Remember when WWE Raw was destination television? When the company reserved its most significant storyline developments and red-hot angles for the show it proudly touted as its flagship?
WWE apparently doesn't.
Its longest-running weekly show is less episodic and more a mangled mess of lazily constructed stories, repetitive matches and largely undefined characters.
Why? A lack of long-term focus and forethought can be blamed.
It took 11 days into 2021 for WWE to face down the grim reality that its roster is underdeveloped and unprepared to be dealt a major blow in the form of an injury or a positive COVID-19 test.
When it was revealed that Drew McIntyre had tested positive and would miss the January 11 episode of Raw, the company didn't turn to its roster of immensely talented individuals to fill the void. It didn't choose to elevate Ricochet by giving him a spotlight he would not have otherwise had.
It didn't opt to spotlight Keith Lee, Sheamus, AJ Styles, Jeff Hardy or even Retribution in a way that would allow them to make up for the WWE champion's absence.
Instead, the company turned to Triple H.
Yes, the 51-year-old Attitude Era icon whose last match was a disasterpiece in Saudi Arabia.
Rather than having talent ready to go in the event that McIntyre would miss the show, management trotted out a former world champion-turned-executive.
The eye-opening creative choice came a week after Goldberg returned during a special "Legends Night" episode of Raw—itself the product of sagging television ratings and a lack of depth and star power—and challenged McIntyre for the WWE title.
Why did WWE turn to Goldberg? Because, as Dave Meltzer reported on Wrestling Observer Radio, it had no one else "ready" for McIntyre (h/t Randall Ortman of Cageside Seats).
Producing Goldberg for a match with the Scot, with no build or long-term purpose, is as defeatist an attitude as there is. Rather than putting in the work to create stars or even book someone like Sheamus to win a bunch of matches and build momentum for a title shot against with McIntyre, it simply dipped into its box of legends and produced one it thought might still have some credibility left.
As long as it can continue to pick out a Goldberg, a Triple H or even throw money at Brock Lesnar, there will never be a sense of urgency to build up the Raw roster and create talent that can step in when needed or challenge for the WWE Championship when a more obvious option is not available.
SmackDown doesn't have that problem. The writing team on that show has taken creative chances. It has built Big E into a believable, heavy-hitting babyface who could confront Roman Reigns and start a world title feud tomorrow if need be. Daniel Bryan has also taken it upon himself to lend credibility to Shinsuke Nakamura, Cesaro, Sami Zayn and Jey Uso in recent weeks, leaving the blue brand stronger and its roster more believable than he found it.
Throw in the extraordinary work to rehabilitate Kevin Owens' character and the industry-best effort put into Reigns, and you have a show that proves WWE isn't wholly incapable of writing a wrestling event.
For whatever reason, those heading up Raw have become all too comfortable with allowing it to wallow in mediocrity and the status quo be maintained.
The Pieces Are There
It is not like Raw is devoid of characters and stars to build around.
The Hurt Business has been one of the breakout acts over the last year, spurred on by the renaissance of the great MVP and the emergence of Cedric Alexander. Alexa Bliss has embraced her twisted harlequin persona and made Raw worth watching over the last month.
McIntyre is a great worker and a passionate champion, while Randy Orton is turning in his best work in a decade.
Ricochet, Styles, Sheamus, Hardy, Riddle, Charlotte Flair, Asuka, Lacey Evans, Mustafa Ali...the list of talent is long and has the potential to turn Raw into the best show in the industry.
It is up to those in power to look to the future, recognize whom it wants to build its product around and put in motion the stories and angles that will help it do just that. There must be more effort exerted by the creative team, which must change things up, alter the presentation and break free from the formula that has defined the red brand for the last 15 years.
The three-hour format does not help matters, but it is also something WWE officials cannot help. USA Network insists on it, so management must work with the hand it has been dealt in that regard.
It is that three-hour stretch, though, that makes its inability to prep its roster for bigger things and emergency fill-ins that much more frustrating.
WWE has an embarrassment of riches on its flagship show. It has three hours of television time, a vast roster of extraordinarily talented professional wrestlers and a fanbase pleading for a jolt of energy and excitement.
It must utilize its resources and give the audience a Raw it deserves for its loyalty over the years or risk the complete devaluation of a show that once was synonymous with sports-entertainment excellence.