A couple of weeks ago I briefly remarked on some positive things I had heard about a television programme called Breaking Bad. I had heard it compared, favourably, to The Wire, which had caused me to sit up with a startled look.
I haven’t written much about The Wire in this space — in fact, I don’t think I have written about it at all. Without wanting to overstate the case, I will just say that The Wire was the best television drama yet conceived by the mind of man.
The show was set in Baltimore, and was, broadly speaking, about the drug trade in that city. Over the course of its five seasons, it studied various aspects of the city’s life — its politics, its schools, its media, its industry — but the relationship between the police and the drug traffickers remained at the heart of the story. What was so brilliant about The Wire was, first, its characters, and, second, its careful and nuanced storytelling. The characters were so superbly written and acted that they attained a kind of reality reserved for only the rarest creations. In my mind they are still walking around, with a life of their own that went on — if they were lucky — after the show had run its course. The plotting was intelligent and focused, without any of the artificial climaxes at commercial breaks that mar so many television programmes, and it steadfastly refused to settle for simple answers to the social, political, and moral problems that it portrayed. I am not a television enthusiast, but it is fair to say that The Wire changed my conception of what television was capable of doing.
(This praise, I suppose, might incline someone unfamiliar with the programme to watch it, and so I must insert this caveat: if episodes of The Wire were movies, each one would receive a well-deserved R rating. It is emphatically not for children, or even for many adults. Use your judgement.)
Enter Breaking Bad, a programme about an under-achieving high school chemistry teacher who finds himself in desperate financial difficulties, and undertakes to solve his problems by producing and selling “crystal meth”. That’s an intriguing premise. Over the past couple of weeks I have somehow managed to watch the first couple of seasons of the programme (three are currently in the bag), and I think it has given me a reasonably good idea of what the show is up to.
First of all, it has a lot going for it. Its principal strength, I think, lies in the tension it sets up within the main character between his criminal life and his ordinary family life, each of which he tries to keep hidden from the other. His duplicitousness, however, progressively involves him, by a kind of remorseless logic, in greater and more pervasive evils. Having strayed from the straight and narrow, he falls into a kind of moral quicksand from which escape seems impossible. In this respect it bears comparison with the film A Simple Plan (which in my books is high praise indeed).
But, having said that, I must also say this: Breaking Bad simply cannot stand toe to toe with The Wire. The reasons are many. The acting is inferior, with more than one character in Breaking Bad having a cartoonish quality about him. The lead character, Walter White, is well acted, but he cannot hold the screen like Jimmy McNulty or Stringer Bell. The direction of Breaking Bad is often laborious, with too frequent reliance on cheap theatrical tricks like slow motion and intrusive music at dramatic turning points. Most of all, the writing is just not very strong. The dialogue is often flat, the plot is repetitive and hesitant, and the heavy hand of the writer, setting things up, is too often evident. All this in contrast to The Wire, in which, despite the organic pace and logic of the story, one nevertheless felt that the writer had it securely in hand.
I conclude, therefore, that The Wire‘s claim to greatest television crime drama remains secure. I am through with Breaking Bad, I think, and if I should have a hankering in the future for this sort of thing, I’ll just watch The Wire again. Lightning, it seems, only strikes once.
ADDENDUM: Maclin Horton’s comment below reminded me that he wrote some interesting things about The Wire at his blog, which you can find here.