Vince McMahon’s booking philosophy can be reduced to one simple statement; the audience only remembers the last thing it sees.
In one respect, that philosophy is responsible for the conspicuous absence of creative continuity that plagues Raw on a regular basis.
One week Stephanie McMahon ushers in a new era in women’s wrestling, the next she emasculates Roman Reigns and any other babyface that happens to cross her path. One week Big Show is a jaded heel, the next he’s a lovable giant. One week the Social Outcasts are a group of downtrodden wrestlers whose sum appears to be greater than its individual parts, the next they are a collective group of bungling fools who can’t get out of their own way. One week The Wyatt Family is incapable of conquering The Undertaker and Kane despite having a significant numbers advantage, the next they are capable of dismantling WWE’s beast incarnate, Brock Lesnar.
In another regard, however, the 70-year old impresario is exactly right.
Promoting 101 says, the last thing a viewer sees prior to a major event will heavily influence whether or not they decide to invest time and money to consume that major event. That psychology is the very premise of a ‘go-home’ show; a promoter’s closing argument as to why their event is a worthwhile investment. The Royal Rumble is, of course, the official start of the Road to WrestleMania, which creates a built-in reason to watch whether the peripheral stories are compelling or not.
That said, Monday night’s go-home episode of Raw did little to convince the audience that the 2016 edition of the Rumble is a worthwhile investment based on the progression of the stories presented. Thursday night’s go-home episode of Smackdown, on the other hand, was a picture-perfect representation of what those same stories look like with the added benefit of competent storytelling.
This week Smackdown opened with an appearance by Chris Jericho, his first in over 14 months. Y2J didn’t wrestle, he didn’t host a Highlight Reel segment, he didn’t even serve as a special guest referee-he didn’t have to. Instead, the surefire Hall of Fame candidate spoke to us on a personal level. He did not present himself as a man simply participating in the Royal Rumble match for the sake of doing so (as he has on Raw in consecutive weeks). Winning the Rumble is the only thing left unchecked on his career bucket list, something he is determined to change this Sunday. Jericho, as it turns out, is a man on a mission.
Sure, he refuses to let the Rooty Tooty Booty line die the quick death it deserves. And yes, his original Y2J persona feels outdated and out of place in 2016, but in an odd way that suddenly makes the trajectory of his character arch that much more compelling. Last night Jericho informed us that winning the Royal Rumble match is important to him. As a result, watching him either succeed or fail is now important to me, something that was not true four days ago.
With so much emphasis placed on the Rumble match (for good reason) and the significant amount of time the match itself requires, Royal Rumble undercards traditionally enjoy less depth than the undercards of most other pay-per views. Combine that fact with the plethora of injuries that have decimated the main roster in recent weeks and the end result is a fairly lackluster undercard with little to get excited about.
Again, unless you watched Smackdown last night.
The Usos and Dolph Ziggler defeated The New Day in a six-man tag match; the final act before the Tag Team titles are contested Sunday night. The Usos, former champions themselves, are the lone threat to New Day at the moment. Prior to last night I had no desire to see a title change, in fact, I was actively rooting against it. I like New Day, they entertain me- the Raw New Day anyway.
The Smackdown version of New Day portrayed themselves as the mean-spirited heels still in pseudo-mourning for their beloved Francesca the Trombone (never thought I’d type that phrase before). For the first time since the transformation of the stagnant gimmick into their current incarnation I found myself rooting against New Day. More importantly, I found myself believing that the Usos winning the titles Sunday night would be a positive thing.
The match itself was nothing special, just a solid six-man tag match. There were no notable high-spots or crazy bumps taken by any of the participants, that wasn’t what it was designed for. It was designed to make me believe the tag titles could change hands on Sunday night and that thought is supposed to be exciting; success on both fronts.
Becky Lynch then continued her hot streak with a win over Alicia Fox in convincing fashion. The story revolving around the Diva’s title is perhaps the only story that has been presented correctly on both Raw and Smackdown since the start of the new year. With Charlotte and Ric Flair watching from the commentary desk, the lass-kicker cranked back on her dis-armer submission and a vivid picture was painted before our eyes. Lynch has stated she’s going to the Rumble for the Divas title and Charlotte’s arm. The story between the two talented women has now reached its apex, and we must tune in Sunday to see how it ends.
Starting to see a theme yet?
Dean Ambrose and Kevin Owens kept the momentum going.
Ambrose gave us a guided tour around the ringside area, stopping at the ring apron, the steel steps and the commentary desk. He explained in a brilliant promo how he planned to use each of those tools to put Owens out for the count and retain his Intercontinental title in the process. Owens’ retort was equally brilliant. The prize fighter explained how he didn’t just want the IC title; he’s obsessed with it. Obsession, according to Owens, is stronger than insanity. The brief brawl between the two was the only physicality required to generate buzz around this match and make the Intercontinental title feel special again.
As Smackdown went off the air Roman Reigns was left face-down, having survived a four-on-one match against The League of Nations only to be the victim of a calculated Wyatt Family attack. The sudden presentation of Wyatt as a credible threat is still suspect considering events of the last several weeks, and so on this front there is little positive that I will say.
As far as Reigns is concerned, however, the champion is certainly in dire straits. He will enter the Rumble match with a gigantic bulls-eye on his chest as he is forced to defend his title against 29 other competitors. Whether or not I want to see Reigns succeed is irrelevant. I want to see what happens, I want to watch the Rumble to see him win or to see him fall. That is what is important; that is the main take away from this week’s episode of Smackdown.
The fact that the gap between WWE’s two primetime programs was as large as described in this week’s review is most definitely a problem. Until WWE’s booking establishes and maintains continuity from Monday to Thursday to Sunday the stories it portrays will never be exploited to their fullest potential. With that in mind, McMahon and company would be wise to consider moving forward with the characters and stories portrayed on Smackdown the past three weeks, while burying the ones on Raw next to the phrase Rooty Tooty Booty and Francesca the Trombone.