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Breaking Bad – The Greatest Show of All Time?

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?

Tie.

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.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on Podomatic, iTunes and NOW on STICHER. New Every Tuesday!

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How Good Is Breaking Bad? Not Even YOU Can…

For most readers of this blog it is not news or a shock that I have a podcast where I trash, or at least debate, popular, trendy or oversaturated things in our culture.  As much as crushing them is fun, at least half the time it is not the thing itself, but the overwhelming and overdone reaction of fans to the thing in question that I am really trashing.  I don’t hate cupcakes, to use an example of an early episode topic, just the way every bored chick with money in 2012 in Manhattan seemed to be opening up a cupcake store trying to out-cute and out-trendy the last week’s cupcake offering.  And last night, as I saw how large the Breaking Bad fan base seemed to have grown on social media I feared Breaking Bad might suffer the same fate as many of my podcast topics: that the culture that now obsesses over something (or anything) as soon as it becomes cool would drain Breaking Bad of its cool from overuse and overexposure and in the process kill (or at least reduce) my joy in it (sort of like the old people in the movie Cocoon did to the cocoon).

The old people got near the cocoons, became cool, but then drained and killed what was in the cocoons.

I liked Breaking Bad when I could still tell people about it without annoying them (3-4 seasons ago).  Now everyone who has caught up on Netflix in the last 8 weeks is preaching the Gospel with all the annoyance of a born again crystal meth Christian. I was not quite John The Baptist (that was comedian Nick Cobb for me who got me on the show after season 1 had aired), but I was a relatively early and outspoken fan, while the cool kids were still sucking Mad Men‘s balls (do you STILL think Mad Men is better????).  But now it has become a “thing” which is when I start to hate stuff, even if it is not the stuff’s fault.

But guess what?

Breaking Bad is too good for social media or humans to ruin, no matter how hard they hashtag and pun their asses off about the show!  This is the true sign of greatness – delivering the goods (which the final season premiere certainly did) while simultaneously withstanding the surrounding douchebaggery of trendiness that usually makes me hate something.

Congratulations Breaking Bad.  You are truly great.  Now I just hope there is not a mad rush to watch Six Feet Under by assholes.

Today’s post is short because I am conserving my energy. I just started the Paleo diet and will be bidding adieu to processed foods, potatoes of all kinds and desserts that are not fruit salad.  So hopefully by January 1st I will have dropped 60 pounds or died because I will not be able to deal with any other outcome.

For more opinions, comedy and bridge burning check out the Righteous Prick Podcast on Podomatic or iTunes. New Every Tuesday! 

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Breaking Bad – The Best Thing On TV. By…

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.

That is how I look everytime someone tells me "I haven't watched Breaking Bad, but Mad Men is pretty great."

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.

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Patrice, Glenn & Walter White: Big Weekend in D.C.

It was a quite eventful weekend for me in Washington, D.C.  I had the honor of emceeing shows for Patrice O’Neal.  Normally I would not be jazzed to be emcceeing, but a comedian of Patrice’s stature generally draws a good and big crowd and all five shows were sold out.  Now I have opened for many headliners of different levels, but Patrice was the like playing in the major leagues after a career in the minors, with all due respect to the people I have opened for.  It was an incredible experience.  The man is so funny, raw and honest with the crowd that it is both intimidating and inspiring.  He does things that I try to do at open mics, but he has the skill, experience and courage to do it in front of 300 paying customers every show.  It is cool when as a comic you can watch the headliner and be turned into a comedy fan instantly, laughing like you’ve never been exposed to comedy before.

We were also fortunate this weekend not to draw too many Glenn Beck fans to the club.  He was holding his white power rallies at the Lincoln Memorial this weekend and I know at least on the Friday late show there was a group of women (white, obviously) who were in town for the “Enhanced Rights For Dumb, White People” event on Saturday.  But I did not see them walk so perhaps they were not as offended as I thought they’d be (perhaps a black headliner is given a little more leeway from the Beck crowd because entertainment is an acceptable job for black men, as opposed to President). 

Restoring Honor To America, brought to you by Glenn Beck

Overall the weekend was a great success.  All shows were great, all my sets went well and I never had direct contact with any of the legion of Beck-and-Palin-loving old white men and white families on the red line (the only train line deemed safe enough for the out-of-towners by the Beck-ers) in.  And then I received a Tweet at 11 pm announcing that Mad Men had won its third straight Best Drama Emmy, beating Breaking Bad for the second consecutive year.

I think the only problem with America greater than its collective stupidity is when they heap awards on shows like Mad Men because it makes them feel smart and cultured.   The show is fu*king boring!  Does no one else recognize this?  I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!  Breaking Bad manages to do what Mad Men has generally failed to do – it creates realistic characters while building tension and interesting plots.  Mad Men’s cache as a glimpse into a bygone time is over – we get it – people were white, women were subservient and they smoked and dressed well.  But into its fourth season now all Mad Men is has pretentious people still boosting it because they are afraid to appear uncultured or stupid for not liking it.  It is The Emperor’s New Show. 

It really is not as good as you think. I give you my word - pretend like you've heard nothing about it, read no reviews and seen no awards shows and you will realize it is a well done bore.

Breaking Bad is the best show on television.  End of discussion.  The best shows on television have never won though.  Six Feet Under lost to The Sopranos and The West Wing, worthy opponents for sure, but the brilliance of SFU will outlast those other two shows.  The Wire was never even nominated, but lots of black people obviously scare Emmy voters.  Arrested Development did win best comedy once, but it should still be winning just for repeats it was so good.  But Modern Family has already taken home the award for Best Comedy Series.  It is a funny show, for sure, but it is also as if some television executive pitched it like this:

“Alright, remember that show Arrested Development?  What if we took away 60% of the subtlety, added some cop out heart felt moments and put it before Cougar Town?”

Despite that Modern Family is one of the best comedies on television right now so I cannot hate the player.  But Breaking Bad has been royally fu*ked over.  If you have not watched it you should. And if you watch Mad Men and think it is the best show on television stop fooling yourself.   People, including my mother have asked me if I own stock in Breaking Bad. No, but in the last 15 years, partly because of reality television forcing more talented writers onto fewer original shows (my theory), we have lived in a golden age of television.  But we still seem to settle for second best.  It is as if every year the Emmys give the Oscar to Dances With Wolves instead of Goodfellas or to Forrest Gump instead of The Shawshank Redemption.   You may think I have overreacted, but do yourself a favor and watch Breaking Bad – you’ll see that I am at least right.

Simply the best.