After quite a few weeks of legitimately compelling shows, WWE programming has been struggling as of late. Not everything has been off-kilter, of course. Braun Strowman's continued shift into babyface territory is delightful to watch; The Miz is a highlight every single Monday night; Sami Zayn's heel turn has been much better than we ever could have expected; and certainly, before Roman Reigns was laid out with some sort of illness, The Shield were riding high on the reunion wave.
But ever since Tables, Ladders, and Chairs, things have felt off; nearly all semblance of storytelling has gone down the drain, save for Braun Strowman being gifted with the powers of garbage. It began with Reigns getting sick, which demolished a lot of the careful planning around the main event scene on Raw. Then the build to Survivor Series got underway, and SmackDown Live, already struggling with rudderless stories for many of its tops stars—Jinder Mahal, Bobby Roode, and Shinsuke Nakamura to name a few—suddenly threw what little it had going for it out the window by putting Raw #UnderSiege.
The Shane McMahon problem
Despite the potential in the management-focused storyline—there's certainly something intriguing about the shifting dynamic between Kurt Angle, Shane McMahon, and Daniel Bryan, even if I'm not sure it'll amount to much by the time the PPV rolls around—the build to Survivor Series has seen both shows struggling to find meaningful stakes in the stories it's telling. The qualifying matches have been hit or miss, and there's no real sense of tension between the two teams. McMahon sending the SmackDown roster to randomly attack the Raw superstars doesn't do enough to inject some real stakes into the impending Survivor Series matchup. It's a formless story, and this week's show doesn't do much to help it take shape.
Yes, there are more qualifying matches, and they're pretty good when you consider the context of time and commercials, but everything you need to know about this flailing story comes at the top of the show. Shane McMahon comes out to address the crowd, and specifically to dig into his reasons for attacking the Raw roster. He says that since day one SmackDown Live has been considered the "inferior brand," and that the constant disrespect was getting on his nerves. He's sick of nobody taking the show seriously, including Kurt Angle and Stephanie McMahon. So, he attacked the Red brand, and now he's even angrier because Angle and Steph "set up" Daniel Bryan on Monday night.
Haters gonna hate, I guess
Here's the thing: none of that is a good explanation. You want to run with the angle that SmackDown Live is being treated as the inferior brand? Cool, go for it. But like a pimply high school kid doing their calculus homework, you have to show your work. There's absolutely no trace of SmackDown Live being treated like the B-show, and there's no example of Kurt Angle disparaging the brand. They have AJ Styles, the best performer in all of WWE. They came out of the initial brand split as the clear victor, carried by the likes of Styles and Dean Ambrose. Most recently, they've been the home to the most talked about tag team feud in years, with New Day and The Usos turning out one classic after another. On top of all that, SmackDown has the WWE Championship. It's not Raw's fault that Jinder Mahal is holding it hostage.
The case of the missing stakes
All of this is to say that nothing here makes any sort of storytelling sense. Survivor Series always comes with a little bit of willful suspension of disbelief, as stories are thrown out the window to accommodate the inter-brand PPV, but this year's build seems particularly frustrating. Even setting aside the flimsy "inferior brand" angle, there's not much to latch on to elsewhere. The qualifying matches have been okay—Nakamura and Owens have a fun match tonight, and the Roode-Ziggler 2/3 Falls match is surprisingly exciting—but there's a general lack of stakes that's hindering the show.
I mean, what exactly are these guys fighting for? What makes them want to be on the SmackDown Live Survivor Series team? Brand supremacy is a pretty silly motivation considering that there's no real rivalry between the shows throughout the rest of the year. Roode hates Raw because…well, there's no real reason. At least Owens and Zayn lay out their shady motivations, with Owens saying that he's going to be the sole survivor so that he can force Shane McMahon to acknowledge that this is the Sami and Kevin Show. That's all it takes; just a little bit of clear motivation can make all the difference.
Zayn, Owens, and New Day remain highlights
I'm optimistic that both Raw and SmackDown Live can get back on track after Survivor Series, because there are plenty of pieces in place to start shaking things up. In the meantime though, it's hard to muster up any enthusiasm about either show, outside of a few key performers and segments. Even outside of the build to the traditional Survivor Series match, SmackDown Live is struggling to craft compelling TV. For some reason Baron Corbin and Sin Cara are stuck in a multi-match feud, the SmackDown women are doing nothing other than talking about the Raw women, and Jinder continues to be the same bland character he's been for months now.
There are performers succeeding; little bits of light in the darkness. There's Rusev and Aiden English making a perfect pair. There's KO and Zayn showing that friendship is both necessary and dangerous. There's the Fashion Files, and of course there's New Day. All of them are beacons on SmackDown Live at this time. If we can get Survivor Series out the way, we might get even more out of them.
- Look, I don't need to see Sin Cara and Baron Corbin wrestle, but let me ask you this: why isn't the United States Championship on the line after Corbin's lost two straight matches to Sin Cara? DQs and countouts are still losses!
- I hope Ziggler and Roode get to move on to something else now, but I enjoyed their match tonight. I especially liked that the finish called back to the tights-pulling from their earlier contest.
- New Day dressed up as Jimmy Hart (Woods), Akeem (Big E), and Brother Love (Kingston), is every bit as delightful as you'd assume.
- Rusev deserves an Emmy for how often he sells every stupid angle he's given. The pure joy he experiences when it comes to Rusev Day can't be beat.
- Chad Gable should not do what he did this week. Ever.
- I was worried that we were heading towards diminishing returns with the Fashion Files never actually moving the story forward, but hinting at the Bludgeon Brothers and also giving us a creepy peek inside the mysterious briefcase keeps things interesting.
- Tye Dillinger was the highlight of Stangerer Things though.Breeze: "Another Eleven?"Dillinger: "No. I'm a ten."
- "Sami!!! Sami!!!" shouts Kevin Owens as the show goes off the air. Those two understand crafting pro wrestling characters, even in the seemingly innocuous moments, better than anyone.
Bobby Roode defeated Dolph Ziggler (2-out-of-3 Falls Survivor Series qualifying match); Baron Corbin def. Sin Cara via disqualification; AJ Styles def. Samir Singh; Rusev def. Big E; Shinsuke Nakamura def. Kevin Owens (Survivor Series qualifying match).
Are you excited about Survivor Series? Has Raw or SmackDown made you invested in that event?