One of Smackdown‘s most consistent strengths is its storytelling. It’s something Matt Gerardi highlighted in his review of this past Sunday’s PPV, TLC, and it’s something I mentioned while criticizing Raw in my review last night. Smackdown! Live boasts a lot of similarities to its Red counterpart, from the look of the set to the actual structure of the show, which makes it all the more remarkable that the Blue show has managed to stand out this much since the brand split. In fact, the outline of this week’s Smackdown! Live is very familiar: it’s another post-PPV episode that rolls out a number of rematches from said PPV. It’s a structure that WWE engages in time and time again, and more often than not it results in a sluggish episode of WWE programming because the well-told stories from the PPV are condensed and repackaged in a lesser form for the weekly show. Often, it’s diminishing returns all around.
As we know by now though, Smackdown! Live isn’t messing around when it comes to the stories it’s telling. This isn’t a show that’s just repeating steps without any variation. Rather, it’s a show that finds a way to use WWE’s penchant for repetition to enhance feuds and matches. Not only that, Smackdown! Live finds ways to keep the card balanced, giving a bevy of feuds ample time. This is very much a post-TLC episode in feel, and in the way it’s organized; there are rematches, highlight packages from TLC, and the usual “celebration” from a new champ, in this case the new Smackdown Women’s Champion, Alexa Bliss. That’s a pretty typical way of following up a PPV, but Smackdown! Live does just enough to keep things from feeling like a retread of Sunday night.
The strongest example of variation working to the benefit of the stories already in place comes in the form of the two rematches from TLC. In the first, Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton defend their newly won Tag Team Championships against Heath Slater and Rhyno, who immediately evoke their rematch clause. The second sees Kalisto and Baron Corbin face off again, this time without the Chairs Match stipulation. Both matches are great examples of how Smackdown! Live takes rote WWE tropes—the stale rematch clause, for example—and uses them to make a final statement, a final period at the end of the story.
What does that mean? Well, it means that Bray Wyatt and Randy Orton avoid any argument that they “got lucky” at TLC, here asserting their dominance by beating the former champs in a longer, though less urgent match. Far too often WWE refuses to firmly close the door on a feud, but that’s what seems to happen here. Slater and Rhyno’s underdog run comes to a screeching halt when met with this new Wyatt Family, and that not only leaves the Tag Team division wide open for a new competitor to step up, it also legitimizes Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt as a dominant tag team. Finally, Bray Wyatt is the menacing, controlling, destructive beast that he’s always been billed as, and he has a Viper on his side to make sure he keeps his postion. In other words, Smackdown! Live uses the rematch clause to cement Sunday’s outcome. That makes for better storytelling throughout the night, adding stakes to matches between The Ascension and the Hype Bros, and Chad Gable and Tyler Breeze, as those competitors within the tag team division are now fighting for a chance to take on the new tag team champs. That’s how you tell a story that benefits not only the teams involved, but all those waiting in the wings as well.
The Kalisto vs. Baron Corbin rematch achieves something similar. The story of the rematch is laid out plainly in a (thankfully) brief promo from Kalisto beforehand, where he says he’ll beat Corbin with his speed; why he couldn’t do that in a Chairs match is never addressed. So, once they’re in the ring, Kalisto does exactly what he said he would. He runs around the ring, flipping and diving, avoiding Corbin’s offense, and generally working him into a tizzy. That doesn’t last long though, as eventually Corbin snags him out of mid-air and delivers a killer End Of Days. It’s a decisive victory, and just like with the Wyatts, it’s what’s called for here. Not only is Kalisto the type of talent that can take a loss because his draw is his moveset, but in kayfabe terms he has no real business beating a guy like Corbin. This, and their TLC match, is an example of near-perfect booking. You give the little guy his time to shine, give him some memorable moments that get him over with the crowd, then hand the monster the decisive victory, keeping his reputation intact. This puts Corbin in a great position, and maybe he’ll be chasing that Intercontinental Championship before too long (though he certainly doesn’t need it).
Speaking of the Intercontinental Championship, it’s used tonight as yet another way to find a way to keep Smackdown! Live‘s storytelling fresh. It’s the theme of the night, amplified by the fact that the opening segment teases much of the same from past weeks. As the show begins, it looks like we’re in for another night of AJ Styles, Dean Ambrose, and James Ellsworth bickering. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as all three great talkers have been selling the hell out of this messy feud, but a swerve in another direction, even for a single night, feels necessary here. So, Dean Ambrose comes to the ring and, before his music even ends, hits Ellsworth with a Dirty Deeds and then walks right back to the locker room. It’s absolutely perfect, a moment that lets you know where Ambrose stands after the betrayal at TLC while also opening up the possibilities for the evening’s matches.
From there, Ambrose goes on Miz TV, only to get increasingly annoyed with Miz’s (pretty on-point) line of questioning. That brings out Daniel Bryan, whose eternal grudge against the Miz leaves him no choice but to schedule an Intercontinental Championship match between The Miz and Dean Ambrose for the main event. The match itself is great; not quite the heights of any of the Ziggler-Miz matches, but a solid back-and-forth battle. The beauty is in the result though, as Ellsworth comes out to defend Ambrose against an interfering Maryse, and by doing so ends up costing him the match. No Styles, and no mention of the WWE World Championship. Just the continuing story of loyalty and betrayal between Dean Ambrose and James Ellsworth, and another wrinkle added.
This is largely a PPV rematch show, but Smackdown! Live keeps finding ways to keep things moving in new and interesting directions.
- Results: Randy Orton and Bray Wyatt (c) defeated Heath Slater and Rhyno (Smackdown Tag Team Championship match); Natalya vs. Carmella never got started; The Hype Bros defeated The Ascension; Baron Corbin defeated Kalisto; Chad Gable defeated Tyler Breeze; The Miz (c) defeated Dean Ambrose (Intercontinental Championship match).
- What is with the Wyatt Family/Randy Orton mashup music? It’s atrocious. Just use the Wyatt Family one, WWE!
- Look, I don’t want to write off all of Texas, but both Raw and Smackdown! Live show that they sure do like to shout down the women in the ring. Nary a “WHAT” chant during that opening promo with Styles and Ellsworth.
- “What, no YOU DESERVE IT chants?” Never change, Miz. You are perfect.
- Kudos to the commentary team for actually selling the Wyatt Family as an unstoppable team.
- In less interesting developments, the “Natalya betrayed Nikki” storyline is still moving forward in its predictable fashion. It’s not bad, just not interesting alongside everything else.