It's good to have President Obama on your side. But his co-sign isn't necessary when arguing for the greatness of David Simon's chronicle of systemic failure, The Wire. (It doesn't hurt, though.) The Wire isn't just better than Breaking Bad—it's better than 99% of all the shows in TV history. (You can make an argument for The Sopranos besting it, but I'm not going to be the one to do that.) What made The Wire work? Put simply, the obsessive level of care and the doggedness of its creator's vision.
Fueled by incredible anger and empathy, this panorama of Baltimore cast the war on drugs as the futile tragedy so many Americans know it to be, while also shining light on the unending games institutions play to keep the oppressed oppressed and the stats squeaky clean. The systems of American capitalism and justice are a sham, the show made you see, which is a fact that's so bracingly real in 2014, it's disgusting.
The Wire began, in its first season, by chronicling the Barksdale drug operation and the struggle of the police assigned to bring it down. From that center, the other stories radiated outward like the spokes of a wheel. The second season brought the docks—and the decline of the working class and American industry—to the forefront. The race for mayor of Baltimore entered in the third season. The fourth focused on the nightmare of public education. The fifth tackled the newspaper.
But listing the moving parts does nothing to explain the work of the machine. And, as is the case with all great art, no piece of writing can take the place of the series itself. Nothing can be written that articulates the totality of the experience.
The Wire wasn't perfect. The newspaper arc and serial killer debacle of the fifth season remain missteps. Still, when the show was great—and the first four seasons are peerless—it was moving in a way that had you reaching for a Bible, for the Communist Manifesto, for some massive text that offers guidance in tough times.
Even with those flaws laid out on the table, The Wire still trumps Breaking Bad. What is Breaking Bad about? It's not the most thematically ambitious show (visual achievements aside). It's about family and about empathy, in that you're asked to watch a person become an unrecognizable monster, thus testing the limits of connectivity to a character. The case has been made that the show is a critique of white male privilege, but that requires some imaginative dot-connecting on the viewer's part.
But it was clear from the opening scene of The Wire's pilot—a scene that's better written than just about anything on Breaking Bad—what that show was about. Breaking Bad, on the other hand, struggled with its tone and narrative for the first two seasons. From the jump, The Wire was about systems and power, and to tell that story, it made a bold narrative decision by attempting to dispense with a single protagonist. The series is about the entire cast, all these different voices. It embraces a kind of storytelling democracy—it believes in democracy, and so it believes in the power of many voices. This plays into the show's leftist politics, and strengthens and reflects its ideas and ideals.
All of that said, I don't think it even makes sense to compare The Wire and Breaking Bad. The latter is pulpy entertainment accomplished at the highest level possible, with incredible acting and technical prowess that few shows have matched. But the former asks 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. —Ross Scarano
And for those oppose, there's always this: