Wednesday, July 20, 2016

Smackdown: Drafting Is Drafting

The first two draft picks in action in the main event
Photo Credit:
Hello, friends. Lacy would be here covering the first ever live episode of Smackdown, but she had plans to go away for the last two weeks. I think she's in the Yukon Territory, hunting caribou for science or whatever Canadians do on their vacations. Anyway, out of respect to TWB's intrepid Smackdown friendship actuary, I did not want to boost her format last week or this week. In fact, I didn't do anything last week because, quite frankly, Smackdown was in a big holding pattern for THIS WEEK, when it went live and divvied up sides for the upcoming WAR BETWEEN THE BRANDS. Much like Marvel Comics, this civil war is a sequel to one done in the mid-Aughts. Unlike Marvel Comics, WWE hopes this goes better than its comics counterpart. How'd the first impression go? Well, the time has come to take a look...

The SHOCKING First Picks - If you were shocked at Seth Rollins and Dean Ambrose going one and two in this draft, then you clearly didn't watch RAW Monday, which makes you a far better person than I am. I keed, I keed. Anyway, I get the feeling that Roman Reigns would have been in Ambrose's spot had he not gotten nicked for wellness, but that seems to be the story of every blond-haired placeholder who has to fill in for the Big Dog every time he's out for a given reason. Just ask Dolph Ziggler. Either way, Ambrose and Rollins were the best first two picks possible given narrative weight and importance in the title scene. Charlotte going third was also foregone given WWE's lip service to pushing women. The only really surprising pick of the first five was that AJ Styles went in this pod over John Cena, but at the same time, it's all semantic juggling anyway. And as for the fifth pick...

Who's NXT? - Finn Bálor finally getting a ride to the Fireworks Factory of Monday Night RAW was hardly surprising, and the rest of the NXT lads and lasses who got the call-up (Nia Jax, American Alpha, Alexa Bliss, Carmella, Mojo Rawley) all make sense. They're all wrestlers who've either done everything they can do in NXT or who have questionable upward mobility, especially in front of that crowd. That being said, from a narrative standpoint, aside from Bálor, Alpha, and MAYBE Jax, they make no sense. Why were Bayley, Shinsuke Nakamura, Austin Aries, and the goddamn cadre of champions in Samoa Joe, Asuka, and The Revival all ignored in favor of less proven, less polished wrestlers? The fix is easy, to be honest. All the writers/producers/showrunners have to do is film a segment with William Regal explaining that he used his powers to protect a certain number of wrestlers. Honestly, debuting someone like Bayley or Nakamura in the later rounds of a draft would be stupid anyway from an aesthetic standpoint, but the narrative integrity of the show is still pretty important, if you ask me.

How You Doin'? Pretty Good, Thanks - I only did a quick, visual count of signs, but a good majority of them were related to Enzo Amore and Colin Cassady (although one sign promoted "BUFF KING DEDEDE" which, uh, okay? I didn't know Kirby's Dream Land had a tie in to wrestling...). When they did their singalong, the crowd chanted along heartily like Dr. Ivan Pavlov had a whole army of dogs reacting to his dinner bell. The Bridge and Tunnel Boys (™, Butch Rosser) have gotten over on RAW to an insane degree, and all it took was letting them come out and do, verbatim, what their NXT shtick was with good faith. Additionally, Darren Young in his tag match with Zack Ryder against Miz and Rusev (f/ the management team of Lana and Maryse, who obviously need to come with a Surgeon General's warning the next time they occupy the same ringside) got one of the loudest non-Amore/Cassady pops of the night for a submission hold. It's almost like giving him six weeks of lead-up vignettes and emotional build towards accepting the hold from his life coach Bob Backlund gave the crowd reason to react.

So much of WWE's current MO involves taking guys or gals and throwing them to the wolves without much of a hook or any hook at all and expecting them to get over. Compare Amore and Cass to the Ascension. Compare Young to the Shining Stars. It's frustrating to see WWE actually build some people up with good storytelling or allowing them to play to strengths, and then half-ass it with so many other wrestlers. The company has a writers' room packed to the gills, and the way any ex-writer with a Twitter account, a penis, and low melanin content in his skin comments about opinions on the product after they left the company, one might think it's teeming with great ideas. Maybe they should be utilized better.

Picture in Picture - John Cena vs. Luke Gallows opened the show, and other than Gallows not only looking more capable than partner Karl Anderson in a singles match vs. THE FRANCHISE but borderline squashing him until the surprise finish, the only notable thing about it was the use of picture-in-picture technology to show the match while commercials played in the bigger portion of the screen on the righthand side. Since this feature didn't reappear for the main event, I gathered it was a test run, but if it does get more widespread usage on Smackdown (or RAW, for that matter), then it's the one thing WWE could do for its network/cable television that would seem like an innovation. I wonder how the advertisers thought about it though...

X Gon' Get It From Ya - Circling back to the chunk before the last one, WWE is not the best company at getting over stories via matches. The company's best idea of a feud is spamming a match ad nauseam and then wondering why the matches at the pay-per-views don't have the juice officials would like out of them. However, kudos to the producers of the Xavier Woods/Bray Wyatt match and to the performers themselves for using their space to forward their feud and set up what will ultimately be a final confrontation between the two. New Day is going to RAW, while Bray Wyatt and Erick Rowan will be departing Braun Strowman to inhabit Smackdown.

The match drew from past plot advancement with Wyatt manipulating Woods' trepidation at his powers, and the match itself was a great demonstration of the uphill battle New Day will have to climb. It set up stakes. It made the good guys show a key vulnerability. It was STORYTELLING, something WWE has trouble with inside the ring as much as it does outside of it.

Raising Kane - Having Sami Zayn interrupt the beginning of a Kevin Owens match (especially one vs. The Demon Kane™) is never a bad idea. Having it end with Kane, who isn't booked at Battleground, chokeslamming both Owens and Zayn, who are wrestling each other there, is always a terrible one. Ever since the end of the Daniel Bryan feud in 2014, WWE has weirdly protected Kane, often at the behest of more viable talents. Where the fuck was this attitude when it would've mattered, for fuck's sake? I'm sure Kane would rather have had this kind of treatment in the early Aughts instead of seeing Triple H hump his fictional, dead girlfriend's corpse.

War of Words - Mick Foley called Daniel Bryan and Shane McMahon out on their lack of picking women through the first 13 picks in the draft (although to be fair, RAW only selected two and had three more picks in which to do so given the setup), and Bryan fired back by recalling accusations against Foley being "creepy" around women. On one hand, I guess the brands have to banter about something, but female representation feels a bit too on the nose given WWE's failures concerning women in the last, well forever of its existence. Maybe stop giving play to noted pimp Fabulous Moolah, who actually got shouted out as a potential tag partner for Sasha Banks at Battleground as a larf? I don't know. Either way though, I'm glad that all the women weren't shoehorned onto one brand. Becky Lynch, Nattie Neidhart, Naomi, Eva Marie, Bliss, and Carmella may not be the strongest roster, but it's one that could grow with the right cultivation.

Where Was This Fire a Year Ago, Guys? - A year ago, Ambrose and Rollins wrestled in a ladder match for the WWE World Heavyweight Championship at Money in the Bank, and they started the match with a collar and elbow tie up despite the story being they had more enmity between them than the Hatfields and McCoys ever had. I couldn't get into the match strictly because of that fact (again, another piece of evidence in WWE's lack of cerebral match layout). The main event last night started with Rollins murking Ambrose before the bell even rang. That kind of start would have made every single match the two had last year a billion times better. Shockingly, Ambrose won clean, which is shocking given the utterly messy way RAW ended. I guess the big snafu is going to happen at Battleground? lol, j/k, Reigns is gonna win going away.

Draft Thoughts - I look at each roster, and I don't see a rhyme or reason for a lot of picks. Some of the criticisms might be nitpicks. Zayn and Owens being on the same brand dilutes the Battleground match a little. They needed some space from each other before ramping up again for WrestleMania, but then again, I can see keeping them together. RAW also is going to house the cruiserweight division, but it only really drafted Neville and the lesser Lucha Dragon, Sin Cara. Unless Bálor and Amore are going to compete there, it makes no sense. Then again, the division may not start up for real until after the Cruiserweight Classic.

My biggest criticism is that neither roster has an identity. The people booking this didn't think it through enough to work the results so that one brand had the hardcore favorites and the other had broader appeal, or to prepare for synergy within divisions. Smackdown became a haven for old, stale feuds to continue, whether it be Baron Corbin vs. Dolph Ziggler, or the restarting of the greatest old evil, John Cena vs. Randy Orton. The Wyatt Family was split along puzzling lines; Wyatt and Strowman should've been kept together. One could say Rowan striking out on his own the last time was a disaster, but unless Luke Harper is never coming back, then he has options to recoup a former team and keep his head above water. Similarly, Amore and Big Cass got drafted to RAW, and Carmella went to Smackdown. I could see if NXT had a wider audience, but she doesn't have as much value to add by herself right now as she does as a member of the Bridge and Tunnel group. I could end up being proven wrong, but right now, the rosters don't feel right. Maybe that will change when the rumored old guys start trickling back in and other name NXT folks start to come up like Bayley or Samoa Joe. But for now, the draft feels like a missed opportunity to reshape new identities for a somewhat stale product.