The Sopranos v Breaking Bad v The Wire
The heavy weight class of the great TV dramas. The Wire is often considered by many critics to be the greatest of all time. More recently its cult fans have named Breaking Bad the greatest. Somehow while it was among the most popular show of its generation, The Sopranos is less talked about today when considering “the greatest.” So I decided to form an opinion for myself and spent the last year watching the entire series run for Breaking Bad, The Sopranos and The Wire. So without further ado, my analysis…
Breaking Bad (my first rewatch of the bunch)
Style – By far the best cinematography of the bunch– even if it heavily copied TRAFFIC (2000). Its use of setting as character was wonderfully conveyed. The use of music to set themes was also very good. The way it employed flash forward as a foreshadowing technique was a very interesting stylistic narrative tool – think the pink bear; a meth lab explosion? Nope, a plane crash as consequence for White’s actions.
Plot – As far as its cumulative run is concerned, there is not an ounce of fat or filler in any season. Every episode builds without boring the audience. That is because it is a plot driven show and it works to propel things forward quickly (more on that later).
Characters – I should say character, because it goes without saying that Walter White is one of the greatest ever created. Everyone knows a Walter White, someone who is smarter than what they’re doing in life and is disrespected in spite of it. The entire show is his arc in breaking bad and for that alone it should be considered in assessing the greatest.
Inventiveness – It showed how you could make a TV episode look like a movie. If I were to pinpoint the moment when TV could stand up against film, it would be Breaking Bad.
Style – None. It is arguably the strongest aspect of the show.
Plot – A main issue with Breaking Bad is that it is a plot driven show. This means the plot events dictate the actions of the character and not the other way around. While that makes for lean story telling, it also makes for conventional story telling. Sure it’s fun to watch and exciting, but it doesn’t allow for much introspection or greater analysis of characters internal conflict.
Characters – While Walter White may be among the greatest characters of all time, he is the only character we get the internal conflict of. He propels the plot forward in many respects and a bunch of clever archetypes react around him. Hank is a hero/policeman archetype. Jessie is a bumbling sidekick archetype. The two wives, neurotic housewife archetype. The villains, Saul – archetypes as well. They are barely two dimensional characters. While we come to like them for their various quirks and personality, there is no introspection. They exist to react to Walter White and to propel plot forward, with some surface level examination of their feelings. Even Jessie, while he begins to have his own awakening toward the end is little more than a pawn in the game. This is Walter Whites show, everyone else is a piece on the chess board.
Inventiveness – It doesn’t really break new ground in the drama category. While it takes an unlikely antihero on a unique journey, the story is conventional. While stylistic, it doesn’t make up for the fact it’s a plot driven show without much introspection. So while it’s visceral and action packed, it is also been there before sort of fare.
A super fun show to tear through with memorable archetypical characters and a great central protagonist in an otherwise conventional Shakespearean tragedy. It is a very good action movie, but it is not the greatest of all time.
The Wire (last rewatch)
Style – The least flashy. It’s unique in the sense that it lacks any visual or musical narrative. It is more or less treated like a true crime docudrama. It is filmed with pure realism in mind and it works great.
Plot – Takes a while to build up but boy does it pay off. No show has done it before or since. It takes risk by focusing on a different element of the cities institutions and wraps all these threads up brilliantly. Everything pays off.
Characters – Too many! Yet at the same time we felt like they were all acting out of self preservation, we understood them even if they were surface level plot pawns. The ultimate character is the city of Baltimore and that like other cities it is run by imperfect people who perpetuate a deeply imperfect system. That the city is the greatest character is a testament of how brilliant this show is.
Inventiveness – It must be considered among the greatest for what it tried to achieve, to make a show about the imperfect nature of our government and society using a city as opposed to a central character.
Style – I get why they employ the minimalism they do, it just feels stale after a while. It could’ve employed a little bit more visual narrative.
Plot – Sure it pays off big in Seasons 3 & 4, even if 5 fell off a bit. But the first season was little more than cops and robbers. The second was boring and such a left turn that it made me want to quit. So while it is praised for how it all threads together neatly, the lack of any introspection among its characters or any visual narrative made it a slog to get through. A show cannot be considered the greatest because of two seasons of work, no matter how ambitious.
Inventiveness – Hurt it in the long run. It did a great job in its payoff but taking that long to build up hurt its earlier seasons and therefore looses points in my eyes. It juggles too much.
A very ambitious show that made a profound and lasting statement about how and why our government and society is ineffective and all about self preservation. It hits home in ways many others have not. That it juggled so much and took so long to pay off, I cannot reward it the greatest of all time because of a few seasons of work.
The Sopranos (second series rewatched)
Style – While not as stylistically flashy as Breaking Bad, it did a great job of employing visual narratives. Various objects and foreshadowing without insulting the audience by overly emphasizing them. The series is full of clever framing and use of objects as narrative symbolism. Because it didn’t over explain them, it worked brilliantly. The finale? The reaction POV shot sequence culminating in cut to black — “you never hear it when it hits you” — absolutely brilliant. The use of music was always thematically solid too, on par with Breaking Bad.
Plot – While it can definitely feel like filler at times, the characters are so well constructed that it pans out. This is a character driven show, and one where all characters are given time to develop into nuanced and non-archetypical beings. The analysis of various complexes and feelings about this world made it so much more believable and made us relate to all involved. How harrowing when they’d be killed by this world or others in it. It examined so many moral quandaries and still felt fresh after six seasons. This is not a show to binge watch, it is a fine delicacy to enjoy slowly as not everything is overly explained or spelled out (like in Breaking Bad) – David Chase appreciated the intelligence of his audience. If you found it boring, perhaps your taste is more conventional.
Characters – Tony is such a compelling character, a mob boss with a deep complex; a man in therapy justifying his sociopathy. All those around him are equally trying to justify their actions – especially Carmela toward the end, who seems to have an epiphany in Paris only to realize she can never quit this life. Even the characters we didn’t delve into felt larger than life with great humor and supporting roles. All of the main cast’s actions were a result of their internal neurosis or feelings. What a fucked up bunch but boy did it make for amazing introspective television. When the action ramped up, we were so much more invested in it because we felt like we knew these people on a deeper level. We liked them in spite of their sociopathy.
Inventiveness – It reinvented the mob genre. Sure it had all the standard mob fare but it also went a step further in psychoanalyzing the criminal lifestyle in the way Mad Men (created by Sopranos alum Matthew Weiner) psychoanalyzed the American Dream through ad men. It took great dramatic risks like employing dream states to really hammer home the neurosis. It brilliantly built up to the most debated finale of all time through carefully constructed foreshadowing. It left so much to interpretation that rewatching still reveals more.
Style – I almost wished there was a bit more flashiness. I felt while the visual motifs were solid I would’ve liked more flare. Then again that may have detracted from its realism.
Plot – Drags at times. Sometimes in its quest to say something grand it does fail occasionally. There are definitely some stinkers. After the actress who plays Tony’s mom dies abruptly, the show had to quickly adapt loosing a valuable thread early. It more than made up for some slow pacing with great characters and it would always build into payoffs well. I’d rather a show drag sometimes if it’s trying to take risks than rush along without saying much at all.
Characters – The strongest part of the show. There really is no con here and that is why it’s the greatest in my opinion, because no show has done more with its cast.
Inventiveness – It was a game changer. Nothing to add.
The greatest of all time for the sheer scope of it. It reinvented the genre and arguably kicked off the golden age of TV. Not only was Tony a great well-developed character, they all were. While it may have some more individual episode stinkers than Breaking Bad, it examines so much more, it says and does so much more. It is a brilliantly ambitious show and nothing in the gangster or action genre has come close.
MY LAST THOUGHTS
So I think while the other great dramas have a lot of things going for them, including some of the greatest achievements in individual categories, The Sopranos is the more balanced of the three. The Sopranos is firing on all cylinders where the others are excellent for how they do one or two things really, really well. The Sopranos is brilliant TV on a whole other level and I don’t care what critics say regarding The Wire or what fanboys say about Breaking Bad. It is my opinion and you are free to disagree. Overall – 1. Sopranos 2. Breaking Bad 3. The Wire