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Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

With WrestleMania right around the corner, SmackDown gets back on track

Illustration for article titled With WrestleMania right around the corner, SmackDown gets back on track
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Because The A.V. Club knows that TV shows keep going even if we’re not writing at length about them, we’re experimenting with discussion posts. For certain shows, one of our TV writers will publish some brief thoughts about the latest episode, and open the comments for readers to share theirs.

  • Results: The Usos defeated American Alpha (SmackDown Tag Team Championship); Randy Orton defeated Baron Corbin; John Cena defeated Fandango; Becky Lynch versus Carmella went to No Contest
  • WrestleMania is next week. It’s funny how, after the weeks and months of frustration, once we’ve gotten close to WrestleMania, there’s really not the feeling of… anything. Unless you’re attending the show or weekend, that is. WrestleMania is next week, and WWE is still making matches for the event. (The idea is that the very concept of WrestleMania is what sells, but is it wrong to hope for a little semblance of the brands planning their biggest show in advance?)
  • Consider the fact that The Usos’ celebration of their championship win mostly consists of them buttering up Daniel Bryan, in hopes that he’ll give them a match at WrestleMania. Because it’s not even expected that they—or whoever the Tag Team Champions are, going into the big show—will have a match. Bryan can’t even use his onscreen “authority” to book them a match (their preferred opponents are “The Bullet Club,” by the way) because of that.
  • Ultimately, this is quite an entertaining episode of SmackDown, on all fronts. Even the threat of Natalya on guest commentary (while there have been plenty of tweaks to make Natalya work, that’s not one of them) is cut short before she can reach the half-dozen mark on variations of the phrase, “What you need to understand is…”
  • I don’t think I’ve mentioned it here before, but while the obvious choice is for Baron Corbin to learn from a Kane or a Big Show (the Braun Strowman method), I’d argue Randy Orton is an even better fit for him. Their match tonight helps that argument, especially once it reached that stage where they basically needed to kill each other to finish the match. (That particular chemistry occurred in Corbin versus Dean Ambrose early on in the brand split, but the Corbin/Orton match was able to reach another gear that really showed off their chemistry.) The Ambrose interference in the match also works, because it gets the crowd excited for Ambrose again (“DEAN! DEAN! DEAN!”). It also gives Orton a less than clean win, which is the best choice here; Orton has to win because he’s in the “main event” of WrestleMania, but there’s no reason to slow Corbin’s momentum. Instead, Ambrose gets a little payback for Corbin’s attempted murder. Plus, Orton’s blown kiss to the WrestleMania sign and salute of appreciation to Ambrose are nice reminders of just how much fun he’s obviously having right now in this Wyatt storyline. Speaking of…
  • Bray Wyatt, imbued with the power of Sister Abigail’s spirit, now has sheep mask henchmen to do his bidding. Yes, this is exactly what he should have, and assuming this is now WWE pulling the trigger on letting Wyatt be the “new” Undertaker, bravo. This is where discussion of WWE as a television show truly comes in, because this Wyatt feud with Orton and Luke Harper has honestly progressed in a logical, interesting form (even when it’s predictable)… But the one thing that can derail it is WWE treating it with the usual approach of a long-form entertainment company that doesn’t really think in terms of the long-term. This could finally be Wyatt’s time. (And really, with the singles match for next week, it could still possibly be Harper’s time as well.) WWE doesn’t give a lot of reasons to have optimism, but it’s important to recognize when the openings are there. That’s certainly here when it comes to this storyline.
  • I’ve previously mentioned my belief that Edge is John Cena’s greatest rival, and I’d like to think Miz and Maryse’s Total Bellas (“Total Bulls****”) segments would make The Rated R Superstar absolutely proud. The segments are great even before Miz shows up, as Maryse’s versions of Nikki and Brie Bella are absolutely on point. The hat! “BRIE MODE!” But even better is the early choice for them to do constant cuts, only to then go the full Good Wife in order to get “Nikki” and “Brie” in the same shot. As for the return of The Miz’s John Cena impression, as a Total Bella viewer, every instance of a John Cena house rule landed. And as a WWE viewer, The Miz’s decision to make “John Cena. Recognize.” the transition for every scene is absolutely perfect. These segments are absolutely perfect.
  • Fans of Southpaw Regional Wrestling were instantly going to get a kick out of SmackDown booking John Cena versus Fandango (a match-up that makes no sense otherwise), but WWE was also smart to give Breezango a presence other than just squash fodder. Enter Breezy Bella, a sight that legitimately caused me to shriek in amazement. As understandable as it is to see John Cena (and Nikki Bella!) squash Breezango, consider this another piece of evidence that Breezango truly deserve an actual push.
  • American Alpha and The Usos get a real match this week, after last week’s backdrop for a slow-walking Shane McMahon. And they freaking tear the house down. The crowd was on their feet from the hottest tag ever to Jason Jordan, and those false finishes really got them. Hell, they really got me. This version of The Usos winning the belts is the right choice, as American Alpha gets somewhat of a mixed reaction during the match—and probably would’ve been if they’d retained—and could stand to be back on the chase, regaining the personalities JBL told them to lose. American Alpha having a serious wrestle machine gimmick can work, but it can only work if they have a regular presence on the show. The goofy personality is something that can at least translate better even if they don’t regularly show up on SmackDown. In fact, this week’s Talking Smack mentions the “it’s not paranoia, it’s The Usos” aspect of this whole feud, and just imagine how much better all of this would have been if that had even been a constant part of the main show. Imagine a tag team feud getting a weekly story on a show that exists to give feuds a weekly story.
  • Just like Shane could have avoided the car window if he’d just shown up to his job on time last week, we now know that Heath Slater and Rhyno would probably still have some career relevance if they’d also just shown up on time.
  • This week continues WWE’s possible underestimation of how over AJ Styles actually is and will be as this storyline moves forward. Because while WWE and wrestling in general obviously has its own set of rules, WWE especially shows a lack of ability to understand what a likable (to the fans) human being even looks like. Styles is cheered when he shows up to gloat in front of Bryan, decked out in tacky WrestleMania gear. He’s cheered for not being sorry about his attack on Shane. He flips a visor sideways to look like an even bigger doofus, and he still can’t get booed. Because he’s the best wrestler in the world, and it’s impossible for him to hide that. Even his opponents acknowledge that. So when Styles speaks, the crowd listens or cheers his name. When Shane later speaks tonight, the crowd “WHAT”s him or cheers Styles’ name. Then Shane goes with his man-to-man speech, ignoring the weeks of story with Styles going to Bryan and Shane (man-to-man) until he realizes there’s no other way to get through to them than with violence (a professional wrestling staple and SmackDown! Live dealmaker). When Styles shows remorse and claims that he wants to apologize, you could easily argue that it’s just a trick—again, this is professional wrestling, and AJ Styles is a known deceiver. But his apology is never actually revealed to be a ruse, because Shane hits him with his baby fists immediately, effectively making Styles come across—to anyone with an ability to read human behavior—as a genuinely remorseful character. As opposed to his employer, who has yet to take the high road when it comes to talent relations. (Never forget him taking a spot in Survivor Series because…?) Bryan has to sell this match at the beginning of the show by saying Shane’s not like the other McMahons. But considering Shane’s place as the centerpiece and in the main event of SmackDown for the second week in a row, that’s clearly false.
  • However, despite all of my criticisms, I absolutely hope that Styles/Shane is a good (or “good”) match. Because as WWE history proves, if it’s not, Shane’s not the one who’s getting blamed by Vince McMahon. Shane’s terrible punches and insistence on completely elbowing a table instead of his opponent (and the crowd barely popping for a segment they supposedly should go wild for) don’t inspire much optimism though.