Monday Night Raw is a television show, just like any other serialized story that viewers tend to seek out on a weekly basis. OK, so maybe it's not like every other TV show out there, running three-plus hours a week, with no weeks off, and currently standing as the longest-running weekly episodic show on TV.
But fans still want similar things out of Raw that they seek from other TV shows and forms of entertainment: surprises are cool, big returns and new debuts keep things fresh and physical spectacles tie everything together, but what helps bring long-time fans back, week after week, is the thought that their deep investment in time and effort is worth something.
When storylines are outright dropped, or glaring gaps of logic persist, the audience tends to look around and start to question why they so deeply invested themselves in the first place. On the opposite end of the spectrum -- like Monday night, for example -- when there's a cohesion, interconnectedness and attention to detail over the course of an entire program, fans are given a rich return on investment.
It's one of the many reasons wrestling reached its pinnacle in the late '90s, and even as the landscape has shifted dramatically over the last two decades, it's still a worthwhile effort to keep the most fervent fans satisfied. And it keeps people coming back for more.
Samoa Joe doesn't fade from the picture
After Samoa Joe lost to Brock Lesnar at Great Balls of Fire, it would've been easy for the attention to jump immediately to Roman Reigns and his standing challenge to the Universal Championship at SummerSlam. It appeared for a moment that that was indeed the case, as Kurt Angle came out to introduce Lesnar, shaking the hand of his WrestleMania XIX opponent and looking far smaller than he ever did in his prime, only for Reigns to interrupt as an impatient champion and advocate waited in the ring.
As the crowd started to grow a bit uneasy at the prospect of a direct transition to Lesnar-Reigns, Joe stepped right into the middle of the chaos to provide a firm reminder of what he was able to do to Lesnar, even in a loss. Even as Heyman and Lesnar, and Reigns for that matter, tried to dismiss Samoa Joe, he made sure to prove once again just how naturally he fits within the spotlight of WWE's flagship show.
He took it right to Lesnar, though only verbally, for the time being.
"You need to listen to your advocate, because he's protecting you from me," said Joe. "He's the man who knows I've got your number."
Angle, who wanted to avoid any impression that he was losing control over Raw after the chaos between Reigns and Braun Strowman on Sunday night, quickly made a No. 1 contenders match between Joe and Reigns for next week, contingent upon no physicality at that moment. The chaos of intertwining the Reigns-Strowman and Lesnar-Joe feuds in a yet-unknown way shows that the main event isn't some closed-off dance for two or three. The pursuit of the top title on a show is literally the central vision for almost every character on the roster, and it's good to get a reminder of that.
Raw remembers its tag team division
After months of focusing squarely on the Sheamus and Cesaro vs. The Hardy Boyz rivalry, The Revival and Luke Gallows and Karl Anderson finally came back into the picture at the expense of the former No. 1 contenders. With their final opportunity at the Raw tag team titles seemingly exhausted, the battered Hardys made their most explicit references to the pre-WWE gimmicks that earned them renewed popularity and a return to the WWE.
Jeff considered whether or not they should, "fade away and classify ourselves as obsolete," while Matt admitted that after their grueling Iron Man match from Sunday night, they were "somewhat broken." But the story of the night was Gallows and Anderson picking up the victory over The Hardy Boyz without too much chicanery, followed by The Revival coming out to pick the bones and make a statement of their own.
With the dissolution of Enzo and Big Cass and, to a lesser extent, The Golden Truth, there's a glaring lack of face tag teams on Raw at the moment, but as the two forgotten teams of Raw return to the spotlight, there are any number of ways to rectify the situation in the long term, should that be so desired.
Attention to detail
After the hellacious moments they went through, it made perfect sense for Strowman, Cesaro and Sheamus to sit out and mend their wounds. Having Angle receive one last text message and finally set up the reveal of what exactly he's gotten himself into for next week kept that story on the perfect pace in a world that often doesn't allow for slow builds.
But ultimately, it was the story of Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose, and their interaction with the Miz-tourage that served as one of the brightest examples of a change in approach. One of WWE's biggest problems is taking years of backstory and history and failing to incorporate it within ongoing storylines. It often boils down to, "Hey you're a good guy -- let's be friends and partners" or "We're both evil -- perhaps we can set this aside and defeat our common enemy."
You could see it in recent months when Rollins and Reigns were paired up. Their wasn't nearly enough chaos, animosity or even discussion between the two former Shield compatriots, considering the tension that should have existed between the two after Rollins stabbed Reigns and Ambrose in the back and feuded with them for years.
That was remedied Monday night. Rollins ran out to save an outmanned Ambrose against The Miz and his cronies, and when the show came back from commercial, there was a 30-second backstage moment where Ambrose told Rollins to, "Stay out of my battles." That simple moment is all that it takes. Instead of insulting the intelligence of part of your audience, acknowledge their past, use it, and move things along.
After Rollins lost to Bray Wyatt for the second straight night, the Miz-tourage came out to get their revenge for the meddling he'd done in their business earlier in the night. A reluctant Ambrose ultimately came out to save Rollins, and the moment carried so much more meaning because of how conflicted Ambrose was over the whole situation. Great storytelling.
On a side note, between the last few weeks, their post-Great Balls of Fire appearance on Raw Talk and "The Mizzies", there's a lot to like about the new quartet surrounding The Miz.
The isolation and closed loop of 205 Live
205 Live continues to exist in this nebulous state where it's part of Raw, but not really. What's worse, is that it continues to pull itself into these never-ending loops that do very little to help anyone outside of Neville. With the unfortunate departure of Austin Aries last week, the cruiserweight division needs another star. Akira Tozawa is making strides, but if the WWE wants to do something similar with Cedric Alexander, they need to pull him as far away from Noam Dar and Alicia Fox as humanly possible, as quickly as they can.
Finn flounders without a meaningful direction to go
It was jarring to see Finn Balor left off of the Great Balls of Fire card, but it served as a reminder to his lack of a meaningful path forward. His rivalry with Elias Samson has been fun at times, and Samson has overachieved in terms of the heat he's drawing, but amidst the multitude of stars on Raw right now, Balor feels as though he's lost in the shuffle. As several WWE on ESPN staff members pointed out, there's one clear path to immediate relevance and unmatched star power, and it would be foolish to dismiss the ability out of hand.
Big Cass still has some work to do
There's no denying his physicality, or his belief in what he's saying, but the more time that Big Cass gets on the mic, the more some of his tics and flaws emerge. He needs to work on his delivery, with the tone of his voice becoming mechanical, as if he's reading something slowly off a page in his mind. Working with the Big Show should do wonders for Cass in the ring, but if he's really going to be positioned as a top star going forward, he needs to find a way to sound more natural in his promos.