Tonight, World Wrestling Entertainment’s flagship television show, WWE Raw (formerly WWE Monday Night Raw, WWF Raw is War and other related names) airs its 1000th episode. 1,000! That’s more episodes than Gunsmoke, Law & Order and The Simpsons. That’s probably more episodes than all your favorite canceled shows combined. WWE likes to refer to Raw as the longest-running weekly episodic television program, a designation which has features many caveats. Still though, 1,000 episodes is something to be proud of.
Now, as a major wrestling fan since I was quite young, Raw‘s #1000 celebration* is a really big deal. And as a non-wrestling fan, you’re probably laughing, scoffing, question my credentials or some combination of all three. That’s fine. This isn’t really a piece where I try to convince you that wrestling is “just like a soap opera for men”–mostly because comments like that raise concerns about putting gender identification on audiences–or that it is entirely misunderstood. Wrestling is not just like a soap opera for men and it is not entirely misunderstood. It’s a lot of what you think it is, and probably a little of what you don’t. But either way, your opinion is likely formed on pro wrestling and I’m fine with that.
*The WWE has fallen hard for social media in the last year. After running Twitter into the ground during Raw for the last year, tonight begins WWE’s experiment to expand the usage of social media when the show permanently moves from two to three hours, with much of the new time devoted to fans “dictating” matches and stories with their social media-enabled voices. We’ll see how that goes.
Instead, I just wanted to take a little time and talk about WWE’s content (which doesn’t stand for all of pro wrestling, by the way) as a television show. Whether or not you think wrestling is awesome, dumb, sexist or offensive–and don’t get it twisted, it is all of these things–the fact remains that very few non-news television programs have made it 1,000 episodes. Raw, like all of WWE’s television and live productions, is a scripted event that is put together by writers, producers, directors and performers. It shares more in uncommon with your favorite prestige drama than you might want to admit. I’m not saying that it is as good, because of course it is not. Nevertheless, the point remains: Raw is a TV show.
What’s so impressive about Raw‘s climb to 1,000 is that the road has simultaneously been silky smooth and tremendously bumpy. In some ways it is not that surprising that Raw made it this long, being that wrestling has always been pretty popular in this country (and abroad, frankly). USA Network, in desperate need of a relatively cost-effective anchor, has had no problem keeping the show around–and bringing back from the SpikeTV hell–for years. However, consider the following:
In the 19 years the show has been on the air, it has moved from the USA Network to TNN (which later changed its name/brand to SpikeTV) and then back to USA. Few shows in contemporary television could survive a jump to one network, let alone two moves, including a second back to the original home.
When Raw began, it was only a one-hour program. Four years into the run, WWE and USA bumped it up to two hours and the ratings increased. When WWE eventually added another high-profile show, Smackdown, the ratings were only moderately impacted (and mostly so only because of general diminishing interest in the product, not because of the excess of TV content). Now, almost 20 years in, WWE’s adding on another hour. ABC ran Who Wants to be a Millionaire (and the whole network, really) into the ground by putting it on longer and more often in less than a year. Jeff Zucker murdered NBC by super-sizing everything. Thus far, it’s worked out okay for WWE, defying some expectations.
Across its 19 years on the air, Raw has lost so many main characters, sometimes a half-dozen times over. In its first “season,” Bret Hart was the primary protagonist. He was gone by 1997. By 1995, Diesel took up that reign, only to jet by 1996. Shawn Micheals, the face of the show for years in the late 1990s, was out of wrestling by 1998. Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock carried Raw from 1998-2002, and were suddenly gone. All of those guys, plus other main players you’ve probably heard of, like Triple H, The Undertaker, Brock Lesnar and John Cena, shot to lead character status, only to get hurt, go off to make movies, fight people for real or simply take extended vacations because they were old enough. Same goes for the villains, and of course, there’s been some overlap between the two. Audiences were really happy that Cheers could go on and even thrive without Diane or when Law & Order swapped out partners. Where’s the respect for Raw for making it work in the aftermath of Stone Cold’s peak?
If the character presence has been inconsistent, then there isn’t a word in any language to describe the otherworldly erratic nature of Raw‘s writing, plotting and characterization. Stories begin and end with no real fanfare, logic is completely thrown out the window and characters rarely make decisions that fit with what came just a few weeks before. The Anonymous General Manager character, a seemingly omnipotent mystery figure-head character that tormented everyone for nearly a year was recently revealed to be Hornswoggle, the comic relief Irish midget character who, up until not too long ago, couldn’t even speak and lived in a “secret” world underneath the ring. And you thought the respective ends of St. Elsewhere and Lost were unbelievably frustrating.
The amount of harmful elements Raw mixes into its formula on a weekly basis could make even the most lenient television critic go nuts. Obviously, the show is extremely repetitive, so much so that most fans can sketch out an entire episode before it begins, down to the time things will air, but the amount of times Raw has used storytelling gimmicks to create drama is pretty egregious: Tag matches, cage matches, title matches, weddings, shocking returns, even more shocking betrayals, more contract signings that you can literally ever imagine and faux-talk shows. It’s worse than Two and a Half Men and CSI: put together. And let’s not forget the incessant amount of product placement found on the show, about WWE itself, its various corporate partners and even upcoming movies, TV shows, video games, terrible energy drinks and more.
The show’s treatment of gender, race, sexuality and politics has been…troubling. Women and minorities are typically non-existent unless made to be friendly eye candy or hoes (the former) or staggeringly out-of-date stereotypes (the latter). A black wrestler nicknamed Sexual Chocolate had sex with a very old female wrestler and gave birth to a rubber hand. Safe to say, Raw isn’t going to tackle interracial relationships with much vigor. Gay characters are nonexistent, and the primary way fan favorites poke fun at villains is by questioning their manhood. And I’m not sure Raw exists in a world where political parties exist, which sounds nice until you remember that this is the same world where a woman simply kissed another man in a fit of passion and was immediately vilified and labeled a “hoeski.”
Long-story short, Raw is perhaps the worst show to make it to 100 episodes, let alone 1,000. As a TV show, it’s been wildly inconsistent for much of its run and borderline offensive for a solid amount of time as well. Of the thousands of hours I’ve seen of Raw, I’d say most of them were pretty bad.
But at the same time, when Raw is “on,” it’s on. I can remember hundreds and hundreds of moments or short sequences that personify televised professional wrestling at its best. And heck, even some of the inconsistent and offensive moments fall into the memorable category anyway. There’s simply something about wrestling and Raw, that once you understand and at least somewhat appreciate its conventions and its rhythms, you’re pretty much in no matter how objectively poor it can get. Plus, the format itself, despite the repetitive nature, simply works.
In that way, Raw reminds me more of reality television than a soap opera or any other genre. Reality show stories and characters fit into very narrow types and any show that lasts for a while cycles through typical narratives pretty quickly. Even the best reality shows have terrible episodes, stories or even full seasons. Sometimes, the star power just isn’t the there, or the storyline didn’t “come together” in the way producers wanted it to (however that may occur is up to your judgment; clearly, certain reality shows are more constructed than others). Reality television is constantly offensive, both to our minds and our spirits, but it’s also seemingly eternally compelling.
Eventually, some reality show like The Real Housewives is going to make 500 or 1,000 episodes. Hopefully by that time, there will be more discussion about how pro wrestling, particularly Raw and WWE, played a big role in the popularization of a certain kind of storytelling approach.