WWE’s kayfabe talk show Talking Smack at first seemed to be home for more promos that couldn’t fit in the main SmackDown show. Famously, The Miz threw a massive tantrum, and it was the first big shock to take place there. It became apparent that the very ‘ordinary’ setting meant that moments like that would really stand out. Since then though, the ‘ordinary’ 90% has turned out to be just as important.
This week, the fantastic 27th December 2016 episode of SmackDown Live was the first episode to have a higher viewership than WWE’s flagship RAW. There is still bickering about the figures (RAW had a higher peak, SmackDown had a higher average), but either way, ratings for WWE’s B-show, are going up. Today, I want to discuss a little what has intrigued fans far more about SmackDown since the draft, beyond the terrific matches – deeper characters that are more difficult than ever, to tell from the real people.
SmackDown has got the idea of a wrestler as a ‘person’ rather than a ‘character’, down perfectly and kayfabe shows such as Talking Smack have had more positive effect on programming than one could imagine for less than an hour. On this week’s episode of Talking Smack, long time heel commentator John “Bradshaw” Layfield joined Renee Young as a presenter, filling the spot left by usual presenter Daniel Bryan. JBL showed in respectful conversation with John Cena and American Alpha that heels are not obliged to despise everybody. On the SmackDown roster, only Baron Corbin makes a point of standing alone, as “The Lone Wolf”. Not even The Miz, possibly the most arrogant and obnoxious wrestler in the WWE, has been upset by everyone, even having kinder words for his opponents, briefly praising the talent of Dolph Ziggler.
On the other hand, there is RAW, which rarely bothers to make the slightest attempts at intertwining storylines. A wrestler’s nearest friend and his opponent are the only thing of interest. For example, Roman Reigns is in an awkward partnership with Seth Rollins. He doesn’t like Chris Jericho and Kevin Owens. And that’s it. Does that mean that Reigns never speaks to anybody else backstage? Ever? Bizarrely, the closest that they have come to making overlapping divisions work has been Bayley giving people impromptu hugs backstage, and giving Goldust a Dusty Rhodes teddy bear.
WHAT RAW GETS WRONG: STILL TRYING TO BE OUTRAGEOUS (BUT NOT OUTRAGEOUS ENOUGH)
At one point, wrestlers being treated as a one-dimensional character, rather than as a person, actually worked. One has to look no further than the revered Attitude Era of 1997-2001. At the time, pre-social media, fans cared less about any extensions beyond what they saw on the main programming. There was little-to-no depth to anybody, whether they be a one-trick-pony novelty act such as Vel Venis or The Godfather, or even figureheads such as Stone Cold Steve Austin and The Rock. Unfortunately, to get this format to work properly, the show needed to be outrageous, chaotic and deliberately made to be taken at face value. WWF managed this perfectly, in creating a show that was a solid block of entertainment, and the outcome of matches really didn’t matter much. One doesn’t have to look much further than Chyna winning the Intercontinental Championship more than she did the Women’s Championship.
WWE is now no longer in a state to be booking this way, most infamously for the step back of the ‘PG era’. However, without the outrageousness of the Attitude Era, RAW has lost entertainment value. Now that WWE is a bit more withdrawn, and presumably will not return to TV-14, the madness needs to be compensated for. Much to the world’s surprise, this was achieved by the rise of NXT, which filled in the blanks with more natural emotion.
WHAT NXT GOT RIGHT: INCORPORATING A SEMI-KAYFABE LOOK AT NEW TALENT, AS THE LINE BETWEEN THE “ACTOR” AND THE “CHARACTER” WAS BLURRED
In the knowledge that NXT talent was under development, thus being the ‘developmental centre’, the show was given far more of a human touch. Viewers knew that the wrestlers were in training, and the booking was built around. The shows themselves were relatively generic as viewers watched as much for watching the person’s training as they did their character’s progress. When the matter of training was dramatised, and “rising to the top” was ever mentioned, it blurred the line between real life and kayfabe, and fans wanted to know what would happen next – because of attachment to the people, rather than the explosive mischief of characters. This was also naturally helped by the intimate setting of Full Sail, and consciously watching the divisions grow. This was presumably why wrestlers were so adored and fans got behind causes such as the ‘Women’s Revolution’. Making wrestlers more human makes a massive difference.
At least up until the arrival of Shinsuke Nakamura (or perhaps even as early as NXT TakeOver: Brooklyn), and its purpose has changed substantially, NXT exploited this perfectly. Now that it’s changed it agenda, it is a format that SmackDown have used, and run with it.
HOW SMACKDOWN TOOK THIS TO A NEW LEVEL
Instead of making the mistake that RAW has made in its venture for Attitude-lite, SmackDown took a step back and created a very tidy format: Two hours of sport-like coverage on SmackDown, and one hour of casual discussion with the wrestlers in a different manner, which seems very natural. For example John Cena, on the 27th December episode, discussed the crowd being negative towards him because he had taken a hiatus because of interest in other things, such as acting and presenting on Saturday Night Live. His testimonial on the matter could either have been scripted for kayfabe, or a genuine plea, but it is virtually impossible to figure out.
Talking Smack blurs the line between the SmackDown show, and out of character shows like UpUpDownDown. In spite of the programming’s simplicity, it has created its own little universe which resembles authentic sport more than it does a ridiculous pantomime. It is the closest to “sports entertainment” that WWE has ever been. In fact, if somebody unfamiliar with SmackDown, Talking Smack and UpUpDownDown, could probably be convinced that all three were kayfabe. It seemed impossible, but WWE has managed to recreate an element of uncertainty because of the richness of the booking.
RAW on the other hand, with its faux-outrageous characters, are forced to admit that nothing outside of the main show and PPVs is of any relevance or importance. It seems daft, but look at this clip of various RAW wrestlers backstage.
At the time of upload, there was no reason why any of those men couldn’t have been in the same room, talking amicably. Seth Rollins might have been booked as a heel, but that doesn’t mean that he mustn’t be good at playing Madden. It is a moment that it wouldn’t have been a surprise to see exploited and shown on Talking Smack were they on the SmackDown side.
RAW can’t build its own universe, not until it is all realistically human, or all outrageous and making no secret of it.