Just last week it looked like WWE's weekly shows were firmly in two different places: Raw was struggling to define itself after the build to Survivor Series and the looming ten weeks until their next PPV, the Royal Rumble. That led to a truly abysmal showing from the Red brand last week that ended on the down note of Kane wandering through the crowd. SmackDown Live, which by no means was delivering A+ stuff, was at least trying to do something different, offering up an Authority angle that boasted some serious potential.
Raw and SmackDown trading places
Just one week later it feels like everything has flipped. Raw crafted a great episode last night, giving its relevant storylines plenty of time to get moving while signaling that there are still plenty of feuds to keep Raw interesting until the Royal Rumble in late January. SmackDown Live, on the other hand, still has its intriguing Authority angle, but this week's episode is much more plodding than the last. Last week's episode felt like necessary setup for a number of Clash of Champions feuds. This week? It feels like we're still setting things up. There's a complacency at the heart of tonight's episode that's hard to ignore.
So the question is: why, after setting the table nicely last week, does SmackDown Live struggle to follow through this week? If you look the majority of the segments tonight, and begin to pick apart the mechanics of each of them, I think there's a common problem: a complete lack of meaningful storytelling. The lone exception is everything that's going on with Sami Zayn, Kevin Owens, Shane McMahon, and Daniel Bryan - and I'll get to that in a minute - but every other feud that's set to pay off at Clash of Champions feels devoid of compelling conflict. Watching most of this week's episode feels like watching a simulated WWE 2K18 match where the characters have been randomly selected.
A triple threat that feels like no threat at all
The clearest example of this lack of storytelling, which largely boils down to a failure to define character motivations, is in the battle over the United States Championship. In Baron Corbin, Dolph Ziggler, and Bobby Roode you have three good performers who, for a number of reasons, just aren't connecting right now. Roode's entrance and catchphrase is over, but he's hardly a top-notch babyface, which just proves that Ziggler's kayfabe argument is right. Corbin has the title but that doesn't seem to mean much. Then there's Ziggler, whose addition to the match at Clash of Champions requires him to justify his spot, an unenviable position to be in to say the least.
If you look at these characters and the paths they've taken to get here, there's little sense of what they're fighting for. Ziggler and Roode don't even mention the title this week, instead musing on ideas of "dominance" and being the better wrestler. They're looking to prove something, but they don't seem to know what. Did the 2/3 falls match not settle the Ziggler-Roode feud? What has Roode done to earn a title shot? These may be small details, but they matter. Ignoring them leads to segments like tonight's, where Ziggler attacks both Roode and Corbin during their match because…well, there's no real reason other than that vague notion of proving he's the best. There's nothing here to leave us itching for more, whereas Raw is using its secondary title to tell numerous stories involving multiple superstars.
The struggling Riott Squad
The women's division is operating in a similar space, a number of problems plaguing the division and hindering it despite the bevy of talent available. I mean, from one week to the next I struggle to remember who's SmackDown Live champion, and the only reason Carmella's Money in the Bank briefcase becomes part of the story again is because Daniel Bryan briefly mentions it. Over on Raw you have Absolution doing their thing - to mixed results - but the show is also telling other stories. SmackDown Live isn't even bothering with a single one.
I don't envy the Riott Squad. They don't have the star power and in-ring ability of someone like Paige to carry the team, and their spot within the weekly lineup, through no fault of their own, means they'll almost always feel like a lesser version of their Raw counterparts. The Riott Squad should have been the injection of fresh blood that the women's division needed to get back to solid, complex stories. Instead, Sarah Logan and Liv Morgan are being exposed for the green talents they are - the mic work this week is truly groan-inducing - and Ruby Riott, who can certainly be an integral piece of this division at this very moment, is saddled with trying to get over an entire stable rather than being given the freedom to do her own thing, removed not only from Logan and Morgan, but also the shadow of Paige and Absolution. Essentially, SmackDown Live is not creating an environment where any of its women can succeed.
A glimmer of hope in, of course, Daniel Bryan
That noncommittal attitude extends to so much of SmackDown Live at the moment. When the Bludgeon Brothers are getting the clearest push, that's an issue (and to clarify, both Harper and Rowan are great, but a simple angle about a rising, dominant tag team shouldn't be the show's most evidently solid story). Outside of Zayn and Owens, SmackDown Live isn't committing to any storytelling throughout the rest of the card. Nakamura is stuck being the rescue guy for Randy Orton, and Randy Orton is playing the role of Shane McMahon's crony because apparently he's mad about losing at Survivor Series? Seriously, Orton's involvement in all of this lacks any sort of relevant, logical character motivation. He's being rolled out each week to fight either Owens or Zayn because Shane doesn't like them, but what does Orton get out of it? There's no reason for him to be doing the bidding of Shane, and it's preventing SmackDown's lone lively storyline from getting to that next level.
But, to end on a note of positivity, that storyline is still doing some interesting things. The episode's coda sees Daniel Bryan assuming that Shane is now done punishing Zayn and Owens after they get destroyed by Orton and Nakamura during the main event. With Shane being a McMahon and all, though, he's not done at all. He's not only "just getting warmed up," he's going to be the special guest referee for the tag match at Clash of Champions, and he's forcing Owens and Zayn to put their jobs on the line. All Daniel Bryan can do is look on in disbelief. He knows Shane is getting out of control. The question is, what will he do about it? That's the most interesting question SmackDown Live has posed in some time, and hopefully it gives the show what it needs to find some momentum in the next few weeks.
- I love Sami Zayn's lengthy explanation of why he wasn't technically at ringside last week. That's some good heel work.
- Nice to see SmackDown Live engage in some logical booking, having Shane McMahon insert Rusev and Aiden English into the Clash of Champions tag team championship match after they get a win over the New Day.
- It really is incredible how Rusev can run with literally every single terrible angle he's given.
- I'm loving the Bludgeon Brothers - I am forever a Luke Harper fan - but their entrance music is terrible.
- I feel like the less we talk about Sarah Logan's baffling "southern" character, the better off we'll all be.
- Shane McMahon: "I don't have a vendetta against Zayn and Owens." Shane McMahon, 45 seconds later: "Tonight, Kevin Owens will be handcuffed to the ring while Sami Zayn wrestles Randy Orton."
Rusev and Aiden English defeated New Day; The Bludgeon Brothers defeated Tiny Jobbers; Bobby Roode vs. Baron Corbin ended in a No Contest; Charlotte defeated Tamina; Randy Orton defeated Sami Zayn.