Hello. My name is Josh Brunsting, and I’m a professional wrestling fan.
World Wrestling Entertainment, WWE, has throughout their existence, been a company willing to not only keep trying to move forward, but also have an almost fetishistic appreciation for their history and all that comes with it. Now, with one of their newest home video releases on the market in the form of their massive 12-disc box set the RAW 20th Anniversary Collection, the company has once again sent wrestling nuts into full on nostalgia mark-out mode.
However, with this set being a bit of definitive proof, the greatest encompassing the episodes found in this set, as well as the brand of WWE in general, isn’t entirely shaped through the lens of nostalgia. If there is one thing that this set proves, it is that this brand has created, through its now 20+ years of existence, both the longest running weekly episodic television series in history and a definitive piece of narrative fiction storytelling that deserves a place in the canon of great television works.
First off, let’s take a look at what happens to encompass this beautiful and decades-spanning box set. Kick starting the set is Episode 17, a show which hit TV screens on May 17, 1993. And in that episode, WWE’s brilliance manifests itself. See, what makes this writer continue to come back and back each Monday night to sit through ostensibly three hours of various storylines possibly making small steps forward to their ultimate conclusion/expansion at any given pay-per-view event is this company’s ability to get what most other brands have failed to truly make good on: the promise of character-based drama.
WWE, at the height of their creative powers, has the uncanny ability to build within their characters and ultimately their viewership pure, seemingly based level characterizations and emotions. Both in and outside of the ring, storytelling within a wrestling show is ultimately lacking in anything resembling nuance. Instead, we get pure distillations of character types and tropes, ultimately making for pure distillations of base level emotions felt by the viewer.
Take the second match on this disc for example. The match features the underdog, scrappy “The Kid” and “the bad guy,” the seemingly unbeatable Razor Ramon. Throughout the span of the match, the commentary team here posits Kid as a good fighter, but a guy completely outmatched by Ramon’s strength, power, speed and bravado. Then, the match actually plays out. Ramon does his damage, instilling his power and proving the status as “the bad guy.” However, Kid begins getting a head of steam, hits a cross body off of the top rope, and snatches victory out of the claws of pure and utter defeat. What results after is nothing but pure and utter joy. Over the span of one match, people are introduced to two fully lived in characters (particularly Ramon here specifically, one of the best characters and performances from one Scott Hall), their intrapersonal relationship and ultimately some really well done storytelling by all parties involved. The wrestlers in and out of the ring, the commentary team and even the crowd makes this match one of the definitive bits of proof when trying to posit pro wrestling a an important bit of modern fiction storytelling.
And then there is the ability for the unexpected. The final disc here has two of the brand’s greatest moments of pure surprise. First up, there is the now legendary “pipe bomb” promo that star CM Punk fired directly into the face of everyone from John Cena to the entire WWE “Universe” itself. Coming after a hard fought and really entertaining tables match between Cena and wrestler R-Truth, Punk interrupted the match ultimately leading to Cena losing the match, and took a microphone back to the top of the ramp and got some things off his chest. This is arguably the company’s greatest moment, at least of this new post-Attitude Era generation. With Punk possibly walking out of the company with their biggest title around his waist never to return again, there is literally the entire company’s history riding on the then forthcoming match between Punk and Cena, and Punk not only broke the fourth wall, something no one in the company likes to see done, but also shattered that line between truth and fiction, a line that when at its very best, the WWE is able to make almost invisible. Look at the recent storyline involving Daniel Bryan. With the company knowingly mentioning that many of the head honchos hate smaller, technically focused guys, the feud between Bryan and the big wigs of the company became an ultimately over long, but powerful, storyline in the company. Same with this Punk/Cena feud. Cena is the biggest name in the company’s history, and Punk is as good on the microphone as he is in the ring, as good as an anti-authority figure as he is a truly great pro-wrestler.
And finally, the “Universe” that has been built is as intriguing as there is in popular culture, especially for those with an understanding for its history. The final episode in this set features one of the other great things about storytelling within the WWE brand, and that is the ability to handle various moving parts, even when those parts have been away for a while. Very few moments have fans as excited as the “return,” and few returns have been as well done as that of Brock Lesnar. One of the Attitude Era’s greatest and most singular entities, he left for the UFC, only to have his name routinely brought up as a possible return when his days in the octagon were numbered. Then, the night after Wrestlemania in 2012, John Cena attempted to call out The Rock and congratulate him on a victory the night before, only to find “The Beast” knocking at his door. The way that that instantly draws a viewer into not only what is happening on screen at that moment, but what it means going forward for the entire complexion of this “universe,” proves that this company has stayed afloat for over 20 years and 1,000 episodes not because of some dumb luck.
Quite the opposite actually. Now well over 1,000 aired episodes, WWE Monday Night Raw doesn’t just stand up as a historic series because of its uncanny backlog of episodes. Instead, when the show is at the height of its powers, as any good TV show, Raw has the ability to evoke pure, seemingly base level but ultimately powerful, emotion out of its viewers due to some breathtaking character work. As any great action-based series would have you think, WWE’s ability to tell stories well both outside and inside the squared circle, with and without action, is its crowning achievement. Afterall, what is television and film, if not entirely vision based mediums? Look at any of the great matches found on these discs. Take them, and turn off the sound. When the company is at its best, when a match is at its best, you don’t need a single sound. It’s silent cinema. It’s pure emotion delivered purely. It’s Buster Keaton action with Harold Lloyd storytelling. It’s cops and robbers, cowboys and Indians, good guys and bad guys. It’s all of those things, told entirely through the human body. It’s just the bees knees, guys and gals.