WWE's Raw can be a tough show to like most weeks. It's a stultifying three hours long, a length that would defy any federation—even one with twice as many new ideas as WWE—to keep things engaging week in and week out. The company tends to coast outside of the WrestleMania and SummerSlam windows, leaving the already protracted weekly show creatively adrift. On most weeks, Raw is, for all but the most optimistic, devoted, or delusional, decidedly Probably Can Miss television.
So it's something that the Raw of October 19 is worth singling out for sheer badness. This especially overcooked Raw wasn't ordinary tedium; it was special, and worse, specifically because WWE went all out for once. This time, the federation tried its best to make Raw compelling. They failed.
Raw's in a weird spot. The show's ratings are down the tubes. This isn't remotely a death sentence, because the show still brings in more viewers than most cable fare, but it does put WWE in a curious position. This isn't a production company that can simply crank out a new show when the current one sputters out. WWE is the show.
On Monday, Raw had to be good. In the face of faltering ratings, they needed to sell subscriptions to the successful-but-not-successful-enough WWE Network ahead of the mammoth rubber match between The Undertaker and Brock Lesnar in this Sunday's Hell In A Cell. This Raw was also held in Dallas, home of the next Wrestlemania, a show WWE is already hyping more than usual. This uphill climb came with a powerful headwind: a Monday Night Football game between the Giants and Eagles that happened to include the debut of the new Star Wars trailer. Popular culture was actively conspiring against WWE, it seemed.
So the empire, um, struck back with every big gun in the arsenal, delivering a manic, whiplash-inducing, cameo-stuffed episode. The criticism that WWE stumbles when making new stars is true, but mostly irrelevant. People love to see the old guys, and WWE delivered them in bulk. Stone Cold Steve Austin, Shawn Michaels, Undertaker, and Ric Flair all showed up on Monday. If you love the classics—and I'll be first to raise my hand, here—this should've been your show.
And it was a disaster. The strangest moment was the first: Austin came out, hands trembling with a strange nervousness, said hello to the Dallas crowd, and then disappeared without a sound. He was not seen again. Michaels cut a remarkably biting promo on Seth Rollins, one of WWE's brightest young lights; he ran Rollins into the ground, mostly as a means of getting himself over. Flair awkwardly called Roman Reigns his main man, giving a rub to the company's anointed Cena heir, before looking around slightly confused when Reigns' music hit. Undertaker delivered a distracted-seeming promo about death and Lesnar, drawing awkward half-cheers from the arena crowd.
The cumulative effect was one of forced excitement and disjointedness. The crowds are starting to catch on: except for the raucous reaction Stone Cold received when the sound of glass shattering hit, you could hear a pin drop when the legends were talking. If this is a sign that the nostalgia well is finally running dry, WWE is in trouble. They've tried at every turn to make sure we know that nobody is better than the guys from yesteryear—except for Roman Reigns, the promotion's chosen future champion, and a performer who draws audience reactions ranging from lukewarm to actively antagonistic. He was there, too, on Monday, as part of a reunion of his SHIELD supergroup. That didn't do much, either.
For all the hell WWE catches, when their backs are against the wall, they usually come through. The last Wrestlemania, which looked borderline putrid on paper but ended up being really fun, is a great example of that. When WWE tries, it usually works. Most of the fan frustration with the promotion is a result of how little and how infrequently they appear to be trying at all.
For this reason, the most recent Raw felt like a possible marker of a deeper ennui than the usual. No doubt Vince McMahon and company shit bricks when they heard about the Star Wars trailer, though it's anyone's guess as to how soon they heard about it. For whatever reason—the pressure of sagging ratings, the shock trailer announcement, the weather or some astrological event or whatever—there was no rabbit to be pulled out of the McMahon hat on Monday, but a lot of desperate reaching.
No doubt there will be another creative surge at a dark moment, another moment of WWE magic when it's most needed. There often is. But the sea of bored faces in the crowd and surprisingly tired wrestlers in the ring on Monday night point to a deeper, waning weariness in Stamford.