WWE has an awful lot of time to fill each and every week. As of now, Raw is really the only show that the majority of viewers tune in for, even while some solid wrestling goes down on the “lesser” shows like Main Event (just ask LaToya) and Smackdown. In just a few weeks that will change, as a brand split is on the way and Smackdown will move to a live show on Tuesdays, complete with its very own distinct roster and storylines. Now, it’s unclear exactly what the final brand split will look like, but it’s worth mentioning right now because logic would suggest that WWE would use the time between now and July 19th to show off the depth of its roster, to get fans excited for a brand split by showing that two extra hours of original programming (no, current Smackdown in its recap form doesn’t count) is not only necessary, but an exciting proposition.

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That makes tonight’s inconsistent Raw baffling for two reasons. First, there’s hardly any wrestling whatsoever, meaning that the men and women who don’t normally get much TV time certainly don’t get any here, which doesn’t do any favors in promoting a brand split. Secondly, this week’s Raw is a go-home show, which means that it once again adheres to certain predictable patterns: lots of talking, very little wrestling, and the wrestling that’s there is just variations of what’s planned for Sunday. It’s one thing to not exhaust your big stars before an important PPV, but it’s another to then fail to craft a compelling three hours.

The bottom line is that WWE still needs to tell stories; they need to string together segments that work in tandem, that build feuds, that hint at layers and various motivations. Too many go-home shows in recent memory hit the pause button before the big show, and it kills all the momentum from the previous weeks. For instance, rather than getting some sort of meaningful dive into the inner-workings of the Women’s division tonight, including a look at how everyone is trying to make a name for themselves before the brand split, WWE churns out another rushed, predictable segment. It’s the old “X has pinned the champion” segment, with Paige making a rare appearance and beating Charlotte while Becky and Natty talk over the three-minute match. It’s a completely useless, DOA segment, and far too indicative of what WWE has been doing with the Women’s division since Wrestlemania.

The larger issue here is that when strapped with three hours of airtime WWE’s inability to balance multiple storylines becomes truly apparent. So, the Women’s division ends up feeling like it exists in a vacuum, removed from the everything else on the show because the company still doesn’t know how to treat its women as more than secondary interests. And it means that unless two wrestlers are fighting each other at the next PPV they likely won’t interact, so the same stories, and therefore same storytelling devices, end up recycled over and over again. There’s nothing fresh or exciting about seeing Dean Ambrose and Chris Jericho wrestle again. There’s nothing fresh about Michael Cole telling us that Sami Zayn vs. Cesaro is interesting because they’re in the same match on Sunday. There’s nothing fresh and exciting about feuds in the Women’s division being built on the champion getting pinned again and again, and looking completely incompetent unless she’s getting outside help.

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A three-hour show makes the common storytelling devices all the more obvious, and the result this week is a sluggish show that doesn’t feel interested in assuring the audience that Sunday’s PPV is a must-watch event. Instead, we’re left with the feeling that we’ve seen this all before, just with different combinations of wrestlers. It’s a shame that so much of the show wastes its time on pointless segments and quick matches because there are some genuinely exciting and inventive moments. As always, New Day are a big part of the inventiveness. They’re the most consistently fresh thing about WWE, and the sudden presence and importance Enzo and Cass, The Vaudevillains, and Gallows and Anderson have pushed them to the next level. The division has some serious competition now and New Day is stepping up their game. The opening segment this week is still too long, but the participants make it work. From Big E and Xavier Woods making fun of Kofi’s Steph Curry sneakers to New Day getting SO PUMPED for Enzo and Cass’s “SAWFT,” there’s originality and purpose running through the whole segment. Plus, there’s layers: Ezno and Cass shared NXT time with The Vaudevillains; New Day appreciate what Enzo and Cass do because they’re cut from similar cloth; the Club is involved with AJ Styles in his feud with Cena. There’s more potential and intrigue in the opening segment than anywhere else in this week’s Raw.

The reason that segment works is because it feels fresh, like something we haven’t necessarily seen before. While WWE may be hitting that talking point a bit too much in order to build up Styles vs. Cena at Money In The Bank—it’s hard not to roll your eyes at the whole “it’s another Wrestlemania” angle—but it’s the honest truth. The contract signing between Cena and Styles is certainly formulaic on paper, but their presence as true stars, and as guys we’ve never seen face off before, allows the segment to be more than just another contract signing. Cena, for all his faults, can still cut one hell of a promo, even if he relies on “bullet” references too much, and AJ has some serious fire in his belly ever since he embraced his darker, more aggressive side. That segment makes me want to watch on Sunday because it’s filled with real motivations, just the right amount of “shoot” promo work, and is more emotionally-charged than any match on the card tonight.

Then there’s everything involving The Shield. Again, it’s all about the layers. Last week’s pre-taped segments did wonders for the feud, showing the shared history of Seth Rollins and Roman Reigns better than any in-ring promo ever could. This week the two head to the Ambrose Asylum for a Shield reunion, and it’s perfect; I mean, Ambrose introduces Rollins as “the scum of the earth,” so how could it not be? There’s Seth once again finding his voice as the angry, entitled, but totally justified heel. There’s Roman keeping his words to a minimum. There’s lingering hurt feelings, anger, passion, and respect coursing through the whole exchange, and that’s all before Ambrose brings up the fact that he could win the MITB ladder match and cash in that very night and walk out WWE World Heavyweight Champion. As Ambrose stands tall at the end of the segment there’s undeniable excitement in the number of options WWE has with these three former Shield members going forward, and that bodes well for the rest of the year. Build feuds on clear motivations and shared history; this isn’t rocket science.

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Going into a transitional period and a brand split, it’s more important than ever that WWE avoid predictability and formula. That means that they need to focus on building talent, highlighting just how deep this current roster of Superstars really is, while also avoiding some of the more rote storytelling tropes they peddle every week. WWE needs more varied matches, fewer main event brawls like tonight, fewer tag matches with reluctant partners just because they’re wrestling each other at the next PPV, and most importantly, they need to treat the Women’s division as if it’s not just an afterthought. Or they could just put Cesaro in the ring and have him execute corkscrew uppercuts in a suit for three hours. The possibilities are endless.

Stray observations

  • Results: Gallows and Anderson, and The Vaudevillains defeated New Day and Enzo and Cass; Paige defeated Charlotte; Sheamus defeated Zack Ryder; Sami Zayn defeated Cesaro; Kevin Owens and Alberto Del Rio defeated the Lucha Dragons; Dean Ambrose defeated Chris Jericho.
  • How weird is it to hear John Cena say “PWG” on Raw?
  • By the way, the best segment was on the preshow and it of course involved Breezeango.
  • The reluctant tag team partner gimmick gets tiring, especially when WWE is building to a multi-man match at a PPV, but Del Rio and Owens certainly know how to deliver.
  • If you don’t pop for that Zayn-Cesaro finish then you have no soul.
  • “What does Chris Jericho sound like when he falls off a ladder?”
  • Kane was on Raw. That’s all.
  • I’m sure somebody in the comments can list all the joke names Xavier and Big E gave Kofi’s Steph Curry shoes, but the best of the bunch may have been “The Orthopeezys.”
  • Enzo Satchmo.
  • One day Ezno and Cass and New Day will get their verbal joust on and we’ll all ascend to heaven on Cass’s shoulders. I can’t wait.
  • Dana Brooke costing Charlotte the match by throwing her back in the ring was a nice touch, but it’s still a finish that contributes to the idea that WWE has no idea how to tell a story in the Women’s division.

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