Professional Wrestling as Television: Evaluating Monday Night Raw by Robert Aldrich

When you tune in to watch Monday Night Raw, what are you watching? As World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship show, Raw frequently pulls in viewers numbering in the millions in the USA, and tens of millions worldwide (according to Nielsen Ratings).  So the program is clearly popular.  But what is actually being watched?  A television show?  A filmed stage production?

The short answer seems obvious. Professional wrestling: a strange hybrid of performance art, bodybuilding, and catch-wrestling & acrobatics.  But a comparison between the WWE’s product (specifically Raw) and any other form of professional wrestling (not including their pseudo-competitor, TNA) reveals pretty staggering differences.  Raw puts far more emphasis on character and vignettes, with far less emphasis on action (the average 3-hour episode of Raw often contains approximately 45 minutes of actual bell-to-bell wrestling).  A good portion of the show is devoted to host commentating, which is largely absent from most other forms of professional wrestling.

So if Raw is so radically different from all other forms of professional wrestling, can it still be considered the same thing?  Can a product or a form of art so far removed from all its competitors still be considered that type of art?

Raw is a combination of professional wrestling and a television show.  While the opinions and thoughts on it as a pro-wrestling outlet are many and varied, not too much discourse has been had on the show when viewed through the lens of television itself.  How does it stand up when compared to, say, 24 or Arrow or other action shows currently on television?  If viewed as a product of the medium it is transmuted through – rather than some form of live theater shoe-horned into television – what can be said about the show’s current status and where it might be able to go in the future?

In short, is Raw quality television? To evaluate Raw as a television show, we need to lay out some parameters.  ‘Television’ is a sweeping medium that covers pretty much all forms of entertainment, from the visceral to the cerebral.  For that reason, we will be comparing Raw to certain genres of shows, specifically Action Dramas (SupernaturalArrow24, etc) and what are coming to be known as Prestige Dramas (JustifiedBreaking BadWalking Dead, etc).

There is going to be some comparative trouble, however, due to the amount of time in a given ‘season’.  Supernatural has 24 episodes per season, as does 24 (obviously).  Justifiedclocks in at 13 episodes per season, as do most seasons of Breaking Bad.  Raw, on the other hand, has over fifty episodes per year.  Likewise, all the dramas – Action or Prestige – run for one hour, whereas Raw runs for three.  As a result, you’re comparing a total of 24 hours of new content for Action Dramas or 13 hours for Prestige Dramas, to over a hundred and fifty hours of wrestling.  A direct comparison would be impossible, if only because a single year of Raw encompasses too many shifts in storyline.

Therefore, for comparison, we will be evaluating the March episodes of Raw.  This will represent approximately fifteen hours of content during which we will see the march from the previous pay-per-view event (Elimination Chamber) to their keynote pay-per-view, Wrestlemania.

The world of World Wrestling Entertainment, like most professional wrestling, is set in a quasi-superheroic world.  The figures within the wrestling-world construct are larger-than-life, often in every sense (there’s been the odd controversy in the past over whether wrestlers are as tall as claimed), and are capable of feats far beyond that of common mortals.  Throughout the run of Raw, this has been challenged and shifted, with previous periods (such as the 1990s’ infamous ‘Attitude Era’) containing a little more realism than others.

Raw follows the story of roughly fifty or so characters that all work and compete in a fictionalized version of World Wrestling Entertainment.  Within this narrative, matches are real athletic endeavors (just shy of true MMA-style fights) where one contestant must pin his or her opponent to the mat for a three-count by the designated referee, force a submission on said opponent, win by count-out (leave the ring for more than a count of ten) or disqualification (use of weapon, interference by another individual, etc).  Each match promotes the winner’s career, moving the wrestler (called a Superstar in the WWE) closer to a title shot for either a mid-card belt (Intercontinental or USA Championship) or the headline belt (the WWE World Heavyweight Championship).  The same is true for female wrestlers (called Divas) pursuing the Divas’ Championship.

While the fictional version of the WWE is a sporting company, none too different from the NFL or the UFC, the pursuit of the championships is not the only motivator for matches.  Superstars and Divas can advocate (read: demand) matches against their current foes, sometimes with special stipulations added.  Specialty matches like cage matches, no-holds-barred, special guest referees, and many other variations all exist just to tilt the favor towards one character.  Such matches, technically the purview of whatever corporate power is present (usually the ‘general manager’ or the ‘owner of the company’), often occur at least a few times a month, if not multiple times per show.

Likewise, the enforcement of the rules in matches is dubious at best.  The fictionalized WWE makes it a deliberate point to NOT use instant reply in terms of referees’ decisions, and (with rare exception) they do not reprimand or punish troublemakers except to dole out future matches, usually against the very Superstar they slighted.

Rather than talk about individual characters, it seems a little more conducive to talk about the titles themselves, for which the WWE has five: the World Heavyweight Championship, the United States Championship, the Intercontinental Championship, the Divas Championship, and the World Tag-Team Championship (shared by two partners).  Each title has a long and elaborate past; the World Heavyweight Champion (or WHC) was once two belts, the WWE World Championship and the Heavyweight Championship.

The World Heavyweight Championship is the headlining act, ownership of which is the primary driving force behind most of the narrative on Raw.  With rare exception, more of the show is devoted to the WHC than any other title or match.  Currently, the WHC is held by Randy Orton, a Superstar who has spent more of his career as a villain (a heel) than a hero (a face, short for baby face).  Orton was more or less given the title last year and has struggled to defend it in matches, often requiring help or by exploiting the rules (such as the title not changing hands on a count-out or disqualification).

Opposing Orton is a recently-returned character named Batista.  In an example of the weak fourth-wall barrier, Batista interchanges between the use of his wrestling moniker (Batista) and his real name (Dave Bautista).  Batista returned by surprise earlier in the year and has been greeted with tremendous hostility by the fans (whom we’ll discuss in a minute).  Batista’s real-world MMA experience and noticeable size and strength advantage has him dominating matches he’s been put in, opposite Randy Orton who usually narrowly wins, often having to resort to cheating to so.

The third character in the match for the WHC is undecided, which leads us to a divergent story arc, though perhaps the more popular.  The superstar Daniel Bryan has been a fan favorite for some time, but the WWE has been keeping him down, largely by the personal directive of the pseudo-evil Chief-Operating-Officer (and former superstar) Hunter Hearst Helmsley (or Triple H).  Bryan has overcome most obstacles put in his way by Triple H, at first with resolve and intensity, but recently with countermoves and gambits.  The man of the people versus the boss of the company has been a common theme in their story (and a recurrent theme in the WWE throughout the years), with Bryan finally getting a match against Triple H at Wrestlemania, where the winner will go on to face Orton and Batista in a Triple-Threat Match (three superstars at once, with the win going to the first to get a pin for 3-count or a submission).

The Tag Team Championship match is set to be the Usos, the face tag team of Samoan brothers who have managed to defeat most if not all opponents they’ve faced of late.  They will be facing Rybaxel, the team of Ryback and Curtis Axel, a pair of heels who have defeated few if any of their recent opponents.

Lastly in the title match scene is the ‘Vickie Guerrero Divas Invitational’, a fourteen-Diva battle that will grant the Divas Title to the first pin or submission.  Almost the entire Divas’ roster will be included, almost guaranteeing that the current champion – AJ Lee – does not retain the title.

Outside the title matches, there are four other matches.  The Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal is for a newly-created statue (but not championship) that will pit thirty wrestlers simultaneously against one another.  Rather than get pins or submissions, superstars will be thrown over the top rope to be exited from the match, with the last one in the ring the winner.  It’s important to note that the superstar not only must go over the top rope (not just be thrown from the ring), but that both feet must touch the floor.  More than a few matches have hinged on superstars managing to not touch the floor with both feet after getting ejected.

Three grudge matches also appear on the card.  John Cena, one of the biggest names in pro-wrestling right now, goes against a popular newcomer named Bray Wyatt, the unsettling patriarch of an apparent doomsday cult.  The SHIELD, a trio of black-clad mercenaries, take on the New Age Outlaws and Corporate Kane, the three of which have replaced the SHIELD as Triple H’s attack dogs.  Lastly is the Undertaker (the WWE’s incarnation of death) taking on Brock Lesnar, the real-world UFC fighter looking for an epic victory of any sort.

That isn’t to say this is the definitive cast of characters.  Nor is it to say that the matches at the upcoming pay-per-view, whichever PPV it is, comprise the entire story.  Tertiary stories run throughout.  As just one example, a tag team known as the Real Americans have been dealing with internal friction between its two superstars – the popular Antonio Cesaro (and yes, the irony/strangeness of an accented foreigner on an American Supremacy team is lost on no one) and the less-popular Jack Swagger – as well as the team manager Zeb Colter.

There are two additional non-entities that comprise pseudo-characters: the WWE Corporate (which can include refs, security, and other ‘faceless’ figures as well as the likes of Triple H, Stephanie MacMahon, Corporate Kane, etc) and the audience (those in attendance).  The Company, and related ‘rage-against-the-machine’ story elements are a hallmark of the WWE’s narrative and have been since 1991 and the infamous Montreal Screw Job, which gave rise to the ‘evil megalomaniacal boss’ played by Vince MacMahon.  Various shades of the ‘evil corporate overlord’ have been present in the show ever since.

The audience as a character is a little harder to see and imagine, but it’s important to note the distinction between addressing the audience and breaking the fourth wall (referred to in pro-wrestling parlance as ‘breaking kayfabe’ which is the mutually-agreed-upon reality).  The audience has little control over the show itself (with rare exceptions, as will be cited below), but they are addressed directly multiple times throughout each episode and the chants that the audience shares can often be indicative of where the fanbase is leaning.

The truth is that Raw is composed of numerous characters, each with their own stories that moves and progressions…in theory.  The reality, sadly, isn’t quite the same.

Looking over the last month of shows, we see the two biggest problems facing Raw when viewing it as a television show: a lack of internal consistency and a lack of plot progression.

Consistency has never been pro-wrestling’s strong suit.  In a world where leaping off the top turnbuckle onto another person is a viable means of winning a fight, there’s only so much that can be done to maintain realism.  And by and large, that’s not a problem.  Gabriel Ricard coined the expression ‘self-aware suspension of disbelief’ in reference to pro-wrestling fans, so a tangible logic doesn’t have to be ever-present.

That being said, the WWE in the narrative is supposedly a sports company.  Wins are supposed to matter in determining the rankings and the profile of the superstars.  When Randy Orton, World Heavyweight Champion, is defeated by Kofi Kingston, mid-carder (at best), that should automatically result in Kingston going into the title-run, or at the very least, his ‘stock’ should go up.  And yet, we saw little to nothing of him when this did happen.

Likewise, there’s little to no explanation of how the championship hunt works.  Are there three tiers of competition, each pursuing a different belt?  Does a win in pursuit of the Intercontinental Title effect eligibility for a title shot at the World Heavyweight Championship?  In that vain, perhaps the three titles are similar to conferences in NCAA college football, where an out-of-conference win has minimal effect on in-conference standing.  But the lack of explanation harms the shows consistency.

There’s also the issue of there being a World Heavyweight Championship in a sport that has no weight classes.  Until 2008, there were established weight classes, with the light heavyweight and the cruiser weight titles.  But with the retirement of the cruiserweight title in 2008 and the disbandment of the weight classes, the distinction of a heavyweight champion seems pointless.

All of these nitpicks seem immaterial until you remember that this is a show putting out over a hundred and fifty hours of entertainment a week.  That they can’t resolve these inconsistencies somewhere in that time is a real issue.

More than the consistency however is the lack of narrative progression.  We’ll compare two main story arcs to demonstrate this problem: the Undertaker vs Brock Lesnar compared to the World Heavyweight Championship story.

Over the four episodes of Raw in March, there was one dedicated segment for the Undertaker/Brock Lesnar match on each episode.  On the March 3rd episode, Paul Heyman (Brock Lesnar’s manager and one of the best public speakers working in any line of work today) would address the audience before being joined by Lesnar himself.  The two would rant before a powerhouse superstar (Mark Henry, legitimately the world’s strongest man) would come out and fight, only to be destroyed by Lesnar.  This demonstrated Lesnar’s supremacy and validated his claim against the Undertaker.

On the March 10th episode, the Undertaker would be the one to come.  He would be interrupted by Heyman, who would talk up Lesnar before the Undertaker would cryptically and ominously threaten Lesnar’s very soul.  On the March 17th episode, we again get Heyman promoting the Undertaker while still insisting Lesnar will be the winner.  On the March 24th episode, Lesnar and Heyman together call out the Undertaker.  A casket is ominously rolled out which is initially empty, but then the Undertaker jumps out and proceeds to battle Lesnar before throwing him out of the ring and Lesnar leaves.  Finally, on the March 31st episode, The Untertaker would begin by addressing the crowd, espousing his accomplishments, only to be joined by Lesnar and Heyman.  After a protracted will they/won’t they segment, Lesnar finally attacked the Undertaker and managed to land his signature move, confirming his validity for the match at the pay-per-view.

Each segment is built around one element.  On the 3rd, it was establishing Lesnar’s legitimacy (which he did by defeating Mark Henry).  On the 10th, it was establishing the Undertaker to be unafraid of Lesnar.  On the 17th, we get to hear about the strengths of both superstars.  On the 24th, we get to see them meet (however briefly), with the Undertaker coming out on top.  On the 31st, the same thing occurs (a conflict), only with Lesnar coming out on top.  Concise and simple, and yet every week, we have a logical step building the story towards the confrontation.  Each episode, the story was progressed.  Regrettably, this isn’t always the case.

This systemic approach isn’t mirrored in the WHC match’s buildup.  Part of the reason is that the whole dynamic seems more complicated.  We have a triple-threat match, where one competitor won’t be determined until the night of by the outcome of another match.  However, the narrative isn’t that complex.  We have one protagonist in two separate matches.  Neither Batista nor Orton are the protagonist; it’s Daniel Bryan in both cases.  The added complications of the two antagonists, plus the matter of the match against Triple H just to get into the WHC match, has muddied the narrative.

On the March 7th episode of Raw, we have Batista badmouthing Daniel Bryan, obviously to the effect of drawing ire from the crowd.  Later, Bryan meets Triple H to address his abuse at the hands of the Evil Corporation (the fictional WWE), only to be mugged by Corporate Kane.  Batista goes on to wrestle Bryan that night, with Orton interfering so that the match ends in a brawl.  Both Orton and Batista end up looking weak and Bryan gets a win, helping to establish his supremacy (if not favoritism).

On the March 10th episode, Triple H mocks and belittles Bryan via a backhanded apology and demands an apology of his own.  Bryan ends up calling people from the crowd to come into and around the ring to ‘Occupy’ the show, extorting his own match with Triple H and a place in the WHC match if he beats Triple H.  Later, Bryan tags with another superstar (the Big Show) against Batista and Orton, with Bryn getting a win with a pin against Orton.  Again, Bryan is the winner and Batista and Orton lose.

On the March 17th episode, Orton and Batista start off by arguing with Triple H, both coming across very whiny.  Triple H is furious and inserts himself into the WHC match with a stipulation that the winner of his match with Bryan, gets into the WHC match.  This leads to Batista ‘walking out of the show’.  Orton faces Bryan that night in a no-disqualification match, where Batista interferes and Bryan gets his third-straight win over the pair.  At the end of the show, Triple H tries to talk face-to-face with Bryan, at first seeming congenial until fake police are called and arrest Bryan.  Handcuffed, he is mercilessly beaten by Triple H for almost five minutes straight.

On March 24th, Batista and Orton open the show again with more arguing that turns into sexual harassment against their female boss (Stephanie MacMahon).  Later, Triple H is interviewed and tries to explain a distinction between his roles as a boss of the company and as a superstar.  The March 31st episode ends in a match between Batista and Orton, but it gets interrupted by Bryan attacking Triple H (who is ring-side).  This sidelines the whole match and ends the show in chaos.

What we’re shown week in and week out is the same thing: three antagonists who largely fight amongst themselves and only face the good guy when he’s at a disadvantage, refusing to confront him otherwise.  No problem; that’s the definition of a bad guy.  The problem is that there’s no real progression of the plot.  We have established and reinforced ‘Orton is a coward’, ‘Batista is self-absorbed’, and ‘Triple H is inexplicably evil’, but with the exception of Bryan ‘occupying the ring’ and Triple H adding the stipulation that he too can be added to the WHC match, there is no other narrative movement in this story.  There’s just a lot of stalled bickering between characters we aren’t just not supposed to root for but whom we’re supposed to be actively rooting against.  And regardless of the characterization, we still face the fact that across five episodes, we have two events of narrative significance.  That just doesn’t qualify as a well-executed plot progression.

Vivid and colorful characters.  Personal development.  Story arcs that crescendo, then evolve further over time.  WWE Monday Night Raw has all the hallmarks of a good television show, down to the theme music.  Heck, it’s even got its own cosplayers.  But where the show suffers is a lack of internal consistency with its own ‘Like Our World Unless Noted’ nature, and a lack of narrative progression from one episode to the next.  Events transpire unevenly (often clumped around pay-per-views), with stories and even whole characters hitting a plateau for far too long.  This makes each episode a gamble, not on whether or not the episode will be good but on whether or not anything narratively interesting will happen.  That leaves the only saving grace being the matches themselves; perhaps enough for wrestling fans but it may not be enough for more casual viewers.

As is, Raw is closest cousin to a Prestige Drama, somewhere between an action show and a soap opera.  With that in mind, it can take some cues from its televised brethren without compromising what makes it distinctive to produce something far better than what it is delivering now.


Robert V Aldrich is a writer based out of Asheville North Carolina, and St Andrews Scotland, specializing in novels and serials for otaku, gamers, comic book geeks, and others who overthink entertainment as much as he does. His most recent novel, Rhest for the Wicked, is available now and more of his writings can be found at TeachTheSky.com.