Previously on the Best and Worst of Friday Night Smackdown: The nWo showed up to kill another show, Dana Brooke threw a dropkick that came within roughly two feet of connecting with Sonya Deville, and Elimination Chamber didn’t accomplish much but DID give us a new Intercontinental Champion.
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Here’s the Best and Worst of WWE Friday Night Smackdown for March 13, 2020.
♫ Are You Ready? ♫
In case you’ve just woken up from a coma or your space shuttle just touched down to the planet’s surface after losing radio contact with Earth several months ago, we’re currently in the middle of a global pandemic that, as of publication, has killed almost 6,000 people. After weeks of being like, “just wash your hands, it’s fine,” and, “it’s a hoax,” the virus has finally convinced the United States that it might be a National Emergency worth paying attention to. Major sports are suspending operations, movies releases are being delayed by a year, TV production has halted, beloved celebrities are catching it, and multiple wrestling promotions from All Elite to New Japan are either rescheduling shows, canceling shows, or some combination of the two.
WWE, being WWE, is canceling house shows but is still moving forward with WrestleMania 36 as planned, at least for now, and are keeping TV going with no-fans shows at the Performance Center. This is the first of those, and … it’s weird, to say the least.
First, The Good: Running studio shows with no fans in attendance presents WWE a unique opportunity to reset, refocus, and put on curiously fresh episodes of Raw and Smackdown without the trappings of having to please a crowd from moment to moment. If there are no fans, there are no obnoxious chants. Nobody’s chanting “what” during promos. You can streamline the process and tell the stories you want to tell on your own terms, in your own building, and keep your “no days off” sports-entertainment Goliath moving forward while all the real sports stutter and stop. Plus, it keeps with WWE’s “THE SHOW MUST GO ON” mentality, which you should probably expect at this point. 9/11 didn’t stop them from running a public assembly two days later, and even one of their top stars horrifically dying in a falling accident in the middle of a pay-per-view didn’t stop them from going straight into Jeff Jarrett and Debra vs. Val Venis and Nicole Bass.
However: Removing fan response from wrestling shows not only kills about 80% of the enjoyment of watching a wrestling match — it’s why the live experience is so much better than watching it on TV, after all — and, perhaps more importantly, absolves WWE of the responsibility of actually having to listen to its audience or be privy to any feedback whatsoever. On top of that, it kind of exposes how beholden they are to this one type of WWE storytelling, with characters showing up to cut promos on microphones until someone interrupts them, which then sets up a match, which ends in some kind of distraction, disqualification, or post-match attack. They have literally no fans in attendance and a chance to do something fresh and they’re doing the same goddamn thing they always do, as though promo parades and long-winded set-ups to shit is as integral to their product as wrestlers and wrestling.
For example …
♫ Are You Ready For A Safe Time? ♫
This is SO WEIRD.
Bayley and Sasha Banks open the show with their full ring entrances for the benefit of no one, which I guess I understand. Entrance themes and stage animations feel crucial to the entire concept of pro wrestling at this point, don’t they? You could probably do it without them, like they did for several decades to great success, but it’s fine. Keep the “show” part of the show. But honestly, why are Bayley and Sasha Banks cutting mic’d promos over a PA system to an empty arena? At least the other promos were done as “interviews,” and Miz and Morrison had the wherewithal to understand they should be talking directly to the camera. And why did they keep the chairs set up if nobody was going to be there? I assume they just left it like this from Wednesday’s PC edition of NXT, but like, why did you light the chairs the entire time? Does the empty crowd need to be blue for branding? Lots of bizarre little questions like that.
And then you have to focus on what’s in the ring, which is just as unusual. For example, try not to feel confused and lightly amused when Nikki Cross is “firing up the audience” for Alexa Bliss during this tag team match. You can rationalize that she’s just making noise to try to support Bliss, but doing it in the same tone and rhythm as you would to get a crowd clapping along is … again, it’s just unusual. I want to make sure I point out here that these folks are doing the best they can under some insane and unprecedented circumstances so I’m not trying to dump on them, I’m just watching a full episode of wrestling TV that doesn’t seem conscious of what wrestlers do for a live crowd, and what they should do differently when they’re alone. It’s kinda like watching a video game in an “empty arena” arena. The animations and the taunts are all the same, even though human beings would be like, “hey, wait a minute.”
Also pretty sad they spent a week advertising Paige confronting Bayley only to say she couldn’t make it because of travel issues, but those are a super real thing right now, so I don’t blame her or the company. The real lives and health of these people who can’t seem to socially distance themselves from one another is more important than an extra week of a show that’s on 51 more times a year.
A Note On The Interviews
Here’s another one of those presentation quirks I mentioned. Michael Cole is interviewing Roman Reigns. They’re sitting about a foot apart in the middle of the ring in empty arena, but they both have microphones. Usually that’s for the benefit of the live crowd so you can hear them, but with an empty crowd you’d think they’d just boom mic it or Lav them up. I guess it’s important to keep up appearances and all, but a show like this could’ve and should’ve been a chance to do something different. How cool would it have been to see in-ring interviews done like those backstage sit-downs? They even did normal backstage character confrontations like they would’ve for the benefit of a live crowd. Don’t know how many times I can type, “this is weird,” in one wrestling column.
The interview that really benefited from this setup, though, was John Cena getting interrupted by Bray Wyatt. Cena is absolutely made from the ground up for a live crowd and looks just a little off, like a dog wearing clothes, when there’s nobody out there to react to him. But the lack of a crowd allowed Cena to actually say what he needed to say without GETTING ALL FAKE HYPE ABOUT THE ELECTRICITY IN HERE TONIGHT~~, and allowed Wyatt to be odd and form and deliver a compelling response without “what” chants and asinine crowd response. I think pro wrestling really, really needs a crowd, but if WWE actually took advantage of the studio setting and changed their narrow view of show production to suit it, they could accomplish a TON of shit they very clearly want to do but can’t because the crowd’s always fucking them up.
By The Way, Hope You Missed The Elimination Chamber!
In a move that’s one part disappointing and three parts totally understandable, Smackdown kills 45 minutes of the show by showing the 33-minute Smackdown Tag Team Championship Elimination Chamber match from Sunday (and multiple, newly-added commercial breaks) in full. It’s disappointing because, again, I think they could’ve done something really unique and special with this show, and might have played it too safe. I’m going to insist that SOMEBODY over there values creative fulfillment in addition to buying four houses with their rube money. It’s understandable, however, because what the hell are you supposed to do with a skeleton crew Smackdown from an empty gym on short notice? At least with the Elimination Chamber you can spotlight a bunch of Smackdown talent who had a big spectacle match in front of actual fans.
Raw has three whole hours to fill, so I’m guessing we’re getting the women’s Elimination Chamber match and maybe the United States Championship match from EC in full as well.
Mojo Rawley Showed Up Wearing A Pink Zubaz Suit
Just wanted to point that out and celebrate it. Mojo’s here to let us know that the rumors of Rob Gronkowski’s interest in becoming a WWE Superstar are true, and that he’ll be here next week to talk about it. Also I assume to announce his WrestleMania match and push 2-10 more actual WWE Superstars off the card at the last minute.
The highlight (in addition to the suit) is Mojo ending the interview by forcing Michael Cole to get hype. I can’t stop laughing at Triple H’s participation, and his deadpan read of, “come on Cole, come on Cole, get hype, get hype Cole, come on.”
Also In Empty Arena Matches This Week
Quick, name the two things on Smackdown that most need a live audience.
1. Daniel Bryan vs. Cesaro
Remember their absolute goddamn classic from Raw back in 2013? Oh God, that was SEVEN YEARS AGO. WCW Monday Nitro didn’t even last seven years. We were all waiting for WWE to finally pull the trigger on Cesaro back then. Bryan has retired for several years, come out of retirement, turned heel, won the WWE Championship, and turned face again and we’re still waiting.
If there are any two people on Smackdown you’d trust to bust their asses in an empty arena match for the benefit of no one, it’s Daniel Bryan and Cesaro. Who on the roster has more experience from their independent days playing in front of empty crowds? If they had Bryce Remsburg out here and dressed up Nakamura like a wrestling dragonfly or whatever they’d be fully emulating 2002. Cesaro even falls victim to MR. SMALL PACKAGE to bring that comparison full circle. There’s a neat and easy-to-follow story here of Bryan being superior to Drew Gulak but respecting the match they had at Elimination Chamber, and being humble enough to realize even the best wrestlers should always be learning. Meanwhile, Cesaro, Sami Zayn, and Nakamura are actively trying to forget everything they learned about how to be “good wrestlers” so they can continue working for WWE without getting broken hearts and going insane.
Looking forward to Bryan and Gulak vs. Cesaro and Nakamura on next week’s presumably also empty chairs show. Hope Zayn runs in for a disqualification two minutes in, Jeff Hardy makes the save, and the ghost of Teddy Long makes it a six-man tag team match, invisible players.
Oh, by the way-
2. Jeff Hardy’s return.
How sad is it that after a year on the shelf spent dealing with injuries and life-threatening demons we get Jeff Hardy, a wrestler whose selling point is like 95% his connection with live crowds, returning to Smackdown in front of nobody? Adding King Corbin and a distraction finish via pandering shithead babyface Elias just makes it sadder. Hoping we get Jeff back in front of some fans soon.
Quick question. “Twist of Fury?” Since when? Did Matt Hardy copyright “Twist of Fate” on his way out or something?
Top 10 Comments Of The Week
It took some doing, but the crowd is finally not booing Roman Reigns
“Why are we giving fifth & sixth chances to people…”
JOHN CENA EVERYONE
Did John Cena just cut an honest to goodness Heel Promo?
WWE should re-sign Danielle Moinet and have her manage Gulak so we can call them Summer Catch
Baron Von Raschke
Cena: There is a whole NEXUS of people who blame me for their failure.
Is 205 Live next? At least those guys are used to wrestling in silence.
The whole roster should just be sitting in the stands, getting up when it’s their turn.
Dave M J
Couldn’t we have New Day sitting in the crowd or something? Big E and Kofi losing their minds over everything sounds amazing.
Untouchable is a smart gimmick these days
I can’t wait for next week’s SmackDown when they do a recap of the Chamber match replay
Dance Like Nobody’s Watching
That’s it for this week’s Best and Worst of Smackdown. We’re in a very strange place in the world right now, and wrestling’s certainly not exempt from that. It’ll be interesting to see where it all goes, and if and when it gets safe to run shows with fans again, and how this experience might’ve changed anything.
As always, thanks for getting through this with us and checking out the column. Especially right now. We appreciate you, as well as your comments in our comments section below, and your social media shares. Join us on Monday for an attempt to run a full Raw like this, and again next week for a bunch of empty blue chairs. Be safe out there.