Nearly a year ago, SmackDown Live sought to find its identity in the brand split when the show announced it would be the land of opportunity. A place for otherwise B-level talent to showcase dropkicks and suplexes and become something of a recognizable name.
And while the direction has elevated stars who might not get a chance to shine on SmackDown's more celebrated brethren, Monday Night Raw, there is a downside.
SmackDown, in many ways, has turned into a sea of sameness in recent months. Ever since AJ Styles lost the WWE Championship at the Royal Rumble in January, not one performer has stood out. Not Randy Orton, not Kevin Owens, not Jinder Mahal -- and you might note the latter two are current champions on SmackDown. For that matter, Styles himself has done little to garner consistent attention since dropping his belt.
The reality in sports is that as much as we like to the zero-to-hero narrative, we love perennial champs as well. That's why Styles' character worked so well in 2016. That's why Brock Lesnar currently works so well on Raw, even if he's hardly a regular. That's why we can't get enough of the New England Patriots or Golden State Warriors, even if we loathe the very idea of those teams winning. We still watch.
We still watch Roman Reigns, and we do so fully reconciling his polarizing effect. The operative word here is "effect," because he has one. Reigns does something to our blood to make it boil. Now we fully recognize that Reigns is unique, perhaps the most interesting character outside John Cena in the love-hate barometer the WWE has ever had. But outside Reigns, Raw has done a tremendous job in building Braun Stowman (who's currently injured), while keeping Seth Rollins and Finn Balor not just relevant in the main-event spotlight, but as engaging characters.
The question lately with SmackDown is: Who are we geeked up to watch? It's not Mahal, not yet. Is it Owens? Shinsuke Nakamura? Styles?
The past few weeks are a perfect example of character flaws in the blue brand. Styles is losing to Dolph Ziggler one week, beating him the next, all without any real ramifications. If the goal is to have these performers mix it up with mixed results in these micro-feuds all for the sake of ratcheting hype for Money in the Bank (which is weeks away), that's flawed, because parity is a misguided path to greatness.
What SmackDown needs is a leading character. Just one.
He doesn't need to be a perennial winner, but he needs to be the perennial face that, well, runs the place. Can Styles return to that place, where as soon as his music hit, we knew we were watching the highlight of the show?
You can make the same argument for the women. Naomi is a deserving champ, but not a standout champ. While there is absolutely nothing wrong with her run to the pinnacle of the SmackDown mountain, what has happened to her top rivals?
Charlotte Flair and Becky Lynch have been thrown together for quite some time with Naomi, while the heel faction of Natalya, Tamina and Carmella are also a threesome whose sum is greater than its parts. But it's the parts alone that don't stand out. That's a long-term issue.
Charlotte was arguably the best thing that ever happened to the women's revolution. But not only is she not a champ at the moment, she hasn't really been a relevant solo character.
Hopefully, Money in the Bank will not only be a worthy pay-per-view, but the beginning of a new direction in which someone can snare the attention crown, because as it stands, that title is vacant.
Hits and misses
Welcome, The New Day, who made their SmackDown in-ring debut. True, it was a predictably fun win against The Colons, but would it be a mistake to hand over the titles to the New Day so soon, when they meet the Usos at Money in the Bank? What does this say about Breezeango? More than any other team, Fandango and Tyler Breeze deserve a run as champs.
Speaking of Breezango, their "Fashion Files" spoof was another hilarious segment with The New Day looking for intel on The Colons. "I took a bottle of cologne to the boys in the lab, only to find out there are no boys and no lab." I have no idea what Fandango was talking about, but it was funny nonetheless.
Lana made her debut as well, albeit a bit of an awkward one. She walked down the ramp during the opening segment and demanded she be part of the debut of a women's Money in the Bank match as the five other participants looked on. Ultimately, Lana was denied her chance. Commissioner Shane McMahon said she had to earn her opportunity, and Lana walked away in anger. Then she gets a title opportunity against Naomi at Money in the Bank? What? How did this happen?
Oh, and no Rusev again? Just sayin'.
The pitfalls of being SmackDown champ. First, Randy Orton had arguably his worst reign ever as champ during his latest run, and Tuesday, Jinder Mahal found himself entangled with Mojo Rawley, who, as he said himself, has been a nonfactor since winning the Andre the Giant Memorial Battle Royal in early April. Mahal won, thanks to some nefarious interruption by the Singh brothers, but it was hardly a memorable encounter. And it hardly did anything to build Mahal's credibility.
A worthy main event between Owens and Nakamura, but felt like there was no real heat between the two. Perhaps this feud will grow and turn into something truly dynamic with the two squaring off for the United States Championship at SummerSlam.