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RAW struggles to be a ‘modern’ TV show


When Monday Night Raw hit the airwaves in 1993 it was a revelation in sports entertainment programming. The show replaced Prime Time Wrestling, which was as traditional as a wrestling show could be. PTW featured clips of various wrestling matches interspersed with commentary from desk-panelists breaking down the various feuds and—in the case of Bobby Heenan and Gorilla Monsoon—entertaining the masses with their banter and bickering. I mean come on

that’s delightful I don’t care if you’ve never seen pro wrestling.

RAW set out to be something different, however. True to its name it wanted to be “live” in front of an audience, with no second-takes, no do-overs, no working out the best way to phrase this line or the best time to do that spot. It was live, unfiltered, unedited and “raw.” For a wrestling viewer it was something new and fresh.

This month the show celebrates twenty-five years of Monday Night Raw. That new and fresh show has become the norm. After Raw came ECW Hardcore TV, WCW Monday Nitro, the various iterations of shows by TNA (or whatever they go by these days), Ring of Honor, and more. All of them following the same template that Monday Night RAW established in 1993. In fact the only show in the past twenty-five years to really attempt a new approach to “wrestling TV” has been Lucha Underground. For the most part RAW is the template and the standard. It’s the torch-bearer for pro wrestling in your living room. It’s TV comfort food, which is about as far from “raw” as you can be.

The show has become stale, not just in the stories being told or in the weekly sameness of the production. The show is too safe, too content, to comfortable resting on twenty-five years worth of laurels. In the meantime, television has continued to innovate and expand, changing the metrics that define the format multiple times over. There’s no reason for a show that’s been around as long as RAW has to sit by and let the rest of television evolve without it.

Of all the ways modern TV has changed over the past twenty-five years, the two major factors are in how serialized the most popular shows are today. A self-contained episode that you can turn on and watch without any context is extremely rare, and even more rare to be done well. RAW, however, has been doing long-form storytelling for its entire existence. If anyone should be hip to the movement it’s them right?

So what’s the deal?

Take Game of Thrones (GOT) for example. The show is the most popular in HBO’s history and despite only airing on premium cable its ratings obliterate basic cable TV shows and rival shows on free broadcast TV. The show’s big appeal is as a “cinematic TV” experience, but it’s not about big special effects or sex scenes, that makes it a big ratings-earner, either. It’s about the the patience it employs with its stories. In fact the major criticism of the past season was how rushed the episodes were. In other words fans were upset because too much was happening each week. You don’t hear that complaint from fans of RAW.

In past years of GOT, plots are hinted at in episode one of a season that wouldn’t be explored again until episode nine, but when they finally were brought back to light, it usually resulted in television magic. The confidence the writers have in their stories is what sets it apart, as the developers aren’t afraid to press on with a storyline that fans may initially be skeptical to.

And then there’s RAW. It flies by the seat of its pants and is constantly being re-written (sometimes even during the airing of the show). And I’m not talking about moving a segment around or nixing a promo due to time constraints. I mean huge storyline ideas, that were plotted-out and previously approved can be suddenly jettisoned on the capricious whims of Vince McMahon. It’s anarchy and it’s a big reason why RAW is written where nothing of consequence or long-term effect ever happens. If nothing lasting ever happens nothing will need to be rewritten. It makes for bad television.

On the other hand, modern serialized TV shows don’t just plan out their plots. They also know how to rewrite what isn’t working and change course in a way that feels natural and not so jolting. One of my all-time favorite science-fiction shows is the re-imagined Battlestar Galactica. The 2003-2009 series was famous for being extremely serialized, with a loooong plot that stretched from its debut miniseries to the series finale, years later. Many fans were surprised to discover, however, that some of the biggest revelations in the always-plot-twisty series were actually last-minute decisions. There was always a big picture that the creators never deviated from, but along the way they were willing to take risks and trust they could connect the loose ends along the way. And when plots weren’t working and they needed to be axed, the writers still found a way slowly shift from the old to the new, without the audience realizing anything had shifted behind the scenes.

And then there’s RAW. The show frequently butts its head against the wall of fan-unrest, as Vince insists on getting someone or something over (while, as previously mentioned, suddenly nixing the new ideas that might possibly catch fire). And no matter how many times fans boo, or flat-out walk away (or change the channel), he can often be found kicking like a mule, determined to get his idea across.

Vince has a strong belief in what works and what doesn’t, and give man his credit, he did build his daddy’s kingdom into an empire with a fair amount of wild and successful ideas along the way. But lately innovation and experimentation have taken a backseat to playing it safe and doing what you need to do to get through another week. There’s a palpable “corporate” nature to it all that wasn’t present when RAW was...well, “raw.”

Answer this question, Cagesiders: When was the last time you watched Monday Night RAW and saw something truly innovative, either as a TV show, or as a storytelling outlet, or anything.

And before you saw “innovating isn’t the point of RAW” let me remind you that RAW’s entire existence is because someone dared to innovate.

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