Smackdown! Live may be finding its footing in 2016, but there’s a very old school feel to the show that’s being fine-tuned each and every week. While Raw is struggling to fill its three hours with meaningful storylines, relying on the same old booking that’s defined the worst of the show in the last year or two, Smackdown is embracing a method of storytelling that would feel right at home in the early-to-mid ’90s and the first few months of the 2002 brand split. Patience, and an embracing of the entire roster, is really the key here. Where Raw is still the Roman Reigns show, with Seth Rollins and Finn Balor struggling to sell the importance of the WWE Universal Championship—no doubt the match will be great though—Smackdown is making everyone on their roster look like an asset, or at the very least (especially in terms of Eva Marie), an integral part of the storytelling process.

Just take a look at the opening segment this week. Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon are backstage chatting with Randy Orton about his SummerSlam match when they’re interrupted by Heath Slater, complete with fruit basket. He’s here to apologize for his behavior the week before, and he’s ready to be a part of Team Blue. Of course, Randy has an idea for how to make that happen. It’s such a simple setup for a match later in the night, but sometimes that’s all it takes. What’s more remarkable is the fact that Smackdown manages to pack a lot into the small segment. There’s Randy showing confidence about his match with Lesnar, Shane and Bryan exhausted by Slater’s attempts at signing a contract, and the small detail of Slater probably having stolen the fruit basket.

The eras of WWE I mentioned above were filled with these kinds of brief but meaningful segments. Raw in 2016 has a tendency to keep its feuds separate, sealed in some sort of bubble where the two superstars can’t interact with anyone else. Smackdown, on the other hand, is allowing all of these employees to exist in the same universe and have their own separate but interconnecting motivations. Imagine that! So, when the Miz hosts Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler on MizTV and Ziggler tells him to shut his mouth, he doesn’t have to fire back or take matters into his own hands because they’re part of a feud. Rather, he can step back and let Ambrose and Ziggler do their thing. It’s a small thing, but it’s important in establishing how this show works. The Miz has his title, and a commercial recap shows that he already has his hands full with Apollo Crews, but that doesn’t mean he’s still not interested in the chase for the WWE World Championship. “What happens if you lose at SummerSlam?” he asks Ziggler, an insightful comment on how much pressure Ziggler is putting on himself to turn his career around now that he’s exclusive to Smackdown. That’s a perfect role for the Miz to play, and considering that it’s been a short post-draft build to SummerSlam, his title match with Crews can take a back seat to the more important story here.

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The same philosophy, of interconnecting storylines and the fact that all of these superstars work together, informs the later matches too. Whereas Raw feels like this sprawling mess of characters right now who operate independently of one another, Smackdown is starting to feel like an insulated, but perfectly calibrated roster. The same top-tier talent might not be on this show, but there’s a focus to the storytelling that’s benefitting everyone. So, Randy Orton can demolish Heath Slater and still have a staredown with Bray Wyatt as he makes his way to the ring, or American Alpha can celebrate a win with the Usos while also trying to one up each other during the match to prove who’s the best tag team in the division. Sometimes WWE forgets that all of these superstars, no matter their face or heel alignments, are competing for top spots and championships, and that they can embody more than one motivation or emotion at once. Smackdown is building, for lack of a better word, a “universe” where everyone is looking to get to the top, and that means not just focusing on a single feud, but looking ahead, making an impression, and trying to stay on top.

What that amounts to is legitimate stakes night in and night out. I’m not talking about the obvious stakes that come with a Battle Royal to determine a number one contender—though those are great too!—but rather the stakes that come with clear motivations. Sure, there’s an established “upper card” on Smackdown, but there’s also the sense that anyone on this roster can challenge for a title at any point. That’s what Ziggler laying a heavy Superkick on Ambrose in the opening segment suggests. That’s what Slater making stands, however thwarted, against Lesnar and then Orton suggests. That’s what Corbin continually bullying Kalisto suggests. Everyone here is a player and looking to make an impact, and the same can’t be said for the way Raw is unfolding.

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Ultimately, this is a go-home show, and where Raw fails Smackdown succeeds. There’s no wasting of interactions or Demon entrances, no giving away of matches for free. Instead, Smackdown gives just enough without spoiling anything. What can I say? If you’re not hyped for the Smackdown matches at SummerSlam after Ziggler lays out Ambrose with that Superkick, or when Cena stands tall after putting AJ Styles through a table with an Attitude Adjustment, you just might be comatose. Raw is quickly falling into the same old rut by doing only a few things at a furious pace. Smackdown proves once again this week that it’s not rushing anything, instead focusing on building longterm storylines that give us insight into the dynamics of these superstars, and the identity of Smackdown as a whole.

The bottom line is that Smackdown is building up its matches to SummerSlam in a way that actually keeps fans engaged, rather than burning them out with familiar narrative beats. That’s huge, and it should only get better after the PPV, when the show has more time to hone in on its identity without the pressure of building to the second biggest PPV of the year. Add in some Smackdown-exclusive titles and suddenly the show is in a good position to compete with, and possibly surpass Raw for the must-watch main roster show of the week.

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Stray observations

  • Results: American Alpha, The Usos, and the Hype Bros defeated The Vaudevillains, Breezeango, and the Ascension; Eva Marie did not compete with Naomi after getting stuck in traffic; Heath Slater defeated Randy Orton (via DQ); Dean Ambrose defeated Erick Rowan; Becky Lynch and Carmella defeated Natalya and Alexa Bliss; John Cena defeated Alberto Del Rio.
  • Curt Hawkins is coming back after some time on the indies, and with a Tyson Kidd gimmick apparently.
  • “Eva Marie apologizes.” That announcer gets better each and every week.
  • Seriously, I don’t know if I ever want Eva Marie to wrestle. This “delayed debut” gimmick is too good.
  • “Kick your head right off your face.” Almost, Ziggler. Almost.
  • So, what’s the verdict on Naomi’s new look and modified music? I don’t even really care that much, so long as she gets some meaningful time in the ring. Such an underused talent.
  • How good was Ambrose on the mic tonight? His analysis of Ziggler as this dreamer/victim was spot-on.
  • That 12-man tag match seemed fun. Too bad the commercial resulted in 95% of it not being on TV.
  • Randy Orton mocking Brock Lesnar in gif form please.
  • Looks like No Mercy is coming back to the Smackdown brand.

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