Previously on the Best and Worst of Smackdown: Otis was gifted an apology cake, Daniel Bryan was gifted a mysterious puppet, and the audience was gifted The Usos and Roman Reigns finally working as a team.
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And now, the Best and Worst of WWE Friday Night Smackdown for January 17, 2020.
But First, Housekeeping
Before we get started, here’s the part where I point out this article is not by Brandon Stroud! He’s on vacation and will be back in time for the Best and Worst of Raw. In case your wondering who this imposter “Emily Pratt” is, I regularly write the Best and Worst of NJPW around here and wrote the Best and Worst of Smackdown for a few months back in 2018.
Worst, Then Best: Giving Bryan The Strap
Going into an episode of Smackdown I knew I would be reviewing, I was hoping for something either really good or really bad, anything but the extremely bland programming that has defined WWE’s time with Fox so far. The first segment of the night started out in a way that made things look pretty bleak, but it ended much better than it began and set the pace for an ultimately pretty enjoyable episode.
We kick off the show with the return of Kane, who sounds like he’s perfectly memorized one of WWE’s house style promos about the Royal Rumble. There’s a concept in scriptwriting called the “zero draft” where, when you’re really stuck on a scene, you temporarily abandon trying to write something good or creative and just focus on getting the scene from point A to point B. The end result is usually pretty robotic, but it frees you from staring at a demoralizing blank page and gives you something to improve in the next draft. Most present-day WWE promos and interviews sound like zero drafts, and Kane’s here is no exception.
However, the scene picks up when Bray Wyatt shows up and it starts incorporating more interesting WWE storylines from the past and present than “Will this old libertarian mayor win the Royal Rumble because he has eliminated many people in the past? Probably not!” Wyatt brings up The Fiend attacking Kane back when The Fiend was undisputedly the hypest thing in the whole company, Team Hell No briefly reunites, and Daniel Bryan continues to be a smart and proactive babyface with his sneak attack. The tone of the whole thing is way more campy than actually spooky and probably not Actually Good, but it’s fun and it makes sense.
This leads to Bryan challenging The Fiend to add a stipulation to their title match at the Royal Rumble, and it’s one that works well on paper. We don’t see Strap Matches often in WWE, so this is our hero showing the creativity and intelligence that sets him apart from other WWE characters and sets this feud apart from other Fiend feuds. It’s also a stipulation that should showcase his physical creativity and that he’s still one of the best technical wrestlers in the world. If this match goes down in the red light, it could easily cancel out everything positive about strapped-up Fiend vs. Bryan, but for now, it has potential.
Mostly Best: Reviving The Bloodline
Actual human-feeling relationships are an even bigger benefit to the episode’s closing segment than its beginning. The Usos and Roman Reigns teaming up has always been the cheat code for making Reigns more likable, and it’s been a shot in the arm to the beyond stale Corbin vs. Reigns storyline. The Usos vs. The Revival was always going to be good (though I hope its result is a sign of the Revival getting buried on their way out of the company because they could do so much better elsewhere!) and it’s an in-ring reminder that The Usos, along with the New Day, are one of the GOAT WWE tag teams, and probably tag teams in general.
Going into the Robert Roode vs. Roman Reigns Tables Match main event, the potential quality of the match was way iffier, but it works out in the end. The matches throughout this angle have mostly been repetitive and overbooked with goons and this one starts going down the same tragic path. Reigns and Roode are having a solid match, but the promise right before a commercial break that Corbin will get involved makes me want to change the channel. But The Usos running crowd-pleasing, coordinated counter-interference for their cousin redeems the whole thing and makes the ending of the match way easier to get into than the same type of Roman Reigns vs. the numbers game situation WWE fans have seen a million times.
The episode ends with its second Royal Rumble stipulation introduction, and I think Reigns picking Falls Count Anywhere fits his current storyline about as well as Bryan resorting to the strap. Reigns is dealing with a big-headed idiot who keeps pulling dumb crap like doing bits with a dog mascot and covering him in dog food that looks like actual crap. Reigns just wants to kick this guy’s ass, so he picks a Falls Count Anywhere stipulation, one that should allow him to do as much ass-kicking as he wants. Like Bryan vs. Fiend at the Rumble, Reigns vs. Corbin could easily suck, but on paper, it should also play to the babyface’s strength, letting Reigns be an unrestricted powerhouse.
Best: More Morrison
Another major storyline this week, The New Day vs. The Dirt Sheet, continues to chug along this week with the brand new matchup of Big E vs. John Morrison. Morrison entering in his rock star gear was the first moment for me that it felt like he was actually back in WWE, Starship Pain is still just as cool of a finisher as when he left, and hearing someone have to explain parkour on television in 2019 [edit: 2020, but please give me a pass because it’s still January!] without making fun of it is hilarious. Do planking next, guys!
Morrison’s match with Big E is short and very much a TV match, but it’s substantial enough to show off the strengths of both wrestlers and make me really want to see them get like ten to fifteen minutes with no commercials as soon as possible, or at least a lot of time in the ring together during the inevitable Big E and Kofi Kingston vs. Miz and Morrison tag title match.
I’ve been hoping for an actual long-ish, not screwy women’s match on a main roster WWE show for a while now and Bayley vs. Lacey Evans was an extremely Monkey’s Paw fulfillment of that wish. Last week, Brandon dug into why this feud between Bayley, Sasha Banks, and Lacey Evans has been so gross, and this week doesn’t fix anything. There isn’t the clear dogwhistling of its previous segments, but all the material is so poorly written that it doesn’t help Evans get over as a babyface, doesn’t make Bayley and Banks look less sympathetic as heels, and, combined with everything else WWE has done with the Evans face turn so far, makes a decent match just uncomfortable to watch.
The Smackdown Women’s Championship picture part of the show starts off with a cut to Evans, Banks, and Bayley fighting backstage. I have to imagine we’re meant to assume that Banks and Bayley attacked Evans ahead of their match because that’s the only way this whole situation works, but we don’t see that, so it starts the whole thing off on a confusing note.
Banks seriously hurts her ankle here in what I imagine is meant to be a karmic moment since she’s been avoiding fighting Evans, but she seems so sincerely frustrated (when she and Bayley are alone, with no one around to deceive with crocodile tears) about not being able to wrestle that night that the behavior of Adam Pearce (who is suddenly a character on Smackdown and an authority figure on Smackdown) seems borderline cruel. I might be more forgiving of this poorly done series of events in the context of a better angle, but this one has never even been bad in a funny way.
Evans vs. Bayley is not a bad match, but it’s hurt by its context, and the quiet, sometimes angry-sounding crowd spawned by that context. At this point, I basically never want to watch Lacey Evans do anything ever again unless maybe she turns back heel, and it seems WWE squandered what her potential she had as a babyface.
Evans does great character work, she’s legitimately a tough person, and being a pro wrestler and a good parent at the same time is by all accounts really difficult. (For these elements being successfully used to gain support for another wrestler who also has a military background, see Big Swole on the indies/in AEW!) A better-executed babyface Lacey Evans still probably wouldn’t win over everyone, but it could have won over a lot more people than it has if it didn’t include material so alienating to a large portion of the audience.
Worst: Let’s Keep This Short
Outside of the major storylines this week, Smackdown served up a variety of less consequential segments, of which Sheamus and Shorty G had the least consequential and the worst. These two could easily have one of the best matches at the Royal Rumble, but wow, the Shorty G gimmick is still trash! I continue to be baffled that main roster WWE’s love of athletes with accomplishments in legitimate sports (he was in the actual Olympics!) was outweighed by its hatred of short men RE: the former Chad Gable. I am possibly even more baffled by Sheamus continuing to wear WWE’s take on the worst TNA A.J. Styles shirt. I’m praying this feud ends on January 26.
The upside of the part of the show with Braun Strowman, Elias, Sami Zayn, Shinsuke Nakamura, and Cesaro is that it’s not the worst possible version of itself. It’s not Zayn cutting a promo that echoes real political views and a babyface countering it with “Shut up! You suck!” It’s Zayn being annoying on behalf of Nakamura being a bad Intercontinental Champion and this being countered with “Shut up! You suck!”, which is still not an amazing comeback, but at least it’s good guys vs. bad guys in a way everyone can basically get behind.
The worst part of this whole Intercontinental Championship situation is that it’s an example of one of the most broken things about main roster WWE, which is deciding how people get title shots. (See also: the UFC discourse this weekend!) That Strowman is able to beat the IC champ twice but said champ is allowed to just refuse to give him a title shot, makes those matches feel pointless.
The fact that Strowman points this out in his backstage promo doesn’t make it better that, in the current Smackdown world, nothing is preventing this from happening – and that this angle is able to happen in the same episode that includes a WWE employee seeing the previously advertised Banks vs. Evans match derailed and immediately scheduling a match with the other person who’s recently challenged Lacey. One situation sees the Smackdown powers that be almost too competent; the other sees them completely ineffective against way more obvious corruption.
Somehow Still Best: Extra Cals Continue To Get The Gal
In other midcard angle news, the romance angle between Otis and Mandy Rose continues to be adorable. It’s the focus of two segments this week: one backstage and one in the ring, and they’re both very short, but pretty effective and entertaining.
Sonya Deville saying she gets why Mandy has been talking to Otis was initially anxiety-inducing, but by the time the segment was over, I was on board with where it was going. It looks like Sonya thinks Mandy is manipulating Otis, using his crush on her to get him to be a ringside distraction, but Mandy is developing feelings for him she can’t admit to her fellow heel best friend. I know some people don’t like this because they’re still holding out for a Sonya and Mandy romance, but I’m not expecting that anymore and think not doing it is probably for the best, considering WWE’s usual writing chops and Mandy’s usual acting chops.
Deville’s match with Alexa Bliss is borderline nonexistent, but it achieves what it’s trying to do, which is give Mandy and Otis another cute moment while using their relationship as a wedge between Fire and Desire. WWE and romance, even the straight kind, typically don’t mix well and this storyline could start going downhill fast at any moment, but for now, it’s closer to Molly Holly and Spike Dudley than Lana and Bobby Lashley.
The Top Ten Comments Of The Week
Roman Reigns vs. Robert Roode at the Royal Rumble. It’s a pirate’s favorite match.
The attack on Ramblin’ Rabbit was an homage to Bryan’s new look. It was a hare cut.
The good thing about Minute Maid Park is that they have cameras everywhere.
The Real Birdman
We already know about parkour, Graves
WHO PUT ALL THIS CONTINUITY ON MY SMACKDOWN?!??
Morrison’s intro would be ten times funnier if he was in slow motion & Miz just stayed at normal speed
So, Sonya lost and OTIS takes his shirt off? By that twisted logic, I’ma need Tucker to lose IMMEDIATELY
Dave M J
Do I really want to watch the same show we’ve been watching forever with no variance? Seriously, who does that? Anywho, I’m off to play the new DBZ game which goes through every story arc of the show like almost every other DBZ game.
Daniel: hey Chad, let me get you ready for your match with Sheamus
Chad: No thanks, if I wanted to know how to last 9 seconds I’d watch your Wrestlemania Match
Daniel: yeah well if I wanted to know how to last 9 seconds I’d watch your sex tape
Chad: You’ve watched my sex tape? *awkward silence*
Chad: want to make out?
Daniel: I’ve done worse on Smackdown
The worst part about Elias’s face turn? He’s going to be in the middle of the Houston Astros’s baseball field and will have to sing a nice and polite song. God, what a waste of potential.