At this point, it feels like a disclaimer is needed: Thanks to WWE’s perpetual pay-per-view schedule, this week’s SmackDown! already marks another go-home show.
This week’s RAW and SmackDown! both work surprisingly well when it comes to having a coherent in-show universe that don’t just feel like the usual repetition of the contemporary WWE structure. RAW had Seth Rollins’ parking lot assault on Chris Jericho and the Sheamus/Cesaro ballroom blitz, while SmackDown! goes for a classic WWE ending with one pissed on Dean Ambrose beating down AJ Styles (when he’s in the middle of interrupting Heath Slater and Rhyno’s interview time). What sticks out about these segments is how reminiscent they are of the better parts of the Attitude and Ruthless Aggression era, specifically in terms of feuds and relationships existing outside the arena and ringside area. The segments help build these feuds and worlds and character, and they’re type of things audiences remember and connect to outside of the actual in-ring product. There’s no reason to be afraid of that, and if WWE is truly realizing that again, then it’ll be worth all the awkwardly- placed crowd shots to come.
Surprisingly, there are only three matches on this week’s SmackDown! One of them (Dolph Ziggler/Kalisto versus The Miz/Baron Corbin) ends with a screwy finish, but it’s one that makes absolute sense given a certain Superstars’ present in the match. In fact, it would ring false for that tag match to end with any other than finish than Corbin going for the instant gratification and disqualification that comes with simply hurting Kalisto with a chair. It’s also an affable, fast-paced match that gets in, gets out, and gets the job done.
Though it’s important to note, especially with all this go-home talk, that TLC is a pay-per-view that can sell itself or fall flat on its ass solely based on match gimmick. Kalisto and Baron Corbin are in a competent enough feud against each other, but none of that matters when it comes to the Chairs match—which is like a poor man’s No Disqualification match that just so happens to have a lot more chairs around the ringside area than usual. Also, chairs are the only weapon you can use. While there’s no need to resign to an assumption that the match won’t knock it out of the park, it’s worth acknowledging that TLC is the closest thing to a “what you see is what you get” main roster WWE pay-per-view these days, and that’s neither a good nor a bad thing.
Also noteworthy? This week’s SmackDown! exists without any interference from the blue brand’s authority figures. Last week, I pointed out how this “land of opportunity” approach is somewhat intentionally turning SmackDown! into a zoo, “inmates running the asylum” style… But I never expected it to follow that up (most likely not as intentionally) by taking Shane McMahon and Daniel Bryan completely out of the equation (except for Bryan apparently texting confirmation on a match gimmick, during Talking Smack) this week. AJ Styles literally attempts to shatter James Ellsworth’s entire being this week, and no one in a position of power comes to put a stop that. As cloying as Mick Foley’s response to every other bit on RAW has become, this week, at least that work’s as an example of an authority figure caring about his show and Superstars. That’s insane.
And it’s disappointing, at worst, as this week’s SmackDown! is a go-home show that works relatively well, given the small window of time between pay-per-views and the complete absence of law and order. While SmackDown! has done well with its storytelling as a whole, TLC being a WWE pay-per-view that lives and dies based on who gets what gimmick mach feels like the biggest obstacle for it. In theory, TLC should signal the closing of quite a few chapters in SmackDown!’s book of feuds, but try as this show might, it doesn’t quite achieve that sense of finality. However, the very concept of it TLC is mostly to blame for that, as TLC feels like the underqualified substitute teacher for an AP class that actually wants to stay on task.
The only known match going into the pay-per-view that’s even truly lacking on the story front is Heath Slater/Rhyno versus The Wyatt Family, and that: 1. would have been the case no matter what non-Usos team the champions had to face, 2. is slightly made up for by The Wyatt Family story, 3. comes across more like the beginning of a story, not the end.
But the lead-up (American Alpha versus Bray Wyatt/Randy Orton) to that title match is worth it. Not only does this week’s main event help American Alpha with their slight main roster status problem (they’re still just babyfaces the crowd knows they’re “supposed” to like), it also gives the audience something a little different, even with its expected result. There’s something special about American Alpha versus the duo of Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton, and it’s apparent even before they lock up. It’s a simple concept too, as you have one pair of amateur wrestling experts with a strong team mentality against a pair of precise, methodical psychopaths who simply want to tear apart their opponents.
American Alpha want to out-wrestle their opponents, while Wyatt and Orton want to dismantle their opponents.
As the pre-match promo proves, American Alpha are very confident in their abilities, and they have every right to be, but they’re basically stepping into another world and league they’re not familiar with in this match. It’s a dynamic that’s won’t to be found in any other tag team combination on the blue roster, and each man plays their part, keeping the crowd with them the whole time. On the one hand, American Alpha beating Bray and Randy (especially if they could get the pin on Randy) would have worked wonders for them as team, without hurting Bray and Randy, especially since the latter team are still stuck in a “singles guys against actual tag teams” phase. On the other, Bray and Randy have tag team chemistry and this match is a showcase for that, both in terms of how they work together and how they keep up with American Alpha every step of the way.
Also, the finish is pretty damn fun. And the fact that Bray and Randy only win because of the “numbers game” advantage of Luke Harper keeps things on the up-and-up for the young talent, which is just as important as anything else.
However, the same can’t be said for Luke Harper’s match against Kane earlier in the night. It’s a mostly decent big man match that’s able to keep the audience’s attention, but that attention highlights a much larger question: Why is the Kane character still so protected. Watching this match, I wouldn’t call Kane a “bad” wrestler, but I would say he has slowed down to a point where it’s very difficult to ignore. Yet the product does ignore it, still trying to push Kane as in his prime, even as the match clearly comes off as Harper having to slow down everything in order for Kane to barely keep up with him. And then, while the finish may contribute to the potential power struggle within the Wyatt Family story, it’s still a part of of a larger “problem” within WWE.
I’m not saying there’s need for a “PLEASE RETIRE” chant, but with Kane so clearly no longer at the top of his game, it’s difficult not to question why he still comes out on top so often and especially so decisively.
So while Kane may have slowed down, even though there are only three matches on this week’s card, that doesn’t mean SmackDown! has slowed down this week too. It’s still advancing its stories and letting the talent show what they’ve got.
Just look at Carmella. Her promo on Nikki Bella “to” John Cena is a brutal personal attack that absolutely works when it comes to justifying the No DQ gimmick on Sunday. They want to destroy each other in every way possible, and it’s great to see. But the highlight of the segment is the littlest moment from it, as Carmella reacts to the crowd’s “HOW U DOIN’” chants with a surprisingly quick heel retort before she continues on with the rest of her promo. As usual, that type of thing should simply be expected in the world of live sports entertainment, but it’s not even always the case when it comes to main eventers who should know how to handle such situations, let alone less experienced wrestlers like Carmella.
And while WWE weakly attempts to argue that Kane’s “still got it,” it has no problem showing that AJ Styles could never possibly lose it at this point in his game.
This week’s SmackDown! is a good time to point out how the argument about AJ Styles becoming a joke due to his three losses to James Ellsworth doesn’t hold too much weight when you take into account that he’s still the guy—and a pretty cocky one at that—who gets unanimous cheers against the typically completely beloved Dean Ambrose and can absolutely decimate Ellsworth and Ambrose when he’s actually taking them seriously. Because that’s the thing: He hasn’t been taking Ellsworth seriously in any of their encounters, and his hubris combined with Dean’s interference have gotten the better of him.
At the same time, there’s never a sense of him being a paper champion or undeserving because of the losses, because as much of a jerk as he is, the video packages remind us all that AJ Styles is a “winner” and winners win. It’s not just talk, it’s the truth, love him or hate him. Obviously, Dean hates him, so he constantly brings up the losses against Ellsworth, but come on—AJ Styles is still AJ Styles. He doesn’t need to cheat to win, but he does just to guarantee wins. Kind of like how he doesn’t need to Styles Clash James Ellsworth on the steel steps, but he does just just to show he can break him. Even JBL, who has reached a point of simply screaming turtle comments on a loop when it comes to Ellsworth, thinks AJ goes too far this time around. AJ’s reached his breaking point, and there’s no joke in that.
There’s a time and a place for fun and games, and as SmackDown! realizes that, it makes this go-home show better for it. It’s just a shame there’s such a glaring lack of control surrounding this, as the brief presence of either Bryan or Shane would truly round this week’s show out. Especially after last week’s wild ride. Really, RAW may be running the Roadblock pay-per-view, but TLC just feels like a necessary roadblock (even with the obvious cool, non-Chair matches on the card) before it can get a fresh start. The only things left to do is wait and see.
- RESULTS: Dolph Ziggler and Kalisto defeated Baron Corbin and The Miz (via DQ); Kane defeated Luke Harper; The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton) defeated American Alpha (Chad Gable and Jason Jordan)
- I know WWE contract law is iffy, but shouldn’t Bryan making a Tables match mean Becky and Alexa need to sign entirely new contracts? If only he’d been around to address that…
- Given the absence of GM/Commissioner this week, Renee Young makes sense as the assigned adult for the contract signing. Plus, she’s a woman. But given Tom Phillips’ role as “host” of SmackDown!, shouldn’t he be in charge of things like this? Or anything?
- As I brought up Dean usually being unanimously cheered, I‘ll also note that the “cool guy” approach to his friendship with Ellsworth is hurting him a bit. Everyone dumps on Ellsworth, so when Dean does it (like when he asks Ellsworth to run his errands for him), it comes across more like Dean being a jerk than funny, and the crowds cool on him whenever he does it. The first Styles/Ellsworth match, with Dean essentially prolonging Ellsworth’s pain could find the humor in Dean making the guy his punching bag—but the characters weren’t buddies there. Dean getting serious on the way to the ambulance, blaming himself for this, and then jumping that “bastard” AJ Styles at the end of the show? Those are things the audience can get behind.
- At one point during Kane/Harper, David Otunga makes a point about Kane’s 20 years of in-ring dominance and punctuates it with a “right, Mauro?” Mauro Ranallo, who despite his wrestling knowledge, has no in-ring experience. At the same commentary booth as JBL, who has wrestled with and against Kane. Otunga has also faced Kane, unless people collectively imagined his in-ring career (which is becoming more likely by the week).
- I remember being genuinely terrified of Kane as a child, so I really do wonder if he strikes that same sense of fear in anyone these days. Even in this babyface form. So if you know any kids who think Kane is the toughest demon in the yard, please take to the comments. I’m curious.
- If there’s been one constant since AJ Styles beat John Cena at SummerSlam, it’s that everyone in the locker room wants to see him get his ass kicked. So the fact that Heath Slater and Rhyno don’t try to break up the brawl at the end and even cheer Dean on is a nice touch on top of them being upset with AJ for interrupting and insulting them in the first place.
- This week’s Talking Smack is a total microcosm of WWE’s approach to heel-face dynamics, as guest host Mike Mizanin (going as much out of character as he can) goes into the show with a pretty decent and professional approach to every non-Daniel Bryan babyface… only for them to insult him, unprovoked, in favor of the absent Bryan. And that’s with Ziggler (who still can’t get the worked shoot concept of the show right) basically calling Bryan bad at his job, even though they’re friends. That one checks out, I suppose. Mike even puts over Apollo Crews (his first obstacle in this war with Bryan), Zack Ryder, and Curt Hawkins, which is certainly not a Miz thing to do. He becomes more Miz-like as the episode goes on though, especially once Styles gets into the hot seat.
- Remember Cyber Sunday? Well, this was the go-home show leading into that. Please ignore that it keeps referring to Dusty Rhodes as “The American Dragon.”
- Speaking of, Daniel Bryan obviously intended to be on this week’s SmackDown!, so come up with your conspiracy theories as to why he wasn’t.