual content… Seth Rollins has a nasally voice. That’s not a criticism, it’s an observation. That nasally voice, however much it may help him as a heel, doesn’t really help him when he’s saying “Demon King.” You know why? Because it sounds far too similar to the “Demon Kane.” Again, that sounds like one of those little things, but when WWE has a buzzword it wants to get over, it’s very difficult to ignore. Because nasally voice or not, Seth Rollins is not the only one who says “Demon King” when referring to Finn Balor’s alter-ego. It’s the commentary, it’s the authority figures, it’s the other Superstars. It’s far less annoying than most other gimmicks (“Lunatic Fringe,” “New Era”) or fads (Tout) that WWE has repeated ad nauseam. In fact, the “Demon King”/”Demon Kane” thing is at least far less egregious than kicking the Diva’s Revolution off with “Submission Sorority.” It’s just that it sounds so much like “Demon Kane,” another buzzword WWE used far too often (with Seth Rollins, especially), it sounds like no one in WWE gave it a second thought before going with it, which is sadly how a lot of things can feel with WWE. And for all of the talk about how WWE comes across to casuals or kids, I guarantee at least a handful thinks (or thought) he was talking about Kane.

Then Seth Rollins comes face-to-face with the “Demon King.” No, WWE doesn’t save the “reveal” for the pay-per-view. They put it on a RAW they knew would have a terrible crowd, and they also make sure to have the “Demon King” and Seth Rollins exchange blows. The mystique of the “Demon King” is gone now. Not just because he appears six days before the pay-per-view but because he appears without even an inkling that his in-ring style is any different when he’s in this mode.

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This is frustrating for one simple reason: The argument that the casual crowd needs to see this version of Finn Balor now because they wouldn’t know what to expect or how to react if the “Demon King” debuted at SummerSlam is bullshit.

Suspense. That’s what these stories are supposed to build. Emotion. Not, “well, that happened.” This is a bad episode of RAW that sometimes has to pretend it’s not because it’s the go-home show. This is a RAW that announces the start of a Best Of Seven series… an otherwise good idea that’s ruined by the fact it’s announced after Sheamus loses (to Sami Zayn, who’s not even on the SummerSlam card), after already losing to his series opponent, Cesaro, twice in a row. The very basic point of WWE’s approach to wrestling is practically failed throughout all three grueling hours of this show. WWE introduces something as big as the “Demon King” (who supposedly is in RAW’s main event for the pay-per-view, unless the plan is to make the Universal Title second to Roman Reigns’ eventual United States Title… reign) on RAW, not at the end of the show but at the start of the third hour. But that’s not even the real reason why the argument that the “Demon King” needed to debut on RAW is flawed.

The real reason is as simple as the fact that Google exists. It’s 2016, not 1996. No one’s demanding that the uninitiated pay for Hulu or the WWE Network in order to see who the “Demon King” is. Though, for all the shilling WWE does, shouldn’t they? But if these people can afford to pay for RAW tickets or WWE t-shirts, can’t they simply Google or YouTube this look? Show clips of the “Demon King” in the video packages. Don’t give away the whole thing for free and make it the character version of having wrestlers fight in order to sell wrestlers fighting (which this RAW does in the main event anyway).

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If Corpus Christi can squeak out a “holy shit” on a lackluster RAW, then a pay-per-view crowd in Brooklyn could have figured it out on their own, and the people paying money to watch this at home could have done the same. The only thing WWE needs to do to have “casual” audiences connect to Finn Balor in all his mythical stunt queen glory is book him better than Bray Wyatt. Plus, the argument that people will be confused by Finn Balor ignores the fact that any casual audience is automatically going to be confused by any wrestling thing at any given moment. Literally everything about wrestling may be confusing at first glance. That’s actually a good part of the hook, as people’s general inquisitive nature can convince them to watch more in order to see why this insane world is the way it is. If someone turned on this week’s RAW for the first time right now and saw the “Demon King,” they’d still be clueless. Why? Because pay-per-views have the benefit of being the culmination of storylines and the time when characters will have the most chance to be explained during commentary. Not some random RAW no one will remember for any good reasons.

At least this storyline doesn’t suffer from terrible, awful characterization and frustrating transparency. That’s where the Rusev/Reigns storyline comes in.

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Last week, WWE reminded its audiences that the act of love between two onscreen talents automatically makes them heel (just like how men who are friends are also gay… and heel because of that), while the person who attacks them for that is somehow the hero. I understand people’s frustration with the interpretation that Rusev (and, by extension, Lana) are the true heroes of their storylines, but at this point… That frustration is nothing compared to the frustration that comes from what is actually depicted onscreen.

Honestly, how in good conscience—or in basic logic, which has begun to sound like an oxymoron when discussing WWE—is Rusev (and Lana) the heel in this feud with Roman Reigns? Rusev says terrible things about “pathetic Americans,” which is bad and a reason to be booed, except that’s not what’s being attacked in this feud. It’s specifically his and Lana’s love. The reason why Lana’s introduction the past couple of months always talks about how Rusev is the only man who can “have” her? In the aftermath of the unimaginative (at best) “WE WANT LANA” chants, Lana denies anyone else from “having” her, of course. (You know what happens when the WWE Universe “has” her? Go watch that Dolph Ziggler angle again.) Maybe I’m just old-fashioned, but you know what? A woman being faithful to her husband should not be considered a reason heel heat. A woman cheating in order for her husband to win? Absolutely—Maryse is well-aware of that. But that’s not what’s happening here, not in the slightest. Roman Reigns has said maybe once in this “feud” that he wants a shot at Rusev’s championship, but nothing’s he actually said or done since actually focuses on the championship (other than the fact he’s in a feud with a champion). As the video packages constantly remind us, Reigns throws out the “zinger” of “just like Lana was expecting more on your wedding night.” He literally calls Lana Rusev’s mail-order bride this week. Why? And why is anyone supposed to cheer this guy, especially when Rusev’s storyline this week is all about defending Lana’s “honor”?

Rusev, of course, loses, because “honor” and love have no place in WWE. Keep in mind, this is a company that now apparently thinks they’re equipped to tackle LGBT storylines with some sense of gravitas. They can’t even write a storyline about a heterosexual couple who are actually together in real life well, unless it’s with the boss’ daughter (and even that started off rocky).

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As for Roman Reigns, this honestly isn’t about his wrestling ability any more. And that’s a problem in-and-of itself, because what’s wrong with him is so much larger than his in-ring ability (which is fine). The question becomes “who cares about his in-ring ability,” because everything else is so dire when it comes to his character, his presentation, and his very presence. Even the more “mark”-based, casual Corpus Christi crowd can’t muster up a reason to chant for him. They chant “USA.” Roman is literally the USA guy insert in this feud, like Titus O’Neil just was, only without a build-up to Uncle Sam attire. And it’s not just a Corpus Christi thing, as he was getting the faint “USA” chants (again, not “Roman” chants) when he first insert himself into Rusev and the United States Championship’s orbit. If that’s still not a sign that whatever WWE is trying to do with Roman isn’t working, then nothing is.

Reigns wins a match (a great match that is also marred by terrible booking—go figure) that shouldn’t even “exist,” both because it effectively kills anticipation for a match six days away and because it paints him as the hero for refusing to apologize for disrespecting another man’s (a colleague’s) wife. Rusev’s character (who is pretty much a “what you see is what you get” kind of guy) doesn’t even want an apology for himself, just for his wife. He’s the villain? Give me a break. The one consistent in Roman Reigns’ character as a singles wrestler is that he’s a selfish guy who doesn’t respect or care about anything. “One Versus All,” you know? As it’s presented, his feud with Rusev isn’t about defending the United States (unlike with John Cena, Mark Henry, Titus O’Neil, or even Jack Swagger). It isn’t even about winning the United States Championship. The story they’re telling is that he just wants to ruin this guy’s life because he has nothing better to do and because he thinks he’s deserving of a shiny belt. That’s “The Varsity Villain” Alex Riley characterization, not the characterization you give your roster’s supposed top babyface. Unless he’s The Rock.

Roman Reigns is not The Rock. He will never be The Rock. No one else will ever be The Rock.

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I started these reviews as a way to view and address WWE programming from a different perspective and with respect to various approaches to wrestling in general. But I can’t see how anyone can watch this and justify the storytelling in terms of basic good guy/bad guy dynamics. I also can’t see how it can do anything to fix what is fundamentally broken when it comes to Roman Reigns as a complete package. Would that we could simply ignore Roman Reigns until he’s “fixed,” but the WWE game is rigged to make him unavoidable in discussions about what is both wrong and right in this company’s approach to storytelling. Roman Reigns winning on this week’s RAW possibly meaning he will lose at SummerSlam doesn’t bring any sort of comfort: Because Roman Reigns winning here is marred by the fact that he opens and closes the show. All of this may be happening while Roman Reigns is feuding for a mid-card title, but make no mistake: Roman Reigns is not in a mid-card feud, and the “push Roman Reigns” experiment is far from over. Seth Rollins—who is supposedly going for the main event title for RAW on SummerSlam—gets taped vignettes, backstage shenanigans, and middle of the show openings.

This—and I’m talking about RAW as a whole now—is not good storytelling. This is not good writing. This is the garbage that vindicates every person who’s going to comment after this review: “Why are you even covering wrestling when you could cover [anything else].” Heath Slater confronting Brock Lesnar on this episode of RAW is truly the most compelling and honest bit of storytelling to come from this three hours of television. That’s a great thing for Heath Slater (who deserves it) and it’s honestly kind of great for Brock Lesnar too, but it highlights that the focal points of the show don’t even have that going for them here. So what is WWE even trying to accomplish? Besides making money, because if this were still the pre-WWE Network days, how would this week’s RAW inspire anyone to spend the $60 to buy this pay-per-view? This week’s SmackDown! Live should probably think about that before it airs.

As for the rest of this RAW, what about it? Like I said : It’s disheartening.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Sami Zayn defeated Sheamus; The New Day (Kofi Kingston & Xavier Woods) defeated The Dudley Boyz; Nia Jax defeated Rachel Levi; Big Cass defeated Kevin Owens (disqualification); The Shining Stars defeated Prime Time Players (with Bob Backlund); Neville defeated Jinder Mahal; The Club defeated Golden Truth; Charlotte defeated Alicia Fox; Roman Reigns defeated Rusev (with Lana)
  • You know who deserves props for trying to breathe life into the Corpus Christi crowd early on and actually kind of succeeding for a bit? Sheamus. He addresses the dead crowd about interrupting his promo (even though, you know, they’re dead), which at least riles them up enough to get with the tired “YOU LOOK STUPID” chant.
  • Speaking of stupid: How about the idiot “fan” who jumped into the ring during Seth Rollins’ promo calling out the “Demon King,” huh?
  • Michael Cole calling a Blue Thunder Bomb a Michinoku Driver again (with Corey correcting him) is tied for his worst call of the night with “Goodness” (twice) during the Rusev/Reigns backstage brawl. The lack of emotion from anyone during what is actually a good brawl is maddening. Rusev is trying to kill a man backstage. Tell stories better on commentary—it’s your fricken job too.
  • Titus O’Neil turning on Darren Young (again!) is the kind of classic, terrible modern day WWE booking I can appreciate on a simpler level. Like Paige still teaming with PCB after turning on them twice. Can’t wait for their pre-show match where Titus will try to tell Darren he’s changed, only to turn on him again.
  • The idiots (I say that with all the affection in the world) talking about testicles get Kofi and Xavier seriously fired up but the Wyatt Family literally trying to murder them did not. That’s all I have to say about that.
  • Byron Saxton has gotten so used to self-righteously calling heels “hypocrites” that he’s completely forgotten what the word means. He calls Charlotte a hypocrite when Dana comes out to help her, only to not have a reason for that (because there isn’t one) when Corey presses him on it. “Duplicitous” may be the word you’re looking for Byron—not “hypocrite.”
  • I’m pretty sure Neville landed on Jinder Mahal’s head twice in this week’s showcase match. Also, I believe it was last week’s Main Event that saw Jinder Mahal versus Sin Cara, and in case you forgot how little Jinder Mahal adds to WWE outside of the rudimentary “evil foreigner” gimmick, you should watch that match. It’s not good, and it’s certainly not Sin Cara’s fault.
  • Maybe the kayfabe reason why Mick Foley favors Roman Reigns over Rusev (who has very valid arguments this week about Reigns’ constant opportunities and the fact that, until SummerSlam, Rusev is the champ of RAW): Foley must think Reigns is The Rock.
  • If you’re forcing a meme, then it’s just not a meme, WWE.

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