It shouldn’t come as a surprise that this week’s Monday Night Raw is an okay go-home show. There’s a pretty common theme running through just about every review of a go-home show here at The A.V. Club: WWE is very bad at them. From the segments to the matches and booking, it always seems like WWE does everything it can to make sure its audience has no reason to tune in to whatever PPV is airing that month. Tonight’s lead-in to Survivor Series isn’t nearly as dreadful as past go-home shows though. Sure, it still sees reluctant teams thrown together in the hopes that they’ll work together by the time Sunday arrives, but the formula isn’t quite the same. Tonight’s Raw shakes things up enough that even if it doesn’t quite work as a stellar go-home show, it does work as a fine episode of Monday Night Raw.

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If you only tuned in to the opening of Raw, you’d be forgiven for thinking that the night would progress in a typical fashion. Stephanie McMahon and Mick Foley are once again in the ring, with all the Survivor Series participants gathered on the stage, to work through some catchphrases and exposition. That’s Raw’s signal that this is going to be another predictable go-home show, but after some flubbed lines—we see you trying, Mick—things do pick up. A few matches are announced, and they’re just different enough to pique some interest. Rather than matching the heels against the faces, Steph and Mick mix and match the teams, leading to the night’s first fight: Sheamus and Cesaro vs. Kevin Owens and Roman Reigns.

Having a night filled with reluctant tag team matches might not sound great on paper, but the first match really solidifies the storytelling for the rest of the evening. What works is the fact that Raw moves away from the “can everyone get along?” trope and instead just focuses on putting on some fun matches. Call them “house show” matches if you want, but a lot of tonight’s tag team matches do what they’re supposed to: be a fun showcase for the talent. The first match is pretty much perfect for that, but it’s also got its issues, and their indicative of what WWE is largely doing wrong with Raw at the moment. When Kevin Owens pops into the frame during Roman Reigns entrance, holding the Universal Championship up to the camera, it’s a reminder of just how poorly Raw is treating him. We’ve been through this before with Rollins: Owens has been neutered, barely allowed to be the most important part of his own show. It’s frustrating to watch Reigns continue to be the highlight of every segment; he’s basically treated like he’s the Universal Champion, and it’s appalling. Sure, the match is fun and kicks off the night well enough, but the bigger issues remain clear. Reigns is still infallible, and it’s past the point of being exhausting.

I mean, just look at how Smackdown! Live is treating its champion, AJ Styles. He’s wrestling like he always has—no concern in regards to him looking too good to be a heel—while also feeling like a representative of the brand and the best wrestler on the roster. Owens has no such claim to fame. Yes, Owens is doing tremendous work with the smaller details, and his run with Y2J is immensely delightful each and every week, but there’s so much potential there that’s being wasted. Raw is having a lot of trouble defining and legitimizing its main event scene, and a big part of that is the lack of work put into making sure Owens looks like a true champion. WWE doesn’t seem to understand that even though Owens was handed the title by Triple H, he can still look like a total badass. He’s the dude who beat John Cena in his first main roster match! What happened to that counting for something? What happened to using that fact to build him into a force? The Universal Championship should have emboldened Owens; instead, like Rollins before him, he’s now largely a chickenshit champion.

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So, those issues can’t be ignored, but those are problems that carry over from week to week; at the very least, this Raw gives us something different. There are a number of fresh matchups. Sami Zayn takes on Bo Dallas after the former takes issue with Zayn’s title shot at Survivor Series, and it’s a perfectly-booked match between former NXT Champions. Dallas gets to make his newfound aggression look legit against a worthwhile competitor, but Sami still gets the win and the momentum heading into the PPV. It’s neat and tidy, qualities that Raw doesn’t embrace all that often. Then there’s the second reluctant tag match, which sees New Day face off against Y2J, Seth Rollins, and Braun Strowman. Once again the success of the match relies on not leaning too heavily on the in-fighting, but just letting the performers be themselves. It makes everyone look like a million bucks, especially Braun Strowman, who really is coming into his own during this build to Survivor Series.

As fresh as most of the matchups are, and as solid as the first 90 minutes or so is, the rest of Raw still embodies much of the show’s problems of late: finding depth and spark in anything outside the main event. Raw spends so much time on Rollins, Owens, Y2J, and (unfortunately) Reigns, that the rest of the card can feel rather inconsequential. So no matter who’s in the ring for a tag team match, from Sasha Banks and Charlotte to Enzo and Big Cass, it’s hard to muster up any enthusiasm. Thankfully, all the enthusiasm is saved for the segment that finally sells the fight between Brock Lesnar and Goldberg. I’ve been cautiously optimistic about the bout since it was announced, but this segment truly sells the spectacle. From Paul Heyman getting heat by starting his promo over again and again, to Goldberg bringing that signature presence and nearly throwing down with Lesnar, it’s a segment that, no matter how the match pans out on Sunday, is worthy of the hype. This week’s Raw isn’t a great go-home show as a whole, but it’s a solid episode of Raw that moves along the relevant PPV stories better than any other in recent memory.

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As the episode comes to a close, and Team Raw and Team Smackdown! Live beat the hell out of each other, it’s clear that there’s some spark here, some material to be mined in the competition between shows. With any luck Survivor Series will follow through and WWE will learn a valuable lesson from a fairly enjoyable Raw: the in-ring talent drives the story, and there’s a desperate need to keep things fresh. Or not, because Roman Reigns doesn’t take a finisher and his music closes out the show. Raw giveth and it taketh away.

Stray observations

  • Results: Kevin Owens and Roman Reigns defeated Sheamus and Cesaro; Sami Zayn defeated Bo Dallas; Braun Strowman, Chris Jericho, and Seth Rollins defeated New Day; Brian Kendrick defeated Sin Cara; Sasha Banks and Charlotte defeated Alicia Fox and Nia Jax; Gallows, Anderson, Enzo, and Big Cass defeated the Shining Stars and Golden Truth.
  • Kevin Owens was on point with everything tonight: looking bored with his tag partner, mimicking Reigns’ corner taunt, flipping a scarf around his neck, hugging Y2J. He’s working three rungs above the material he’s being given.
  • A match with Sami Zayn is exactly what Bo Dallas needs, even if it’s a loss.
  • What’s with the lingering crowd shots this week?
  • I really can’t figure out why WWE is having its Cruiserweight division, which is defined by guys being good at acrobatic moves, wrestle slow, mat-based matches. It’s truly baffling.
  • I’ve long been a defender of Roman Reigns, even through last year’s build to Wrestlemania, because he’s got a lot going for him. But boy is he super protected. Nobody looks as good as him tonight, and it’s a trend that doesn’t seem to have an expiry date.
  • That final segment had me imagining a Champion vs. Champion program between Styles and Owens with Jericho, and now I’m sad that it can’t happen now.
  • In case you haven’t heard, myself and fellow A.V. Club writer Alasdair Wilkins have a wrestling podcast titled ‘The Story Of Wrestling’ where we examine WWE programming largely from the perspective of TV critics, meaning we talk a lot about storytelling. You should check it out. We’ll have an episode later this week talking about this episode of Raw and the 900th episode of Smackdown! Live, and then one next week where I’ll share all my thoughts about being live at NXT Takeover and Survivor Series this coming weekend.

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