Survivor Series fallout
Despite being on the losing end of Survivor Series, SmackDown Live arguably came out of Sunday's PPV with more going for it. While the notion of brand warfare wasn't as thoroughly explored as it could have been—a lot of telling instead of showing—the fact that SmackDown lost puts the show in a place of re-evaluation. Losing is a more compelling story because it allows the show and its superstars to challenge themselves to do better. More than that though, SmackDown came out of Survivor Series with more storytelling options. Namely, the brief interference of Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens in the men's traditional Survivor Series match not only opens up a ton of fresh avenues for those two performers, but also paves a way to liven up the story of Shane McMahon ruling the show with an iron fist.
Essentially, SmackDown Live is walking a fine line with Shane. He's the babyface in the kayfabe universe, with the crowd reaction to match, but there's also been some unique wrinkles added to the character. A slowburn approach has added some subtle instability to Shane's perspective. Owens and Zayn may be obnoxious heels—and boy do they play the part to perfection—but they're also touting a line of thinking that other superstars can agree with. Shane is clearly growing more egotistical each week—it's a disease that plagues the McMahons when Wrestlemania season is near—and that could lead to more superstars growing frustrated with him.
When Zayn and Owens are put in a Lumberjack match with the New Day, they go looking for anyone in the locker room that might be friendly towards them. That's when they stumble upon Rusev. While Booby Roode and Baron Corbin have no interesting in helping out the Iconique Duo, Rusev would believably have a bone to pick with Shane. It's not just that Rusev has been vocally complaining about his lack of opportunities on the show. It's also that, as Zayn and Owens point out, his qualifying match for Survivor Series was canceled, and John Cena took his place, despite Shane's constant assertion that everyone would "earn" their spot.
Sami Zayn and Kevin Owens are master storytellers
Sowing dissension within the ranks of SmackDown Live has the kind of storytelling potential that's just not there when you look at Raw and what's happening between Kurt Angle, Triple H, Stephanie McMahon, and Jason Jordan. Examining whether SmackDown Live truly is the "land of opportunity" or just another playground for a McMahon to mess around in is fruitful territory. It shifts the Authority angle just enough to transform it into something different and more compelling, while making use of the best superstars on the roster who aren’t named AJ Styles.
What's taking the Zayn-Owens-McMahon stuff to the next level is Daniel Bryan's involvement. It seems like SmackDown Live is teasing something with him, and the anticipation is key to our enjoyment. Bryan's motivations is a card that the show is refusing to show, and that's great news for the next few weeks. Any time SmackDown Live, or pro wrestling in general, can craft a mystery, that's a good thing. It's especially welcome when it involves authority figures, as those kinds of stories tend to get repetitive, hitting the same narrative beats over and over again. Here, we're left with one big question: Daniel Bryan clearly doesn't agree with Shane, but is he working with Owens and Zayn?
More NXT women invade the main roster
SmackDown Live also benefits from the Zayn-Owens-Shane story because it provides an overarching plot for the show to follow. We go from A to B to C, getting the full story of how Owens and Zayn manage to sneak off with a win in the main event. That kind of functional, multi-segment storytelling is also a boon to the main roster debuts of Ruby Riot, Liv Morgan, and Sarah Logan. The three NXT superstars first show up backstage and attack former women's champion Naomi. Then, later in the night, they interrupt a championship rematch between Natalya and Charlotte, coming from the Shield corner of the arena and laying waste to the two generational superstars.
The segments on their own are impactful, but together they become something more. Yes, it's basically a carbon copy of what went down on Raw with Paige, Sonya Deville, and Mandy Rose, but that doesn't mean it's a failure. Rather, I think Riot and company make a better statement simply because we haven't seen them before. They can't rely on simply getting a pop like Paige can. Instead, they have to kick some faces in to make sure they're noticed. So what do they do? They attack Naomi, Becky Lynch, Charlotte, and Natalya, all former women's champions. They go after the best in order to not be forgotten. That's exactly how you debut your new, vicious stable.
Hey look, Jinder Mahal is still in the title picture
Most of the rest of SmackDown Live falls flat because it's not nearly as compelling as this week's overarching stories. The Usos and Benjamin and Gable continue to feud, wrestling another singles match this week. AJ Styles promises to beat Brock Lesnar the next time they lock up, and learns that Jinder Mahal has invoked his rematch clause for Clash of Champions. Also, the Bludgeon Brothers debut, and while the ring gear doesn't look great, they get a quick, brutal victory over the Hype Bros that immediately establishes them as a threat in the tag team division. Luke Harper is on my TV again, so I'm happy.
In other words, this is a story of two shows: one where the intrigue is at a memorable high, and one where the status quo still reigns.
- At the top of the show Shane McMahon asserts that at Survivor Series, SmackDown Live proved that it is the show to watch every week, because everything means nothing, including literally losing at Survivor Series.
- That top rope knee strike from Shelton Benjamin was a thing of beauty.
- I know I keep laying into Shane McMahon and his reasoning for hating Owens and Zayn, but here's one more thing: did they really ruin the Survivor Series match? They barely did anything! They mostly received chair shots from Shane!
- Natalya calls Ric Flair a "hot mess" and it's the best she's been in months.
- I love that AJ Styles isn't willing to accept congratulations for taking Brock Lesnar to his limit. He wants to be the best in the company, and Lesnar is the one holding that (kayfabe) moniker at the moment.
- Daniel Bryan doesn't fire Owens or Zayn, but instead puts the former in a match against Randy Orton next week. I have no idea what this all means, but I'm intrigued.
Shelton Benjamin defeated Jey Uso; The Bludgeon Brothers defeated The Hype Bros; Natalya defeated Charlotte (c) via DQ (SmackDown Live Women's Championship match); Kevin Owens and Sami Zayn defeated New Day (Lumberjack Match).