How WWE's Old-School Philosophy Is Killing Monday Night RAW
When it comes to television writing, WWE is so far behind the times that it makes you wonder if anyone on the creative team has watched a show that was on the air in the last decade.
Watching Raw today, which is hard enough because the three-hour running time is dragging down so much of the product, is exactly like watching a soap opera. To an extent, I suppose, that is the point.
After all, as recently as last year, WWE was sending out feelers for writers who have worked on soap operas. WWE likes to think of itself as a soap opera for men, though I don't really see a lot of men caring about A.J. and John Cena dating.
As Raw continues to drift along with lower and lower ratings each week, and Vince McMahon tries to figure out how to get the television audience back that he himself is responsible for pushing away, the divide between what television is today compared to what WWE television is continues to widen.
What Is Wrong With the WWE Model?
If you watch an episode of Raw one week and tune in the next week, you can see the complete and total lack of cohesion in the storytelling model. It is so obvious that McMahon and his crew of writers try to plan on a weekly basis that nothing ever has time to get going and build an audience.
A perfect example is the Cena and A.J. angle, which was so obviously rushed last week for reasons known only to McMahon.
Vickie Guerrero made it her life's mission to prove that Cena and A.J. were seeing each other (which is also a storytelling flaw, because there is no rule against two single people dating, so who cares what they are doing?) and WWE teased it for a few weeks.
The payoff for this angle should have been a big deal, because WWE wanted us to care about what was happening with Cena and A.J., and the dastardly Vickie would need to keep her mouth shut.
Instead, WWE rushed the storyline. Cena just came out on Raw last week to confront Vickie and ended up kissing A.J. That whole "Will They, Won't They" dynamic that virtually every television show uses was completely gone well before it should have been because WWE doesn't have patience to tell a whole story.
WWE wants to give you these huge character moments, which is fine. That is what gets people invested in a television show and a set of characters that they like, or in some cases, root against.
But those moments have to feel earned. You have to make people care about something in a smart, rational way, otherwise they are going to completely dismiss the moment when it occurs.
There was a time when you might be able get away with big moments on television every single week and the audience would just follow it blindly. But today's television watcher is, for the most part, much smarter and more sophisticated to know that moments have to be earned.
For instance: To use a timely example since people are discussing the show due to the unfortunate passing of Larry Hagman, Dallas, the original version that aired from 1978-1991, was a show built on cliffhangers and huge moments.
The most famous cliffhanger was the "Who Shot J.R.?" episode that aired in 1980. The audience for that episode was huge, estimated to be 83 million people, which wasn't a shock given the popularity of the J.R. character and Dallas at the time.
People were captivated by it because the character was so well established and popular, and everyone around him on the show had a motivation to shoot him. You had to know who shot J.R.
Nothing that WWE does feels that big or important, because the creative team doesn't give you a reason to get invested in a storyline long enough to care. Almost every story is going to be so touch-and-go, depending on how McMahon feels on a given day.
Is WWE Capable of Fixing The Problem?
It would be easy to say, yes, of course. There is no reason that even a semi-competent television writing crew can't create storylines that will build to big, dramatic character moments. But that is probably giving McMahon and his crew too much credit.
Look at the way television has evolved as a storytelling medium since the turn of the century. The best shows around use deeper, more immersive story arcs and mechanics than ever before.
In my opinion, and probably that of many television watchers and critics around the country, the two best drama shows still airing today are Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Think about the way that those two shows tell stories. They are fundamentally different, but still, for the most part, hit their big character and plot moments in the best way possible..
In the case of Mad Men, seasons tend to be laid out with clear arcs for each of the main characters and they are told in episodes that are largely self-contained but always fit into the bigger narrative by the time the season is over. You can see the clear beginning, middle and end when the season ends.
For Breaking Bad, the story is entirely serialized. If you miss one episode, odds are good you will be lost the next, or at least a certain moment that should feel like a huge deal doesn't have the same impact because you missed the story.
In its fourth season, Breaking Bad built to a showdown between protagonist (though some might actually label him the antagonist) Walter White and antagonist Gus Fring. It had 12 episodes of the fourth season, plus the third season to establish Gus as an adversary for Walter before the fireworks in the 13th episode.
What Is The Biggest Problem In WWE Today?
What made the inevitable end of that season so remarkable (I won't spoil it for those of you who are that far behind) is everything that we knew about Walter and Gus, their relationship, their dynamic and when the final bell tolls, you are left speechless because of what happened.
But you needed those two-plus seasons of incredible storytelling to get you to that one moment in order for it to hit you in the face like it was supposed to.
WWE doesn't take advantage of the stage it has to tell those kinds of stories. It wants to have huge moments, like Breaking Bad, but it doesn't do enough to earn them, and you can feel the apathy the audience has for most of the stories and plot threads the writers are trying to get over.
Granted, those shows have an advantage WWE doesn't, because they don't have to write 52 weeks of television every year, but wrestling fans are a forgiving bunch. If you give them just one good storyline to latch on to, they will come back.
So back to the original point of "Can WWE fix its storytelling problem?" Yes, but there has to be an initiative on McMahon's part to actually make it better. Whether you are telling serialized stories, or are more procedural in your formula, something has to fit together so the inevitable payoff at the pay-per-view or on Raw is worth it.
WWE has a golden opportunity to do this kind of deep, slow-building story with CM Punk vs. Rock at the Royal Rumble in January. The tea leaves were planted when Punk knocked out Rock on the 1,000th episode of Raw.
Now, even with one month to go before January, WWE must have a clear, decisive plan in place to make sure that the feud between Punk and Rock is peaking at the right time, which is right as the go-home Raw show before the Rumble is over.
Wrestling fans have proven time and again they will give WWE their money if the product is worth watching. In order for the product to be worth watching, there has to be a match and story worth seeing get paid off.
Too often WWE relies on disqualifications and interferences in a match to get out of having to give a story its proper ending. The old-school approach to writing and producing television is killing WWE and Raw right now.
At some point, the old guard has to stand up and realize that what it is trying to do just doesn't work anymore. The creative team needs to flesh out the most important characters and stories on the show so that some things feel like a big deal.
Given the size of the roster, not everyone has to be a big player. But there has to be more to root for than just wondering how long it will be until Cena gets his hands back on the WWE championship.
Check back for more on the WWE as it comes, and check out Bleacher Report’s Wrestling Page to get your fill of the WWE. For more WWE talk, check out Ring Rust Radio for all of the hot topics you just can’t miss.
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