I was watching a bunch of Honest Trailers today, one of which was the Honest Trailer for Breaking Bad. In it they say that Breaking Bad is so good it got TV snobs to finally shut up about The Wire. When I first saw this video about a year ago I think, that line struck me as particularly hilarious since it really encapsulated my view of the show. It also highlighted a dilemma I face when I try and decide what I think the best TV show of all time is.
I don’t say favorite because while shows like The Shield and The Simpsons might not be quite on the same level in greatness, they probably are bigger favorites because of all the ancillary reasons I might like a TV show. For instance the shield might be my favorite TV show ever in large part to the presence it took me and my friends lives over the 7 years it was on the air. I don’t mean to sound hyperbolic in the importance of the show on my life, but when I think of the show it reminds me of a very specific period in time as well as a group of friends. The shield was the last and I think only show I ever watched from the very first episode all the way to the final episode as it aired. There was no binge watching. I would try to adjust my work schedule to accommodate the show, and just about every week I would have a conversation with at least one of my friends regarding the events of that weeks episode and what is coming down the line.
With Breaking Bad and The Wire I wasn’t on board from the beginning. With BB I missed the first 2 and a half seasons before I finally started watching the show. The entire 5 seasons of the wire had already ended when I finally got around to binge watching it. So while BB ended up being a similar weekly event the way The shield was, The Wire was just an amazing show I would constantly try and push on other people.
Anyways, the whole point of this post is for me to try and decide which of the two shows, Breaking Bad (BB) or The Wire (TW), I think is better. I thought about viewing each show as a whole and comparing them, but that’s too difficult a task, and it’s more fun and methodological to instead to come up with a list of arbitrary categories and assign a winner for each one.
In this very unscientific breakdown I’ve determined the following will be the categories the two shows will battle: (WARNING ALL KINDS OF SPOILERS BELOW)
- Writing/Story arch
- Writing/OMG moments
- First Episode
- Final Episode
Those are the things I thought of off the top of my head. I guess a better way to choose categories would be to think about what I think makes a great TV show and then see how each show stacks up, but instead I thought about all the things that made each show great and use that as the basis. This is probably why you won’t see something like sound track or music score or whatever because while they are important to a show, it’s not really a thing that made me watch either show. In fact The Wire didn’t have any music on the show except for a musical montage at the end of each season and a few background songs being played in certain scenes. All the sounds in the show from what I know where natural environment. BB on the hand used music to build tension and would also use songs as part of montages during the course of the entire series.
You know what, fuck it, lets throw music in as a category. I just talked myself into it. The fact that TW didn’t have a score to build tension or set the mood like BB did really puts it at a disadvantage but then again you could argue that the lack of background music to artificially inflate the tension in any given moment was one of the show added to overall realistic quality of the show. So I will consider those two things a push and decide this based solely on the actual songs and musical montage.
BB had only had a few musical montages that were of note that I can remember but they were really good, particularly the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage in the first half of season 5 that did a great job of showing the passage of time to help move the series into it’s final act if you will. Another favorite musical moment for me in BB has to be Walter starting up a car in the final episode and hearing Marty Robins “El Paso” start to play. This was fantastic to me since it was a song my mom use to play when I was a young kid, but had not heard in over 20 years. I loved that song but was too young to remember any of it. Plus the song really has some great parallels with Walter White’s mission in the last episode.
Oh but if we are mentioning music on BB then I guess bonus points should be awarded for Gale’s karaoke video. That was fantastic. Speaking of Gale, does anyone know what the Meow Meow Meow asian sounding song was he was playing in his apartment before Jesse was really the one who knocks? I also really liked the full BB intro theme playing in the penultimate episode of the series as Walter kind of amps himself up at the bar.
So while I like all the BB music choices, I have to give the nod in this category to The Wire. There are several reasons for this. Number one, I think the songs them selves are inherently better on their own. Not by a lot, but just enough that I actually downloaded the sound track for the wire and will listen to it occasionally, but can’t really imagine doing the same for BB. Number two, the season ending montages are fantastic, and are things that I can just watch at any point if I want to get a visceral reminder of how awesome any one particular season was. Number three, and the main reasons I’m giving TW the win here is that season three’s montage featuring Solomon Burke’s “Fast Train” is so good that it sits at the top of all montage’s for both shows. In particular the shot of De’s baby moma sitting on the couch crying as the camera pans past pictures of Stringer Bell and Deangelo. It was far more melancholy that the crystal blue persuiasian montage, but that’s not a bad thing, and actually highlights what I think is a main difference between the shows.
The wire was grounded in the wide range of characters actions and emotions and how they all effected each other, where as Breaking Bad was mostly focused on a small core of characters and was more about pure entertainment. Not in a Michael bay way, but the you never felt as deeply for the ancillary characters in BB as you did in TW.
So one point for TW, but let’s explore the characters as long as we are on the subject. First, the ancillary characters category should be an easy victory for the Wire based mostly on what I said above, but there are additional reasons as well. First of all, there are so god damn many more of them in the wire. In fact, there could be almost too many of them. The reason I don’t think that is true is that TW was amazing at reusing background characters. A perfect example is the one doc worker from season 2 ending up as a homeless person under the bridge in season 5. There’s a real continuity there that is almost unfathomable in other TV shows.
BB on the other hand, like I said earlier, really focused on a core group of characters, Walt, Jesse, Hank, Saul, Skylar, and the big bads. You could add Mike into that group of core characters, and while he may be more awesome than all the ancillary characters on TW combined, you also have to consider ancillary characters on BB like Gomie. When Gomie died, it was sad, but not a lot. In fact it only sad in the context of him dying with his partner Hank. TW had the advantage of being able to completely ignore a minor character if nothing interesting was happening with them (hell even McNulty in season 4 was mostly ignored), while BB had to try and shoe horn in storylines for all the minor characters like Marie (stealing) and Skylar (being a bitch) so that you as the viewer were reminded that they were still on the show.
The only thing that might have given BB the point in this category is the fact that the ancillary characters were so good that they are probably going to feature heavily in the Better Call Spin off where I hope Bill Burr features heavily. Still, TW gets this point.
I could spend a lot of time going over the advantages and disadvantages each show had when it came to main characters but I think two points kind of sum up my feeling for why Breaking Bad gets the win here. 1st, the wire really didn’t have a lead character. Maybe it was McNulty, but then again he just disappeared for most of season 4 like I mentioned before. The 2nd point is, Walter White or Jesse Pinkman > than any one Wire character. I don’t think this is a position you can argue. Maybe Omar or Stringer Bell come close to Jesse in whatever criteria you use to say a character is better; interesting, likeable, important, whatever. But Jesse still wins and Walter wins in a walk.
Tied into the characters themselves we should probably discussing the actors playing them. Once again I could go into a long explanation detailing the performances of one group versus the other, but really it all comes down to Aaron Paul’s performance as Jesse and Bryan Cranston’s performance as Walt. I’m not saying no one on the wire is in the same class as those two as actors, but what I am saying is that Anthony Hopkins never sent a letter to anyone on the wire to say that they had performed the greatest feat of acting ever portrayed on either the small or big screen.
Of course what good is great actors without a great script to work with? Lets start four writing categories with Dialogue since I think that has the closest relation to the category we just covered. With BB the dialogue was always good, and at times fantastic. You could point to a characters like Saul and Gus as highlighting the diversity of the writing that BB was able to achieve, but TW may be even better in that regard since they had to write for not only learned professionals, politicians, and academics, but also for the under educated caught up in blight of the gang life of Bodymore Murderland.
Diversity aside I also judge this category on how great some of the more seminal moments of dialogue are. The speech Mike gave Walt about half measures was amazing. I seriously have that clip saved on my hard drive and will on occasion just watch it. There were a few other moments like this in BB’s history although they weren’t as lengthy and revolved more around the specific plot of any one moment than the specific words being said. “I am the one who knocks” might be an example where the acting and directing rose up the awesomeness of a line of dialogue above where it may have been on the written paper.
The Wire had in the same number of seasons probably had 5 times as many quotable lines than Breaking Bad. Seriously, do a search for 100 greatest quotes from the wire and I think there are actually two separate videos on youtube since the creators just had too many great lines to work with. As with many of these categories, neither show is less than great, but one of the shows does have a slight edge, and this one goes to The Wire.
Dialogue is only one aspect of the writing I want to focus on however and I think that BB easily wins the next category of OMG moments. I don’t think I need to go over in depth what an OMG moment is, but while Wallace dying, or Stringer dying, or fucking Presbo shooting another cop made me go “What the Fuck”, none of the moments really shocked me the way some of the moments in Breaking Bad did. The best OMG moment in BB in my opinion came when in the final scene of the final episode of season 4 the camera panned to reveal the Lilly of the Valley plant. When that happened I literally paced around my living room trying in vain to find someone I could call. I needed to share the joy of such and amazing moment with someone else and the lack of an outlet was causing me too physically crave an outlet that I unconsciously channeled into walking around my living room like a mad man.
A category of writing that is even more easy to decide is the realness factor. I don’t know exactly how to label this, but one of the things the wire was amazing at was how realistic it was. Granted, BB was never meant to be a mirror on societies systemic problems the way the Wire was, but BB did have the misfortune of including one somewhat rather unrealistic turn where Walter White was inadvertently responsible for mid air collision of two airplanes. When I watched the show I kind of ignored the almost silliness of it since the show was getting really good by that point, and it had help solved a floating stuffed animal mystery from throughout that season.
The last writing category that needs deciding is the most difficult to me; Story Arch. The story arch for Breaking Bad was all about Walter White’s rise from Mr Rodgers into Scarface and his inevitable fall. (I know Vince Gilligan referred to it as turning Mr. Chips into Scarface, but I have no idea who mr chips is.) The Wire on the other hand didn’t focus on a series long story arch as much as it did focus on story archs involving individuals, investigations, and aspects of the city. Each season focused on one specific area of the city and there was some bleed over into subsequent seasons but not much. The investigations usually wrapped up at the end of each season, but not neatly enough that there wasn’t impact or continuations on following seasons. Unlike almost any other cop show ever, the characters all had profound story arcs of their own that weaved in effortlessly with the rest of shows plot.
Maybe calling the characters progressions on TW a “story arch” isn’t quite accurate, but I think you know what I mean. Carver as a somewhat lazy not exactly incompetent running partner of Herc in the early episodes was a far different person than the emotionally wrecked character punching his the inside of his car in season 4. Everyone hated Prezbo for most of season one, but by the end of season 4 he is a character you root for a feel such sympathy for. Even the bad guys like Bodie, while not going through as drastic a change in personality, still are revealed enough during the course of the series that you understand them on an almost personal level and are heart broken when they meet their end, which doesn’t occur in a vacuum and is the driving force behind McNulty coming back for season 5 and almost fucking up his life again and blah blah blah. Basically the wire was great at interweaving the actions and lives of all the many many characters while allowing them to grow and change individually.
Breaking bad didn’t really have the same type of character growth outside of Walt and Jesse, mostly because it wasn’t that type of show and existed in a much smaller fictional time frame compared to the wire…. I think. It’s always hard to judge how much time is supposed to pass during the course of a TV series.
You know what, I can’t pick a winner in this category, the shows are too different and too good at this specific aspect, so I’m going to say it’s a push. Ok let’s just do some quick hits on the remaining categories.
Breaking bad wins the cinematography category in a walk. Granted the wire never was trying to be as visually stunning as Breaking Bad and was too grounded in reality to do anything like the POV shots, but even still you really have to sit back and marvel at some of the stunning scenes in breaking bad… blah blah blah, lots of stuff colored purple.
Next up is the humor category, and while BB did have Bryan Kranston launching roof pizzas and breaking glass doors, I give the nod to the wire based solely on the large number of drunken police bar scenes as well as the “fuck fuck, fuckity, fuck fuck fuck” crime scene investigation.
Repeatability is a tough one to judge since both are great shows you can watch numerous times. I might have to give the slight edge to the Wire since even after the fourth or fifth time through the series, you will still end up catching something new, whereas with breaking bad a lot of those amazing OMG moments are somewhat lessened on subsuquent viewings.
Consistency is a category I probably should spend some time defining, but instead let me just say why i’m giving BB the nod over the Wire. Although I really liked season 2 of the Wire, a lot of people didn’t like the direction it went, and I kind of felt the same way the first time I watched the series. Also the last season of the Wire kind of went a little overboard with McNulty making up a serial killer. Breaking bad on the other hand is the only show I know that may have improved each season. Maybe the 2nd season could be a slight step back from season 1. Tough to say, but season three was much better than the first two and then season 4 blew me away so much that I kind of assumed the fifth season would be a let down, which it wasn’t, and in fact was the best season of the series… maybe.
The last two categories are the First and Final episodes. I have a folder on my one hard drive dedicated to the first and final episodes of most of my favorite TV shows. It’s fun to look back at where a show started and where it ended. It’s particularly great if like with ER they can even do a call back or two to the the beginning when they are wrapping up their series.
With breaking Bad the first episode was exciting and made me want to watch more. It wasn’t nearly as dramatic or pulse pounding as the show would become obviously but good stuff. The first episode of the Wire was probably slightly better however since even from the jump you had a classic episode. Granted on first viewing the first episode of the Wire was a little jarring since I had never seen a cop show before where the cops weren’t all on the side of the angels fighting crime with all they got, and the bad guys weren’t just caricatures. So first episode goes to The Wire, but just barely.
The final episode of the Wire did a good job of wrapping up the storylines that had to be wrapped up and the ending montage kind of gave you an idea of where each character was headed for at least the near future, Still, most of the episode felt like most other season ending episodes and not so much a series ending episode like with BB. Even though I love that they used the first season’s “Down in the hole” as the song for the ending montage, it didn’t really do enough for me to win out over BB’s final episode which brought to a dramatic end an entire series and left very few loose strings.
- Acting – BB
- Writing/Story arch – Push
- Writing/Dialogue – TW
- Writing/realness – BB
- Writing/OMG moments – BB
- Characters/Main – BB
- Characters/Ancillary – TW
- Cinematography – BB
- Humor -TW
- Repeatability – TW
- Consistency- BB
- First Episode – TW
- Final Episode – BB
- Music –TW
The Wire : 5
Breaking Bad: 7
I really wasn’t sure who the winner was going to be until I just tallied everything up at the end here. I can’t say it is a surprise the way it turned out. A close hard fought match with the more recent show coming out on top.
I always thought Breaking Bad kind of has an unfair advantage over a lot of other great shows because the subject is not only unique (high school teacher turned into a drug king pin) but also has very high stakes that a show like Mad Men can’t have. If Don Draper is in a deal with Kodak that goes bad, Kodak isn’t going to threaten to kill him and his family. The stakes are just higher for the main characters, but not so high that they seem abstract like a nuclear bomb will go off like in 24.
In summation, watch the hell out of both these shows and the comment on them like crazy.