Well, ever since the end of season 4 of Breaking Bad I have been wondering if it could finish as well as it started, I enjoyed it more than any show I had ever seen, but only Six Feet Under had delivered the ending (and overall depth) that its greatness deserved. And off the bat I would like to say that if you are thinking of your favorite all time show and it has the word Homeland or Lost or Dexter or “CBS drama” attached to the title then you may leave this discussion. This is not the kids’ table at a holiday meal. There are, in my estimation, only five to six shows that can be in the greatest drama discussion – Six Feet Under, The Wire, The West Wing, The Sopranos, Mad Men and Breaking Bad.
The West Wing deserves special kudos for being what I believe to be the greatest network drama of all time. Sure it was inconsistent once Sorkin left, but people make too much of this still. How about some respect for how well the final season, which pitted Jimmy Smits vs Alan Alda for the presidency, basically predicted the Obama-McCain election? And the first four seasons were sheer brilliance. The West Wing was the last network drama to feel on par with the explosion of top tier, next level, cable dramas.
Mad Men I include because of the fact that it won 4 consecutive best drama awards (also accomplished by The West Wing and Hill Street Blues). However, that is ridiculous. The show has been an art house favorite, giving people born in the 1970s and later a feeling of nostalgia they could never actually have. The show is solid, but also incredibly overrated (and even ardent fans of the show admit that it feels like it has jumped the shark). Just because nothing happens does not mean you have to say it’s great.
That leaves the Holy Trinity of HBO and Breaking Bad as the last shows standing. At this point all the shows are great on just about every level. Although Homicide: Life on the Street did many of the stylistic things that the Sopranos did, The Sopranos really is the founding father of the great cable drama. It provided the anti-hero of Tony Soprano and both the exciting and mundane problems that could be expected and unexpected in the professional and personal lives of a mobster. However, my problem with The Sopranos, besides the ending (which after having it explained really appears to be a great ending, but I prefer after one or two viewings to be able to discern the meaning of a show’s ending without scholarly interpretation) was that it was not perfect. The first 10 episodes of Season 6 (the one fans waited 22 months for) was subpar to say the least. These were the episodes that focused on a closeted gay character who was at best a third-tier character on the show. As if to say, as Jimmy Failla said to me recently, “I know they are murderers and awful people, but they ALSO hate gays!” The shock value and the social value was nil and it felt like a wasted chunk of 10 episodes. Just as network drama has a challenge of making 22 episodes a year that can compete with cable, so too do cable dramas have the challenge of removing all waste and The Sopranos has a 10 episode dump in the middle of its overall brilliance (had the show gone seasons 1-5 and ended I might have to have Sopranos sitting at #1).
The Wire – how good is it? It became a cliché to say how good it is. Seasons 1-4 of The Wire average out to an A. Season 1 – A, Season 2 – A- (shut up already people who did not like season 2 – David Simon, the show’s creator, wanted to create a thorough picture of Baltimore and how do you leave off the ports? But it was less compelling than the other seasons), season 3 – A+, season 4 – A+. And David Simon, when thinking about a sixth season thought about centering it around the growing Latino community in Baltimore, but decided not to because he did not feel informed on the same level as other aspects of Baltimore to give it a proper authenticity. This is a respectable artistic decision by someone concerned about maintaining quality (though Treme is hailed as authentic and the first season put me to sleep), but season 5 of The Wire, which I give a B+ to out of respect for its association with the other seasons, is a noticeable step down, partly, if not entirely because Simon had an obvious and well-documented bone to pick with the media, of which he had been a part. This heavy-handed criticism, along with a weird, fake-serial killer plot that seemed out of place with the rest of the show, made the final season of The Wire its worst, even if the finale brilliantly showed that the cycle of poverty, crime, drugs and bad decisions remained in tact after the journey the viewers had taken.
So that leaves my two favorite, and in my opinion, best dramas I have ever seen: Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad. First, Six Feet Under. The show’s structure was brilliant – each episode brings you a death, sometimes comical, sometimes heartbreakingly tragic, which leads people to Fisher and Sons, the funeral home, run by the main characters. The cast was perfect and the writing was as well. There was a hiccup according to most fans in season 4 involving Lisa (I will give no more info for those who will decide to take up the show), but I found the show to be pretty much perfect. I have never felt like I had learned to know people more in a show. It addresses sex, sexuality, life and death – major concepts to say the least, with such a personal touch and such depth that you feel like neighbors and friends have been lost when the show ends. Whereas shows like The Sopranos and Breaking Bad, which show how realistically great writers can portray things that might never come close to happening to you, Six Feet Under showed how monumental the events of normal life can be. It also stands as a landmark show in the portrayal of same-sex couples. People can hail Modern Family, Will and Grace, etc. but Six Feet Under gave a same sex couple more detail and heart than almost any relationship ever in popular entertainment. The show was full of great comedic and dramatic devices, had character growth and development better than any show ever and the finale is nothing short of a masterpiece. For every fan of the Sopranos, or Lost of Dexter or Seinfeld that has ever complained about a show’s ending, Six Feet Under feels like a reward for all that disappointment and confusion. I have cried exactly once during a television finale. And that was Six Feet Under.
And in the other corner we have Breaking Bad. To cover the finale, it is obvious that Vince Gilligan has paid attention to the failed or disappointing finales of the last decade and took notes. The final last night delivered the goods. It was satisfying, thorough and had heart, but never packaged the good feelings with a bow and gift wrapping. Not everyone forgave Walter and the forgiveness that was given felt realistic. His death was well-played and he was finally honest to his wife. He brought death to those who were worse people than him and he freed those who were better than him. Of course, for all the hype that Ozymandias received (the 14th episode of the 16 episode final season), my favorite episode of the final season was the second to last one. This was the one where Walt appeared finished with his son telling him to die and having to pay his smuggler thousands of dollars just to keep him company for an hour. But the final scene of that episode, where Walter seems to be given the (angry) strength to finish the job, both of his life and the show, after feeling disrespected and dismissed by his former business partners on a Charlie Rose interview, gave me chills. The full version of the show’s outstanding theme song building until you see Walt’s unfinished drink, indicating that he is going to give himself and fans of the show the ending they want.
Breaking Bad delivered a show, perhaps more than any other ever, that was perfect on every level. The cast was great, the writing – both dialogue and story – amazing. And on a level where many shows don’t focus, the art direction and cinematography were on a level with great, epic cinema. Sometimes you felt as if you could watch the show silently and still marvel at it. It delivered big moments, heart racing action, and more than a handful of OMGs each season. In short, it is great. It never slipped (people who criticize early seasons should recognize that, in the totality this plays as a brilliant 62 episode movie where all parts are necessary and all add to the recipe of greatness. There were no weak spots (other than the acting of the man who played Gomie, Hank Schroeder’s partner), no weak seasons and it delivered the goods at the end.
So the question is, what is the Righteous Prick’s greatest show of all time?
Six Feet Under has the greatest ending of all time (imagine a guy hit a walkoff grand slam in Game 7 of the World Series down 3 runs – sort of impossible to ever beat) and showed life so realistically and so epically, while still just being about every day life. But Breaking Bad, did the opposite in equally brilliant fashion – it showed how using great writing and acting could bring cinematic brilliance and epic storytelling into our mundane homes each week. Both shows lasted five seasons, which also showed the perfect sense that both Alan Ball and Vince Gilligan had to prioritize art and story over money (Hi Dexter – how did those last 4 seasons work out for you?). So I declare it a tie. But since today is about Breaking Bad here is how bad my life immediately turned after Breaking Bad ended:
My door lock broke and I was locked inside my apartment for 3 hours, like Jesse Pinkman with the white supremacists, minus the torture and ice cream. Then a locksmith showed up at 1:30 am, charging a king’s ransom, all while wearing a “Party With Sluts” t-shirt (true story). Then I read that Mad Men will be splitting up their final season into two parts the way Breaking Bad did. To show you what is at sake among the actual and merely perceived shows – for Breaking Bad (and Six Feet Under to an extent) the question was of mortality – who and how will characters die? For Mad Men, I assume the question will be “Will Don Draper cry in the final episode?” To be great something has to be at stake. Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad, the two greatest dramas of all time – put it all on the line in their own way and our reward was the best entertainment.