April 2013 - Columnist Of The Month: REQUESTING FLYBY #39 - Raw is Poor
May 30, 2013 - 2:46:18 AM
#39: Raw is Poor (2003 vs. 2013)
There’s been an almost universal consensus of late that the three hour episodes of Raw introduced as a weekly occurrence last August have been a failure. Numerous writers here on the main page and down in the Columns Forum have expressed their disgust at the creative direction of WWE’s flagship product. The issues are numerous: an over-reliance on one or two headliners, a lack of attention to the midcard, an almost pathological inability to properly showcase the midcard even with three hours to fill, and most damning of all, a bizarre refusal to tell logical stories (or indeed, any stories). Even if all of the Touts, WWE App demonstrations and replays were excised from the show, you’d still be left with TV that left a lot to be desired.
Interestingly, this is not the first time that Raw has disappointed on a weekly basis. During the early brand extension era, the red brand became the personal domain of Triple H, with many viewers off the show due to the way challengers to the World Title were arguably “buried” by The Game. In addition, Raw suffered greatly in comparison to the Paul Heyman booked Smackdown, where a terrific roster of elite workers put on classic encounters every single week (the story continuity was good, too). Even now, mention the early days of the brand split, and any self-respecting smark will shudder, remembering Katie Vick and similar atrocities. A problem we are all too familiar with in the modern day, that of highly paid, barely motivated part-timers, was also present in 2003, with Goldberg and Kevin Nash both lumbering around to no good purpose.
So the task I set myself in this COTM effort was to examine an episode of Raw from these two low points in Monday night history and determine which era of the ‘A’ show was worse. We’ll be looking at two episodes which are directly comparable- the post-Backlash 04-28-03 edition (it’s available on YouTube if you fancy giving it a look) and the post-Extreme Rules 05-20-13 iteration- so we’re at a point where the Fed is in recovery from the blow out of Wrestlemania season and trying to retain the audience’s interest in the product. Which episode advances the issues of the pay-per-view better? Let’s break it down...
The April 28 2003 Monday Night Raw begins with the debut of Chris Jericho’s Hi-Light reel, a segment which still exists to this day, so it’s certainly an interesting historical curiosity. Y2J was a natural fit for a heel chat show host, and his charisma and mic savvy as he entertainingly rips Rowdy Roddy Piper for being a has been (Piper had appeared at the previous evening’s pay-per-view) gets the show off on the right foot. However, Goldberg, as the guest, is typically wooden, merely responding to the Canadian’s questions and remarks with threats to hand his ass to him (in fact he tells Jericho he will “destroy” his ass, gosh). The segment only picks up when Christian comes out to make it two snidey heels insulting the big man (as well as a cluster-you-know-what). I have to say, the Creepy Little Bastard is very much the MVP of the skit, entertainingly rolling out the “New People’s Champion” and “Rock’s favourite wrestler” schtick that would make him such a terrific antagonist through the next couple of years. The whole thing, however, ends in a rather strange way, with Captain Charisma sending a bunch of random jobbers to beat up Goldberg, only for Stevie Richards to be the only one who actually gets in the ring. It goes without saying that he gets speared all the way into next week. Old Bill always said that WWE had no idea how to play to his strengths, and based on this opening sequence, you’d have to agree with him. Putting the lexically challenged big man in a verbal battle with two of the best stick men in the business is no way to get him over as an unstoppable force.
Last week’s Raw, on the other hand, begins with the fall-out from the previous evening’s WWE Title match, with Ryback giving a promo from the top of an ambulance about the kayfabe injuries incurred by Cena in the Last Man Standing bout. In a storyline sense, this isn’t a bad idea at all, and for all the criticism that Ryback has received for his “breathy” promo style, this particular piece of mic work isn’t bad at all, just a little formulaic, but certainly no more so than many other current employees of World Wrestling Entertainment. The idea of an ambulance match makes perfect sense as a follow up to the fairly well received Extreme Rules encounter, although we know after last night that this stip has already been retconned into the third fall of a Three Stages of Hell match, showing us that continuity means very little to the company at the moment. There’s also the fact that the segment transitions into an appalling piece of product placement about some milkshake or other. At least Cole, to his credit, looks embarrassed to be doing it, but that isn’t much consolation.
THE VERDICT: Neither segment is entirely successful in getting their respective big man over. While Goldberg’s appearance on the inaugural Hi-light reel is more entertaining than Ryback’s fairly generic promo, the storyline purpose of the ambulance segment is more logical. Ultimately, I call this head to head a DRAW.
In the 2003 edition we’re looking at, we get a few locker room interactions fairly typical of the time, chief among them a conversation between Triple H and Ric Flair which helps lay the ground work for Evolution later in the year. Hunter tells Naitch that he needs some gold around his waist, so he’s organised a match between them and the tag champs, RVD and Kane. Simple but effective, though I found the bromance between the two multi-time world champions somewhat cloying. Elsewhere, Booker T and Goldberg reminisce about WCW (with Booker holding a skipping rope?), Stacy Keibler irritates Test by putting him in a tag team with her other client, Big Poppa Pump and Eric Bischoff books a match between himself and Trish Stratus, with Trish getting a Women’s Title shot if she beats the boss. All of this is pretty standard fare, but the acting is a cut above some of the stuff we see on a week to week basis these days.
Meanwhile, the post-Extreme Rules show has Daniel Bryan and Kane beginning to tease a break up through Bryan’s mistaken belief that the Big Red Monster called him the “weak link” of Team Hell No as the high point of the backstage shenanigans. Ryback watching Zack Ryder vs. Cody Rhodes on a flatscreen TV is a good example of a much over-used WWE trope, while the “Kaitlyn’s Secret Admirer” nonsense is a waste of all of our precious time.
THE VERDICT: The 2003 edition wins this category hands down. Although none of the segments were anything to write home about, they all served a purpose of some sort, whereas the only 2013 backstage skit that meant anything, that between Kane and Bryan, had already been seen innumerable times since August 2012.
In the post-Mania landscape, 2003’s big red brand story was the return of Bill Goldberg, who took on and vanquished Hollywood Rock at Backlash. Big Bill’s presence runs through the episode, as he appears in the aforementioned Hi-light Reel with Jericho and Christian, and later comes to the aid of fellow WCW alumni Booker T when he’s assaulted by the CLB’s hired goons and dominates them in typical fashion, ultimately spearing Rosey through the barrier. Considering the way most people see 2003 as being Triple H’s reign of terror, the King of Kings is actually fairly low key in this particular episode, but his ongoing feud with Kevin Nash, who interferes in the tag team championships bout, is what ultimately helps decide the match in Kane and Rob Van Dam’s favour. The other major strand of storytelling in the April 28 2003 edition is the misuse of authority by heel GM Eric Bischoff which culminates in the return of Stone Cold. This is fairly well handled and speaks positively of the continuity the Raw writers of the time had established.
The way that last week’s flagship show was put together almost entirely ignores stories. Ryback didn’t beat John Cena, so he’ll fight him again. Fandango prefers dancing to wrestling, so Wade Barrett gets left high and dry. Sheamus has a match against a heel jobber and wins, because that’s what the Irishman always does on Raw. Orton has a match with a heel slightly below him on the totem pole and wins because, you’ve guessed it, that’s what The Viper always does on Raw. The only ongoing story that gets any exposure is The Shield, and even then, the villainous stable’s motivations are no longer as well-framed as they were at the beginning of their run. It’s fairly much indicative of the Fed’s current philosophy that the Curtis Axel story originated on Twitter and on the heavily kayfabe WWE website/app rather than being subtly hinted at over a number of weeks. The ultimate reveal of the former Michael McGillicutty being Heyman’s new client therefore fell flat, as did the Triple H concussion, a plot point which, if they really had to use, should have been teased for a lot longer than a simple six minute match.
THE VERDICT: 2003 wins this category by a country mile. None of the storylines are exactly innovative, but, and this is the key thing, they’re actually present. Gosh.
I had entirely forgotten that Jonathan Coachman handled play-by-play duties in the spring of 2003. That was a fairly bizarre thing to come across. Actually, once I’d got over that slightly jarring revelation, I actually found Coach to be a lot better than I remembered him being. He actually calls the matches, for one thing, and the amount of spurious crap that gets raised is fairly minimal. There’s a lot less product plugging, and mercifully, in the pre-smartphone age, nobody could talk about the BLOODY WWE APP. Lawler, for his part, is pretty tolerable here, making the odd observation that genuinely makes me chuckle. Who’d have thought it?
The announcing on the May 20 Raw was nothing short of hideous. Al Laiman and others here on the main page routinely satirise the preoccupation with the ‘A’ show’s announce team with anything but the actual wrestling going on, so I dare say I don’t need to add too much other than to say that the three man booth really doesn’t work for me, and Jerry Lawler, in this day and age, is an embarrassing relic. The “Supershow” would be much improved by substituting William Regal for Lawler and keeping JBL on Smackdown only (alongside Josh Matthews). One final thought: the generic phrases the commentators roll out in every single match like “vertical leaping ability of Kofi Kingston” and “Randy Orton’s going to that place” really need to die a death. 95% of the audience watch every week, they don’t need that kind of character education every time, you know?
THE VERDICT: 2003 goes 3-0 up, though I should probably mention that if I’d done this in 2010/2011, Michael Cole’s heel character would have made that victory even more of a landslide.
The TV contests presented to us in the 2003 episode are short and nothing much to write home about. Hurricane Helms is his usual entertaining self in beating Chief Morley (Val Venis with everything that made him interesting stripped away) and was fairly much at the peak of his popularity at this moment in time. Rodney Mack is in the middle of a black power gimmick where Teddy Long sources white jobbers for him to squash. Holla holla. The first of only two meaningful matches on the Raw card that evening is the tag team championship match between Hunter ‘n’ Naitch and Kane ‘n’ RVD, a fun little encounter, if one which almost seems to consist of every man in it running through their well-known move sets until the Nash interruption comes. Could have been very good, given more time and a less screwy ending. The second decent contest here is Christian vs. Booker T, two excellent workers having a very decent TV match until…you’ve guessed it, the heel goons hit the ring to beat down Booker, only to then get owned by Goldberg. The least said about Nowinski ‘n’ Rico against Test ‘n’ Steiner the better really, while Bischoff vs. Trish only exists as a precursor to Linda McMahon bringing in Stone Cold as Bischoff’s co-GM. Not a vintage week for in-ring action by any means.
In contrast, the more recent iteration of Monday Night Raw has several strong matches. In particular, the six man between The Shield and Hell No/Kofi is a very respectable entry in the Hounds of Justice’s resume, and one which played nicely to the strengths of all six competitors. Although I personally dislike seeing Sheamus and Orton go over heel talent every single week, there’s no doubting the fact that neither of them ever really have a bad match. The Swagger vs. Orton bout was more than decent, while the Celtic Warrior made Titus O’Neill look like a legitimate threat in a surprisingly watchable match. Cody vs. Ryder wasn’t much to write home about, and neither was ADR vs. Langston, but they weren’t exactly bad either. One thing modern Raw does seem to get right is in deploying a talented roster to have strong matches.
THE VERDICT: 2013 picks up its first victory here. There’s no question that the stronger in-ring performances occurred last week rather than ten years ago.
Linda McMahon appearing to relieve Easy E of half of his duties is the closing segment of the 04-28-03 edition, and though it’s pretty generic, it works well enough, if only because Stone Cold giving an authority figure a Stunner never seems to get old. Having said that, the whole thing rather begs this question: if the reign of Bischoff was so corrupt, why was he allowed carte blanche for so long? It would seem that the WWE board only watch Raw once in a blue moon. Actually, that would explain a lot, wouldn’t it?
The Curtis Axel vs. Triple H “match” barely lasts six minutes, and Hennig Jr. doesn’t really get a chance to shine, because Hunter’s alleged “concussion” begins to be a story fairly on. Hearing Cole and Lawler roll out their “someone just died” voice is a bit much, and I’m not sure what the purpose of the segment was, other than to write The Game out of the storylines for another six months or so.
THE VERDICT: Although the Linda/Eric/Stone Cold segment is deeply obvious and a rehash of previous interactions between Austin and authority, it’s a better thought out segment, as well as one which is in infinitely better taste (see Triple R and Tito’s columns on that subject last week), so 2003 wins again.
THE FINAL VERDICT: Despite the unfavourable place 2003 Raw has in our memories, it is the clear winner in this direct comparison of post-pay-per-view editions of the programme. Only the actual matches in 2013 were superior, with the opening ambulance segment managing to tie with the first ever Hi-light Reel. Elsewhere, be it in comparing backstage skits or the art of storytelling, 2003 romps to victory.
I think the thing that stands out the most to me is how much better balanced Monday Night Raw was ten years ago. In the two hours they had allocated to them, the writers concentrated on advancing three main storylines, with various auxiliary players in the background making their presence felt as cogs in those storylines. The brand split allowed this kind of focus, since creative weren’t having to shoe horn every headliner and upper midcarder into the same show every single week.
So in the knowledge that the ‘A’ show, in its 2013 guise, may be as bad as it’s ever been, is there any hope for the future? Despite the gloom, I think there is some room for optimism. Monday night’s edition, the one that followed the one I have just discussed, was a much better show, one which managed to juggle storytelling and decent TV matches in a far more elegant way. I’m hoping that the ratings for this week’s Raw will be strong, encouraging the writers to follow a similar path for the rest of the year, as opposed to some of the diabolical offerings from before Extreme Rules.
So, the only thing left is to ask you, the reader, for your opinion. Was Raw better than it is now ten years ago, or do you find three hour Raws no problem to get through?
You can leave feedback in the comments section below, send an email to firstname.lastname@example.org, or request to follow me on Twitter @Neil_Pollock79
But until then, this is Maverick, requesting flyby!