This week on the Story of Wrestling podcast, fellow A.V. Club writer Alasdair Wilkins and myself took a dive into everything WWE from the past year. We ran through some of our favorite matches and moments while also looking ahead to what excites us about the product’s direction, and where WWE can succeed in 2017. During this conversation we inevitably came to the way both Raw and Smackdown! Live have been handling the brand extension PPV schedule, what with the wonky schedule and all, and Alasdair clearly pointed out one of the biggest differences in how the two shows approach the strange scheduling. He said that Smackdown! Live is good at masking when it’s in a holding pattern, and that strikes me as a particularly relevant point this week, so I’m going to steal it and use it as a jumping off point for my review of this week’s truly abysmal Raw.

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What Alasdair meant by Smackdown! Live being able to mask its holding patterns is similar to a point both LaToya and I have been making in our reviews here at The A.V. Club: where Raw seems to just throw things at the wall and hope they stick, Smackdown! Live is imbuing its show with meaningful directions for all of its superstars, whether they’re in the main event or not. So a “holding pattern” on Smackdown! Live is James Ellsworth inserting himself, however tangentially, into the Championship picture, or Randy Orton getting in creepy backstage situations with the Wyatts until he can have a blow-off match with Bray. What’s great about making sure these holding patterns aren’t just tossed off segments though is that they can lead to very real brilliance.

So, Smackdown! Live captures lightning in a bottle with Ellsworth, with Slater and Rhyno becoming Tag Team Champions, and Randy Orton doing his best work in years by joining the Wyatt Family. By treating every little thing as important, Smackdown! Live fosters an atmosphere of creativity and a feeling of “anything can happen,” and that leads to truly memorable moments and feuds.

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Raw on the other hand can’t seem to make even its main event feuds—yes, that’s plural—feel significant. What Smackdown! Live seems to understand is that your show is filled with tools that allow you to tell a compelling story. So yes, James Ellsworth is a bit of a joke, but using the tools that enable a few sneaky wins gives him a case for a title shot, and that allows the show to use Ellsworth to tell a more layered story with Dean Ambrose and AJ Styles. Everything on a wrestling show is a piece that can be used to craft a story, and yet Raw stubbornly refuses to use its pieces in a compelling way.

Take the United States Championship as an example. It’s a title that’s been fitfully important across the years, and yet found new importance after John Cena instituted the United States Championship Open Challenge. Rusev made the title an important part of his story as well, weaving it into various lukewarm feuds. Ever since that title found a home on the soaking wet shoulder of Roman Reigns though, it’s been nothing but an empty signifier of Reigns’ superiority. He had to win it from Rusev because he has to win everything. Hell, he can’t even lose the title, in a handicap match no less, without looking like the boss of the bout.

Moving the title off of Reigns is a good thing on paper, but the execution up to this moment, where Y2J finally triumphs, is poorly handled. There’s no stakes because the title doesn’t mean a thing to Reigns. His defeat is meaningless because he has a shot at the more important title in just a few weeks. Motivations and results don’t match up. The idea is that Reigns is scratching and clawing his way back to the Universal Championship, but that’s hard to pull off when there’s, you know, a complete absence of scratching and crawling.

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That kind of lazy storytelling runs rampant throughout the night, as WWE makes a number of baffling decisions in regards to the motivations of their characters. The most frustrating of all may still be Stephanie McMahon, who fluctuates between being a face and a heel so much that it makes Big Show blush. Here she not only publicly humiliates Mick Foley, she gets in the face of Bayley and Sasha Banks for having the nerve to come into her office…just like every other Superstar does each and every week. That might sound nitpicky, like I’m reading too much into the interaction, but at the same time this is how Raw is positioning itself every single Monday night. Steph’s continuous shaming and punishment of the roster could be chalked up to making her character seem more villainous if that actually seemed like the goal. Here, it’s just pointless aggression in order to set up a tag team match. Again, it’s a moment that’s disconnected from everything else, a moment simply for the sake of being a “moment.”

Raw lives for those meaningless moments though, and there are plenty tonight. First, there’s HBK coming out to promote his Jesus movie before he joins Enzo and Cass in telling Rusev, Lana, and Jinder Mahal to “suck it,” followed by a Superkick to the Bulgarian Brute. At this point, WWE sacrificing its legitimate, fresh, homegrown talent to its Hall of Famers is old news, but that doesn’t mean it’s any less painful to watch. Rusev is out there making the most of an atrocious segment, and his reward, for this and for months of amazing in-ring and mic work, is getting kicked in the face by a 51-year-old man who will once again disappear into the night while decked out in camo gear. Similarly, the Undertaker is here to assert that he’s back, something he did on Smackdown! Live not all that long ago, and that he plans on being in the Royal Rumble match. No mention of his appearance on Smackdown! Live, no mention of why he’s choosing to be in the Rumble.

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That’s Raw right now: a show filled with segments that actively work against the talent of the performers while failing to move any stories forward or build on previous feuds. Empty nostalgia is to blame for the horrendous HBK segment, but what’s WWE’s excuse for the rest of the show? What’s Raw‘s excuse for being so lifeless despite the fact that the Royal Rumble is a mere three weeks away? There are no excuses. Raw boasts a roster that’s bursting at the seams with talent, and this week’s limp episode is yet another example of how that talent is being wasted.

Stray observations

  • Results: Braun Strowman vs. Seth Rollins ended in a double countout; Jack Gallagher defeated Drew Gulak; Big Cass defeated Jinder Mahal; Neville defeated Lince Dorado; Sheamus defeated Luke Gallows; Nia Jax and Charlotte defeated Bayley and Sasha Banks; Kofi Kingston defeated Titus O’Neil; Chris Jericho (and Kevin Owens) defeated Roman Reigns (United States Championship match).
  • Sitting through this Raw was almost worth it for Rusev calling himself the “Bulgarian George Clooney.”
  • Is it just me or does Raw currently resemble WWE 2k17 and it’s rather abysmal MyCareer mode? Every promo feels contrived, every feud and run-in disconnected from a larger plan, and every backstage segment emotionally removed from what’s going on in the ring.
  • HBK refers to himself as HB-Shizzle at one point, and that tells you all you need to know about this week’s Raw.
  • Michael Cole: “Were you impressed with the first Gentleman’s Duel?” Austin Aries: “Absolutely not.”
  • Neville and Rich Swann brought a nice intensity to their brief in-ring confrontation.
  • I still don’t understand why The Undertaker announced his Rumble entry on Raw and not Smackdown! Live, where he’s long been a key player. Plus, that’s where Cena is.
  • Stephanie McMahon is such a bad Commissioner that she lists a number of Mick Foley’s accomplishments and great ideas before trying to fire him.

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