The first Smackdown of 2016 brought with it a series of questions I imagine the majority of the program’s regular audience was eager to have answered. Would the show return to its original function as a bridge between episodes of Raw or would it continue to exist within a vacuum? How would the addition of Mauro Ranallo to the broadcast team change the way the product was framed? Would the recent (yet sporadic) sense of urgency currently present on Raw carry over to its pre-taped counterpart?
With the first two hours of its latest reincarnation in the books it’s difficult to say with any level of certainty that any of those questions have been fully answered. It is, however, somewhat difficult for me to personally measure the difference between SyFy Smackdown and USA Smackdown with any accuracy. As I stated last week in my debut column, Reconnecting with Smackdown, it’s been almost a decade since I’ve watched the show with any kind of regularity. The network change and my general desire to reunite with the program I once loved motivated me to take on the weekly task of reviewing Smackdown for the foreseeable future. What I do know is that I was genuinely excited to begin this journey with We Write Wrestling’s readers as WWE’s Thursday night offering came on the air and I remain excited now that it has ended.
Perhaps New Day is on to something after all as it pertains to the power of positivity.
John Cena’s first segment appearance was unquestionably designed to provide the show with an instant shot of adrenaline. While no mention of the injury he recently sustained (that will likely prevent him from participating in WrestleMania) was officially made, he did manage to convince current U.S. Champion, Alberto Del Rio to conduct a pseudo U.S. Open Challenge against Kalisto sans an actual defense of the title.
Okay so I suppose it was more of an open challenge in the U.S. and less of an actual US Open Challenge we became accustomed to seeing last summer but nevertheless.
Cena’s support of Kalisto was the most significant evidence to date of a possible single’s push for the high-flying character whose tag team partner, Sin Cara, was sidelined with an injury several weeks ago on Raw. The under-sized luchador’s upset win over the champion was a classic underdog story and will likely set up a title match in the near future. As the current roster continues to be depleted by injuries the decision to elevate Kalisto’s character is as much out of necessity as it is a change in the character’s creative direction. A lasting program with Del Rio (whether he wins the U.S. title or not) would go a long way in cementing a new midcard babyface, and that is a positive thing no matter the reasoning behind it.
Speaking of midcard babyfaces, Dolph Ziggler, R-Truth, Goldust and Neville continued their penetrating storyline as perennial Miz-TV crashers. Like so many segments on Raw, I learned nothing new about any of the characters involved (including The New Day who also interrupted the bit) and was left wondering why the promo segment or the eight-man tag match that took place immediately thereafter even took place.
The Diva’s title match between Charlotte and Becky Lynch, on the other hand, left little to be explained and even less to be desired. Charlotte’s transformation from straight-laced champion into a modern version of her legendary heel father feels like the most natural direction for her character to take. Likewise, Lynch is no longer portraying the goofy sidekick character she was saddled with upon first arriving to the main roster. Having been subjected to the heel tactics of her former best friend several weeks in a row, the Lass-kicker has turned a much needed corner, looking to right a wrong and earn the title of champion.
The talents of Ranallo on play-by-play became evident as the match began. Tapping into his prior experience as an MMA commentator, he painted a picture of a big-fight atmosphere taking place in front of the Laredo, Texas audience. For the first time since the now infamous Diva Revolution introductory episode of Raw did the rhetoric around a women’s division actually match the action taking place in the ring- a monumental moment for sure.
Charlotte’s reliance on her father’s interference to retain her title garnered significant backlash from the audience and the perfect dose of sympathy for Lynch, who appeared to have the championship won before Ric Flair got involved.
Isn’t that the way it’s supposed to work, you may ask.
Of course the short answer is, yes. When you take Ric Flair’s involvement in the angle into consideration, however, the fact that Charlotte has managed to turn the crowd against her is no small feat. Ric is a Hall of Famer, a legend, a character routinely drawn upon to make the audience happy since his retirement-and the audience has gladly obliged. Furthermore, we’ve seen Ric serve the role of a proud father as his daughter climbed the ranks of her profession to become a champion in both NXT and the WWE’s main roster respectively. The concept of a heel Hall of Famer actively participating as a heel post induction is one WWE has rarely explored. Charlotte’s performance demanded that the audience boo her, which it did, allowing the momentum of this storyline to continue on the right path.
The second of two title matches on the night, Dean Ambrose vs. Kevin Owens for the Intercontinental title, was the main event of the episode. It’s difficult to remember the last time the IC title was elevated to main event status on any of WWE’s programming. Only minutes into the match and it became obvious why it should occur more often. The match ended in a double count-out and yet it was almost impossible to leave disappointed.
Two men in engaged in a bitter fight over a title that means something to both of them – a novel concept indeed.
And so as we officially enter the USA era of Smackdown the overall direction of the show remains undefined but enjoyable thus far. With no appearances made by Roman Reigns, Sheamus, Mr. McMahon or any other main event-level characters (outside of Cena’s promo) it would appear a return to the program’s roots is not imminent, but can’t be ruled out entirely when taking Cena’s injury into account.
In the weeks to come it will be interesting to chart the show’s development, the kind of stories it tells and the overlap between one episode of Raw to the next, if any. If Smackdown has been designated as WWE’s two-hour pro wrestling show to compliment its flagship three-hour sports entertainment extravaganza, I’m ok with that. If it’s going to be a place to highlight undercard and mid-level talent, I’m ok with that as well-so long as the stories remain true to the greater narratives provided on Raw.
As Smackdown continues to evolve, so too will my review. I’m anxious to try new things every week and explore different avenues of creative writing in order to get more people excited about the show and We Write Wrestling as a source of pro wrestling content.