Lutz's Blog: WWE finally figuring out how to maximize entertainment on three-hour Raw episodes
By Jeffrey Lutz
Every Monday morning, I wake up, walk down to my computer and begin an attempt to put my own spin on something involving WWE that people have already been talking about for a week.
This time, I have no spin. Like almost everyone else, I enjoyed Raw last week and am really looking forward to the follow-up. How original. I didn't get to watch it live, but I could tell it was a strong episode just by reading the live coverage, and when I watched it late Monday night it was every bit as good as people said.
While I can't offer a unique opinion on the quality of last week's show, I can provide analysis on what WWE has begun to do right, because clearly there has been a change in philosophy that helped produce an outstanding Payback pay-per-view the night before the best Raw of the year.
WWE seems to have abandoned the long-running idea that each episode of television should leave viewers remembering two important events that happened during the show. Almost everything on Raw last week was crucial to a prominent story line, even though some things were positioned in spots on the show that brought them more attention than others.
The irony is that even though almost every segment last week was strong, there were still two that rose above the rest -- Mark Henry's retirement speech that led to an attack on John Cena to set up a WWE Championship match at Money in the Bank, and "Paul Heyman Guys" Brock Lesnar and C.M. Punk getting into a physical altercation that likely sets up their bout at SummerSlam.
The fact that essentially the entire show was excellent but included two standout moments shows that WWE is beginning to leave behind the "filler" aspect of Raw that causes the three hours to drag and makes those two moments seem less important on a show that didn't meet the standards of most viewers. The Cena-Henry and Punk-Lesnar segments were the takeaways for many fans last Monday, but we go into this week wondering what will happen with Dolph Ziggler and Alberto Del Rio, Daniel Bryan and Randy Orton, and what in the world is going on with the McMahon family.
The three-hour Raw shows should complement pay-per-view events while providing sufficient hype for them, and last week's show accomplished that. I'm fine with a talk-heavy show because between Punk, Henry, Cena, Ziggler, Bryan and Del Rio, WWE is loaded with performers who can sell matches on the microphone. Those two major moments from last week featured not a second of actual wrestling but made the matches they're leading to feel like monumental, must-see events. Cena-Henry certainly won't be a Five-Star classic, but Henry earned fans' money with a defining verbal and emotional performance last week.
Matches on last week's Raw weren't filler, either. There is a balance between airing matches that enhance stories without giving away the matches fans want to see on pay-per-view, and WWE struck it perfectly last week. Big matches are for pay-per-view and television matches and part of the path to pay-per-view. Last week, WWE used in-ring action to re-introduce Christian, to establish Antonio Cesaro as part of Zeb Colter's Militia, to showcase Curtis Axel and to cement the double-turn that made Del Rio a heel and Ziggler a babyface the night before. None of that spoiled anything that might happen at Money in the Bank, but all of it increased the likelihood that I'll purchase the show.
The well-rounded element of Raw allows Cena, obviously not a favorite of most older fans, to exist in his own realm without dominating the show as its centerpiece. As WWE champion and the face of the company, Cena will always the centerpiece of Raw, but with so much happening around him, fans who are annoyed by Cena can focus on other parts of last week's Raw that made it so great. Cena is the company's biggest star, but Henry is and will be the star of their rivalry because of his mic work and because of the perfect portrayal of his character. Henry seems invincible -- he doesn't have great matches, but he can sell the hell out of them.
There was a hotshot-booking aspect to last week's Raw, with the page being turned quickly on the Cena-Ryback program and WWE opting to accelerate Punk's babyface turn to set up a match that is two pay-per-views away. Hot-shotting can and does work, though, when it leaves room for follow-up, and both of those segments did. As great as they were, WWE has only scratched the surface on how interesting its top feuds, including Ziggler-Del Rio and Orton-Bryan, can become.
Three hours of Raw is almost always too much. Segments drag, captivating, unpredictable matches can be few and far between, and the main-event segment happens when too many fans are too worn out to enjoy or appreciate it. That might not have changed in one week. But WWE proved that it had the capability to produce a three-hour Raw that is strong from start to finish. It raised expectations while signaling to fans that the elevated standards can be met. We know a great three-hour Raw can happen, now we just want it to happen again and again.
Jeff Lutz has written for the Wichita Eagle newspaper in Kansas for over a decade and debuted with Prowrestling.net on November 4, 2012. He can be reached via email at email@example.com.
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