Breaking Bad is a pretty great television show, huh? It's such a great show, in fact, that some people have begun to compare it favorably with The Wire, a.k.a the heretofore more or less universally acknowledged Greatest Show in the History of TV, a.k.a. the GSITHOTV (pronounced "zith-ot-vuh"; the "G" is silent). The similarities are there: Both series consist of five seasons, both focus on crime, specifically drug crime, but both transcend the genre of "crime drama." Of course, the shows are different in many key ways, too: setting, tone, narrative scope.
In the run-up to Breaking Bad's series finale this Sunday, we'll be having a dialogue comparing the two shows. Are you Team The Wire or Team Breaking Bad?
Ross: Does The Wire's relatively weak final season tarnish the show's rep to such a degree that Breaking Bad becomes the champion? How much more important are the peaks each show reached? (For the record, I think The Wire reached higher peaks than Breaking Bad, and am Team The Wire completely.)
At its highest highs, The Wire is more than a TV show, it's a television novel that's able to personify the institutions that define inner-city American living to profound, poignant results. —Insanul Ahmed
Foster: First off, the question of which show's peaks are higher is kind of unfair. Each season of The Wire is basically a self-contained story that fits into a larger worldview. Breaking Bad is one story, and it's careening to one very, very important end. And also, if we're talking peaks, we're talking valleys, and The Wire had its fair share.
That said, I don't think The Wire's final season is weak. I think it just didn't cater to viewer expectations. And those expectations so often conflate climactic endings with greatness. That doesn't need to be the case. It often isn't, and a Big Payoff can be far worse than a "weak" finale.
Insanul: I will say that the final season of The Wire is undoubtedly weak. I always think of that scene where McNulty tells Freamon, "I consider myself a smart guy but even I don't understand this," when discussing their overly complicated wiretap scheme as being one of the most uncharacteristic moments of the show (along with the flashback in the pilot episode). However, much of the flaws of the season are the result of rushing. They had wanted to do 13 episodes, but HBO only put up the money for 10.
That said, Foster's point about The Wire having a "larger worldview" rings totally true. In fact, it's the exact reason why I put The Wire above Breaking Bad, and above every other show. (Alas, if only The Sopranos were able to stick its worldview.) At its highest highs, The Wire is more than a TV show, it's a television novel that's able to personify the institutions that define inner-city American living to profound, poignant results. Using realism and parallelism, the show brought to life characters that are often swept under the rug of American television and American society. Breaking Bad also has a worldview, but certainly one rooted in cartoonish villainy (which Walt's criminal behavior evolves into as time goes by) as opposed to the humanity of The Wire.
You can see a lot of this in the mission statements of each show. Breaking Bad is, as series creator Vince Gilligan has said, about "turning Mr. Chips into Scarface," which is certainly novel and entertaining, but not really an achievement worthy of moral praise. Whereas, as David Simon has said, The Wire became "more of a treatise about institutions and individuals than a straight cop show." Simply put, The Wire just feels more important.
The second season of The Wire—at least the first half—was painful. It was a smart change of pace, sure, but nothing in Breaking Bad lags even remotely like that. —Foster Kamer
Angel: In terms of real issues, The Wire wins. No show has ever captured ghetto life through so many perspectives. And the acting was authentic, especially the kids. They didn't come across as corny, like Jesse and his pals do. However, if we're talking storytelling and entertainment, Breaking Bad has a leg up. Usually HBO series have filler episodes. Breaking Bad has had only a handful of those. Each episode is a ride, and the writers have upped the ante each season. Just look how the finale is setting up. It's going to be 75 minutes of pulse-pounding suspense. But I'm still torn. I loved The Wire because I experienced that life firsthand. And I love Breaking Bad because I slept on it up until this point and can't believe how a show can get better each and every episode and season.
And season two of The Wire was so boring. That holds it back. The Barksdales were but a memory during that season. I wasn't feeling that.
Foster: The second season of The Wire—at least the first half—was painful. It was a smart change of pace, sure, but nothing in Breaking Bad lags even remotely like that. Say what you will about Breaking Bad, but there are virtually zero boring episodes where nothing happens.
What is Breaking Bad about? It's never struck me as the most ambitious show. It's about family, I think, and about empathy, in that you're asked to watch a person become an unrecognizable monster. —Ross Scarano
Ross: I love the second season! I don't know of any other show that's delved into the white working class like that. David Simon's show (and his project at large) is about exploring how people interact with systems, all kinds of systems, whether it's the legal system, the drug trade, public education, etc., and taking a long look at unions was only natural. I don't think there's anything weak about Ziggy's story. Or Sobotka's story. Those are powerful stories that I haven't seen told anywhere else. The final three episodes of season two are some of the strongest the show ever produced, whether you want to talk about writing, directing, acting—whatever. When Ziggy, after a season of fucking up, shoots those two guys and then breaks down in his car? That's some of the best TV I've ever seen. When Sobotka, who you know is fucked, walks into the meeting with the Greeks, where you know he'll be killed? That's powerful TV.
I just watched those episodes over the weekend, preparing for this conversation, and yes, they don't set your pulse to racing. But that's not what The Wire is about. The Wire isn't interested in cliffhangers. When the episode ends with Sobotka walking to the meeting with the Greeks, it isn't about leaving you hanging. It's about leaving you with the sensation of inevitability. The Wire is interested in the possibility of working against the system (and depending on who your parents are, and where you were born, that system could be any number of things). It's about failure and repetition and power, how few of us have it.
Every episode of The Wire ends reliably with some assertion, either vague or implicit, of its overall worldview. Some kind of 'It is what it is' statement that pushes The David Simon Doctrine on viewers yet again. —Foster Kamer
What is Breaking Bad about? It's never struck me as the most ambitious show. It's about family, I think, and about empathy, in that you're asked to watch a person become an unrecognizable monster. This piece from Salon makes the case that the show is a critique of white male privilege, and I sorta buy that, though I think the show has been pretty oblique about this angle.
The Wire is about systems and power, and so it's about America. It's also far more radical in terms of its narrative than Breaking Bad is. The Wire tries to tell a story that isn't fixed around a single protagonist. It's about the entire cast, all these different voices. It embraces a kind of democracy of storytelling. It believes in democracy, and so it believes in the power of many voices. This plays into the leftist politics of the show, strengthens and reflects its ideas and ideals. I think Treme accomplished this to an even greater degree, the move to make a show that isn't driven by one character in particular.
I also don't know what's wrong with slow episodes. (There is not a single episode of The Wire where nothing happens.) I don't think saying that an episode doesn't keep you on the edge of your seat means it's bad. Different stories demand different means of storytelling. Honestly, I don't think it even makes sense to compare The Wire and Breaking Bad. One is pulpy entertainment accomplished at the the highest level possible, with incredible acting and technical prowess that no other show has matched. And the other is asking you to rethink the way you see the institutions that make up this country. I give more weight to the show that does the heavier lifting.
In the best way possible, it doesn't matter what happens in the final episode of Breaking Bad, because the transformation is complete: This character has made its journey.
Foster: The second season of The Wire is far from first time the lives of the white working class have been delved into on television. Let's start with Breaking Bad, whose main character is a high school teacher who has to support his family with a second job at a car wash. And then we could simply draw a line all the way back to All in the Family. Or Married... With Children. Or Good Times. Or The Simpsons. Or Roseanne. Or Shameless.
And you're right, The Wire isn't about cliffhangers. Quite the opposite, in fact: Every episode ends reliably with some assertion, either vague or implicit, of its overall worldview. Some kind of "It is what it is" statement that pushes The David Simon Doctrine on viewers yet again. And you'll never hear me argue against this doctrine—that systems are complicated, and nuanced, and there is no Right Answer—because it's a doctrine that understands wide truths as muddy. It's a journalist's perspective. But it's also, in so many ways, wildly predictable. And say what you will about Breaking Bad, but even when you know what absolutely must happen next, you have no idea how it's going to go down.
As for Breaking Bad's lack of ambition: What? A five-series story about a character starting out great and lovable and becoming terrible has never been attempted on television. If that show is anything, it's ambitious. The Wire is an exercise in over-indulgence (see the point about doctrines above). And this was always my problem with The Sopranos: Tony was a piece of shit! He was a goon. He was a shitty family man and a shitty mobster. But he became this larger-than-life everyman hero to people, somehow, which is why the end of that show felt so vindicating, but also frustrating. On the one hand, Sopranos fans didn't get to see Tony become a martyr for the great life, or live his life out happily. On the other, I wanted to see David Chase make a choice. He didn't. And it's very clear that Vince Gilligan already has made choices.
The sign of a great show—or story—to me isn't necessarily how they've tracked a plot, though. It's about a character making an emotional journey. It's why it didn't matter that they never really explained the island on Lost. We found out why the characters were there, what they had to do, and whether or not they did what they had to do. That's fundamentally the important and compelling part of the story. In the best way possible, it doesn't matter what happens in the final episode of Breaking Bad, because the transformation is complete: This character has made its journey. Now it's a question of how he plans on mitigating all of the damage he's exacted on the world in his final act, which is insanely compelling. I can't think of a final episode that's been more anticipated than this, simply in terms of narrative.
I don't think you can debate the 'importance' of these two shows. They're apples and oranges. —Justin Monroe
Insanul: The difference between The Wire and all the shows you named is that those are comedies. There's a great David Simon quote about how those shows are all essentially making a joke of being poor in America. You look down on those people and tell yourself you're doing well because, unlike Al Bundy, you're not eating a toothpaste sandwich.
(Sidebar: I don't wanna go down the rabbit hole of me talking about The Sopranos or Lost, but I will say the Sopranos finale is perfection and the Lost finale sucks. I definitely didn't watch Lost for the emotional journey.)
Foster: Breaking Bad—not a comedy! Also, if you want a white, working-class drama, you have Downton Abbey. Or Rescue Me. Or Blue Bloods. None of which are really great shows! So, did David Simon make a great white blue-collar drama in the second season of The Wire? Sure. But in the canon of great television, where the bar is raised higher, watching McNulty pitch a fit about his shitty reassignment for half a season felt like a waste of time.
Justin: I don't think you can debate the "importance" of these two shows. They're apples and oranges. The Wire was an ensemble show that focused on universal themes relating to "the human condition" and "a national existentialism," to quote David Simon's pitch to HBO, and Vince Gilligan's Breaking Bad honed in on the evolution of a single protagonist "from Mr. Chips to Scarface." It's not to say that there aren't important themes in Breaking Bad, but I think it's obvious that The Wire has greater meaning for society. It illustrates how institutions are destroying individuals. It's not optimistic that change will occur but perhaps it helps to change the way people think and ultimately does make a difference.
Where I see room for debate is in the storytelling and consistency of tone and character. I loved The Wire for four of five seasons. I consider its fourth, school-set season the best, most important 13 episodes of television ever. I had no qualm with the series shifting focus each season because I understood that it was a show about the American city as a whole, not any particular characters therein. From the streets to the docks to the courts and City Hall to the classroom, The Wire expanded its institutional scope each season while never completely abandoning the individuals who'd been crushed by the system previously, and always giving an honest and accurate portrayal of them.
That changed in season five, which dealt with the city's crumbling newspapers and the adverse effect the money crunch was having on the dissemination of information to the public. It was a deeply personal arc for David Simon, who experienced it firsthand as a reporter for the Baltimore Sun. In his drive to show how good journalists were were being bought out and important news stories were going unreported because sensationalistic nonsense sold more papers and won more prizes, Simon went off the rails in a plot where a reporter latches on to the story of a non-existent serial killer that Jimmy McNulty fabricates by doctoring old reports and death scenes. Frustrated with the police department's closure of the wire-tapping Major Crimes Unit, McNulty tries to draw attention to homicides and revive the taps by literally taking matters into his own hands, strangling corpses post-mortem to create a pattern. Wise old, equally jaded Lester Freamon eventually joins in to help make the largely unnoticed "serial killings" appear more sensational, adding bite marks with a pair of dentures.
It's not a terrible plot—for another show that wasn't so rooted in reality—but it was an absurd entanglement for the show that everyone considered the realest thing on television, and it ruined the final season for me. Sure, you can argue that it made sense with McNulty's flawed personality, which is spelled out for him during an FBI profile of the fake killer at Quantico. His feeling of superiority, "problem with authority and a deep-seated resentment for those that have impeded his progress professionally" sounds a lot like Walter White, actually. And in fact, the far-fetched storyline feels more in line with Breaking Bad, which has never touted its realism and self-importance. In that regard, Vince Gilligan's show was more consistent from beginning to end. People have criticized the first season of Breaking Bad for being cartoonish and goofy, and relative to the subsequent seasons, which get progressively darker, it is, but that's tonally on point with the mission statement of transforming the protagonist "from Mr. Chips to Scarface." We're now one meth-fueled shootout from Walter White fully realizing that initial pitch Gilligan made to AMC and, while consistently surprised by how events unfolded, I've never once felt like the writers betrayed the character to achieve its ends. I can't say the same for the final season of The Wire.