As quickly as Survivor Series has gone, thanks to WWE’s continued commitment to a high volume of pay-per-views, SmackDown! is now on to the next with the brand-specific TLC. Sure, this week’s episode of SmackDown! has plenty to discuss with regards to Survivor Series (Did they achieve brand supremacy? The answer is: “Who cares?”), but the show’s time constraints lead to a blessing in disguise when it comes it not exactly having the luxury of dwelling on what just happened on Sunday. This year’s TLC is on December 4, so SmackDown! must look forward above all else. And this week’s show is absolutely quick to book a good number of the matches right here and right now.

Obviously, Dean Ambrose’s WWE World Championship match against AJ Styles has been on the books for a while now, but this week’s SmackDown! also throws in the long expected No Disqualification match between Nikki Bella and Carmella, a “one last time” Ladder match for the Intercontinental Championship between The Miz and Dolph Ziggler, Becky Lynch defending her Women’s Championship against Alexa Bliss, and Kalisto taking on Baron Corbin in a Chairs match. They’re all feuds that SmackDown! has been working on for months, and while it’s typically easy to experience a sense of fatigue in that, SmackDown! is quite successful in making all of these matches feel like the natural progression for the storylines. Because they pretty much are.

Case in point: For Nikki and Carmella’s TLC match, they’re given a gimmick that has made sense since the beginning of their feud and isn’t simply happening just as a way to make history.

But even with a firm, set plan, SmackDown! is far from perfect. Actually, the world of SmackDown! is far from perfect, which is both good and bad. This week’s show obviously has bits that are specifically a result of a less-than-successful Survivor Series for SmackDown!—despite the traditional five-on-five men’s win and Miz title retention—but the show’s imperfections and messiness (both intentional and otherwise) actually come as the result of the blue brand’s greatest asset. That would be its designation as the WWE’s “land of opportunity.”

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Yes, SmackDown! is currently in absolute chaos, all as a result of it being “the land of opportunity” and the answer to the way RAW does things. And it’s not necessarily something that’s unintentional, as even Bryan and Shane point out how out of order everyone and everything on the show has gotten. A battle-scarred Shane spends the majority of the episode—before he leaves the building before the show is over, that is—trying to rein in Dean Ambrose at his most “lunatic fringe”… But it’s not as though he or Bryan ever actually come up with a punishment to truly keep Dean away for the night. Dean returns, with a pizza or a tribute to The Mountie, and he’s sent away—but he always comes back. Shane just tells him to take the night off, and technically he does, even when he comes back to an arena he’s been “kicked out” of. There are no ramifications, just mild nuisance.

Why? Well, SmackDown! does things a little differently than RAW, right?

At the same time, Kalisto’s loss at Survivor Series gets him an Intercontinental Championship match against The Miz. That’s arguably a fair trade, as Baron Corbin is the one who cost him the Cruiserweight Championship (and SmackDown! the Cruiserweight division) and is punished by facing (the boss’ good friend) Kane… even though the last way to punish Corbin is to give him any sort of competition. Still, Kalisto and even Kane are getting opportunities! But Kalisto’s opportunity also serves as a punishment for The Miz, who did win his championship match at Survivor Series, effectively making one man’s opportunity another man’s nightmare.

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Though, not really, because The Miz ends up winning again. In fact, The Miz’s current situation has him finding loopholes in these promises of opportunity, which may not be the intent on Bryan’s part but certainly ends up working as a warped version of SmackDown!’s mission statement.

Besides that warped approach, the Shane McMahon/James Ellsworth/AJ Styles opening segment actually hits on a very big point and problem of this entire “land of opportunity” approach: There’s now a big matter of who does and doesn’t “deserve” certain spots on the show. AJ is of course speaking from a heel mentality when he mentions this, no matter how right he is about how much he “deserves” the spot he’s currently in. But at the same time, there’s very little talk of “earning” in combination with “deserve.”

Corbin has staked his claim as a big fish on SmackDown!, but it’s on a platform of deserving opportunities, as much as Bryan continues to say he hasn’t earned anything. And on paper, Miz deserves his celebration of his victory at Survivor Series, but in Bryan’s discussions about doing things “the right way,” the point basically remains that he has yet to earn it. (His clean wins may have started this feud, but they’re certainly not part of it anymore.) Then, while Alexa Bliss continues to be right about how she was screwed in her title match, she also believes she straight up deserves to have the title handed to her, as she argues she would have won. She also brings up “favoritism,” which is of course such a heel excuse but is honestly a large part of how SmackDown! operates—and not just in terms of fan favoritism—especially when it comes to Daniel Bryan. While SmackDown! is open to everyone getting their chances, if you go for those chances in a way Bryan (and to a lesser degree, Shane) likes, then the chances are better.

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Favoritism and entitlement achieve a new level in the tag team division, though. The Wyatt Family simply skips the line in terms of Tag Team Championship contention—on an episode where there’s a Tag Team Turmoil match, which is “the right way”—presumably because Randy Orton is Randy Orton. Even the chillest of intense wrestlers, Chad Gable, can’t help but call that out on Talking Smack.

And yet AJ Styles’ point about “earning” versus “deserving” and being handed things comes at the expense of James Ellsworth, who, love him or hate him, has earned his spot. He’s caught fire in this lovable loser role, and in real life, that’s paid off and got him an honest-to-god WWE contract. He and AJ Styles perhaps have the most in common, despite the fact that even Ellsworth acknowledges that Styles has more talent in his finger than Ellsworth has in his entire body. And that’s where the true venom comes from, because Ellsworth is a joke… but in this “land of opportunity,” he’s a joke who can end up living his dream based on striking lightning in a bottle. AJ Styles had to prove himself for years—with the constant knowledge that he was the best—to get here. Ellsworth being the “worst” didn’t just get him here: It got him two (now three) wins over Styles.

That’s insane. Everything I’ve written about this episode is both insane and absolutely indicative of what makes WWE and professional wrestling, in general, so fascinating. This here is a comedy story in the middle of a main event story, but there’s still something there, something that only makes sense within the context of this particular brand. Just like how a list only makes sense on RAW. SmackDown! somehow manages to have both the best wrestler in the world and the least WWE-like wrestler in the world on their roster. And not only are they not the same person, they’re treated as equally important to the very fabric of the show’s concept, even when they’re not treated as equally talented. Because they’re not equally talented, but they are part of what makes SmackDown! so interesting.

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Well, that and Natalya’s continued appreciation of VH1’s Divas Live (and Chumbawamba).

But like I said, SmackDown! isn’t perfect, both because of its fascinating approach to things and in spite of it. One of the only “real” matches in this week’s show is a Tag Team Turmoil that—like the tag team Survivor Series match—doesn’t become an actual match until it’s down to the final two competitors. American Alpha versus The Usos certainly becomes a hell of a match once it begins, but it’s still not the only part of the match.The other ”real” match, Becky versus Natalya, is solid but maintains the rest of the episode’s dangerous necessary evil nature (as we’ve only got a couple of weeks until TLC). And as great of a sight gag as Ellsworth in a neck brace (and eventually, a girdle) is, that’s a decision that also ignores the very real fact that, with such “injuries,” Ellsworth shouldn’t even be cleared to wrestle. Especially when it’s impossible to forget that this is a show where the GM so desperately wants to wrestle and can’t because of his very real injuries.

It’s a really great sight gag though:

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: The Miz defeated Kalisto (Intercontinental Championship); American Alpha defeated The Ascension, The Hype Bros, Breezango, The Vaudevillains, and The Usos (Tag Team Turmoil for #1 Contendership to SmackDown! Tag Team Championship); Becky Lynch defeated Natalya; Baron Corbin defeated Kane (via Disqualification); James Ellsworth defeated AJ Styles (“Career versus Title Shot” Ladder match)
  • This is based mostly on this week’s pre-show, but Dasha Fuentes doesn’t appear to be ready for primetime. She’s obviously no Renee Young or Charley “Charles” Caruso (yet), but that doesn’t exactly excuse her very awkward pauses as she attempts to remember her lines on live TV. Her NXT work isn’t much better, so hopefully something clicks and she gets more comfortable soon.
  • Alexa Bliss remains the only person who truly reacts to Natalya’s music-based mental breakdown, so this week, she has a conniption over the lyrics to “My Heart Will Go On.” This is such a different dynamic, so hopefully it continues.
  • “Heard it! Loved it!” An offscreen Dean Ambrose yelling out his acceptance of one of Becky Lynch’s goofier puns is just aces. While Ambrose is pretty much in full “haha, this hothead” mode this week, I kind of appreciate how much of that mode appears to be him just trying to make both Shane and Bryan break. Plus, like I’ve pointed out, it’s easy to be in that mode when there’s no threat of real punishment.
  • Obviously you can’t go wrong with American Alpha versus The Usos, but I’d argue either team could have pulled off a really good match with any of the other teams in the Tag Team Turmoil… Except for maybe The Hype Bros, since Survivor Series confirmed that only half of that team is willing to go out and have an actual wrestling match.
  • By the way, did anyone else see that kid going hard for The Usos’ theme? He was feeling it, as well as the large amount of cotton candy he was holding. That kid gets it.
  • The thing that makes WWE booking even more frustrating in certain SmackDown! situations is when Daniel Bryan (especially on Talking Smack) goes on about the type of things he wants for the show and that plenty of fans can agree on… which basically serve as reminders to those same fans that he has absolutely no say in anything. His points about the cruiserweights and simply wanting to make “stars” on SmackDown! hit really close to home, as they bring up how there is at least somewhat of a knowledge in WWE when it comes to its problems, and yet they don’t matter to whoever makes the actual decisions.
  • At the same time, while I do agree the cruiserweights coming to SmackDown! would probably help them immensely, I also think the show’s timing issues could hinder them. This week’s RAW did better by them than usual, but there is still so much work to be done.
  • Bryan calls Baron Corbin “reckless and stupid” for his actions at Survivor Series and during tonight’s Intercontinental Championship match. And that’s basically the height of true punishment on SmackDown! After this week’s RAW, Sami Zayn (who was far from the only RAW loser at Survivor Series, but I digress) should really look into trade policies…
  • AJ Styles is in an interesting place where he can obviously have a good to great match with literally anyone else on the roster, but at the same time, WWE is picking its spots to make sure they don’t have him run through said (limited) roster on a weekly basis. That’s the biggest reason for a character like James Ellsworth really, as he ultimately eliminates the need for what could be AJ versus no name jobbers while also maintaining a connection for the audience to latch onto in an AJ match (outside of AJ himself).

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