At this point we all know that Smackdown! Live is superior to Raw in almost every way. It’s a point that both LaToya and I have noted ever since the brand extension. At this point though, there’s no real point in arguing about which show is better. Rather, the how becomes important. Because, when it really comes down to it, there are a lot of similarities between the two shows. They follow similar structures each week, they basically have the same number of championships, and their rosters both have a number of standout stars and more underappreciated gems. So, how does Smackdown! Live continue to succeed where Raw fails each and every week?

The more welcoming two-hour runtime is a big part of it, to be sure, but there’s much more to it than that. Two hours is still a ton of time to fill, and a lot to ask of your audience if you’re not crafting compelling segments that build off one another. That may be Smackdown‘s biggest asset right now: it’s ability to build stories that feel meaningful and connected to previous motivations and outcomes. So, while the first half of this week’s show is dominated by multi-person tag matches and a ponderous backstage segment, that doesn’t mean the show is listless. Instead, those often underwhelming or forgettable segments are turned into fodder for compelling stories going forward.

Take the opening tag match for instance. In it we see the Tag Team Champions Heath Slater and Rhyno team up with American Alpha to take on The Ascension (in new facepaint) and The Usos, complete with new music and a look that brings them ever closer becoming the skinnier version of Jamal and Rosie. It’s a typical Smackdown match, a multi-man bout where the faces go up against the heels. It’s a match meant to get the crowd going, and guess what? That’s exactly what it does. There’s no shame in that, in executing your plan perfectly. But Smackdown also does more. Whereas Raw began this week with a 30-minute match that ended in a double countout, the Usos pick up the win here in a pretty tight contest. It’s great booking, plain and simple. Not only does it keep the Usos looking like threats after their heel turn—Raw‘s best shot at a true heel team keep on losing to New Day—but it also keeps Slater and Rhyno in that underdog position. That’s a position that benefits the champs, that gives them more options and more opportunity for success heading into No Mercy. Being an underdog team with the titles can be tough because the chase is always more exciting. Here, WWE manages to keep that magic alive heading into next week’s go-home show.

There are similar patterns in the Women’s tag match as well. It doesn’t quite have the high spots of the previous match—to be fair, the Slater hot tag is maybe the best moment of the entire show—but it does keep these feuds moving forward while giving the women some time to work. That may sound really simple, but that’s a big step forward for the division. WWE has always struggled to handle a single Women’s storyline, and it’s practically never managed to balance two at once. Smackdown! Live is doing things differently. So, while Alexa Bliss is getting the jump on Becky Lynch before she can even get out to the ring—another unexpected, refreshing segment on an episode filled with them—Nikki and Carmella are building towards their own confrontation, probably for the right to be the one woman who can wear a snapback on air.

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You see, what Smackdown! Live gets right is that there needs to be a balance and variety to the segments, but that each one also needs to be important on some level. The audience isn’t stupid (mostly) and can follow along with multiple storylines at a time. Just because AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, and John Cena are feuding at the top of the card, all of them with a myriad of motivations to win the title, doesn’t mean that Miz and Ziggler fighting over the Intercontinental Championship can’t be fuelled by equally powerful emotions, or that Becky getting laid out by Alexa can’t feel like a devastating punch to the gut. Professional wrestling is the business of creating characters that we fall for and are invested in, and right now Smackdown! Live is doing everything it can to make sure that all of its characters are important. For all intents and purposes, the Miz-Ziggler feud should be dead in the water by now. At least that’s what the last few years of WWE storytelling has programmed us to think. Instead, Ziggler and the Miz come out this week and deliver some of their best mic work yet—even if we’ve seen this version of Ziggler many times before—and immediately find the stakes in what should be their final match, as Ziggler’s career is put on the line at No Mercy.

Even something as previously numbing as Bray Wyatt’s voodoo bullshit is given new life here. Randy Orton spends the entirety of the show wandering around backstage looking for Wyatt, who refuses to come out of his room, presumably because it comes with a sweet fog machine. That’s a DOA idea on paper, but what Smackdown! Live does here is of a piece with the entire show. It’s fresh and new and different from everything else on the show, meaning the audience is willing to give it a little more leeway. It helps that the segments are legitimately creepy, with Orton slowly opening doors, following Blair Witch-style signs, and narrowly avoiding a run-in with Erick Rowan. The ultimate payoff is a little messy—it’s actually hard to tell if it’s meant to be strange or if it’s a technical glitch—but the outcome remains intact: Orton looks like a man who can sink to Bray’s level of warped-ness, and Bray’s mystique is slowly being built back up.

Smackdown! Live is doing what Raw refuses to do: keeping things fresh, and making sure there are stakes throughout the night. Hell, Smackdown! Live makes a closing segment where John Cena stands tall above Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles feel earned rather than just another case of Cena looking strong. That’s because of the storytelling, and that’s why the whole episode is solid from top to bottom. Nikki and Carmella are building off their past, with the added depth of the new blood coming for the old guard; Styles, Cena, and Ambrose boast a complex set of motivations tied to legacy, worth, and identity; Ziggler and Miz are reckoning with the notion of longevity and purpose in this business, and the way in which history doesn’t remember the losers. All of this is to say that Smackdown! Live is telling downright compelling stories, and it couldn’t get much better.

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Stray observations

  • Results: The Usos and The Ascension defeated American Alpha and Heath Slater and Rhyno; Carmella and Natalya defeated Nikki Bella and Naomi; AJ Styles defeated Dean Ambrose (WWE World Championship match).
  • Smackdown! Live is so good right now that I almost believe the Curt Hawkins thing could work. Almost.
  • But seriously, there are only three matches tonight and Smackdown! Live still feels full and rewarding.
  • The booking at Backlash pays off huge tonight. Big cheers for Slater and Rhyno, as well as Becky and Nikki, and there’s palpable investment in the Ziggler-Miz feud. That’s thanks, in large part, to putting together a smart PPV.
  • Tonight is maybe the best Dean Ambrose has looked in the ring in quite some time. I love the way he was more urgent, and the way he was adapting to Styles, like when he blocked that flurry of strikes and hit him with a neckbreaker. He knew what was coming! That’s how you keep a feud feeling fresh.
  • “This isn’t Mauro going back to Moosehead, Canada!” First of all, JBL, Moosehead is a beer. Second of all, it’s Moose Jaw, Canada, thank you very much.
  • One nitpick that has nothing to do with what Smackdown! Live accomplished tonight: I hate when crowds boo a match that won’t happen right this second. They did it tonight after Ziggler offered to put his career on the line. That’s a PPV match, you fools! Cheer for it, you entitled brats!

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