Let's be completely reasonable. There have been worse episodes of Monday Night Raw than the last three.
We’ve seen worse segments, such as Bayley’s infamous ‘this is your life’ angle in 2017. We’ve seen bigger booking blunders, like the decision to grant Rey Mysterio an insultingly short WWE title reign in 2011. We’ve certainly seen weirder Raws too - ‘Trump’ vs. ‘O’Donnell’ and the Lakers/Nuggets fiasco sticking out particularly strong in the memory.
But rarely has our anger with Monday nights been so clear on a weekly basis. The negative response to each Raw since WrestleMania 37 has accumulated in such a way that casual fans might be confused. The shows have felt flat and aimless, but on the surface they’ve been no worse than a typical below-par show.
To the part-time viewer it might seem like our criticism is an overreaction, a symptom of the annual post-’Mania comedown.
So why has Raw become so downright hated in recent weeks? One big reason is out of WWE’s control, and it’s only fair to address that first. Reports of another COVID-19 outbreak may have given the company a reduced roster to work with, and forced the last-minute changing of certain plans. But in recent memory, aren’t these situations where WWE has thrived? Think of TLC 2017, where a virus inadvertently gave us Balor vs. Styles, and the bizarre (but undoubtedly fun) sight of Kurt Angle: Shield edition.
But Raw’s current problems are far wider-reaching. There are many things wrong with the red brand at the moment, but I think the common factor is a lack of creativity - or perhaps, even worse, a lack of ambition to be creative. Each show increasingly feels like a carbon copy of the last, and while this may sound like nothing new, it’s an issue that has worsened suddenly and significantly since WrestleMania.
The first hour of the Raw after ‘Mania featured the return of the Viking Raiders, who beat Cedric Alexander and Shelton Benjamin in a five minute match. The following week’s show saw Erik and Ivar again defeat Cedric and Shelton, with no further developments. There were no big pre or post-match angles, no run-ins, no meaningful differences to speak of. It was a weirdly exact replica of the previous Raw’s segment.
This week - brace yourselves - Shelton and Cedric lost clean again, this time to the new oddball couple of Randy Orton and Riddle. All three bouts followed a similar pattern and lasted just over five minutes. At least the opponents changed.
As needlessly repetitive as these matches were, I’m not suggesting that Alexander and Benjamin should have won. When facing a returning or newly-formed babyface team, the heel duo should obviously lose. It’s nice when results matter in wrestling, although bookers have to be careful not to paint themselves into a corner with wins and losses. Thankfully, there’s no danger of the Raw creative team doing that, because they appear to have gone in entirely the opposite direction. Results now don’t seem to matter at all.
Yes, as well as an absence of general creativity, the show’s other big problem is a lack of continuity. The best wrestling storylines flow from one set piece to the next; Raw’s plot points exist in vague proximity to one another. Each Monday, previous wins and losses become baubles on a Christmas tree - a momentary distraction, but of no real consequence a week or so down the line.
For example, Miz and Morrison were decisively humiliated by Bad Bunny at WrestleMania, but continue to feud with him. The loss hasn’t affected the pair at all; they’re behaving exactly as they were heading into the 'Showcase Of The Immortals'. They even sang ‘Hip Hip, Hop Hop’ with Elias this week. One crucial detail, though: Bad Bunny isn’t around anymore. He’s off preparing for a world tour, and to our untrained eyes, this storyline appears to be over.
Credit must be given to Miz, Morrison and Damian Priest, who are doing a stellar job of ignoring his departure on a weekly basis.
(And while we're on the topic - the less said about Priest and New Day throwing tomatoes at Miz, Morrison, Elias and Jaxson Ryker, the better.)
Another example: Orton and The Fiend. For months, WWE crafted a nightmarish horror story centred around Randy’s shocking immolation of Wyatt, and the inevitability of his revenge. Yes it was often over-the-top, but we could at least appreciate the effort. Except all of a sudden, none of it matters at all. Alexa Bliss betrayed The Fiend at ‘Mania, Orton won and scampered off into the tag division, and Bray himself seems to have forgiven both of them. Again, this has all happened with minimal explanation.
Most results don’t have any impact on the events of Raw, and therefore, things just seem to happen for the sake of happening. One reason behind this may be the runtime. We’ve known for years that three hours is too long for a weekly wrestling show, but rarely have WWE so blatantly struggled to fill the space. This is especially baffling at a time when they have a gargantuan roster to draw upon, including a mountain of world class indie talent in NXT.
Speaking of the ‘developmental’ brand, a comparison between the two shows does Raw no favours. NXT might not be hitting home runs for fun (as they were a few years ago) but there’s still a clear commitment to the basics: proper storytelling and good wrestling. We fans can be an ungrateful bunch, but NXT’s intent should count for something.
It may instead make more sense to compare Raw to SmackDown, given that they’re produced in a far more similar fashion. But despite sometimes traditionally being seen as the ‘workrate’ show, the blue brand is currently leagues ahead of Raw in terms of booking as well.
Fridays are anchored by Roman Reigns, the most effective heel champion in all of wrestling at present. There’s also a (slightly hesitant) sense of experimentation with the pushing of Superstars like Cesaro and Apollo Crews, while the brand also boasts the two leading lights of the women’s division, fresh off a show-stealing performance at WrestleMania.
Wrestling shows usually live or die by their main event scenes, and while SmackDown’s isn’t Shakespeare, it’s certainly far more dynamic than Raw’s. Their landscape not only involves Reigns and current foe Cesaro, but also Paul Heyman, Jey Uso, the lingering, antagonistic Seth Rollins, and Daniel Bryan - now in the role of Roman’s previous challenger, defeated but defiant. That’s quite a lot of moving parts, and it’s not certain which direction this story is going to take. But that’s a good thing.
The main event atmosphere on Raw is quite the opposite. Yes, Lashley has multiple opponents to contend with, but Strowman and McIntyre have been doing the classic ‘allies who can’t get along’ trope - one we can all agree we’ve seen enough of in recent months.
Generally, the WWE title picture has been static for a good while now; the participants change but the stories remain the same. Even the relatively new supporting cast, Mace and T-Bar, are going over old ground - midcard heels who feud with the top babyfaces for no reason other than to cause distractions and eat finishers. Andrade did this with Drew a year ago, while Miz and Morrison turned the position into an art form.
We’ve seen this all before, and that really sums up the entire situation. Through a lack of creativity, continuity, and general oomph, Raw has become a predictable and stagnant product.
Some of the results at this year’s WrestleMania were hugely surprising, seemingly for the sake of it. It was a fun change of pace for a couple of nights, so much so that I questioned whether the build to WrestleMania in the modern era was truly relevant in a feature a couple of weeks ago. But, in contrast, it has thrown Raw’s shortcomings into sharp relief. There’s no sense of ‘what’s next?’, either from ourselves as an audience or from Vince McMahon.
I don’t think recent episodes of Raw have been particularly worse than we're used to these days, but our viewpoint has certainly shifted. ‘Mania season is over and we’re now seeing Monday nights for what they are: a lazy slap in the face.