The Problem with Talking Smack
Once regarded as the hidden gem of WWE programming, the return of Talking Smack has fallen flat. Brandon Bethune reflects on the show’s past success and how it can reclaim its previous magic.
Far too regularly, WWE’s storytelling is so frustratingly incoherent and illogical that it’s hard to get invested in the compan even at the best of times. However, what keeps us coming back is the characters. While also not always as deftly fleshed out on-screen, it’s the pieces of these people behind the characters that we know, and the love and respect we hold for them, that keeps us watching.
It’s rare that in the over-produced and meticulously crafted content WWE produces that these personalities can shine through, but that’s where Talking Smack comes in.
During the WWE brand extension of 2016, Talking Smack was introduced as a post-SmackDown talk show hosted by Renee Young and recently retired SmackDown GM Daniel Bryan, right at the beginning of his IDGAF phase.
Talk shows in WWE weren’t exactly a new thing in WWE in 2016, as anyone who will have had to sit through any painful PPV kickoff shows will know. These shows only really existed to bolster the PPV cards or promote the kickoff match later in the hour, and largely maintained the same WWE polish that comes with everything the company has on offer.
What made Talking Smack different though, was that the WWE polish and scripted banter that made these shows unbearable to watch was stripped away in favour of just letting the wrestlers explore their personalities in an organic fashion.
This in turn allowed wrestlers to not only broaden their characters but test their mic skills and improve their overall performance. And lastly, the cherry on top of the Talking Smack sundae, was that at the time, it informed SmackDown’s storytelling, and made it better.
Take this example from August 2016, with the now infamous and lauded Miz rant on Daniel Bryan.
After the 2016 Draft, The Miz was floundering as the Intercontinental Champion and had been left off SummerSlam a week prior. During an appearance on Talking Smack, Bryan called The Miz a “lazy” wrestler and someone who “fights like a coward.”
Instead of Miz cowering away and backing off, or being booked in a random TV match as punishment, Miz used the unscripted and loose platform of Talking Smack to reveal his true feelings towards being snubbed from SummerSlam, and the disrespect shown of the Intercontinental Championship.
Miz dressed Bryan down and criticised him for not being able to wrestle himself, and let his feelings known in what has become a legendary promo that completely transformed Miz as a character, and made Talking Smack appointment viewing.
The promo went viral and opened the following week’s SmackDown, with Miz and the IC Title becoming a focal point of the show in the aftermath. A seemingly innocuous interaction between Miz and Bryan went down so well that it organically affected SmackDown’s storytelling, leading to a fantastic Miz/Dolph Ziggler feud (that otherwise should have been ‘old hat’ in 2016), and a years spanning rivalry between Miz and Bryan that lasted through to the latter’s in-ring comeback in 2018.
The brilliance of the Talking Smack platform was that it proved to be a rare case of WWE letting its wrestlers loose and allowing the show to change the usually unchangeable plans the company have in place for its talent and the levels in which they compete at.
The Miz vs Daniel Bryan was only the tip of the iceberg too. Bryan let everyone know of his desire to return to the ring, also going on hilarious rants that included AJ Styles being exposed as a “flat-earther” and referencing independent promotions. Dean Ambrose and John Cena brutally fired shots at one another in great promos. Newcomers at the time Baron Corbin and Alexa Bliss delivered, letting fans see them in a new light.
Absolutely everybody benefited from Talking Smack, aiding SmackDown in its journey to becoming the best wrestling show on television for a period from mid-late 2016. Unfortunately though, this story didn’t have a happy ending.
Once WWE cottoned onto the fact that Talking Smack was becoming ‘cool’, they had to mess it up. Sister programme RAW Talk was introduced in 2017 and lacked the same cutting edge feeling that made its SmackDown counterpart what it was, while simultaneously hindering Talking Smack’s aura. The ineffectiveness of RAW Talk soon seeped its way into Talking Smack, and both died a death to a silenced but bothered fanbase, who remembered the good times of 2016 and early 2017 for the blue brand equivalent.
This wasn’t the end of Talking Smack though, as following SmackDown’s arrival on Fox in late 2019 and during WWE’s never-ending search for content, the show made its return to the WWE Network in August 2020, and immediately got off to a hot start.
The August 22nd 2020 Talking Smack was hosted by Kayla Braxton and The Miz, with Big E in particular delivering on Night 1 of its return. Big E and The Miz got into a spat regarding the former leaving The New Day for a singles run, and Kofi Kingston’s repositioning from a main eventer to mid-card tag team after losing the WWE Championship. Big E showed a rare moment of passion and intensity in his usually upbeat persona, going tit-for-tat on the stick with the man who established Talking Smack in the first place. The moment was a good indicator of Big E’s future, but also represented a major issue that has since come to light.
Talking Smack no longer influences the events of SmackDown itself.In 2016/17, Talking Smack provided a backdrop in which the events of the show directly influenced SmackDown’s direction i.e. The Miz’s rant against Daniel Bryan.
Big E’s rant against Miz, for example, merely highlighted Kofi’s loss of direction after losing the WWE Championship, a shocking betrayal of Kingston’s character and drive during the ‘Kofi-Mania’ wave of 2019.
This is the problem at the core of the new Talking Smack. While the quality is still top notch, providing the rich storytelling and character building that it was built on, SmackDown itself fails to deliver this, hindering it by comparison.
There is a counter argument to this, as SmackDown has shown with the likes of Roman Reigns, Edge and Daniel Bryan that they can flesh out stories and motivations going into WrestleMania. However, on the flip side, many other stories have had moments in which the best has been left for Talking Smack, rather than the main show.
Allow me to provide some examples. Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens on TV has revolved around Sami’s wacky conspiracy theories and documentary, with KO simply growing increasingly tired of his former friend’s insanity and vice versa (not to mention Logan Paul). Sami Zayn vs Kevin Owens on Talking Smack is a lot deeper than that.
During both men’s respective appearances on the show, Zayn and Owens gave an interesting deconstruction of the former’s mindset surrounding these conspiracies. Sami showed weakness and doubt in his own psyche, giving a glimpse at the babyface hero he was once known to be, and how far he’s fallen from that pedestal. Meanwhile, Owens sought to bring that part of Zayn back, noting how Zayn’s descent began with him in the first place. The differences are clear, as on SmackDown the TV show Zayn vs Owens was a comedy, celebrity match for ‘Mania. Zayn vs Owens on Talking Smack was a natural and emotional continuation of their years-spanning narrative.
Oftentimes WWE fans are forced to fill the gaps in the narratives presented in their own heads to tie up loose ends or make it more compelling. Annoyingly, WWE have Talking Smack sitting right there with rich storytelling present in rivalries like Zayn vs Owens, but aren’t presenting it on the actual show that the talk show is meant to bolster. It’s all kinds of frustrating.
This isn’t the only example either. Paul Heyman has been an absolute godsend since joining as co-host, with some banging interactions with Big E, Apollo Crews, Bianca Belair, Cesaro and the aforementioned Zayn and Owens, to provide interesting additions to their stories, but none of this context appears where it matters.
Heyman told Big E he was ready for the main event and planted seeds for a future program with Roman Reigns. This wasn’t followed up on. Heyman planted the seeds for the Apollo Crews heel turn and at the same time encouraged him to take out Big E (potentially getting rid of someone he sees with main event potential that could stand in Roman Reigns’ way). This, besides a one off and unheard conversation between Apollo and Roman, wasn’t followed up on. The emotional groundwork of Zayn vs Owens at WrestleMania wasn’t followed up on. Cesaro referenced his past with Paul Heyman and being overshadowed for so long, and that too hasn’t been fleshed out beyond a comedy video package from Seth Rollins. Again, absolutely infuriating.
Counter arguments could be made again with Heyman’s interactions on the show with Edge and Daniel Bryan, which helped further their story with Roman Reigns, but the large majority trumps the minority.
I mentioned in the introduction that WWE is largely inept at its own storytelling, but in the hands of their own talent, Talking Smack shows that the ability is there for better, far more engaging stories on SmackDown.
Sami vs KO could be all about Kevin trying to rectify the decisions he made in the past by bringing back the Sami he took away. Cesaro vs Seth Rollins could be about Cesaro’s inability to break through the glass ceiling, not just swinging. Paul Heyman could be Roman Reigns’ ears to the ground in the SmackDown locker room, using Talking Smack as a bridge between Roman and his potential enemies (such as Big E), thus manipulating people (i.e. Apollo Crews) into taking out the challengers to Roman’s throne.
Maybe Talking Smack is simply a device for a hardcore audience, with WWE having no intention of integrating these loose ends into its week-to-week storytelling. Maybe this is a case of me taking slivers of story on a talk show and building them in my head like I criticised earlier. Or maybe not.
Maybe with guys like Daniel Bryan and Paul Heyman regularly on Talking Smack, with their level of backstage influence, the show should receive more of a look in to improve its promotion and its impact. Maybe, regarding the WWE vs AEW debate of talent receiving a more hands on approach to their stories, WWE should take a look at their own shows to see why they are losing that debate, and how they could be on the right side of it.
To cite one last example, when WrestleMania 37 Night 1 was delayed by rain, WWE let its talent go out there and talk. Unedited and uninterrupted, the wrestlers captured the same unscripted vibe that Talking Smack possesses, and more than delivered. Drew McIntyre was emotionally resonant, Seth Rollins was detestably arrogant, The New Day were hilarious and focused, and Kevin Owens made you believe him vs Sami Zayn was the biggest match on the two-night card. All of this added to the matches that later took place over the weekend, just like ‘Talking Smack’ did for SmackDown during its glory days.
Until WWE can channel the energy they show in the blue brand talk show, and align it 100% with the product they put out on TV as they have done in the past, Talking Smack will continue to hurt SmackDown.