It's hard to pinpoint exactly when SmackDown Live started to fall behind Raw in the weekly WWE rankings. Post-brand split it was the must-see show, anchored by a rising AJ Styles, the Miz, and a ton of great wrestling. Sometime last year the decline began. Too much Shane McMahon, too little focus on telling good stories, and a laborious, seemingly never-ending WWE Championship reign from Jinder Mahal hindered the brand. Since then, things have barreled downhill with incredible speed. Dolph Ziggler won the largely meaningless United States Championship, vacated it, then showed up at the Royal Rumble and lost, and then snagged a shot at the WWE Championship. Kevin Owens, Sami Zayn, AJ Styles, Shane McMahon, and Daniel Bryan have been stuck in a feud that nobody seems to understand, least of all the creative team. The momentum of the tag division has halted due to the show's inability to shift any attention, and heat, away from The Usos. All of this is to say that this week's SmackDown Live, which once again fails to deliver, isn't solely abysmal because of comparisons to Raw's tremendous gauntlet match. There's so much more going on.
Similar, but oh so different
In a sense, both Raw and SmackDown share a similar style this week. Both shows begin with the main event guys, and both shows put them into matchups that slightly tweak the upcoming PPV match. But where Raw rolled out a stellar, unique gauntlet match that progressed and shifted a number of storylines, SmackDown starts off with the classic 15-minute promo where everybody interrupts each other and tells bad jokes before being put into matches with one another later in the night. Unless you're Kevin Owens of course, whose match with Dolph Ziggler comes as a surprise to the prize fighter because Shane McMahon is Shane McMahon. "I know this might fuel your conspiracy theories," he says before literally doing the thing anyways. It's not a conspiracy theory when you immediately follow it up with evidence to the contrary, Shane.
Is that opening promo bad? Yes. Is it abnormally bad for WWE TV? Not really, but it is indicative of the larger problems with this show right now. It's a complete mess of character motivations. Who are we supposed to be cheering for? It's a question that lingers throughout the night. SmackDown doesn't seem to have any idea. Styles is still likable, largely because he's AJ Styles, but he's also out here making bad jokes and cutting a tedious promo while pointing out objects around the ring. Then Baron Corbin interrupts him. Then Kevin Owens interrupts him. Then Shane McMahon interrupts them all and schedules some matches. It's a pointless, grating segment where a bunch of heels, or babyfaces who mostly act like heels, yell at each other.
SmackDown's existential crisis: who is anybody?
I've mentioned it before, but there's a desperate need for some clarity here. Storylines and angles certainly work when they operate in the gray area, but at some point we need to understand three simple things: who the good guys are, who the bad guys are, and what they all want. That's it. I have no idea what anyone in this situation wants. Sure, Owens and Zayn want the title, but that's a destination, not a motivation. Tell us more! The same goes for Corbin and Ziggler, both of whom are either babyfaces or heels depending on the crowd and the moment. Why did Dolph Ziggler leave? Why did he earn an opportunity at the WWE Championship? Why doesn't AJ Styles go on strike until management figures this all out?
Nobody knows, and that's the problem. SmackDown's kayfabe management doesn’t know, the characters don't know, and the audience doesn't know. Without that clarity, all that's left is indifference. Just listen to the crowd tonight, which is dead silent for almost everything, except for the occasional finisher or entrance music. With nothing else to latch on to, all the crowd has is popping for the most obvious spots.
Who needs logic?
Essentially, SmackDown wants us to throw logic to the side and just accept that what's happening on our TV makes a lick of sense. Ruby Riott pins Becky Lynch in yet another six-woman tag match, and therefore gets a shot at Charlotte and her title at Fastlane? Ignore the absence of logic. Dolph Ziggler has the record scratch of a heel, then the theme music of a babyface, then the walk to the ring of a heel, then the in-ring work of a babyface? Ignore the absence of logic. New Day get two cheap wins over Shelton Benjamin and Chad Gable, but we should all still cheer for them? Ignore the absence of logic.
It's too much to ask. A certain amount of suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary in pro wrestling, but that doesn't mean the feuds shouldn't be grounded in something substantial, or that they shouldn't progress with some sort of structure and logic. Just so we're clear, there's hardly any blame to place at the feet of the talent; they're wrestling good matches when they get a chance. But without any meaningful sense of direction, any effort gets lost in a bevy of awkward promos and uncertain interactions. Just watch as Jinder Mahal, Bobby Roode, and Randy Orton try to make a made-up Top Ten list central to their feud. Nobody knows how to do it, and the crowd couldn't care less.
Compounding these issues is the fact that SmackDown has a bevy of talent, and yet the focus is always on the same superstars. There's a complacency here that's toxic. Where's Tye Dillinger? The Fashion Police? Carmella? The Ascension? Rusev and Aiden English? Lana? SmackDown Live isn't doing right by any of its superstars right now, and it's painful to watch.
- Another sad Rusev Day.
- Two positive things from this week: The Bludgeon Brothers slowburn is still working well, and Sami Zayn's apology to Kevin Owens is delightfully villainous in that strange cheery way. Owens has taught his protégé well. Perhaps too well.
- Another incredibly annoying part about all of this main event chaos is that commentary is stuck in a pattern. It's just Byron and Graves arguing the same points over and over again. It's exhausting.
Kevin Owens defeated Dolph Ziggler; The Riott Squad defeated Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and Naomi; New Day defeated Benjamin and Gable; The Bludegon Brothers defeated the jobber team of Eduardo Especial and Norville Rogers; AJ Styles defeated Baron Corbin.