Posted by: markfender | October 2, 2013

Breaking Bad vs. The Wire

We need something to argue about now that Breaking Bad is over.

breakingbadwireThe Wire is the greatest TV show ever. This is a fact. And yet, there are rumblings that Breaking Bad is the greatest TV show ever. As Breaking Bad ends, it’s now time to take on the two juggernauts of television and decide once and for all which is worth watching.

Well, that’s a stupid argument. They’re both worth watching. Ostensibly, they’re even about the same things – flawed protagonists and drugs. They’re both five seasons worth of crime drama. It should be easy to compare/contrast and decided which is the best.

But it’s not. Because, while they share a lot of DNA, they’re both entirely different beasts. The Wire is not about cops or drug dealers. It’s about institutions. Each season told one complete story in the ongoing saga of an American city. During that time, it shifted focus with each season to concentrate on a different arena of that city. It’s pretty staggering in its ambition, even more so when you consider that they almost always nailed it.

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is one story focusing on one character and his fall. It is a more traditional dramatic structure. The show is more cinematic also, with its overuse of the “stuff falling on the camera” shot and sweeping vistas of New Mexico. Not to mention its fondness for closeups of the simmering rage on Bryan Cranston’s face. It’s using a more traditional film palette to tell a dramatic story.

What makes Breaking Bad the greatest TV show of all time is the way that it has rarely faltered in its escalation of stakes. The show began as a dark farce, with Walter and Jesse seemingly incapable of doing anything right. It grew into watching Walter become indebted to, and then break free from Gus Fring (chalking up its Wire quotient with David Costabile). In the final season, we’ve seen Walter confront those closest to him in the his quest to justify his actions. And we’ve watched all this escalation across a consistently slow and measured pace. It’s agonizing how slow this show is sometimes. This is the show that had its season four finale take time out to watch a nurse painstakingly spell out messages transmitted from a character who can’t talk. It spends so much time on building tension that the finales practically explode off the screen.

However, where it fails is where The Wire succeeds. Most notably, Breaking Bad’s second season and the plane crash. The attempt to broaden the consequences into those outside of Walter’s close circle were not done well. The plane’s crash felt arbitrary and practically deus ex machina. Worst of all, I don’t believe that Walter White has ever realized that he is directly responsible for the crash. And why would he? It was so out of left field with its perfect storm of outside events that even making the connection would make you seem like a conspiracy nut.

The Wire is the greatest TV show of all time because of its focus. It used a broad canvas to show consequences, real lasting consequences. It used the characters to show institutions and how they fail again and again. A lot of those consequences are just as arbitrary – because Herc was late Randy ended up as bad off as every other kid – but the show goes out of its way to show those consequences. The stakes are much higher on The Wire. Each character is a microcosm of the world they live in and, through them, we see how institutions continually fail them. It’s the story of a sickness in society.

The camera is business-like in The Wire. Rarely does it make its presence known as it does in Breaking Bad. However, the mastery is not in the camera but in the sets themselves. Despite the fact that I’ve never been to Baltimore, I feel like I know it (or, at least, the bad parts of it). The naturalist dialogue brings you into that world better than anything else. By the end of the show, you are a part of its world. You are part of the problem.

But, The Wire had trouble maintaining a consistent tone. With each season moving the focus, it had a tendency to lose viewers when they weren’t interested in that particular sub-culture. Season two gets knocked for moving away from the Barksdale gang (even though I think season two is one of the most tragic seasons). Season five became almost too dramatic with its serial killer plot and its petty newspaper plot. And I was never as connected to Marlo Stansfield as I was to Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell. Each season grew and then peaked, with a fresh start each season.

Ultimately, I believe that The Wire is the more important of the two shows. Which doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s the better show. I think I would recommend Breaking Bad before I would recommend The Wire. It follows the standard dramatic formula better. But, once someone is familiar with watching a terrible person make terrible mistakes for five seasons, I would not hesitate to suggest The Wire after that. The Wire broadens the palette of terrible people and then shows you how those terrible people are busy fucking up your actual life. Breaking Bad tells the story of one bad man avoiding consequences. The Wire is all about consequences, both personal and societal. The two shows are a continuum, leading very naturally into each other. And it doesn’t hurt that they’re both the greatest television shows ever created.

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