Previously on SmackDown! Live: SmackDown! Live’s post-brand split debut was kind of a dud. This week on SmackDown! Live: Things still aren’t perfect, but they’re better. Much better.

That’s the blessing and the curse of watching any wrestling era happen in real time. It’s truly great to be able to see the changes as they occur for the show, especially when they’re changes for the better. But it’s also kind of awkward and frustrating to watch said changes, especially when you just want instant gratification. And you’re a wrestling fan, so of course you want instant gratification. Luckily, something fascinating happens with this week’s edition of SmackDown! Live: WWE actually learns from its mistakes and missteps, and they change things accordingly. Not just in terms of SmackDown! Live being different from RAW, but in terms of SmackDown! Live being different from standard WWE as a whole.

As it turns out, SmackDown! Live’s path to victory involves being more like the WWE Draft, which is actually a pretty good strategy considering how good that was. SmackDown! Live gets the WWE Network after show Talking Smack, as well as the Smack Center, which takes the WWE Draft Center idea and puts it to good use again with Renee Young. It’s so simple. Wrestlers get their own mini-stats in their name card (like old school SmackDown!), complete with listed heights for those wrestlers whose heights WWE has no fear of revealing.

The unthinkable even happens: Commentary remains absolutely quiet when Bray Wyatt makes his entrance.

That sounds like the simplest thing to do in order to keep the character’s mystique alive, yet this is the first time the main roster WWE has done it. After all these years. Last week’s SmackDown! Live had a lot of problems following the basic “show, don’t tell” principle, but allowing the audience at home to actually watch and experience the Wyatt entrance without telling them “you need to watch and experience this” (in “serious” voices), actually nails it. For all the apparent fan belief that SmackDown! Live will finally do well with the Bray Wyatt character, that very obvious decision may be the ultimate proof.

Seriously: Remember when Jerry Lawler would bring up how much fans hate when commentary talks over Bray Wyatt’s entrance, during Bray Wyatt’s entrance? It’s amazing how often WWE tries to spite its fans over even the littlest things, but it’s even more amazing to see how much easier (and better) things can be when they don’t. In fact, this week, not once does JBL yell or even speak at an abnormal decibel level about a “meritocracy” or outside sports. There are a few times when he almost steps on Dean Ambrose’s words during the main event, but even that is more the result of Dean barely stopping to take a breath during commentary. JBL is actually very dialed back this week, to the point where the only references he makes are wrestling-related (Mauro still insists on mentioning the West/Kardashian Dynasty), and the commentary actually sounds like proper commentary. Instantly, this week’s SmackDown! Live commentary is light years ahead of last week’s stumbling, shouty nightmare.

As pointed out in this week’s RAW review comments section, WWE is the only entertainment show where fans are surprised when they’re actually entertained. It’s something I brought up early on in my RAW reviews, so it’s genuinely refreshing to see how WWE has changed for the better since I started said reviews. I take none of the credit, but stepping back to look at how things have changed makes it somewhat easier to accept the bumpy stuff from just over a year ago.

Especially since WWE didn’t have AJ Styles and John Cena verbally assaulting each other over a year ago. It certainly didn’t have AJ Styles doing everything he can to make children cry—even the kid with Cena shirt and the Styles gloves—and insulting Nashville, because of, you know, the things and the place. Yes, it’s a segment that has AJ Styles go full-on parody at times when he hits the patented “YOU” at Cena. And yes, it’s a segment where the “WHAT?” chants try to ruin so many things, as usual. But it’s special, because AJ Styles and John Cena have something special, and honestly, I don’t have enough words to full capture it.

It also has the typical “indie guy” versus Cena rhetoric, but come on: It’s wrestling, and if you can make it good, you can recycle as many stories as possible.

SmackDown! Live also makes better use of the in-ring time it has this week. The Baron Corbin/Apollo Crews/Kalisto triple threat match (to determine who’s facing The Miz at SummerSlam) is a great opening match to show off three young, hungry competitors in the WWE right now. These New Era guys hit spot after spot after spot in this match, barely slowing down. While that might sound bad, trust me—Corbin, Crews, and Kalisto clearly enter this match wanting to make a statement, and they very much do. That’s the type of thing we should expect this SmackDown! Live show and roster, and it doesn’t hurt that these three meandering guys are now involved with The Miz. Corbin stands tall over the other three men as the segment ends (and the crowd cheers, actually), he looks good, but he still needs to figure out all of the pieces. Crews and Kalisto both need a lot of work on the character front, with Crews desperately needing a character and personality and Kalisto needing to move past his “good lucha thing.” The Miz can possibly bring a lot out of all three of them, and they can also bring a lot out of each other. So bring it.

American Alpha (in their main roster debut) versus The Vaudevillains is disappointing only in the sense that the lack of appreciation for The Vaudevillains both in and outside the ring is crushing at this point. The match itself is a great showcase for American Alpha, and The Vaudevillains get to look good while making the debuting tag team stars look good. All four men could nail this match in their sleep. But I will point out a moment during the match where Aiden English shouts at Gable about how American Alpha aren’t going to make a name off him, and it’s such a specific moment that explains just how important mentor-ship in wrestling is: It’s very much a Bubba Ray Dudley moment, and it’s the type of training English (and Gotch) obviously got during one of those eight-man tag matches “no one” cares about. It’s the little things, you know?

The Randy Orton/Fandango match is all clearly a means to the inevitable Brock Lesnar confrontation, but SmackDown! Live (and this WWE brand split) does deserve praise for its timely attention to detail and continuity, since this seemingly random match is actually the result of Fandango challenging Randy on social media. He even prepared for this match! Also, while Randy is very much in control the whole short time, Fandango only loses the match by disqualification—which doesn’t slow his and Tyler Breeze’s momentum as they hopefully continue to beat up the Usos. Everyone wins!

In terms of other wrestling classic, the main event between a now very desperate (and non-ass-shaking) Dolph Ziggler and (a laser-focused) Bray Wyatt is pretty darn great.

Before I really get into that though, I’ve got to address Dean Ambrose and Dolph Ziggler’s initial in-ring promo. SmackDown! Live’s Dean Ambrose is officially the non-wacky sidekick Dean Ambrose everyone has pleaded for, and it looks oh so good on him, even when he’s kind of a dick. Because boy is he kind of a dick to Dolph Ziggler. At the same time: 1. He’s the champ. 2. He’s not saying anything to Ziggler that’s false. 3. He’s succeeding at tweener-dom. 4. His attitude is the match that truly lights a fire under Ziggler’s ass in this feud, and sparks are going to fly at SummerSlam (and possibly beyond).

In fact, Ziggler’s mounting frustration throughout the night is the serious, main event version of Golden Truth looking for Pokemon backstage at RAW, and as weird as that sounds, it’s definitely a good thing. If it weren’t obvious before this week’s show, it becomes obvious during that segment, then throughout the show, then during the main event: Dolph Ziggler is finally going to turn heel again. That’s not a new thing for Ziggler, but the difference is this is a grizzled, pissed-off, kind of washed-up Ziggler, which is much different from cheerleader Ziggler (which the Nashville crowd pops for at the mention), caddy Ziggler, or even playboy show-off Ziggler. It’s exciting, just like Bray Wyatt’s claim that he deserves to jump the line just because we all know Ziggler can’t get it done. I mean, you know someone’s really far down when even Bray Wyatt is saying they can’t get the big one done.

And Bray Wyatt is great! The audience realizes just how great he is! Bray Wyatt believing that Dolph Ziggler is far from worthy for the title show, especially since he didn’t actually beat him in the Six Pack Challenge, is also great! But here’s the thing I brought up last week: Bray Wyatt matches with Dean Ambrose tend to be literally any thing other than great. Bray Wyatt versus Dean Ambrose—especially with the inevitable outcome of Wyatt losing big again—aren’t particularly entertaining. I’m not saying they’re this era’s version of John Cena versus Randy Orton, because we’re honestly always one RKO away from another John Cena/Randy Orton snoozer. But Bray Wyatt’s biggest problem is often turning his opponents into idiots… until they beat him when it matters.

And the last thing Ambrose needs is a reason to be turned into a fool again, especially so soon into his official transformation into The Dude. So while Bray also looks like a million bucks this week on SmackDown! Live, the show again makes the right decision with regards to Ziggler being in the #1 Contender spot. It also makes the right decision in having Erick Rowan show up to save Bray, because I’m not exactly sure why anyone thought the Wyatt Family was over when Bray and Rowan were drafted to the same show.

Ziggler gets to keep the match he earned (with even more desperation than before), and the Wyatt Family gets to destroy—sounds like a good way to end another week of SmackDown! Live to me.

As for the SmackDown! Live women’s division: What women’s division? RAW is making moments in its first two weeks with the women, while Becky Lynch is a couple of seconds away from begging strangers outside the arena to punch her, just so she can feel something again. There are two women’s matches on the card (Becky Lynch versus Eva Marie, Carmella versus Natalya), and they don’t even happen. It’s storytelling, for sure, and I don’t begrudge the show or WWE as a whole for allowing that to be the case. But that’s still two women’s matches that aren’t matches, on a roster where red flags like no women’s championship and the authority figures’ views on women in the business (especially compared to the men in the business) are already very suspect.

Speaking of views on the women wrestlers, allow me to bring my perspective on All Red Everything into play, because everyone has an opinion on her: I don’t think she’s good, in any true sense of the word, and she’s ultimately a hindrance to the division or what it can be.

My argument against the Eva Marie character and performer is that once you actually get to the things she has a hand in—the actual wrestling, the acting, the promos—everything about her actually falls apart. In theory, as well as in better creative practice, the idea of Eva Marie representing the last vestiges of Diva-hood is pretty damn brilliant. The thing is, in current practice and with this talent, that’s not only taking away time from the women who either had to be the Diva’s Revolution’s guinea pigs or thought WWE had finally moved past that, that’s taking away from the fans who want to see the women actually wrestle. Remember all the soundbites about how fans actually come to see the women wrestle now? Because SmackDown! Live has already made two weeks worth of women’s segments “bathroom break”-worthy at this point. Plus, Eva Marie’s fake injury is quickly ruined by her neither knowing how to feign injury (which is a big problem for a professional wrestler) or remembering which leg is “injured,” as well as her barely being able to keep a grimace from being a smile. If Eva Marie were at least a decent actor, it would help so much more. As it stands now, she has a great gimmick, a great entrance “theme,” and nothing to actual carry it. Her opponents and everyone else around her, in fact, have to do all the carrying in some form or another (see: Bayley, Corey Graves/Tom Phillips, whoever came up with the voiceover addition to her entrance).

As for a more beloved figure in WWE, Daniel Bryan has a lot of wisdom about the wrestling business, and it’s something he gets to really show during Talking Smack (see: his perspective on the Cena/Styles promo). He’s not exactly the best authority figure though, even without the “Apollo Creed” slip. Neither Bryan nor Shane really are, because while there’s still all this talk of SmackDown! Live being the show about the wrestlers, it’s also the show where there are no tag titles or a women’s title, and the Intercontinental Champion is treated like a second class citizen simply because he’s not liked by Daniel Bryan. Of course the latter is for obvious reasons—and bless true wrestling continuity—but The Miz is still one of Bryan and Shane’s champions, and he kept the title on SmackDown! Live instead of letting the roster down. As for the missing championships, as great as it is that Bryan implies that they’ll be introduced, on programs after SmackDown! Live or on podcasts, no official announcement is being made on SmackDown! Live and it’s not being discussed in segments. It’s hard to just say “rewrite him,” because the Daniel Bryan that exists now can’t really be changed at all. Same with Mick Foley. So, SmackDown! Live continues to have these glaring problems, but WWE can’t quite figure out how to make it work yet.

When the second women’s match on the SmackDown! Live card also doesn’t happen and the immediate segment after it (no commercial between) is Bryan and Shane focusing on Ziggler’s problems, the idea of priorities for these authority figures come into play again. For authority characters who are supposedly all about being hands-off so the wrestlers can do their things, they keep sticking their noses into problems that don’t actually need their attention. Because while Ziggler’s segments are good (just like his heel turn-in-progress), they could easily be with other Superstars, while Bryan and Shane could focus on the nonexistent divisions on their show.

I’ve discussed this before, but for all the complaints about three hour RAWs, that form of supposedly “too much” WWE is honestly the type of thing that can allow for more content and better use of characters here. The real problem has always been WWE’s struggles maintaining certain amounts of attention, but RAW is doing a much better job now than it used to do with the three hours. SmackDown! Live obviously benefits from continuity in segments, like the aforementioned Ziggler frustrations, but at the same time, getting just one thing takes away from the others. Two hours isn’t enough anymore because WWE actually gives full-blown matches on television these days. Two hours (with overrun!) was more than enough in the Attitude Era, where a few matches that barely added up to 10 minutes all together were padding for backstage and in-ring segments. The same went for the Ruthless Aggression Era, where the SmackDown! Six were having terrific matches… only to be surrounded by the people who weren’t in that same category. WWE has created an expectation for more—and better—matches, and that’s why the three hour format is best for business, when executed properly. It’s a lot to take, and it’s even more to process in these reviews, but it leaves a lot less emptiness now, and it doesn’t require an after show to bring more to the show. Because, the 20-plus minutes of Talking Smack is obviously kind of a necessity right now, in addition to a change in SmackDown! Live’s approach to things.

One more thing: The revenge from Brock Lesnar should now mean no more brand-hopping. Or at least get competent fake security guards, WWE. Sorry, Heath Slater.

Stray observations

  • RESULTS: Apollo Crews defeated Baron Corbin and Kalisto (Triple Threat for #1 Contendership to Intercontinental Championship); Becky Lynch versus Eva Marie (No Contest); American Alpha (Jason Jordan and Chad Gable) defeated The Vaudevillains (Aiden English and Simon Gotch); Randy Orton defeated Fandango (via DQ); Carmella versus Natalya (No Contest); Dolph Ziggler defeated Bray Wyatt
  • I’m surprised WWE is so quick to reveal Chad Gable’s height as 5’8”. Kalisto and Baron Corbin, I understand them sharing those stats, though—and that’s made even better by them clearly not sharing Apollo Crews’ height. Ah, amusing picking and choosing!
  • It’s actually great that this episode gives an explanation as to why Heath can still just waltz into SmackDown! Live: All of the building’s security are too busy trying to keep Brock out and protect Randy. Logic!
  • Some say Fandango’s beef with Randy Orton only started after Randy mocked him (and Jericho) at Battleground, but I know the truth.
  • The Ziggler/Wyatt finish—as very predictable as it was—would have been so much better if the referee hadn’t been looking right at Ziggler as he threw Wyatt into the exposed turnbuckle. Yet again, TNA’s former “Rudy Charles” strikes again with his poor officiating. (This is not a bit.)
  • My favorite part of Talking Smack wasn’t that Chad Gable’s mic didn’t work. My favorite part was that Chad Gable clearly didn’t have a mic at all. And you could hear rustling from wherever the mic he was supposed to have was. Then they gave him a handheld mic! Then Bryan’s mic stopped working! Scott Steiner would never.
  • In conclusion, every wrestling show should be three hours long.
  • Who wants to tell WWE.com this is not Dolph?