With arguably the deepest and most talented roster in recent memory, 2016 saw WWE move forward with their first ‘official’ brand split since 2002. The move was met with equal parts skepticism and excitement, and the mixed results thus far prove that both reactions were warranted. It’s been an interesting second half of the year for WWE, so let’s look at four of the main takeaways from the brand split as we move into 2017.
Different Shows, Different Nights
One of the main problems with the past brand split was how SmackDown felt like Raw Lite. You were still consuming the same product, but just a watered down version. Now, each show feels like its own independent entity with a wholly unique look and feel. Raw will always be the flagship show, the one with most of the big names and the somewhat predictable storylines.
Instead of trying to replicate that on Tuesdays, SmackDown live became its own show, one that gives time to multiple storylines and characters and makes them all feel like they mean something. It's one that is more willing to take chances like putting their women’s title on a relatively green Alexa Bliss or having Randy Orton join the Wyatt Family. They are more willing to think a bit outside the WWE box, and let their performers experience the inevitable growing pains that come with more exposure.
This sets the company up for even more success moving forward as they have nurtured more TV-ready talent than ever before. This doesn't even mention Talking Smack, which might be the best program that WWE produces on any platform. It muddles the kayfabe waters more than ever and has led to some of the best promo work of the year, allowing Bliss and Baron Corbin to find their footing and shine.
Raw’s Song Remains The Same
SmackDown has somewhat subverted the idea of what a successful WWE weekly program can be. Raw has proven that no matter how much things change, some stay the same. Raw has the same characters in the same places, doing the same things but just with different names.
It has been the same stubborn, self-serving program it's always been. Look at The New Day’s needless and unending pursuit of Demolition’s tag team title reign record and how it essentially neutered the division for months or the continued opportunities given to Roman Reigns (who, himself is not a problem), or the complete mishandling of Seth Rollins’ return from his injury.
All of these things hurt Raw tremendously, so much so that only the best work of Chris Jericho’s career and Kevin Owens being a capable heel champion have saved it from being borderline unwatchable. Is this an effect of the brand split? Or, is it just the typical lull that happens from the fall until the Royal Rumble / The Road to WrestleMania™?
Recent episodes have improved, the reintroduction of Neville as a cruiserweight has been a breath of fresh air, and while your mileage may vary on Braun Strowman (I’m beyond all in, for what it’s worth), it has at least been something different. As the WrestleMania card clears up and the stakes are raised, the storylines always tighten and become more meaningful, which, hopefully, should lead to a better next few months.
The best wrestler in the world warrants his own section: the champion of the best mainstream wrestling show on television, incredible in the ring, incredible character work, and incredible on commentary. WWE put SmackDown Live on his shoulders, and he has taken it to a level that was previously unthinkable. He is the anchor that keeps the show in place, the foundation upon which it is built. He is someone operating on a level rarely seen and allows everyone else to get more screen time and opportunities to hone their craft.
No one has to worry about AJ getting over, or AJ getting his as his transcendent in-ring skill and prodigious talent allows him to do that on his own. His presence and ability to make everyone around him that much better is a testament to his wholly unique abilities as a performer. It took awhile for him to get where he is, but anyone who watches wrestling is lucky that he got there.
The General Managers
Daniel Bryan has become very, very good as an on-screen, talking head ‘authority figure’ type. His dry sense of humor, combined with the ability to poke fun at himself and the product in general, has proven, yet again, there’s nothing he can’t do well when it comes to wrestling. His stellar work on the aforementioned Talking Smack has eased some of the pain of the ending of his in-ring career, and thankfully kept him on our televisions.
His transition has been seamless, and for the first time in perhaps ever, there is a general manager who uses logic and at least tries to explain his statements. He has been a home run from the start. But man, as good as Bryan has been, Mick Foley has been equally as terrible and an abject failure. The yelling, gasping, meandering promos, the nonsensical booking, and just the general lack of consistency has been surprising, and quite honestly, sad to see.
Foley knows the McMahons will eventually tire of him on an on-screen role, making me wonder how it hasn’t happened already. Going into the brand split, there were questions about whether or not DB could take to the role, but in reality, those questions were better pointed at the general manager of the flagship show.