Once again, SmackDown! Live is tasked with creating a competent and compelling build for a pay-per-view out of just two weeks of programming. While the blue brand continued its streak of always being prepared by at least mentioning the Elimination Chamber pay-per-view before this past Sunday’s Royal Rumble pay-per-view, the official build for the Chamber starts with this week’s episode of SmackDown… in Corpus Christi, Texas. Yes, Corpus Christi, a city infamous for its lackluster reactions to televised WWE events, is the first of two stops in the build for the next SmackDown pay-per-view. It’s already difficult enough for WWE to sell these pay-per-views (in terms of literally putting butts in seats) on such short notice, but when the first crowd to get a certain amount of storytelling isn’t down for much reacting, that makes for an even tougher upward battle.

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So SmackDown starts with the Corpus Christi Special: It opens the show with John Cena. No WWE Superstar can get a casual WWE crowd more hyped than John Cena can, but even Corpus Christi proves itself to be the exception to the rule.

At first. Corpus Christi is somewhat inconsistent in its reactions to this week’s show (despite the melee with the tag team division, there’s absolutely no reaction during that segment), but for once, that inconsistency ends up weighing more on the side of excitement and genuine interest in the show. Cena’s opening promo doesn’t inspire much confidence in the crowd’s ability to make it loud, but fast forward a few minutes to the tag match between The Wyatt Family and the unlikely duo of John Cena and Luke Harper, and the fear is gone. And while it’s natural to worry about the typical Corpus Christi crowd reappearing when it finally comes time for the main event, amazingly, they’re absolutely on fire for the latest installment of AJ Styles and Dean Ambrose, a match that deserves a hot crowd.

With a decent crowd on hand and a pay-per-view on the way—plus the Road To WrestleMania—this week’s SmackDown gets to work. In its main event scene, in its women’s division, in its tag team division, and even in its mid-card. This week’s show has it all, creating a very good product from top to bottom even when it’s not devoting the most time to certain things. Because SmackDown is a show that thrives on the art of brevity and time management. There are no overruns for this show, and there’s just no way everything can make it on each week. For example, last week’s Carmella and James Ellsworth shopping spree was originally promoted for the week before, and there simply was no time. But when SmackDown needs to tell its stories, it makes sure it tells its stories. That even applies to something as simple and vicious as the new info sidebar for AJ Styles: “Lost the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble.”

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One might question for a second why WWE production would be so bold as to make that the “fun fact” for any of its Superstars, but once you think about the way the AJ Styles characters is portrayed and how he treats everyone in the back, it makes all the sense in the world. In the blue-tinged world of SmackDown! Live, that new sidebar is the production equivalent of AJ wearing John Cena’s armband as a headband. Actions have consequences. Go figure.

As the opening Cena promo segues into Shane McMahon doing his best Teddy Long impression and putting together an immediate tag match, it’s clear there’s only one major story being told in this match. That story is certainly not really about champion John Cena or the main event of WrestleMania as it stands now. The Wyatt Family is either in disarray or stronger than it’s ever been right now, and the tag match itself tells a great story as it essentially becomes a handicap match: Harper only wants in the match when Orton’s in the ring, so eventually Bray and Randy don’t give him what he wants, and cannon fodder Cena suffers for it. For the brief period early on in the match when Harper gets some face time with Orton, the crowd is on fire, especially with tag team hype-ologist Cena convincing the crowd that Harper is a pure babyface who also happens to be a pure backwoods cultist. And at the end Harper finally gets over his refusal to lay hands on Bray… but he still comes up short.

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Somehow all of this leads this leads to Cena and Orton being booked as a one-on-one match for next week’s SmackDown.

Now, obviously the grade says this is a very good episode of SmackDown, and it is. But what follows (re: Cena/Orton and WrestleMania) is more of an attempted deconstruction of what WWE’s currently doing than a criticism. SmackDown just happens to be in the middle of it, given the Royal Rumble winner.

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Alright. Considering that WWE Champion John Cena versus Royal Rumble winner Randy Orton match is currently the penciled-in main event for WrestleMania, there’s something highly surreal about the choice to put them in a one-on-one match next week or any time before Elimination Chamber, even if next week’s one-on-one match doesn’t go down at all. Because again, given their current positions—and only one position can change—this match-up is already the main event of this year’s WrestleMania.

Obviously, Elimination Chamber can change things and AJ Styles is still owed his one-on-one rematch. But WWE programming makes a habit of presenting that things won’t change in these types of situations as a way to bring out the excitement once they go with the “anything can happen” decision. So Cena versus Orton should be considered a done deal for the big show and not a match SmackDown wants to get out of the way next week just in case it doesn’t happen at WrestleMania. In fact, “getting it out of the way” is a point the show doesn’t even address, even though it’s the only logical, in-story explanation for the match. (Orton pinning Cena in a tag match is far from a good excuse in this instance.) WWE can make some pretty questionable decisions, but to have this match on SmackDown and then go with it again at WrestleMania probably isn’t one of them.

The more obvious explanation is that WWE isn’t even pretending Cena/Orton is actually going to happen WrestleMania, in the main event or otherwise. But is that a bad decision? It is in the sense that it’s ignoring the basic concept of there possibly being excitement following the aftermath of Elimination Chamber and leading up to WrestleMania, but it’s good in the sense that it implies a refusal to insult the audience’s intelligence when it comes to who Randy Orton will really face at WrestleMania. Based on the past few months of SmackDown, Randy Orton winning the Royal Rumble leads to only one storytelling road; and given this SmackDown’s confirmation of the Elimination Chamber match participants, that road is now even clearer. Meanwhile, John Cena achieving his 16th title reign is essentially the end of a story. Cena wanted to tie Ric Flair, and now he has. There’s a story in him surpassing that tie, but in order to do that, he has to lose the WWE Championship first. While Orton’s WrestleMania story must be a title match and must be connected with Bray Wyatt, Cena’s is still a mystery. It’s just so obviously not with Orton, not that that excuses WWE booking a singles match between them for next week’s show.

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WWE and SmackDown would have to actively and somewhat crazily go against the stories they’ve been building to make Orton/Cena an actual WrestleMania match this year, and since injuries aren’t plaguing the roster again, there’s no reason for that.

Or maybe WWE really does think another Cena/Orton match is the perfect choice to main event both its biggest pay-per-view and a random episode of SmackDown before that, and to keep it interesting, the main event of WrestleMania will be a Bray Wyatt & Luke Harper In Two Shark Cages match. But keep in mind that John Cena’s opening promo is more concerned with the past of AJ and the future of his reign than who he should currently be considering his official WrestleMania dance partner, Randy Orton.

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The main event for this week’s SmackDown also isn’t a new match-up, but at least it’s not a one-on-one match that’s supposedly setting up another one-on-one match. On the contrary, it’s setting up the Elimination Chamber match. This time, AJ Styles versus Dean Ambrose isn’t for the WWE Championship (and even though Ambrose has the Intercontinental Championship, that’s not on the line either), but they certainly fight with the type of passion and urgency that could convince anyone that it is. These are two men who have carried SmackDown on their backs, and this match is a reminder why and how; the same goes for The Miz during this match in his role doing guest commentary.

As if the four-man commentary table (that only uses three commentators) isn’t enough, the main event turns it into a near parody by adding The Miz with Maryse, only to then add Baron Corbin midway through. This is part of what SmackDown has to do to build up a fast-approaching pay-per-view, and it’s the closest thing a polished weekly live spectacle can have to a DIY feel. SmackDown doesn’t have weeks of one-on-one matches and rival tag matches to build and sell Elimination Chamber. It has this week’s show and next week’s show, and if there’s one person who truly gets that this week (and what he’s supposed to do when he’s on commentary), it’s The Miz.

The Miz spends his time on commentary talking about the current match, putting over the competitors (both in their efforts here and their eventual efforts when he faces them in the Elimination Chamber), and also putting over his contributions to and experiences within the business. It’s the type of guest Superstar commentary that you want on a wrestling show, especially as The Miz works overtime to sell this pay-per-view and the Elimination Chamber match as a concept.

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Sadly, the SmackDown commentary team still includes David Otunga, and while Miz and his character work are at such a high level here, Otunga still can’t connect on commentary without derailing the stories being told in the match and on commentary. It’s not just during the main event either, as in the very short match between Kalisto and Dolph Ziggler (clearly setting up Ziggler versus Apollo Crews at the pay-per-view), something as small as Otunga saying Kalisto’s facing the new, mean Ziggler like he’s the old Ziggler is immediately proven false less (and poorly analyzed) than a second later as the referee has to physically remove Kalisto from Ziggler. But during the main event, Otunga’s absolute inability to discuss heel Superstars without attempting to emasculate them rolls on, this time with the heel Superstar right there. (Just like when AJ Styles was on commentary.) Miz’s impressive work on commentary is then put to the test as he has to sell everything he’s already selling… while shutting down Otunga’s weak arguments about Miz’s supposed impotence compared to the other competitors in the Elimination Chamber match. As Miz points out, he’s a 14-time champion whose main-evented WrestleMania and been in an Elimination Chamber match. So as much as Otunga tries to discredit him with things like the fact he’s ‘only been in one’ Elimination Chamber or that his wife exists, Miz can’t help but fire back with facts and more compliments for his actual in-ring opponents.

Otunga’s job as a babyface commentator is not to actively antagonize the heels or attempt to destroy all of their credibility (even if he doesn’t succeed at that), nor is it to bury his head in the sand about certain wrestlers’ abilities just because they aren’t as muscle-bound as Cena or Crews. So as fun as it is to hear Miz and, to a lesser extent, Baron Corbin (who’s thrown into the deep end here and barely gets out alive) on commentary, the strain he goes through in trying to do his job well while Otunga’s incompetence derails things isn’t fun at all. And it distracts from an otherwise great match, something not even the end shenanigans do. (What works about the finish to the match is that Dean clearly has the match won if he just keeps going against AJ—even though the referee gets distracted—and waits until after the match to raise a little Hell. The loss is completely on him.)

But it’s not like Otunga is the only one not getting the job done on commentary, as we get another installment of JBL spending the entirety of the Carmella/enhancement talent match insulting (screaming about) the enhancement talent’s looks, a choice that isn’t helping anyone, anything, or selling the story. Because the story WWE is telling about Ellsworth actively cheating in Carmella’s matches clearly requires her to take on lower level talent first, but the commentary has taken no time to discuss how or why Carmella is getting these match-ups in the first place or how Ellsworth has completely fallen under her spell. For some reason, JBL has to scream about an inconsequential woman being an Oompa Loompa, when he’s not still screaming about Ellsworth. The talent is getting the work done, and so is the crowd this week, but the commentary is doing more harm than good.

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Speaking of talent getting the work done, American Alpha won the SmackDown! Live Tag Team Championship, defeating Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton to do so. Twice. Yet all they’re left to do is work as generic lumberjacks (when even Jack Swagger doesn’t show up for that) and… Well, they’re not even fodder for the Royal Rumble. And as this week’s SmackDown points out, they’re justifiably angry about that. American Alpha have been slightly cocky since they showed up on the main roster, but as their segment in this week’s SmackDown (as well as their segment on Talking Smack) makes clear, it’s a cockiness that’s based solely on their ability and desire to back it up. They didn’t come here to hold some gold and not defend it. And you know what? Their cockiness is good for them, Chad Gable blindly swinging his title while Jason Jordan ducks is good for them, issuing an open challenge is good for them, and Jason Jordan teasing Dasha Fuentes into showing human emotion (via wishing them luck) is good for them. Sadly, despite enjoying the backstage segment, Corpus Christi lives up to its reputation with the in-ring segment itself, the crowd sitting on their hands for the entire segment—which is especially surprising since it features six SmackDown tag teams just straight up brawling in the middle of the ring, as security only exists for Natalya now.

On Talking Smack, Daniel Bryan confirms—and assuages the concerns of members of the WWE Universe with long-term memories—that the Tag Team Championship will be defended in a Tag Team Turmoil match at the pay-per-view instead on an expected Elimination Chamber match. So the tag team champions have something to do going into Elimination Chamber, and so does the entire tag team division. The question now becomes one of where they go from here, especially with American Alpha’s fire on full display in their need for competition.

The question of what next also applies to Alexa Bliss and Naomi’s feud, which has a lot of the challenger pinning the champion trope, and now includes a title match at Elimination Chamber. The good news is that with this week’s tag team showing, as well as her performance in the Royal Rumble kickoff show tag match, Naomi is looking better than ever and crisper in the ring. The problem is that that’s not exactly new for Naomi—it’s just very inconsistent. As someone who wants to see Naomi succeed (yet sees the reality in it not happening, based on history), I can admit how good her past couple of showings in these tag matches have been. But Bliss versus Naomi back in October was not a hot single match-up, both because of Bliss’ greenness (which has been helped but not covered completely by her work with Becky) and the matter of Naomi’s intense athleticism not being able to hide her overall lack of ability as a ring general. This could be a good pay-per-view match, but it could also repeat the cycle for both women. At least Naomi shows some attitude in her pre-match segment with Becky though.

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And speaking of the other halves of this women’s match, all I really need to say is that it’s refreshing to have Mickie James back in an era where she and her competition don’t need to worry about being reprimanded for wrestling too well. She and Becky Lynch might be able to make something special in the ring soon. It might even blow our minds. It wouldn’t be surprising, especially since much stranger things have happened: Just listen to that Corpus Christi crowd again.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton) defeated John Cena and Luke Harper; Carmella defeated Delilah Dawson; Dolph Ziggler defeated Kalisto; Naomi and Becky Lynch defeated Alexa Bliss and Mickie James; American Alpha’s open challenge never truly opened; AJ Styles defeated Dean Ambrose
  • I’d like to thank Alasdair Wilkins for covering last week’s SmackDown review for me. I wouldn’t have given the episode as high of a grade (unless it was just for the shopping spree), but now here I am with this week’s episode, so let’s just keep praising the blue brand.
  • Natalya now has two security guards to protect her from Nikki Bella’s fearless rage. She also apparently thinks she has new merchandise. She’s funny that way.
  • Also, I appreciate that Natalya and Nikki’s back and forth (which, despite how fun the brawls are, really is dumb) has finally caused anger management graduate Daniel Bryan to break. He’s got to call his sponsor, right? (His sponsor is obviously Kane.)
  • Tyler. Breeze’s. Shorts.
  • Miz getting territorial, thinking that AJ is about to do one of “his” “YES” kicks is such a nice touch. Especially as he calms down (as much as he can) once he realizes it’s just a false alarm.
  • On Talking Smack, Bryan pointed out how Cena/Styles was the only SmackDown match on main card for Royal Rumble. At least the blue brand’s turning that into fuel for American Alpha, who weren’t even on the card at all.

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