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SmackDown! Live gets wild, but don’t get too excited

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AJ Styles (left), James Ellsworth

“Tonight was wild!”

Daniel Bryan’s not exactly wrong when he says that at the beginning of this week’s Talking Smack. It’s even truer when it comes to the end of Talking Smack. Coming off the blue brand’s No Mercy pay-per-view, SmackDown! Live has some time to kill before its next brand-specific pay-per-view; RAW has Hell In A Cell next and then the brands come together for Survivor Series. So what we get as a result this week is a “wild” episode of SmackDown! Live, one where the points almost don’t matter.

This week’s SmackDown! Live definitely feels more like a rough draft than any other episode in recent memory. It’s often harder to pinpoint what makes a messy SmackDown! Live as opposed to a messy RAW, but look no further than the one small thing the blue brand usually wouldn’t forget to include, warts and all: Curt Hawkins. On the No Mercy kickoff show, Hawkins announced that his first match would be on this week’s edition of SmackDown! Live. He’s not even on the show. Daniel Bryan, who points out plenty of WWE plot holes on a weekly basis on Talking Smack, doesn’t address it. And this doesn’t truly explain… anything. On the grander scale of things, no Curt Hawkins is probably for the best, but SmackDown! Live has been pretty good so far about following-up on its stories, big or small.

The biggest example of that is course everything about The Miz (and Maryse) in the opening segment, as they show up in mourning for the Intercontinental Championship. The show certainly peaks early, which is the risk it runs whenever it starts with this current iteration of the character.

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But take, for example, the presumed main event (the actual main event is surprisingly Orton/Wyatt-related again) of SmackDown! Live, which continues the oddly-shaped enhancement talent James Ellsworth’s rise to fame and a bigger payday on the independent circuit. It’s the culmination of a ridiculous subplot in a storyline between AJ Styles, John Cena, and Dean Ambrose, over the WWE championship. It’s the result of throwaway lines from AJ the past couple of weeks about having Ellsworth be his challenger instead of the two losers known as Cena and Ambrose. It’s in AJ’s promo tonight too, only this time, the dream’s coming true. AJ Styles’ next opponent is James Ellsworth, and as surreal as that is, it’s not as though he hadn’t been promising it. But then he loses to James Ellsworth, with an intense amount of shenanigans and an authority figure agenda in the process.

This is also the same show where directionless (but certainly full of glow) Naomi once again beats a competitor who actually has a stake in a current storyline.

This week’s show doesn’t attempt to reach the great match quota most of the recent shows have, but the best way to describe what makes this week’s SmackDown! Live feel so messy is by discussing the entire concept of the Styles/Ellsworth match. The match (with special guest referee Dean Ambrose) is clearly supposed to highlight the “entertainment” aspect of sports entertainment, and it wouldn’t work even half as well as it does without the talent involved and the investment the crowd has made in Ellsworth’s lovable loser role. It even makes sense that AJ Styles would be punished with Dean Ambrose as his guest referee in this match, as his bravado keeps getting him into problems he should be able to avoid. (Remember the headband weeks?)

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But Daniel Bryan threatening to suspend AJ if touches Dean during the match—especially once the match actually gets rolling, because as fun as it is, Dean is in incredible troll form during it—makes no sense as anything other than obvious authority favoritism. It’s something AJ even addresses after the match, only to get shut down by Shane McMahon.

It’s comparable to the Miz situation during his Intercontinental Championship reign: The babyface authority figures very clearly treat their heel champions in a way that makes no sense on a roster that’s supposed to be all about a level-playing field. As much of a jerk as AJ Styles is—no one is arguing that he isn’t, as he starts his celebration mocking the cheering crowd—he’s still the champion, and that’s the type of thing that demands even a bit of respect, especially when you wear the title as well as AJ does, shortcuts or not. RAW had a similar problem before the Universal Championship, as no one treated Rusev with the respect the sole championship of the brand deserved.

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The champion is obviously supposed to make the championship, but the way that WWE’s own onscreen bosses, regardless of alignment, undermine the champions, plays every bit of a role in devaluing the championships as any other factor. It’s not a McMahon/Austin situation either, in which any of the authority figures acknowledge how much of a draw the champion is but hate the way the champion represents himself and the company. Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon want AJ to stop cheating, but that’s only because they know he can get it done without that stuff, and he’s such a showstealer they’d be insane not to want to keep him around. The match with Ellsworth itself is fun, but it all just completely blows over the house of cards that is the authority figure role on SmackDown! Live. Neither main roster brand is doing the best job with this at all, but SmackDown! Live is supposed to be the brand that does better.

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Also, James Ellsworth almost breaks himself in the Styles Clash, which really makes you wonder if it’s really worth it.

If there’s any question of whether or not this SmackDown! Live is supposed to be a bit of a rest period, keep in mind that it opens with Dolph Ziggler taking on The Spirit Squad and ends with Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt in another main event that they probably don’t “deserve.” What little time Daniel Bryan has on Talking Smack, he uses to promote next week’s episode, which will presumably move things a long slightly more.

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Next week’s show will also have AJ Styles defend his title against James Ellsworth, but as frustrating as it is that he’s in the position in the first place—from a repetitive WWE storytelling standpoint, having AJ lose to… Ellsworth —it’s the type of situation that WWE rarely goes with, which is part of what makes it so jarring. For every mid-card (Baron Corbin vs. Jack Swagger) and women’s match (Alexa Bliss vs. Naomi) that’s repeated, WWE is really trying its best to prevent its major feuds from being overexposed. The only people who typically get enhancement matches are the monsters (Braun Strowman, Nia Jax), and the brand split has changed that (Bo Dallas), which can work so much better than to just keep the pushed talent (Bayley, AJ Styles here) offscreen. Remember when Sasha Banks was off RAW and SmackDown! without even a hint of an explanation, just to keep her unbeaten? Despite years of WWE booking, this week’s SmackDown! Live doesn’t immediately segue into an Intercontinental Championship rematch or a tag match between Ziggler/his boys and The Miz/The Spirit Squad. Chad Gable is just now making his singles match debut in this week’s SmackDown! Live. And while AJ and Dean remain in each others’ orbit, they’re not wrestling each other in order to sell the crowd on them wrestling each other. That’s progress, even if this week’s show really doesn’t do a lot of moving.

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This week’s SmackDown! Live is honestly fun for what it is. That’s really the best way to describe it, as it’s not the best the show has to offer, and it’s certainly not on the level of the worst the show can do or even the worst RAW can do. SmackDown! Live definitely benefits from always feeling like a world full of characters who actually interact with and work alongside each other, so most absences aren’t dwelled on. (Except for Curt Hawkins, who WWE has brought forth and must follow through on.) The road to Survivor Series is the biggest news to come from this week’s show, as Bryan and Shane announce the three traditional Survivor Series matches and the fact that they’ll be RAW versus SmackDown! Now that is something to get excited about. Unfortunately, the excitement will have to wait until next week, after RAW is able to respond.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Dolph Ziggler defeated The Spirit Squad (Kenny & Mikey); Naomi defeated Carmella; Jimmy Uso defeated Chad Gable; James Ellsworth defeated AJ Styles; The Wyatt Family (Bray Wyatt & Luke Harper) defeated Kane and Randy Orton
  • Kenny constantly removing his shirt to show off his abs and convince WWE to rehire him full-time is a pretty brilliant plan.
  • Mojo Rawley makes fun of Zack Ryder for playing with his action figures but not before teasing Zack for not being around when he had some “triplets” lined up. In my objective opinion, I have absolutely no reason to ever like the Mojo Rawley character. SmackDown! Live is still building up their feud with The Ascension though, which is one of those things that makes the SmackDown! roster feel like a real universe.
  • This week’s Talking Smack is kind of a cheat, as it ends with Bray Wyatt and Luke Harper hijacking the show and closing it early. But it’s the good kind of cheat and exactly the type of thing they should be doing with the show’s format. Why wouldn’t this backwoods cult want another outlet to spread their word? Or the fact that Harper doesn’t care about Bryan’s “stupid baby?” “If you don’t talk about us, then we guess we’ll just make you.” xoxo Gossip Harper, am I right?
  • Also: Oh boy, The Wyatt Family kidnapped Kane again. That’s harder to get as excited about.
  • Bryan and Nikki also bring up the No Disqualification match idea on Talking Smack again, which makes it feel like they’re trying to force WWE’s hand at this point.
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