In last night's Raw review, I wrote about how WWE's weekly shows can struggle to capture the potential dynamism of an upcoming PPV card because so much of the storytelling fails to be as dynamic as the performers. Where many of this year's WrestleMania feuds are built on intriguing bits of psychology and plenty of stakes, both Raw and SmackDown Live are having trouble translating that into compelling weekly television. As I diagnosed it last night, the issue is largely storytelling. The narrative beats we're witnessing on a weekly basis are overly familiar, which does a disservice to the unique matchups in the ring.
Just consider, for a second, the unique stakes on much of the WrestleMania card: there's Asuka's streak is on the line, Braun's challenging for the Raw tag team titles, there's the second coming of Reigns vs. Lesnar, and a triple threat for an IC title that's built strictly on character motivations developed largely outside of the ring. There's the first ever Women's WrestleMania Battle Royal, the potential return of The Undertaker, the actual return of the biggest babyface of this generation, and a once (but not really) in a lifetime bout between two former NJPW stars for WWE's most prestigious prize. Those are huge stakes, and yet the storytelling on the weekly shows is indistinguishable from the lead-up to almost any other PPV.
Rusev finally gets his Day
The most obvious example of complacent storytelling is the feud over the United States Championship. This is a feud that not only lacks imagination, but really any sort of character motivation for viewers to latch on to. The idea, I guess, is that we cheer for Bobby Roode because he has a cool entrance, or we cheer for Randy Orton because his finisher is kind of fun, or we cheer for either of them because at least they're not foreign; all of those options are bad. A championship is only as good as the story it's involved in, and right now the United States Championship is being done a disservice is in this dull feud. If this story was any flatter, Kyrie Irving would be talking about it.
Of course, it's not just the bad build. The familiar tropes are overbearing. Much like Rollins and Balor last night, Roode and Orton are put in a tag team match, which gives the commentary team plenty of opportunity to ask whether the two can work together to defeat Jinder Mahal and, in place of an "injured" Sunil Singh, interchangeable foreign heel Rusev. This is the first 30 minutes of SmackDown Live, and it's the usual disaster the show's been lately. Thankfully, there's a silver lining: Rusev has been added to the WrestleMania match after pinning Orton. That's familiar storytelling too, but at least Rusev is getting the spot he deserves.
The same old women's division
The storytelling elsewhere, at least this week, isn't much to be desired either. Becky Lynch goes up against Ruby Riott in a decent enough match, but the fact remains that the battle royal matches at Mania, for both the women and men, are meaningless. There's no stakes there, and that means that any interaction heading into the Grandest Stage of Them All feels empty. An unfortunate night off for Charlotte, due to oral surgery, means that the women's division as a whole doesn't get much of a spotlight this week. Hopefully WrestleMania acts as a necessary reset for the divisions on both Raw and SmackDown Live.
Is WrestleMania here yet?
When SmackDown Live isn't engaged in rote storytelling, it's mostly killing time until WrestleMania. This isn't a bad show by any means, but it is a show that's spinning its wheels. So many of this week's segments feel like stepping stones to the big show, and quite frankly, the stepping stones aren't all that interesting. Rusev gets added to the United States Championship match, and New Day gets added to the Tag Team Championship match. The former is a welcome surprise, and the latter is expected, but both feel like typical WWE booking. SmackDown Live and Raw are essentially running the exact same show right now. The storytelling beats are the same, the talent is interchangeable, and that means there's no real spark on either show.
With all of that said, there's of course, once again, one lone highlight here: Daniel Bryan. His promo this week, full of fire and fury, is incredible. It's babyface Daniel Bryan turned up to 11. It's everything we wanted out of his return. I won't get ahead of myself and comment on what’s happening with Shane McMahon and WrestleMania, but for now Daniel Bryan is back and he's giving SmackDown Live the energy it needs.
- If Rusev doesn't win the United States Championship, we riot.
- SmackDown Live has done a really good job with the condensed build to Nakamura vs. Styles. Nakamura in particular has been hitting that next gear, really getting inside AJ's head.
- Tyler Breeze should be winning more matches.
- Anything other than Daniel Bryan winning at WrestleMania is lunacy. The crowd is electric for him this week! And all weeks!
Rusev and Jinder Mahal defeated Randy Orton and Bobby Roode; Becky Lynch defeated Ruby Riott; The Bludgeon Brothers defeated New Day via DQ; Dolph Ziggler defeated Tyler Breeze; Shinsuke Nakamura defeated Shelton Benjamin.