Thursday, January 5, 2017

Learning To Live With Smackdown

Lynch had double the Luchadora trouble
Photo Credit:
The Wrestling Blog was on holiday last week, but I wrote up a review of the December 27 episode anyway because I'm such a keener. I'm going to toss in my thoughts on the three title matches here so you can read them if you want to. In short, I thought last week's show was a great way to end the year. I have far fewer nice things to say about this week's episode, but back in 2016 I learned to live with:

The Good Guys Winning One
The four-corners tag match was top quality all the way through, but it especially got good when it came down to Randy Orton and Luke Harper and American Alpha. Chad Gable was on a personal mission to suplex absolutely everyone, and it looked impressive as hell. Luke Harper looked great, too, but a crucial miscommunication between him and Orton allowed American Alpha to become our new Tag Champions and I promptly burst into actual tears of happiness. They deserve this so much, and the power of FRIENDSHIP won the day! In the end, Jordan and Gable work together seamlessly and they're willing to do anything for each other. Meanwhile, Bray Wyatt may have brought Randy Orton into the fold, but as shockingly clutch a team player he's been, there's no real history of teamwork with Harper there, and when they lost, Orton immediately reverted to his quarrelsome ways. Thus we leave Bray Wyatt to try and reconcile his volatile children while Chad Gable and Jason Jordan revel in the well-earned fruits of their labour.

Do I think it was a little too soon both for the titles to change hands and for there to be dissension in the Wyatt ranks? Maybe, but I don't really care. The good guys won and now maybe American Alpha can have more of the spotlight they deserve.

A New Challenger Approaching
I enjoyed the women's match, too, but I don't think it was as good as the other two. Becky Lynch and Alexa Bliss both looked good, with Lynch in particular showing off how innovative she can be, but the match never achieved the sense of urgency that I thought would accompany their showdown. Instead, they were interrupted by someone cosplaying as Lynch's La Luchadora disguise from last week, and a large portion of the match was then given over to trying to figure out who this mysterious stranger was and how they might turn the tide of the match. Sure enough, she ended up costing Lynch the win. Bliss was asked afterward about who La Luchadora is, and she flippantly replied that it could be either Sasha Banks or Nia Jax. It pretty clearly wasn't either of them, but this was meant to signal to us that it could be ~anyone~ from either roster. I appreciate the mystery and I'm excited to find out who it is, since with poor Naomi injured and Carmella apparently being shuffled off to a weird romance story we could use some new blood, but I wish we had followed up more on Bliss retaining and Lynch falling short again.

Ending the Year with a Bang
The main event was pretty much everything a main event should be. It featured two people I'm ambivalent about at best and hostile toward at worst, yet I loved it. Good job, Smackdown. Yes, both Dolph Ziggler and Baron Corbin acquitted themselves well, including turning an End of Days into a Zig Zag, which looked pretty awesome. However, I was mildly irritated that the whole story of the match appeared to be built around Corbin and how strong and great he is, with Ziggler and AJ Styles repeatedly having to team up to take him down. I'm all for building up the new guys, but this was approaching ridiculous levels of unbeatability.

When things were down to just Ziggler and Styles, they kept up an absolutely furious pace. This match MATTERED to all three competitors. I give Dolph Ziggler a lot of shit, but he can be really good at fighting like his very life is on the line. Styles makes everything look good, and I really liked watching him go up against Ziggler and Corbin since they have such different styles and he had to continually adapt between the two. Closing the book on Smackdown 2016 with Styles emphatically demonstrating why he's still the champion was a good choice.

And now, to the first show of 2017. Before I start burning everything down gently critiquing, I just want to emphasize that the wrestling on this show was all totally fine. Everyone on the roster is capable of having a match that is at very worst merely competent, and often we get to see matches that are good to great. The trouble, which I personally saw in abundance on this episode, comes from character and context. Now then, this week on Smackdown I'm learning to live with:

500th Verse, Same as the First
What better way to kick off a brand new year than with a match-up we saw several times during the old year? Yes, Dolph Ziggler versus Baron Corbin was our introduction to Smackdown 2017 and it was exactly the same as every match they've ever had: totally fine and totally boring. Look, I don't like feeling like an asshole because I'm yawning and rolling my eyes while these guys are out there working hard. This is just what happens when you only do a limited number of things with a limited number of people, and it's as unfair to the performers as it is to the audience.

Ziggler lost again and promptly morphed into an angry 15-year-old, storming around, yelling, and breaking stuff backstage. Maybe this will freshen things up. Dolph Ziggler has always made way more sense as a heel anyway. Kalisto and Apollo Crews both suffered his tantrumy wrath, so here's hoping that at the very least we'll be seeing more of the two of them.

A Plan So Cunning You Could Brush Your Teeth With It
Becky Lynch took on the mysterious masked La Luchadora one-on-one this week...or so it seemed. Actually La Luchadora took an opportune moment to roll under the ring and a cunningly disguised Alexa Bliss emerged out the other side. After being unmasked, Bliss and her new friend beat up Lynch and exited with Bliss' music playing triumphantly with our champion looking like she just pulled off the scam of a lifetime. Clearly we're supposed to think that Bliss is simply too sly to be caught and Lynch is going to have to work extra hard to beat her...except that she lost. In fact, she lost pretty decisively in very short order. She had barely climbed into the ring before Lynch had her tapping to the Disarmer. A post-match beatdown doesn't erase that, and actually the whole thing just made it seem like Bliss can't hold her own against Lynch even when she cheats outrageously. Yeah, she still has the title, but this did not make her look like a formidable villain.

The Cena Stuff
*deep breaths* Okay, first of all, Daniel Bryan's weak excuse as to why Cena can just waltz in and award himself a championship match illustrates the worst parts of the “Reality Era.” Sometimes we're in a self-contained universe where nothing but wrestling and titles matter, but sometimes we're aware that this is a TV show that earns ratings; sometimes we have number one contender matches and tournaments where anyone can win, and sometimes we just blatantly admit that that structure is a sham and we're going to go with whatever people will pay most to see. I mean, we KNOW that's what happens anyway, but spelling it out like that and being wildly inconsistent about it is a shitty way to run a show.

To Cena and his big return, specifically. I've seen a lot of people really lean into the idea of Cena as a territorial old dog. They like that he's finally stopped pretending that he can't just do whatever he wants whenever he wants and that he's a million times more powered-up than anyone else in the room. I can appreciate that John Cena, entitled veteran, is a logical progression for this character. The thing is, though, that seemingly embracing the shitty character aspects that were always there doesn't suddenly make them less shitty. He's still taking centre stage whenever he wants; he's still giving voice to his toxic “I am the only Real Man” talking points; he's still keeping things static when we want them to move forward. The only difference is that now WWE is finally giving people a sanctioned means of booing him, which is very smart of them, but that doesn't make me enjoy it. I've dealt with too much gatekeeping in my life to be able to enjoy some massively privileged dude yelling about how he's going to put a stop to any new era and you'll never be anything until he says so and even if you beat him you just have to keep doing it over and over again because he refuses to lose. It's too real, man. When he speaks all I hear is every man who ever shouted me down, dismissed me, condescended to me, and let me know that I was never going to be good enough, all the while insisting that he was actually a really good guy. If you're digging this new character twist on Cena, I don't think you're wrong and I don't think less of you. I envy you. This isn't a character I love to hate, like Dolph Ziggler. This is a character that makes me feel profoundly uncomfortable and instantly kills my viewing experience.

As for the contract signing itself, what am I even supposed to say? Obviously I though AJ Styles knocked it out of the park and that Cena was fucking awful and made even less sense than usual. “The fact that I'm never here except when I want to ACTUALLY means that I love it more than you!” The hell? Is he supposed to sound completely deranged? Whatever, I'm not parsing through that whole spiel. I don't want to think about it again. I don't want to hear it again. WWE loves repeating the talking point that, love him or hate him, everyone has a reaction to John Cena. Here's mine: I don't want to watch anything he's involved in on my wrestling show. That's it. Reaction over. So from now on, I'm not going to talk about Cena in this column. If he's in a match, I'll try to talk about the other person/people involved in it, but I refuse to react to him anymore. Is this actually going to achieve anything? Fuck no, but it will save ME a lot of teeth grinding and seething rage. Frankly, looking out for my own interests is probably the most WWE thing I could possibly do.

A Good Match With Shit Commentary
I was afraid that Carmella's new attachment to James Ellsworth might keep her out of the ring, but that wasn't the case this week. She had a match against Aliyah, visiting from NXT, and the two of them had a good, short match. I'm happy to see that Carmella keeps improving, and I'm honestly kind of liking Ellsworth as her valet. Unfortunately, neither woman got an entrance, and JBL spent the entirety of the match spitting out insults about Ellsworth. Mauro Ranallo kept trying to give us information about Aliyah so we could get invested in the match, and JBL cut him off every time. It was awful.

The Briefest Possible Moment of Joy
I may have been too subtle about this, but I didn't really enjoy this show. I know. So imagine my vast relief when American Alpha showed up to take on Tyler Breeze and Fandango. Four of my favourite people on this entire show! Beloved new tag champs facing a massively underutilized team! Thank you, wresting gods!

...and then it was over in, like, a minute when Chad Gable pinned Tyler Breeze. Fandango didn't even get in the ring. Fuck you, wrestling gods.

No, I obviously did not expect the Fashion Police to win here, and I wouldn't have wanted them to. I want American Alpha to be dominant and I want everyone to see why they deserve to be champions. Quick wins like this are not the way to do that. They don't make you look strong, they make you look forgettable. This could have been a really fun match, and instead Smackdown snatched it away from me while cackling maniacally.

Terrible People Saying Terrible Things
The Nikki Bella/Natalya feud doubled down on the awfulness this week as Bella decided not to let Natalya have all the fun of being mean. In response to Natalya claiming that Bella only got anywhere because she's pretty (I swear this whole thing has been built on letting us know how super good-looking Nikki Bella is), it was asserted that Natalya only ever got anywhere due to being a Hart. Well, a Neidhart, but let's not quibble. Actually, no, let's quibble, because that would make a lot more sense if Natalya hadn't been punished more often than rewarded over her career for being linked to the Harts. Meanwhile, Natalya kind of implied that Bella must have fucked Bret Hart in order to get praise from him. That's charming. And once again her parting shot was that John Cena is never going to put a ring on it and Bella is going to die alone. That, of course, was treated as the most despicable thing said in this segment because there's nothing worse than being a spinster, right? When these two finally get in the ring I know it's going to be good, but my god the build-up has been painful.

A Merciful End
We ended the evening with a new Intercontinental Champion, as Dean Ambrose was able to beat the Miz even in the face of the most incompetent ref in history. Ambrose practically had to beg for Maryse to be thrown out even though she had clearly been interfering, and then the ref spent like 20 minutes watching her go instead of paying attention to the match, so of course we all assumed Miz was going to pull off another sneaky win. Instead, Ambrose prevailed, and much as I love Miz, his comeuppance was satisfying, and it's nice to see Ambrose be kind of important again after being unceremoniously dumped from the WWE title scene. Taking out all of the nonsense involving Renee Young, I think I could really get into seeing these two have a few more matches.

Sorry for starting off 2017 with approximately zero laughs. I promise to be relentlessly positive next week.