When it comes to television I hold something that some may call an opinion, but is, in actuality, a stone cold fact: Breaking Bad is the best show on television. By far. After only three seasons it has already jumped into elite company. Here are my favorite shows of all time in order (minimum 3 seasons, so although I love Game of Thrones and Eastbound & Down, to name a couple, it would be unfair to put them up yet – it is called the True Blood rule – do not judge a show on one great season because it may become a campy, soft-core porn for women and gay men in the next two to three seasons):
1) Six Feet Under – The best finale of any show I have ever seen and the best show ever at making you feel like you knew the characters as people and not characters. Also a show whose greatness, with the exception of certain episodes, can only really be appreciated cumulatively, similar to life in general. When I see Peter Krause on Parenthood, or even Michael C. Hall on Dexter, I sometimes feel like I am watching Michael Jordan play for the Washington Wizards.
2) The Wire – possibly the most important show of all time. Other than a so-so final season (by Wire Standards that means an A-/B+) it was an incredibly real and entertaining portrayal of the desperate plight of urban America. Of course its ratings sucked and it never got nominated for a Best Drama Emmy. I am sure creator David Simon wears that as a badge of honor. As he should.
3) Breaking Bad*
4) Arrested Development – the funniest show I have ever seen. So good that it’s diet coke knock off (but admittedly very good) Modern Family is in line for its second Best Comedy Emmy
5) The West Wing – Was always mad that The Sopranos would lose best drama to the West Wing. Then I actually watched the West Wing. Given Aaron Sorkin’s hand, it is the dramatic screenwriting equivalent of Arrested Development. As Rick James might have said regarding Sorkin’s writing, “Cocaine is a hell of a drug.”
6) The Sopranos – Some might have this higher and the fact that it is arguably the first of the new cinematic-style dramas (but check out #9 on this list) means that it should be higher simply out of respect. But there was too much of a downward trajectory to the show (and the 2 year wait for the season that revolved around a closeted gay mobster remains one of the most disappointing seasons in TV history) for it to maintain a loftier place.
7) All In The Family – Archie Bunker – maybe the greatest single television character of all time. I still wonder how this show from the 1970s seemed more willing to tackle, mock and explore racism than most shows do in 2011. A show that I would call ahead of its time if I knew when we would actually catch up to it.
8) Seinfeld – Brilliant and the most quoted show of all time. This is another show that it would be tough to say “changed the sitcom,” mainly because no one had either the skill and/or balls to make a show about nothing. And having just watched the entire series this Summer, I forgive Kramer. Him and Jason Alexander are brilliant.
9) Homicide: Life On The Streets – I must give credit to my older brother, who I still think sometimes wishes he followed his boyhood dream of becoming a police officer, for his obsession with good police dramas (I am not talking to you any shows on CBS). Homicide, which was partly the work of the creators of The Wire (and arguably was doing the Sopranos shtick several years before The Sopranos). The show, like #10 on this list, represented a rare network television departure – meaning even though ratings suck, we will keep this going because it is a high quality show. Homicide featured several things that other later shows, higher on this list, have received credit for. One character spent several seasons exploring his bisexuality, it depicted crime and police work in a much more realistic manner than had really been done and it featured a rich array of black characters that weren’t Huxtables. And this was all on Network television.
10) Friday Night Lights – This show’s lack of general success says so much about American culture. The pitch was probably easy – “how about a show featuring attractive people playing America’s favorite sport, football?” Sounds great, right? Except it is going to be a sometimes heroic, but other times sad look at small town American life and all of its good and bad parts. The result? Well, with The Wire, America showed that they generally did not want to watch a show critical of urban blight (isn’t there a CSI on right now?), but surprisingly, America did not tune in in huge numbers to see their small town American fantasy depicted in a realistic light either. Season 4 of FNL was not very good, but seasons 1, 3 and the 5th (and final season) were top notch television.
Of these shows, there is obviously a recency bias, but I think that makes sense. As far as television is concerned we live in simultaneously the best and worst time. The proliferation of reality television has made us dumber. And made stars out of some of our dumbest citizens. I feel like there was a brief time where if you were on reality television you were a loser and then, when our culture realized any fame was good fame, we started to turn these people into bona fide celebrities. I still think if Al Qaeda simply adjusted their mission statement to be, “We will only wage jihad on those who call themselves ‘Real Housewives of anything'” we might be able to find some common ground. But the growth of reality shows also forced new avenues for actual writers of good television. It feels almost like if a major sports league contracted one-third of its teams. if you eliminate the worst 10 NBA teams, the remaining 20 will just get stronger because there will be greater competition for fewer spots. Similarly, good writers have either been forced to consolidate on other shows or to be more creative in pitching things to places like HBO and AMC. And the top of this New Television Order is Breaking Bad.
Some people may be saying what about Mad Men? Mad Men is good. That is all I have to say about it. I have repeatedly called it The Emperor’s New Television Show. It has won three straight best drama Emmys (the same body that never once nominated The Wire, but saw fit to hook Boston Legal up with multiple DRAMA nominations) and has young people feeling a hip nostalgia for an era that they never experienced. Other than the confusing feelings I get admiring the handsomeness of Jon Hamm and the incredible Jessica Rabbit come to life that is Christina Hendricks, I don’t think the show is any better than good, which stands in contrast to Breaking Bad.
I owe a debt of gratitude to Nick Cobb and Ross Stephenson, two friends who told me after the first season of Breaking Bad had aired that I needed to watch it. No show on this list has had the trajectory of Breaking Bad. The first season was excellent. Then season two was beyond excellent. And then last year season three aired and was even better. More specifically, episodes 7-13 of season 3 is the greatest six episode stretch of any show I have ever seen. There are a few reasons why I think Breaking Bad has been so good:
- The cast. Bryan Cranston has won three straight best actor Emmys for a reason. What he has done with Walter White has been superb – taking him gradually and believably from mild mannered cancer-stricken high school teacher, to alpha male quasi-villain. But the rest of the cast is also perfect. That is what is so great – there is not a weak spot in the cast. Everyone is bringing their A game. It reminds me of watching a Christopher Nolan movie, where even the guy with two lines seems to know what is at stake and knows that those two lines must be delivered perfectly.
- It reminds me of The Fugitive (the movie). Let me explain. I have a friend from college, Mike, who often waxed on how it seemed in the early 1990s there were movies that were both wildly entertaining, but also had real substantive cinematic quality (unlike today where it sometimes feels more bifurcated – you are either seeing The King’s Speech or Transformers). Movies like In The Line of Fire and The Fugitive came to mind – where you could actually have a legitimate Summer movie, which also had serious Oscar quality. That is what Breaking Bad is for television. It packs great dramatic moments, with action packed scenes and incredible tension. It is so good that you get both the feeling of watching a guilty pleasure and fine art at the same time.
- As several newspaper and magazine articles have indicated – Breaking Bad follows a different route than other dramas in its class. It is following the moral destruction of its main character. And yet we still root for him. Other shows like The Sopranos or The Shield (which was hit and miss, but the second to last episode of The Shield is one of my five favorite episodes in TV history) had characters who had paths that were downward, but they were already villains to start. Walter White, on the other hand is the good guy who you root for who forces you to rationalize still rooting for him as the episodes go on.
So tonight is the season 4 premiere and the question I have is how much better can the show actually get. But I put an asterisk next to Breaking Bad on my list because it has the potential to be the best of them all. It doesn’t have the emotional depth of Six Feet Under or the societal importance of The Wire. That is what makes it so special – it is simply great for being the most entertaining thing on television.