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Tim Kail's Raw Review

Jun 27, 2018

If last week's backstage-segments were an example of Raw's unique badness, then this week's main event was an example of Raw's unique goodness. That's not to say this episode didn't feature backstage segments with the same marionette-acting and the same trite dialogue (admittedly, I fast-forwarded through most of the Hulu version to get right to the goods). It's to suggest that the strength of professional wrestling (even WWE's "Sports Entertainment" version) is, unsurprisingly, professional wrestling.
The main event Intercontinental Championship match between Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler exemplifies pro-wrestling's ability to successfully deliver pure fun and dramatic spectacle to any audience. Where last week, I felt that any non-wrestling fan who happened to channel-surf their way to a Raw backstage segment would be embarrassed by what they saw, this week I felt that any non-wrestling fan who saw Seth Rollins and Dolph Ziggler go to work would become completely immersed in the action.
You don't have to be a diehard wrestling fan to understand what's good about a good wrestling match. Even the most cynical "It's fake" truther feels their disbelief bend to the will of a good hold and an unexpected kick-out.
You do need to be a diehard wrestling fan to stomach backstage segments, though. Without a foreknowledge of the nuances of the company, its characters, and its creative rhythms, backstage segments watch like weird teleplay non sequiturs. They just don't fit with pro-wrestling, and yet they've become deeply ingrained in the visual, thematic, and structural essence of wrestling.
The unavoidably bad acting, the hamfisted dialogue, and the broken conceptual premise behind the amateurish way they're filmed (i.e. the characters act as if cameras aren't filming them, suggesting cameras aren't in the backstage reality, which begs the question, "how are we, the audience, seeing any of it?") can only be "appreciated" by wrestling fans inured to WWE's unchanging style of presentation.
Backstage segments, therefore, represent an obvious creative weakness on Raw's part. They alienate prospective viewers, if not directly during a channel-surf, indirectly by reinforcing the idea that "it's okay for pro-wrestling to be kind of bad". Backstage segments are also meant to advance a story, and yet they make stories less accessible because of how they look, sound, and feel. There are too many opportunities for badness (either in the writing, the acting, or the filming) to overshadow any validity a story may have when that story ventures backstage. 
Good wrestling, on the other hand, and the story that can be told between the ropes, is instantly accessible. Dialogue isn't even necessary. With the likes of Rollins and Ziggler, the sheer athleticism on display immediately arrests the viewer's attention, and then the nuances of their impeccable timing and expressiveness draws the viewer into a deeper human theater.
The rhythms of a pro-wrestling match naturally mirror the rhythms of any sport, and so the audience doesn't have to strain to appreciate the drama. There is a blend of grace, determination, improvisation, and pain, all operating within the conceit of a fight. The joy comes in watching that fight unfold, building, every-so-carefully (as this match did) toward The Finish; that moment when a winner (and loser) is determined, and the audience experiences Pop (catharsis).
If our hypothetical channel-surfer happened upon Ziggler and Rollins' stellar match, and somehow didn't quite know how to feel about it, well they'd be in luck; a massive, ecstatic crowd tells them how to feel. There were multiple times during the Ziggler/Rollins match where the crowd, rapt by the action, burst into natural exclamations of shock and joy, rising into a collective "Yes!" chant. The crowd even stood to offer the rare, dignified clap, a smattering of applause that served as a simple, communal "Thank you" to Rollins and Ziggler for putting on such a great show.
Something a wrestling match always has that a backstage segment never has is that participatory audience.
Sure, we sometimes hear the cheers and boos from the arena-audience reacting to backstage segments. But they are abstracted from the content, often sounding muted, bored, or confused (which is no surprise given the arena-audio sometimes cuts out). Consider that during backstage segments, live attendees are forced to crank their necks upward to stare at a big TV that hovers over the wrestling ring.
Did they come to watch TV, or did they come to watch live wrestling?
If backstage segments feel incongruous to television viewers because of their inherently poor quality, backstage segments feel incongruous to live attendees because they are the exact opposite of the reason they're in attendance.
For both television viewer and attendee, wrestling's the thing! Wrestling is that which catches an audiences' attention, not the ancillary, cheap-looking melodramas sutured onto it like so many needless appendages. Standard WWE backstage segments, therefore, have not merely outlived their usefulness, they were never useful to begin with.
When good wrestlers get to do their job, we all get swept up in the positive energy of that process, and we lose ourselves to the wonder of simulated conflict. That process is fun. It is one of discovery and pure, raw emotion. Even if your brain thinks pro-wrestling is stupid, your soul understands why it isn't. Nothing obscures what makes pro-wrestling good when it's presented as it was in Monday's main event.
Ziggler vs Rollins represents a pro-wrestling that isn't trying to be something it isn't. It's a wrestling that respects the real value of the art. It doesn't self-conscientiously concede that "wrestling is kind of stupid". It instead earnestly posits that wrestling is good, and that you should take it seriously because it's good.
Put another way, Ziggler vs Rollins demands the viewer's respect because, in this match, they clearly respect themselves and their art. They created something to be proud of, a fantastic story that demonstrates their individual, and collective abilities. The booking, directing, editing, and commentary all worked in concert with their strengths. The presentation serviced the wrestlers, the wrestlers were not struggling to service the presentation. It had the distinct feel of a night when both performers were told, simply, "Go out there and do your thing".
They did their thing, and the audience was all the better for it.
Their "thing" (again, unsurprisingly) is wrestling, the simulation of combat to provide audiences a theatrical experience.
Had I seen that, and only that, I would have thought Raw was good television.
This is not to suggest that Raw should be nothing but a series of matches (although, why not try it for a night?). The show can certainly flesh out its narratives and it can even use the backstage area as a setting if it wants. But it should always do so within the context of what makes wrestling good.
That means re-imagining the way non-match-time functions and looks on Raw, and how rivalries are expanded beyond what we see in-ring. It means real-sports-like pre and post-match interviews, press conferences, and candid glimpses into production booths, locker-rooms, hallways, and catering areas - all looking and feeling the way they actually look and feel for the wrestlers in real life. It means creating scenes that are natural extensions of the ring-world, rather than scenes that feel like they belong in a lesser, alternate universe. The WWE has even offered this more mature and naturalistic style I advocate for in recent years to great dramatic effect (most recently during the build to WrestleMania 34), but such scenes remain outliers to the company's mediocre norm.
When Raw finally escapes that norm, maybe I won't have to fast-forward to get to the goods. In the meantime, I'll continue needing to craft my own experience of the WWE-product, all the while appreciating superb matches like the one that closed this show.
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