Thursday, December 22, 2016

Learning to Live with Smackdown

WWE Studios Presents: The Slap
Photo Credit:
This week on Smackdown I'm learning to live with:

AJ Styles, the Gift that Never Stops Giving Smackdown hit the ground running this week with a title match to start things off. The match was between AJ Styles and James Ellsworth, so we all knew exactly how it was going to go, but that didn't make it any less satisfying. Styles demolished Ellsworth in quick order, not wasting any time, and pinned him like a boss. Ellsworth's story has been filled with some fun hijinks here and there (and some infuriating ones) but with this match Styles was signaling (with apologies to Dana Brooke) that playtime is over.

Styles followed it up with a self-congratulatory promo about how he already has everything he could want for Christmas and cocky dirtbag AJ Styles is just my favourite thing in the world right now. Never one to let me enjoy anything in peace, Dolph Ziggler came out (AFTER Ellsworth had been horribly mangled, of course. I guess relentlessly portraying yourself as the underdog doesn't leave much room for helping out the actual underdog) to try and convince us that he super deserves his upcoming title shot, and Styles was just like, “LOL, I legitimately forgot about you. Go away and I'll beat you up another day,” which is the only reaction that Ziggler has deserved lately. Then when Baron Corbin also came out to chat, Styles just kind of rolled his eyes and bailed on the whole thing. Never leave me, zero-fucks-given AJ Styles.

A Confused Crowd
That heading may not be quite accurate. The crowd knew exactly what they wanted – people getting hit, and they didn't care who. Thus James Ellsworth, heretofore pretty well-loved by people, was dismantled by AJ Styles to raucous cheers. I thought this might have had something to do with Ellsworth becoming less of an innocent in recent weeks, but then Ziggler, who was cheered when he came out, also had the crowd baying for his blood just minutes later. When Corbin got physical with Ziggler, the crowd just kept chanting for him to do it again. I mean, that's usually MY reaction whenever Ziggler gets attacked, but it was weird to hear so many people turn en masse solely for a bit of the old ultra-violence. It was actually kind of unsettling.

Weird Transitions
The Miz and AJ Styles have basically just switched dance partners, and while handing off Ziggler to Styles was accomplished pretty easily with the number one contender's match last week, Dean Ambrose swinging over to the Miz is proving to be more unnecessarily complicated. And kind of weird.

First we got to see Miz defend his Intercontinental Title against Apollo Crews, who was doing his darndest to show why he should be on TV more. I mean, the poor guy didn't even get a proper entrance. What chance does he have to make an impression? At any rate, he kept up a quick pace and Miz had to visibly scramble to keep from being pinned. When Maryse was ejected, Miz was able to win by poking Crews in the eye when the ref wasn't looking. I love so much that Miz is a cunning, underhanded bastard with or without Maryse to help him. He's completely despicable but not in a cool way, and that's why he's such a good villain. The match and its result were all to the good.

Then the weirdness started. Renee Young hopped into the ring to interrogate Miz about his “obsession” with Dean Ambrose, which, first of all, what? What obsession with Dean Ambrose? They've barely interacted lately. Miz's interference after he'd been eliminated from the four-way match last week arose from his obsession with being the best, and he tried to sabotage Ambrose AND Ziggler. Anyway, this bizarre opening was followed by Miz turning it around on Young and revealing her relationship with Ambrose, which had all of the impact of Carmella's previous outing of Nikki Bella and John Cena's relationship, which is to say: So what? I guess if you've never followed any wrestling-related content on the Internet or watched Total Divas you might be mildly surprised. At best. And, yeah, Miz phrased it in the crassest way possible (“You're the one who's sleeping with him”) but Young acted like he'd just insulted the honour of her entire House and smacked him across the face before stalking off. O-kay? And then we panned to the announce team looking all grave and hushed, like something of great misfortune just happened. The incident was followed up later in the evening when Miz ran out to attack Ambrose after his match and I guess now their feud is going to be built on defending Renee Young's honour? Or something? I don't know, but I don't like it, and it was a sudden and strange shift in mood for the show.

Jealousy, Turning Saints Into the Sea
Ah, this old song. This is what I get for praising the secondary women's storyline last week. This week, for reasons that are unclear but that I'm willing to overlook because this story needed to move forward, Natalya decided to abandon her policy of Deny Everything and come clean about attacking Nikki Bella. And not only did she attack Bella but she's never liked her at all! NEVER! And the reason for this? Why, jealousy, of course! She can't even insult Bella without complimenting her, either. “Ugh, Nikki, you're just TOO pretty and perfect and you're dating the most popular boy in school, oh, you just have it all...but also you are NOTHING!” Logic has no place here.

The thing is, there are kernels of good characterization here. Natalya as the arrogant, entitled heel who thinks she deserves everything simply by dint of her family name totally works. It makes sense that she would resent Bella, who coasted for years before putting any effort into her wrestling. Bella IS an upstart, but she's one that we can root for, and of course that would infuriate someone like Natalya. She was content to pal around with Bella back when her superiority was unquestioned, but she can't stand that Bella is able to hang with her now, and she DEFINITELY can't face that Bella may, in fact, be the superior one. Check it out: a logical a complete narrative.

But instead of focusing on that we got a lot of talk about Nikki Bella's looks. Natalya called her a bitch a couple times (super edgy, there, Nattie) and her big parting shot was about how because Nikki Bella was really nothing in spite of having everything, John Cena would never marry her. Yeah. That's the mic drop we went out on. “Your handsome prince will NEVER marry you, Nikki! MWAHAHAHAHA!” Just ridiculous and insulting.

I will say that I think Natalya did a pretty good job delivering her diatribe, and Carmella was great as the irreverent shit-stirrer. Nikki Bella wore an expression of dull surprise throughout.

Fair Weather Friends
Dean Ambrose vs. Luke Harper is always a lot of fun, and I enjoyed their match a lot, even if I'm still bitter over Harper losing out on a title shot last week and his demotion to third banana in the Wyatt bunch. Said bunch accompanied him to the ring this week, which made me wonder where the hell they were last week when important things were actually at stake. Oh, sure, NOW Bray Wyatt's here to yell super helpful things like “Get him!” and he and Randy Orton are more than happy to beat up Ambrose post-match, but where were they when it counted? They'd better get Harper something really nice for Christmas.

Becky Lynch, Lovable Scamp
Alexa Bliss was forced to compete against La Luchadora this week, someone she assumed was just another jobber but who was actually Becky Lynch in a cunning disguise. And, okay, we knew it was Lynch, but it was still a fun little match and the loss didn't even make Bliss look that bad because she clearly wasn't putting much effort into it. These are the kind of face antics I can get behind, and I continue to enjoy the contrast between Becky Lynch's joyful grin and Alexa Bliss' snarling glare. These two forever.

Mojo Rawley and Curt Hawkins at the Same Time
From my notes: “The fuck is this? A We Hate You, Lacy match?” I do not care for either Mojo Rawley or Curt Hawkins, but even I have to admit that their match was...actually fine. It was fine, okay?!? That doesn't mean I have to like it. Which I did not. I DID enjoy Mauro Ranallo referring to Hawkins as “Chad” Hawkins and then when he was called on it he just did not give a fuck. “Wow!” he said, in full Mauro-voice, and then just sailed on as if nothing happened. Would that I could handle my own mistakes with such aplomb.

Also, I really have to give props to Ryan Phillippe for showing up and gamely going along with everything. He was given the thankless task of trying to plug his own show with wrestling going on all around him and while JBL was on host duty despite clearly not knowing much about Phillippe's career. Bless the celebs who just come in, do their bit, and are politely engaged through it all.

Baron Corbin Being Kind of Great
Baron Corbin's unlikely but strangely effective bid for my affection continued this week. His zinger aimed at Dolph Ziggler – “You steal opportunities and you waste them” – was kind of amazing. However, Baron Corbin is not Luke Harper and I heavily resent anyone who is not the latter suddenly being shoved into the title picture.

That being said, the main event match between Corbin and Ziggler, with Ziggler's shot against AJ Styles on the line, was pretty good, and Corbin definitely stood out. He was absolutely vicious in his offence, but he also did an excellent job of steadily ramping up the intensity as his frustration increased. They're always telling us that Corbin is really smart as well as strong, and this match went a long way to showing that. Unlike Dolph Ziggler, who is always on the same setting – frantic – Corbin didn't go all out from the very beginning. He only wants to expend as much effort as he has to, and he kept adapting as the match carried on, visibly struggling to keep his anger in check and stay focused in order to put Ziggler away. Of course, that eventually went right out the window when Corbin got mad as hell and couldn't take it anymore, resulting in a double-count out, but I really appreciated the build-up to him losing control.

And just like last week with Luke Harper, AJ Styles on guest commentary did a great job of putting Corbin over. He started off self-assured and nonchalant over who he would eventually face, but as Corbin kept steadily dismantling Ziggler, Styles grew gradually more wary.

David Otunga, meanwhile, has become absolutely insufferable on commentary, and it was especially apparent during this match, when he would not stop being an ass to Styles. Like, yes, Styles is a heel, but Otunga just would not let up with the snide needling. It was the most obnoxious display I've ever heard. When JBL isn't being the most objectionable member of this four-man announce team, you know there's a problem.

And then there was Daniel Bryan, who consistently makes decisions based on how much he hates his champions. Leadership! The triple threat title match for next week, while I'm sure will be good, just makes no sense. Yes, Corbin looked good here, but he didn't win nor has he done much in recent weeks to earn a chance at the title. Dolph Ziggler, meanwhile, was totally fine with potentially throwing his shot away because he doesn't like Corbin's face or whatever and also was completely getting killed during the match. Why are either of these two being rewarded with a title shot? Not to beat a dead swamp horse, but if we're handing out random championship matches, Luke Harper is RIGHT THERE. All I want for Christmas is for Luke Harper to win all of the things.