A couple years ago I was sitting at my work station, bullshitting without any real work to do, when I stumbled upon an article from pop-culture writer Chuck Klosterman, back when he contributed to Bill Simmons’s Grantland, regarding Breaking Bad, and, to a lesser extent, The Sopranos, The Wire and Mad Men. Obviously the link is attached so you can read it for yourself, but in this article you are reading now I will not be able to describe anything better than what Klosterman wrote here:
There have been bushels of quality television during the past decade, but these four shows have been the best (and by a relatively wide margin). Taste is subjective, but the critical consensus surrounding these four dramas is so widespread that it feels like an objective truth; it’s become so accepted that this entire paragraph is a remarkably mundane argument to make in public. I’m basically writing, “The greatness of these great shows is defined by their greatness.” There’s no conflict in stating that good things are good.
At the time (two years ago) I was through four seasons of Breaking Bad, and a couple of Mad Men, but I knew at a certain point it would become one of my missions to watch all four of these shows in totality. And, well, I have now seen all four shows in totality, save Mad Men, which of the quartet is the only one still ongoing.
For me, most television is excessively boring. If I’m watching TV there’s a 95% chance it’s either (a) a live sporting event or (b) highlights from sporting events that have already transpired on that given day. So, maybe television isn’t what’s boring, but it’s me that’s boring. Aside the aforementioned shows, the only shit I’ve paid any attention to over the last five years has been Dexter (which took a dump after season 4) and Homeland (which was pretty good the first two seasons and has taken a dump in season 3); other than that, I’m mostly disinterested unless my older brother tells me I should give something a chance. After all, he turned me on to Breaking Bad, Mad Men, and Homeland; if it wasn’t for him I would be out of touch with the reality of popular culture even more than I am now. Because sports! Baseball!
Intellectually speaking, none of the shows spoke to me as much as The Wire did, and it’s not particularly close. For some reason, maybe it’s because of where I grew up and that’s all I’ve known, I’m drawn to the sensibilities of black people. To that end, hearing the word “nigga” on a consistent basis felt more like everyday life than some foreign dialogue I can’t appreciate. In The Wire, as Klosterman says, “everyone is simultaneously good and bad,” which perfectly represents the paradigm of human life as a whole. Cops are perceived as “good” and moral and righteous, and drug dealers are perceived as “bad” and immoral; The Wire often conveys these as truths, but they also show the opposite being true, as well. In the grand scheme, cops and drug dealers are the same in that they are both human, capable of doing right and wrong, depending on your conception of what those two ideas actually mean.
The Sopranos follows the same type of blueprint (or maybe The Wire was following the blueprint since The Sopranos came first), in that corrupt, criminal people are capable of being good. Mostly everybody who has seen the show, I’m sure, sees it through the eyes of Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) (obviously), the sociopathic mob boss who actually operates under completely objective pretenses most of the time. Sure, there’s the violence, the drug-slinging, the fucking of women who aren’t his wife, but when the curtains close and there’s no one to witness what he’s actually doing — other than himself — you see a confused, existential soul just trying to find his way in the world. He can’t help himself, the same as most people in reality can’t help themselves, either. I mean, yeah, there are some pretty horrific images passed along over the eight years of the show’s existence, and the majority of the time the characters involved don’t think twice about the heinous crimes they are committing; in the end, there’s no moral obligation to any of the actions that transpire. It’s just the life they live, and the only duty that’s asked is for them to do what they are supposed to do. There’s no control, just a general direction to follow.
This is why Breaking Bad was so brilliant, because there was no direction. It was a fluid, non-linear representation of reality, which wasn’t necessarily true to life, but it felt like it was true. As The Wire was cyclical — what happens now will continue happening forever and ever — and as The Sopranos was more like This is just the way it is, Breaking Bad, like chemistry itself, was built on change. Change was a vital part of the show. That’s why Walter White (Bryan Cranston) and Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul) actually felt things while they were happening. Whether it was the growing pains of the drug trade or murder, their humanism was shown more than it was said. These were, ostensibly, just two regular people, like you and me, partaking in a foreign world, and there was nothing normal about it. And, like The Wire, there was a distinct contrast between those perceived as good (like high school chemistry teachers) and bad (like small-time drug dealers); by the end of the show, it was proven that Walter White was really the bad guy, and that Jesse Pinkman was good. I suppose the bigger question is left to the audience: Do people become bad (or good), or were they just that way to begin with?
I could write about Mad Men but at this point I don’t have the proper perspective on it, mostly because it’s (a) not yet complete and (b) my least favorite of the four.
Still, if I had to rank them it would go (1) The Wire, (2) Breaking Bad, (3) The Sopranos and (4) Mad Men; for context, if The Wire is the best, then Breaking Bad would be up there at around an 8.5 (out of 10) and The Sopranos would be around an 8.0. I know, it’s stupid that we’ve all been conditioned to think in terms of zeroes and five’s, but still. Mad Men would probably check in at around a 6.5.
For me, I’m all about reality. I appreciate the same things in television shows that I appreciate in the people I see in everyday life. Some individuals are assholes, some are too fucking friendly all the time, but if I can get the correct balance of toughness and finesse then there might actually be some potential for more than 6 months. In social settings I’m a people-person; I don’t mind interacting and putting on my face and saying all the right things that everyone wants to hear. In private, most of the time I just want to be left alone. And it’s sad, but true. Watching The Sopranos felt like I was in a produced reality with characters I’d like to think were real, but probably don’t exist in actuality; in Breaking Bad the concept felt real, but I’m not certain it’s how the real world works, at least in my 23 years here; The Wire, to me, seemed like I was there. In the cut. Hanging out with people I would hang out with otherwise. It was real. I’m not sure if it was the black people, the usage of slang I hear on an everyday basis, or if it’s just me.
What I do know is, all four of those shows are great, definitely worth watching. After reading Klosterman’s piece over two years ago, I thought it was something I absolutely had to do. Not seeing them would be like missing out on history, in a sense.
Well, I did it. Now I don’t have any more shows to watch, at least until Mad Men returns.