The singular greatness of AMC's Breaking Bad is all right there with Hank Schrader, those homicidal Mexican twins, and that phone call.
In the final moments of the season three episode "One Minute," Breaking Bad cements its status as an untouchable television show. There's Hank (Dean Norris), the DEA brother-in-law of teacher-turned-criminal Walter White (Bryan Cranston), sitting in his SUV in a nondescript supermarket parking lot. The phone rings; a mysterious voice says, cryptically, "Two men are coming to kill you—you have one minute." The unbearable tension gives way to explosive violence. A bullet rips through a skull; one man attacks another with an axe. It's Grand Guignol theater set in suburban Albuquerque.
And you can't believe it's happening on a television show.
Now, cite one sequence on HBO's The Wire that leaves you similarly frozen with such awe-inspired amazement. It's impossible.
The Wire is the great American tragedy, and it plays out with the patience and somberness of a long novel; Breaking Bad is an marathon of genre-minded extremes. Where you land in the "The Wire vs. Breaking Bad" debate says a lot about your sensibilities. If you're pro-Breaking Bad, you probably also prefer Stanley Kubrick's visually and sonically next-level The Shining over Stephen King's slower, more deeply involved page-turner.
Like King's The Shining, The Wire is undeniably brilliant. If it's your number one choice, you're less impressed by what happens behind the camera; you probably think True Detective is all style and little substance. The Wire's style is Old Navy basic. Even at its most intense, David Simon's Baltimore-set procedural remains straightforward in its narrative momentum. Watching The Wire is akin to reading a great crime novel; unsurprisingly, acclaimed crime novelists Richard Price, Dennis Lehane, and George Pelecanos wrote for the show and were executive producers. It's linear and traditional. The characters are multi-layered and, yes, unconventional by TV standards, but the storytelling never breaks from its old-fashioned approach. The content dominates the form.
Not to diminish Breaking Bad's writing and performances, because they're both uniformly excellent, but it's the quintessential example of form over content. When one thinks of Breaking Bad, they most likely picture Walter "Heisenberg" White wearing his fedora—it's the key image from creator/showrunner Vince Gilligan's audacious "Mr. Chips becomes Scarface" drama. The man wearing that hat is the loving father and husband who just wants to secure his family's future after he inevitably succumbs to his lung cancer, but that hat turns him into a kind of self-made supervillian—greed, insecurities, and delusions of grandeur make up his three-sided Kryptonite.
Pro-Wire folks will complain that Breaking Bad's hardly anything more than just that: another antihero show about a white guy. But when that white guy is portrayed by Bryan Cranston in one of the greatest acting exhibitions ever committed to screens, big or small. He's the anchor that keeps Breaking Bad grounded and accessible. Through Cranston's tremendous performance, Gilligan's able to get as cinematically progressive and daringly weird as he wants.
As a result, Breaking Bad doesn't just push boundaries—it blows them up like Hector Salamanca (Mark Margolis) and his trusty bell. Its unique and always unpredictable "cold opens" are now TV legend, bold little vignettes and enigmatic moments of foreshadowing that demonstrate Gilligan and his writing staff's penchant for rule-breaking. Moments like Hank's aforementioned parking lot showdown are as common as Jesse Pinkman's (Aaron Paul) use of the word "bitch." Whereas The Wire is the sum of its parts, Breaking Bad includes amazing mini-movies that stand on their own, like the brilliant train robbery episode "Dead Freight," or the psychological horror chamber piece that is "Crawl Space." And in the pantheon of TV's great good-versus-evil showdowns, Walt's incredibly executed conflict with the adversarial Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito) is in a class by itself.
Breaking Bad's singular greatness is also there in that Walt vs. Gus storyline's explosive resolution. Without spoiling anything for the uninitiated, let's just refer to it as the "man fixes his tie" image to end all "man fixes his tie" images. It's a macabre sight-gag that drops your jaw to the floor and makes you ask, "Did I just see that on television?" —Matt Barone
And for those who oppose, there's always this: