(The Internet has made TV criticism more prominent, but the kinds of shows TV critics write about - serialized dramas and single-camera comedies - are rarely the kinds of shows that become popular with a mass audience. Every week, TV Club is going to drop in on one of the top-rated programs in the nation, one that we don't normally cover. What makes these shows popular? Should we be covering them more often? Are our preconceived notions about quality not necessarily following popularity justified, or are we jumping to conclusions? This week, by popular demand, Myles McNutt visits the still-highly-rated halls of the WWE. Next week, Todd VanDerWerff drops in on the surprisingly popular Harry's Law.)
Last September, I ended up at a WWE house show. I hadn’t watched an episode of Monday Night Raw in roughly six years and hadn’t been to a live event in seven. I didn’t know who many of the wrestlers were, I had no idea who held any of the major titles, and I had no clue what kind of ongoing storylines the various matches might have played into.
And yet, the experience felt startlingly familiar. Part of this was the fact that the rhythms of wrestling have never changed, each match falling into predictable patterns as heels dominate faces, faces mount miraculous comebacks, and referees are incapacitated just at the moment when the challenger looks to have defeated the champion.
However, it also felt familiar because I saw my past in the people around me. In front was a young boy with his parents who rushed to the aisle as each wrestler made their way to the ring in hopes of earning a high five. To my left was a group of twenty-something “smarks” who booed the good guys, cheered the bad guys, and heckled the referee by name. I had been in their shoes before, in awe of the spectacle as a child and then embracing my inner cynic as I became perhaps too aware of what went on behind the spectacle.
Looking back on that experience, which I legitimately enjoyed for what it’s worth, I realize that these very different types of fans are more alike than one might think. In both instances, they are caught up in the story: Sure, one follows it verbatim while the other follows it in order to tear it apart, but both are engaged in the WWE’s brand of storytelling.
The WWE is all about momentum and represents one of the purest forms of serialized narratives. The storylines featured in each episode of Monday Night Raw build toward a pay-per-view, but even during the pay-per-view, the seeds are being sowed for the next pay-per-view. This is particularly true in the era of monthly (and sometimes more than monthly) pay-per-views: There was a time when there were only four pay-per-view events (Royal Rumble, Wrestlemania, Summerslam, and Survivor Series), which meant that the storylines were spread out over longer stretches of time. In the modern era, however, there is always a pay-per-view on the horizon, always an “event” that every episode of Raw is driving towards. This is especially true on the “Road to Wrestlemania,” where the Wrestlemania XXVII logo literally hangs in the rafters for wrestlers to glance up at when referring to the upcoming event, as if to say that everything they do is building toward that moment.
It is this momentum that perhaps best explains the WWE’s enduring success. While it is not the cultural phenomenon it was back in the era of Hulk Hogan and the Ultimate Warrior, and the excitement of the Monday Night Wars is gone in an era where Vince McMahon’s brand has no viable competition (sorry TNA), Raw continues to draw impressive demographic ratings for USA Network, numbers that USA’s parent network NBC would kill for on Monday nights. It is consistently one of the week’s Top 10 shows on cable, and at the midway point in the broadcast, Michael Cole refers to it as the “longest-running weekly episodic television show in history."
However, in all honesty, this is the same show that was on the air a decade ago. Structurally, Raw works the same way it has always worked: a series of promos to build storylines directly, a small collection of “TV matches” (of lesser quality than what one might seen on a pay-per-view, so as to maintain the hierarchy that allows the WWE to charge for those events) that reinforce those storylines, and a “main event” which is either a particularly eventful match (tonight denoted by the presence of the formidable steel cage) or a particularly memorable promo (like The Rock’s triumphant return two weeks ago). While this formula is abandoned on rare occasions, you could turn on a random episode of Raw from 2011 or 2001 and get the same basic experience.
It is a formula that works, though. The reason is that it is never truly standing still, always building on that which came before and looking forward to what is about to happen. We can see this particular storytelling device most blatantly in the Divas Battle Royal with current Divas Champion Eve Torres doing color commentary. Torres’ color commentary establishes her opinion on the Bella Twins’ previous actions and her desire to enact some justice, while the result of the match (the Bella Twins using their wiles to emerge victorious as the number one contender for Torres’ title) creates a likely match for Wrestlemania. The whole thing takes roughly two minutes, Torres was barely able to exposit the details of the feud before having to enter the ring to break up the celebration, and the actual wrestling was sloppy and of little value beyond outright ogling.
However, its simplicity reveals how nearly every match or angle in an episode of Raw functions. As someone who hasn’t been following wrestling recently, I was given every piece of information necessary to understand the current event and its future trajectory. It wasn't exactly entertaining, but it was unquestionably functional, which encourages the audience to anticipate the feud's future. It's a strategy on display throughout the episode. Through color commentary, for example, we are reminded that it was Sheamus who put Triple H out of commission for some time, which makes Triple H’s vicious attack against Sheamus (the WWE Champion turned glorified jobber, apparently) both a form of retribution and a potential preview of Triple H's Wrestlemania showdown with The Undertaker (which is featured in various promos throughout the episode). Replays, meanwhile, remind the viewer of necessary information relating to storylines, so that even if you (luckily) missed John Cena and The Miz’s face off in the middle of the show, you know the story behind Cena’s steel cage match with Alex Riley.
Although I am perhaps more cynical than I once was, less likely to become emotionally engaged by the proceedings, I will admit that tonight’s episode of Raw sucked me in. One moment I’m lamenting the heteronormativity of Cena’s insults regarding The Miz and Alex Riley, while the next moment I’m reminded that steel cages make everything better (although not when they allow you to use the door — that’s just weak). At first, the idea of Randy Orton facing every member of the New Nexus in order to eliminate them from ringside seems hokey, but then the first match ends, and my mind jumps to how they will ramp things up for next week’s showdown. I can pretty much predict every edict from the anonymous general manager (who communicates through a laptop computer at ringside in a brilliant bit of dramatic staging) before it is read aloud, and yet there is still a palpable (and downright Pavlovian) excitement whenever that chime goes off. And in an example of nostalgia and charisma blending together in a pitch perfect fashion, the return of Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson as the host for Wrestlemania is great television even when the promo is taped in advance.
Tonight’s episode featured no outstanding wrestling, few entertaining promos, and little in the way of exciting new developments for Wrestlemania (natural given that the matches that were previewed seemed to have been either previously announced or foregone conclusions). However, it was an effective advertisement for a nebulous future: Individual moments either advertised the remainder of tonight’s show, the potential for next week’s show (when Stone Cold Steve Austin will appear, Randy Orton will take on another member of the New Nexus, and when The Miz will have to fire Alex Riley from his employ), or the looming presence of Wrestlemania (which the screen at the top of the entrance ramp reminds us is only 34 days away). And for those who saw last week’s episode, this week’s episode would have also been a small payoff for the anticipation built within those storylines, as the cycle continues to repeat itself as it does each and every week.
Around these parts, shows that are quite so cyclical are relegated to this ongoing feature, where we delve into those shows that in some ways confound weekly analysis. I can’t imagine, as a television critic, reviewing this show every week: the sameness would become overwhelming, and the terrible writing (for example, Jerry Lawler to Michael Cole: “I’ll tell you what I’ll say, Cole Sore”) would be a cause for ridicule that would be rehashed each and every week.
However, while television criticism may not be the avenue for online engagement with the WWE, wrestling was forever changed by the advent of the internet. First, its existence helped spread knowledge of the behind-the-scenes details of professional wrestling, meaning that younger generations would learn the full “truth” more readily—as a result, while I was in the dark regarding Hulk Hogan’s power grab at Wrestlemania IX which resulted in my Canadian hero Bret “The Hitman” Hart losing his WWF Title, I was fully aware of that dramatic behind-the-scenes events that led to Hart losing his title to Shawn Michaels in the infamous Montreal Screwjob. Meanwhile, in regards to the WWE’s weekly television presence, the internet has allowed for dedicated fan communities which recap and dissect each week’s shows. These sites are not really that different from TV Club, even facing similar questions of recap vs. review (given that some fans may not have cable, and thus are unable to access Raw), the value of ratings systems (with some sites giving star ratings, while others stick with less quantitative analysis), and the challenge of reviewing an incomplete story (in that this episode represents only a single piece of what will become a much larger narrative).
Not one to be left behind, the WWE has responded to the presence of this online community over the course of the past decade. Its website is a key source of information, echoing much of the hype which is repeated throughout the broadcast, but their real innovation in recent years is in the realm of social networking. Just in tonight’s episode, both Facebook and Twitter became intricate plot points—The Rock previewed his verbal assault on John Cena on his Facebook page (which over 2.2 Million people “like”), and The Miz was Tweeting while commentating during the main event (in particular sending “Say Cheese” to his 150,000 followers just after taking a photo of Cena in a precarious position, later attaching the photo taken at the time). By embracing the potential for the Internet to allow their fans to interact with the storylines and become a part of the action from home, the WWE is changing the way it tells stories, even as those stories mirror those which came a decade before, retaining a familiar (and successful) formula, while making key changes which help it remain relevant and competitive in a diverse television landscape.
I somehow doubt that tonight’s Raw would change the minds of those who abhor the WWE and everything it stands for. However, the WWE does not depend on expanding its audience to those who may be skeptical: Its audience is its audience or the children and siblings of its previous audience, and they tune in every week to be reminded of what they’ve seen before, to get excited by the promise of what’s about to happen, and to see a preview of what will arrive in just 34 days. While I may have some concerns as a former wrestling fan in regards to how the storylines are being developed (which I’ll get into below) and the ineffectiveness of many of the sequences in tonight’s episode would make a “critical review” of the two hours fairly negative, the real test of tonight’s episode of Monday Night Raw is going to be 34 days from now: So long as people are sitting in front of their televisions or computers having shelled out money to see these stories come to their exciting conclusions, consider it a job well done.
And I am certainly closer to that point than I was earlier this evening.
- Switching into pure wrestling mode for a moment, the buildup for Wrestlemania seems extremely bizarre to me. You’ve got two ostensible faces (Triple H and The Undertaker) in one marquee match, while you have a more traditional pairing in Cena and The Miz which is being completely messed with by the presence of The Rock. The idea of Rock feuding with both Miz and Cena simultaneously is interesting, but in practice, it just means that any storylines involving just Miz and Cena seem to pale in comparison to those that involve The Rock more directly. The matches could be interesting, but there is definitely a lack of clarity in both storylines.
- I’m excited by the prospect of twins switching out mid-match at Wrestlemania, if only because it gave me “Evil Doink” flashbacks from Wrestlemania IX.
- On a similar note, I must say that Michael Cole is a far more effective heel commentator than Jim Ross was. The reason is quite simple: while Ross turned dramatically from a good ol’ boy to an outright heel, Cole’s shift is more the WWE finally acknowledging that he’s always been a bit of a douche. Embracing a pre-existing character trait is just a much more effective transition, and Cole is having a lot of fun with the role.
- You know that the WWE has a lot of respect for the United States title when it has the champion get pummeled by the WWE champion with absolutely no play at resistance.
- Not sure what will come of it, but it's interesting to see the WWE promoting their signing of lucha libre wrestler Sin Cara as a major event—the Lucha Libre trend sort of died with WCW outside of Rey Mysterio, so I’d be curious to see how his arrival is handled.
- As noted during the broadcast, SyFy’s Smackdown drew its highest numbers since moving from The CW on Friday, and in fact drew its highest number in over a year. It still drew far fewer viewers than Raw, but there’s a simple explanation for that: Since Smackdown is generally taped on Tuesdays, many devoted fans already know the details from live reports, which takes some of the excitement and suspense present in the live Raw broadcasts out of the equation.
- I'm a little out of touch with the online wrestling community, so if anyone wants to share their favorite sites in the comments that would be wonderful.
- While I don't think there are any plans on covering wrestling on a more regular basis, I'm sure that a healthy number of comments could get at least a drop-in on the upcoming return of Tough Enough.