“Breaking Bad” Isn’t the Best TV Show Ever (But It’s Damn Close)
I’m banging this out as a kind of instant response to Banter Overlord Ben Cohen’s earlier post today asking readers to debate whether AMC’s Breaking Bad, which ends its five-season run next week, is the best television show ever. First of all, it’s interesting that he brings this up — and phrases it in this manner — because at some point I wanted to write a full column on what it is that causes our culture to reach for the most grandiose and exaggerated form of praise possible when discussing something it finds worthwhile these days. We can’t really be living in an age where everything is better than it’s ever been, so why are we always shouting about how one thing or another is the BEST. FILL-IN-THE-BLANK. EVER?
I get that I’m as guilty of this as anyone, often being so ecstatic over the whatever it is that’s turning me on at any given moment that I praise it as effusively as someone would a face-to-face meeting with God, but I’m damn well not the only one who does it. The best I can come up with is that our hyper-connected social media culture bombards us with so much stimuli that we either can’t tell the truly spectacular from the merely mundane anymore or we’re simply unequipped to express the various stages of nuance between these two extremes because there are so many stages for us to process. We love what we love right now so much, even more than that thing we loved more than anything not all that long ago, that perspective vanishes. What we’re really saying when we say that something is the best ever is that it’s the best in recent memory, and considering the speed with which our collective consciousness evolves these days, “ever” is really only a few years at most.
With that, let me appear to contradict everything I just wrote by saying that Vince Gilligan was right when he said last night, upon accepting the Emmy for Best Drama for Breaking Bad, that this is the golden age of television. Not the new golden age — the golden age period. There’s simply no denying this because the facts bear it out: while there’s certainly more crap on TV than there’s ever been at any one time in the medium’s history, there are also more excellent shows on TV than there have ever been at any one time. The Sopranos began the era and changed TV dramas in a way that was nothing short of seismic, but what’s come since — the willingness to plow through the door that The Sopranos opened and bring a kind of daring and imagination to TV that hadn’t been seen before — really can’t be overstated. Again with the hyperbole, I know, but it’s true. The shows awarded and nominated for Emmys last night were almost uniformly excellent, many being the kind of television we couldn’t even have dreamed of, say, 15 or 20 years ago. The ascendency of not just premium cable but basic cable and the outlet it’s provided for showrunners truly willing to take chances — to say nothing of the new player on the field, Netflix — was a rising tide that lifted all boats, forcing broadcast TV to at least try to keep up. It’s often proven that it can’t, but that really shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Therefore, what also shouldn’t come as a surprise is that the best shows on television are now on either cable or can be streamed directly into your living room, bypassing broadcast altogether. Credit should be given to network shows that, for their time, truly broke barriers — shows like All in the Family, M.A.S.H., The West Wing, Hill Street Blues and NYPD Blue — but in the end the finest work that’s ever been done in the medium, at least when it comes to drama, has been done under the banner of freedom that cable provides. Breaking Bad is merely the most recent inductee to that club, and the fact that it’s going out on such a high note — what at one time would’ve been heresy in television, making the decision to quit while you’re on top — makes it really feel like it might be the best-in-class and best-in-show. And it’s close. It really is. But I’m not sure it’s the best.
What makes Breaking Bad such an achievement is precisely the fact that it’s going out the way it is. Gilligan’s willingness to compress the story of Walter White’s rise and fall as a criminal mastermind into five seasons over five years — and the amount of time between seasons is important — isn’t just the right thing creatively, it’s proof that all along his vision has been more important than either his or AMC’s bottom line. Breaking Bad could easily go on for another couple of seasons, but Gilligan made the smart decision to tell the story the way real stories are told and the way arcs within real-life happen: with a distinct beginning, middle, and end. It never strayed; it always barreled forward like a tank. This is an easy argument for why Breaking Bad might be the best TV show — again we’re talking about dramas here — in history.
But there’s also beauty in imprecision, in the messiness and the meandering. While Breaking Bad‘s run has actually featured a surprisingly small number of truly important supporting characters and therefore it could always be easily understood, even by neophytes (which even with the ability to catch up on Netflix helps to explain why the audience for the final season of the show has increased by almost eight-fold from the show’s humble beginnings), there’s something operatic about a show like The Sopranos or The Wire. If you didn’t watch either of those shows closely, you were unfathomably lost.
A lot of posthumous tribute has been paid to The Wire and for the most part it’s deserved. Yes, our culture tends to honor its unappreciated dead and for a long time David Simon’s masterwork was a shibboleth among critics and hipsters eager to prove they were on to something the rest of the masses had criminally bypassed. But for sheer ambition and guts, and its willingness to be unforgivingly, realistically grim, it’s true there was nothing quite like The Wire before its run and there hasn’t been anything like it since. Still, the final season of the show wasn’t as powerful as the ones that preceded it and, through no fault of the show’s own, it ended without the benefit of a fitting dénouement. Despite its sprawling story and incredibly intricate, multi-layered arcs and character studies, it’s this reason that I think it actually can’t be called the best show ever. I know it seems fair to because not only was it brilliantly conceived and executed but it was these things and still unfairly overlooked by audiences and the Emmys, but if we’re talking about a TV show as not only a visionary endeavor but also as a complete package then it can’t be the best. I cannot stress enough how landmark, both artistically and culturally, The Wire was and continues to be and I won’t fault a soul who considers it the best the medium has ever produced, I just happen to disagree (but not by much).
Maybe it’s wrong to argue that the first was the best, but I can’t help but think that for its Shakespearean storytelling, its iconic characters, including its history-making lead-character, and, yes, the fact that it set the bar and opened the door for so many others that came in its wake, The Sopranos is the best television drama in history. The, ahem, BEST. SHOW. EVER. It was the rare show which saw its few missteps actually hold a mirror to the unpredictability of life itself and the way its creator, David Chase, chose to bring it all to a close remains one of the most daring and challenging artistic decisions any showrunner has ever made. The fact that the ending of The Sopranos is still debated to this day is a testament to its power. The Sopranos was a cultural phenomenon, and deservedly so. Tony Soprano remains the most important, multi-dimensional, fully realized character any show has given us and given television as something more than simply a box in the living room.
We could argue about this kind of thing all day, I know. Others will have their opinions and almost all will be valid. I’m more than willing to leave it at the fact that there is a pantheon of true masterpieces as far as television shows are concerned, particularly shows to come out of this golden age. Within this pantheon, in my view, sits The Sopranos, The Wire and Breaking Bad. However they’re ranked barely matters — they’re all breathtaking achievements.