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After two weeks of proving itself to be on top of WWE post-brand split, Raw delivered an abysmal episode this week. Stilted promos, directionless segments, and frustrating booking led to a significant drop in the quality of the program compared to the two previous weeks. It’s interesting then that Smackdown! Live is steadily progressing each week. I don’t know if this week’s show is any better than last week’s, but it is more proof that the previously-secondary brand is continuing to define itself, and at a pace that’s encouraging. Whereas this week’s Raw was a mess of fumbled storylines and mostly dull matches, Smackdown! Live succeeds by sticking to simple, straightforward stories.

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The formula really is simple, but for a show just starting to find itself as a live show complete with its own storylines and superstars, simple provides a necessary structure. Here, everything is put in place at the top of the show, and then every segment that follows leads the audience through a story. So, Orton arrives at the arena and is immediately confronted by Alberto Del Rio, which sets up their match for later. Then, Bray Wyatt comes out to throw some shade at Dolph Ziggler for using the exposed turnbuckle to his advantage last week, which leads to Dean Ambrose and then Dolph Ziggler coming out, a full-on brawl developing in order to set up a tag match for later that night.

Now, that’s pretty typical Smackdown! booking, but there are smaller details here, and peppered throughout the night, that make the segments worthwhile. Take, for instance, the fact that Bray Wyatt isn’t in the ring spouting a bunch of nonsense. Sure, Ambrose comes out and says that’s what he’s doing, but clearly the Lunatic Fringe wasn’t listening. Wyatt’s fairly short promo is all about Ziggler, last week’s match, and where Wyatt sees himself within the company. He says that Smackdown! is “his show now,” and that he’ll destroy anyone who tries to challenge him. That specificity and motivation is new and exciting. Wyatt can still have those backwoods cult leader moments—the foggy backroom promo comes later in the night—but if Smackdown! Live is going to be about the fans and wrestlers, he needs to show he’s here to fight for a top spot. That’s what he’s doing here, and that’s a substantial character tweak.

As the night progresses, Smackdown! Live continues to follow through on what’s set up early, and the in-ring matches work to expand the story. So, Alberto Del Rio and Randy Orton face off in a match that’s basically what you’d come up with if you imagined Alberto Del Rio and Randy Ortion having a match, but again, the smaller details add some welcome depth. Rather than just having the two face off in a normal match and use commentary to focus on the danger of Orton having to face a former World Champion only weeks before one of the biggest matches of his career, Orton and Del Rio instead tell that story throughout the match. Del Rio focuses on Randy’s shoulder not only because it strengthens his finisher, but also because it’ll cripple Orton heading into his match with Brock. Del Rio threatened to break his arm so that he couldn’t deliver an RKO, and then he goes into the match and delivers on that threat. Allowing the wrestlers in the ring to tell the story is such an obvious move, but it’s also so different from your typical Smackdown! match. Plus, that allows commentary to be a complement rather than the driving force of the narrative. That means JBL can toss off a statement about Brock maybe using his Kimura lock on an injured Orton, and the wrestling in the ring backs that statement up.

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While those throughlines make up the majority of the night, Smackdown! Live is also fleshed out by smaller stories, and they all work together to create a more compelling and streamlined show. Really, the smaller stories are about creating a sense of identity for the entire roster. While much of Raw came in fully formed after the draft, Smackdown! Live has had to, in many ways, work from the ground up. It’s had to establish the legitimacy of its Tag Team and Women’s divisions while also making sure to give the proper attention to the WWE World Championship. That’s no easy task, but for the most part, WWE has done well in slowly making everything on this show matter.

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What that means is that almost every smaller segment serves a purpose. When American Alpha come out to demolish a few local jobbers, the entire tag division shows up to watch. It’s silly, but it also kind of makes sense. Everyone is talking about American Alpha, but there’s other teams here that not only have proven track records (largely in NXT), but are looking to make their mark before Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon introduce new tag titles. It makes sense then that these teams would come to the ring and size up their competition, especially when that team is being hailed as the next big thing in the tag division.

The same can be said for the short but ultimately useful Women’s segments tonight. Eva’s consistent avoidance of her matches is garnering heat for her character—avoid putting her in that ring at all costs, WWE, because we all know how that turns out—and it also gives Becky Lynch an opportunity to deliver another stellar babyface promo. I wish the subsequent match with Alexa Bliss was longer, but the win from Bliss does fit in with the overarching story being told in the Women’s division, which is that all of these women, except maybe Eva Marie, have legitimate talent and could snag a win at any moment. It’s why Carmella makes Natalya tap later in the night. That’s clear storytelling, which is more than Raw can say for itself this week.

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What’ll be intriguing going forward is how the midcard and the Women’s division factor into the overall direction of the show. Right now, it’s essentially—and unfortunately, in the case of the Women’s division—enhancement for the main event scene, but there’s potential for much more. If Ziggler can earn a title shot, why not Heath Slater, if he ever gets that contract? Why can’t Miz be a top-tier guy that everyone wants a piece of, especially considering that he’s still holding that Intercontinental Championship? As of now, Smackdown! Live is steadily building a roster where just about everyone matters, and you couldn’t ask for much more out of a brand just starting to figure out its place in this New Era of WWE.

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Stray observations

  • Results: American Alpha defeated local jobbers; Alexa Bliss defeated Becky Lynch; Randy Orton defeated Alberto Del Rio; Rhyno defeated Heath Slater; Carmella defeated Natalya; Dolph Ziggler and Dean Ambrose defeated Bray Wyatt and Erik Rowan.
  • If Smackdown! Live can harness the power of the NXT tag division, it could be in good shape.
  • That segment with Miz and Maryse was wonderfully disgusting. Perfect execution of the heels-in-love trope.
  • How could you not love Becky Lynch shouting “come at me, bro!”?
  • Heath Slater continues to prove that he definitely deserves his shot. From a solid match to the running joke about his kids, the guy is really living up to his title as the Hottest Free Agent.
  • That AJ Styles-John Cena video package was pretty good, but it was also basically just a shorter version of that one promo from a previous Smackdown!
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