Kyle Fowle pretty much covered it all in his review, but the first true Monday Night RAW of the New Era delivered in a much bigger way than expected. The post-draft chatter for the RAW side of things was that the red brand came out with the star power, while SmackDown! was instantly doomed to fail. Even with John Cena, AJ Styles, and Randy Orton on the blue brand, as well as beloved authority figures Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon, the optimism just wasn’t there. Sure, SmackDown! made some questionable draft choices, considering its supposed underdog and professional wrestling-based mission statement, but a lot of the criticism post-draft came in the form of downplaying just how talented WWE’s main roster is overall.
It also came without the knowledge of just how legitimately good the first RAW after the brand split would be.
Sadly, now that the first post-brand split SmackDown! Live has happened, the naysayers have won this particular round. It’s a truth even before the episode starts, as the SmackDown! Live pre-show announces a Miz TV segment (with a former world champion) and a Becky Lynch/Natalya rematch. That simply screams out more of the same in this “New” Era, before the clock even strikes 8 p.m. ET.
New no-no: A Miz TV segment shouldn’t be on the first official episode of SmackDown! Live. It probably shouldn’t be on the show at all (and I say that as a Miz fan), but the fact that SmackDown! Live doesn’t even upgrade the set for the segment is one of those tiny things that shows just how little anything has changed. Randy Orton’s return at Battleground was fun, due in large part to the work Chris Jericho is doing these days. Randy Orton’s television return on SmackDown! Live, however, is instantly soured by the entire Miz TV segment being D.O.A. It’s seriously dead from the moment Miz does the Randy Orton introduction fake-out, as Miz forgets to put verbal punctuation in his otherwise clever Legend Killer/Evolution/Legacy riff, and it comes out like the man hasn’t acted in three Marine movies (or at all). But it especially falls flat just by being an outright rip-off of a Chris Jericho/Highlight Reel segment from April. Of this year. And not just any segment but the one that introduced the entire “gift of Jericho” bit in the first place. WWE being about “moments” has been a major topic of conversation these past couple of weeks, so it’s even more frustrating to see a less effective version of the organic Highlight Reel moment occur on the first “real” episode of SmackDown! Live. The Miz regularly ripping off Chris Jericho has been a running joke throughout his career, but usually more than three or four months pass before he goes full “wannabe” with a Jerichoism. The gift of Miz should honestly be more Eyes Wide Shut and less of whatever any of this is.
It should also include an actually competitive or even entertaining match between the Intercontinental Champion and a top competitor who’s been absent for nine months, which really shouldn’t be too much to ask. Because there’s slowing a match down, and then there’s the awkward stalling—to zero reaction, I might add—that Randy Orton does in between his RKOs “out of nowhere” to The Miz. And while The Miz may be a heel, he’s still a champion, and if SmackDown! the brand is about a certain pride in wrestling, that should mean he deserves more than to be fodder, just because he’s a champion. Plus, there’s also “Viperville,” the poorly-scripted alternative to “Suplex City.” Remember when Edge got the crowd to chant “SPEAR”? “VIPERVILLE” is somehow a worse chant, because… You’re seeing the word “Viperville,” right? Randy Orton as a babyface is always a difficult task to truly pull off because of how much of a scumbag his character is and how much of the real Randy Orton is public knowledge, but turning him into a cartoon character after a nine-month absence just brings up more questions about what SmackDown! Live actually wants to be or at least what the WWE people in charge want it to be.
As I mentioned in my review of the draft, SmackDown!’s entire approach to the draft situation often felt tone deaf, and that definitely continues to comes across in this introductory episode. JBL incoherently screaming—no, the incoherent screaming hasn’t stopped with the change of scenery—about the show being a “meritocracy” with no “glass ceiling” is the definition of telling instead of actually showing. Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon talking about how the show is not about them, only to begin and end the show with their presence and theme music, is such transparent hypocrisy it’s not even funny. In fact, in that case, while brand loyalty is obviously an important aspect of this split, this week’s SmackDown! Live fails to realize that brand loyalty means nothing if the brand doesn’t deliver. Deliver in-ring, deliver in story and characterization… Or simply just deliver in being the brand for wrestling and the wrestlers to be the focus. A battle royal that exposes how weak the SmackDown! roster’s low and mid-card is doesn’t do that. It actually bring up memories of WWE 2010, complete with the lack of attention to tag team wrestling or the mid-card championship.
SmackDown! technically has automatic legitimacy just from having the WWE World Heavyweight Championship and champion on its show, but allowing that to do all the work is a case of the usual WWE tendency to rest on its laurels. The idea of the brand split and the brand competition implies that that is no longer the case, and Monday Night RAW even disproved such a form of thinking. SmackDown! Live’s first post-draft episode just proves that the show has to actually work hard to fix all of the problems from the ground up, but the question is whether or not it will do that. After all, you know it’s bad when the general consensus, even from the more optimistic fan, is that Kane will be the most likely winner of a battle royal with serious title contention implications. It’s great that he isn’t, but it’s not so great that the idea is very, very believable, especially the longer the match goes without anyone attempting to gang-up on Kane (which means the New Era could use a little bit more wrestling psychology on the SmackDown! Live side of things).
Plus, for all of the supposed focus that this show is supposed to have on the underdog, the only people who get promo time in this episode are the authority figures, the title-less women’s division, the wrestlers in the #1 Contender match for the WWE World Championship, and Heath Slater, who’s not actually on the roster.
As years of both RAW and SmackDown! have proven in the past, two hours is more than enough time to create a show with more of a story and wrestling than what this show provides; so a difference of one hour between RAW and SmackDown! Live shouldn’t be an excuse for poor storytelling and quality when it comes to the latter. Back when RAW first transitioned to the three hour show, the biggest argument in favor of it was that it would finally allow for more wrestling that mattered and much-needed story and character development. That certainly has not always been the case—not consistently—but this week’s RAW was perhaps the best execution of that vision, which is why it’s been so heavily-praised even with its flaws. But I’ve also seen plenty of complaints that the three hour structure of RAW is fundamentally broken, no matter what, simply because it’s three hours. And if I may climb upon my critical soapbox for just a moment, that argument against three hour RAWs—that argument that it’s all simply “too much wrestling/WWE” and difficult to keep anyone’s attention—isn’t really a legitimate criticism. Especially in a world with an entire WWE Network, though that’s not the only counterargument.
The entire concept of there being “too much wrestling/WWE” is so very relative that I can barely believe it continues to be a talking point. It’s like the idea of “too much TV” or “too much” of any type of pop culture and its consumption. Surely a good number of the people reading this review have been to a WWE live show and have realized how many people are there just because it’s WWE or because of a specific Superstar (John Cena). If there’s “too much WWE” for them, they’ll just pick and choose. It’s not a struggle or a statement to be made. It’s the same with people who say there’s “nothing good on TV” anymore. Such is the way of the casual audience. The hardcore fan, on the other hand, feels an obligation to watch all (or most) of the new WWE programming, and in that obligation, prefers to blame WWE for their individual inability to keep up or focus, when they could just as easily pick and choose. RAW being three hours doesn’t work for you? Don’t watch three hours of RAW. It being three hours isn’t the problem, especially in all this talk of WWE’s flaws. I’m not saying that there’s not a long list of three hour RAWs that were (and will be) slogs to get through… but the same can be said about two hour SmackDown!s and two hour RAWs. This year’s WrestleMania took approximately eight hours, and while that’s no doubt a long time for any amount of non-marathon programming, those hours were also full of really bad storytelling—even split in half, that time wouldn’t have been worth it, because the work within those hours simply weren’t worth it. Three hours for RAW isn’t inherently too much, and two hours of SmackDown! Live clearly doesn’t make it instantly sufficient.
So while this SmackDown! Live has the coveted two hours, it still only manages to create an interesting and fresh match in one segment the entire time (the main event). Even though Becky Lynch and Natalya is a better match than their previous confrontations, interesting and fresh can’t really begin to describe their feud (or Natalya as a whole). The match definitely benefits from Natalya actually remembering for once that she can go more than half-speed in a wrestling match with a competent wrestler, but there’s still the usual awkwardness, in moments like the clusterfuck transition into the Dis-Arm-Her followed by Natalya loudly calling for her “Clothesline” spot. It also has the misfortune of being the women’s match that follows up Monday night’s Charlotte/Sasha Banks classic for the Women’s Championship, on a show that both doesn’t have access to the championship and chooses to start “fresh” with a rematch for a match that just happened two nights ago. The ensuing women’s promo-off after the match is almost something, however it’s rushed for time on a show that otherwise acts like it has all the time in the world (see: Miz versus Randy Orton).
Then comes Eva Marie, bringing All Red Everything to the blue brand and making Corey Graves question his current commentary role. Her entrance is amazing and one of the most memorable moments of this episode of SmackDown! Live. But as amazing as Eva Marie’s new entrance is, it’s also a reminder of the basic problems with Eva Marie in the first place: her inability to move around like a human being, the very obvious reason they would not give her a live mic, and the simple fact that her presence on SmackDown! Live makes no sense based on the aforementioned established mission statement. For that last part, I’ll keep mentioning it until any of it makes sense. If the kayfabe argument for Bryan and Shane drafting Eva Marie is that they think she’s underrated and underestimated by the WWE Universe, that also means that they’ve kayfabe ignored her run in NXT when she was the Authority-picked future of the division and (again, in story) found a win streak of a couple of matches to be reason enough to take a vacation to France. Cesaro (the default Superstar when questioning the draft) should be just fine on RAW, but given the story that’s supposedly being told with Bryan, Shane, and SmackDown! Live, her presence makes zero sense.
Like I said, there’s the absolute lack of newness that comes in the form of this SmackDown! Live, and it is the biggest thing that points out the show’s nonsensical flaws. While RAW was Finn Balor’s coming out party, this week’s SmackDown! saves the debut of another highly-anticipated NXT debut—American Alpha—for next week, all while promoting the return of similar wrestler Shelton Benjamin, who didn’t quite achieve his potential during his original run with the company and hasn’t really been that great outside of the company. Rhyno’s return this time around also comes with the bad kind of weight gain, yet that doesn’t stop him from being prioritized over the guy in his prime who should benefit from this supposed “meritocracy,” Heath Slater. Seriously, Slater listing his credentials and the crowd popping for it is a good thing, and the show completely throws it away. Also, Apollo Crews winning the battle royal after accidentally eliminating himself from the very recent RAW battle royal at least trips into some sort of storytelling by supposedly having him learn from his mistake.
Now, Dolph Ziggler winning the Six-Pack Challenge at the end of SmackDown! Live—and superkicking the hell out of AJ Styles to do so—is something new. The “obvious” choice to win was Bray Wyatt; John Cena and AJ Styles are tied up right now, and both Baron Corbin and Apollo Crews are nowhere near “ready” for a main event spot, temporary as it may be. Ziggler, of course, has become a shell of his former self, but as I’ve mentioned before, this brand split is the type of thing that could be his saving grace. At the same time, Bray Wyatt needs and deserves to finally be on top, but I’d argue a match with Dean—with Bray going over—wouldn’t be the solution to that particular problem. Because that match and the thinking that would go with a Bray win also ignores all of the mediocre Bray Wyatt/Dean Ambrose matches that WWE has provided in the past. That ignores the exploding television, which should never be brought up while Dean Ambrose is champion. It also ignores that Ambrose and Ziggler have pretty great chemistry in the ring together and them together is probably the least-wrestled combination to come from that time when every midcarder who deserves more (Intercontinental Championship contenders) wrestled each other over and over again. Ziggler makes the best sense for the #1 Contendership, and as we’ve seen, the motivation is necessary for him to actually work. Does he need to win at SummerSlam? No, and if SmackDown! Live at least plays these cards right, a loss could actually be for the best, character and story-wise.
And of course the Six-Pack Challenge is a good match, even though it’s the icing on the cake that exposes how top-heavy SmackDown! Live’s roster is. Bray and AJ filling the roles of Rusev and Owens in the match, only for Bray to renege on actually playing the game of one-upmanship, is definitely well-worth it.
This week’s RAW hyped the upcoming Cruiserweight Championship/division, saw a change in the Women’s Championship, started a Tag Team Championship feud, and created a new main even title out of Space Pants (the WWE Universal Championship). Yet in all the talk of SmackDown! being a meritocracy and breaking the glass ceiling—you know, buzzwords that only mean anything if something actually happens—SmackDown! Live’s approach to that specific task is bringing back Superstars who didn’t break that WWE glass ceiling in their prime (Shelton Benjamin and Rhyno) and putting them above present wrestlers (Heath Slater). And the post-match interviews that were fresh on RAW read more like copycatting when SmackDown! Live doesn’t even try to do something different with the idea.
Overall, it’s not even that this SmackDown! episode is underwhelming compared to the New Era RAW from the night before: It’s underwhelming compared to the recent SmackDown! shows of the past couple of months. Before the brand split, SmackDown! was actually doing something different at the beginning of the shows with the “earlier today” segments, but sadly, those are gone in this incarnation. This is not a good introduction into the new world of SmackDown! Live. So hopefully it’s not the norm.
- RESULTS: Apollo Crews defeated SmackDown! Live’s undercard (Battle Royal); Becky Lynch defeated Natalya; Randy Orton defeated The Miz; Dolph Ziggler defeated AJ Styles, Bray Wyatt, John Cena, Baron Corbin, and Apollo Crews (Six-Pack Challenge for WWE World Championship #1 Contendership)
- Nice to know everyone who lost the battle royal just took it like a champ (well, loser) and didn’t get mad or react about it at all. “You win some, you lose some” can be SmackDown! Live’s slogan. Seriously, it’s hard to care when even the wrestlers don’t care.
- By the way, the battle royal was not good, but Zack Ryder was especially off his game. He dropkicked Kalisto with his knees. Ouch. Then that audible he called with the Elbro Drop—at least there was some fast-thinking on his part to move past it.
- The general consensus is that RAW and SmackDown! have separate writing staffs in this brand split, which is the best thing to truly make this all work… but has there actually been any official confirmation about this? I’m even asking if there’s been confirmation from Dave Meltzer or someone relatively reputable, but I’d really like to know if WWE has actually confirmed two writing staffs. Because I know plenty of fans and commenters have said it’s the case, but I’ve seen no reputable source saying that (unlike with, say, titles and brand-specific PPVs in the past few months). And from my own sources, two writing staffs may not actually be happening here, unfortunately.
- Neither new theme is going to be in my music library any time ever, but come on, WWE: You can’t commission Shinedown for RAW and then just go in-house (again) with CFO$ with SmackDown! Live.
- I feel like maybe I’m shouting into the wind when it comes to Shane McMahon, but I also feel like Bryan’s reaction to him at the end of the show was pretty much: “Why are you making this about yourself?” Bear in mind, Bryan also made it about himself too. Neither man should have come out during the Dolph Ziggler/Dean Ambrose face-off, but they did. Their individual music playing definitely shouldn’t have happened.
- RAW’s approach to commentary focused greatly on, well, wrestling. SmackDown! Live’s approach to commentary, on the other hand, is very buzzword and reference-heavy. Though I honestly couldn’t tell you 95% of what JBL actually screamed out, and Mauro deserves a suspension for: “As these two go at it like the K/Chloes: Kardashian and Grace Moretz.” David Otunga was there too. I’ve made a huge mistake.