The Wire and Breaking Bad

October 11, 2010

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.

21 Responses to “The Wire and Breaking Bad

  1. […] here: The Wire and Breaking Bad « All Manner of Thing Read more from News and Stuff briefly-remarked, heard-it-compared, remarked-on-some, […]

  2. Jim Says:

    Dr. Burrell. Gushing. Over a television show? This makes the Wire sound like its worth looking into, though I thought I wouldn’t hear the like until ice-skating grew popular somewhere down below.

  3. cburrell Says:

    Perhaps I can re-establish my karmic balance by making reference to Inferno? I am thinking particularly of those late cantos in which Dante visits the ninth circle. They weren’t ice skating yet in the fourteenth century, but surely it was just a matter of time?

  4. Mac Says:

    As you know I share your view of The Wire, and have thought I would try Breaking Bad, but haven’t gotten around to it yet. I’ve been assuming the latter wouldn’t be as good as the former, but hoping it would be worth watching anyway. Sounds like it would at least be above-average entertainment, if not the Great American Novel on Film (tape, digital media, whatever).

    I think A Simple Plan is some kind of masterpiece, too, though not a very pleasant one.

  5. cburrell Says:

    Mac, I should have linked to your post on The Wire from a few months back. I’ll add that now.

  6. BothAWireAndBreakingBadFan Says:

    You need to watch the last season (season 3) of breaking bad to see Breaking Bad in its best season. Now I’ve only begun to get into The Wire after watching it on the 101 network(never saw it on HBO). I pretty much saw the entire first season of the wire with the exception of 2 episodes and although I haven’t seen seasons 2-5 of The Wire I’ve been going through as many scenes as possible on Youtube(Oh boy, I can’t wait to see the full seasons that involve the Stanfield organization, CHris, Snoop and the focus of the schools(Michael, Randy, Dukie,etc..)). I like them both but so far I give the edge to Breaking bad. I think I experience an wider range of emotions when I watch Breaking Bad. The Wire seems to be more consistently serious where Breaking Bad breaks the seriousness up with humor more. The acting in both is first rate but Bryan Cranston has won best actor award every year he is been on Breaking Bad and for the first time Aaron Paul won best supporting actor award at the last Emmy’s. The wire definitely seems more realistic with an aim at making a social/political statement on the the struggle of African Americans in inner city America.

    • Anonymous Says:

      Agreed. Breaking Bad, season three. Amazing. It’s different from The Wire in that it really embraces strangeness more and has a dark comic undertone but, really, Breaking Bad barely outshines The Wire, but it still outshines.

  7. cburrell Says:

    It is interesting to hear you say that Season 3 of Breaking Bad is the best so far. I found Season 2 generally inferior to Season 1, and getting worse as it went on, but perhaps they did manage to breathe some new life into it for Season 3. I’m still not sure I’m going to take the time to watch it though.

    I am aware that Breaking Bad has been awarded acting awards, but — what can I say? — to me the acting didn’t seem all that great. Good, but not great. Aaron Paul, especially, I found too theatrical. This in contrast to The Wire, where the actors seemed to disappear inside their characters. I think that perhaps the reason that The Wire did not win major acting awards is because of its ensemble cast; no one character held the screen long enough to warrant a major award.

    The point about humour is a good one. Breaking Bad does have its funny moments, and there is not much to laugh at in The Wire. I am not convinced that the admixture of humour is an asset overall, but it is something to consider that I hadn’t thought of before.

    Thanks very much for your comment.

  8. BothAWireAndBreakingBadFan Says:

    Well I’m back and let me give an update on what I think
    since I’ve seen all of seasons 2-4 of the wire, most of season 1 of the wire and now the first 3 episodes of
    the final fifth season of the Wire(and of course I’ve
    seen every episode of Breaking bad include the season
    premier of breaking bad’s fourth season).

    Well after watching so many episodes of The Wire I did conclude that I finally was giving the edge to The Wire but
    now I think it really depends on what you’re looking for.
    If you’re looking for something as realistic as possible that
    mirrors some aspect of society as closely as possible and
    and tries to make a social/political statement about the
    society we live in that THE Wire will easily beat anything.

    On the other hand if you’re looking for something a bit more
    unusual and bizzare and/or says something more about the
    human psyche apart from how the person necessarily fits
    into the political social world then maybe The Wire gets the edge.

    On the other hand it seems that making a political/social statement in the way Simon did probably took more effort
    in terms of research and just knowing all the details of how
    this aspect of government or the police related to this or
    the School system related to this or the union movement related to this so if someone held a gun to my head I think
    I would give THE WIRE the edge but just barely.

    The Wire certainly had way way more characters to deal with.

    • BothAWireAndBreakingBadFan Says:

      oops. Made a mistake. I said above

      “On the other hand if you’re looking for something a
      bit more unusual and bizzare and/or says something more about the human psyche apart from how the person necessarily fits into the political social world
      then maybe The Wire gets the edge.”

      That should have been “then maybe The Breaking
      Bad gets the edge”

    • BothAWireAndBreakingBadFan Says:

      just to expand on the last part about more characters.
      I think the reason why there were more characters obviously had to do with the fact that Simon had more to
      say. Specifically since he was dealing with a wide variety
      of topics all of which were seamlessly interwoven and fused together to make quite a bit more complex plot
      lines that say Breaking bad. I suppose that could be
      a blessing or a curse depending on how you look at it.
      Blessing because it would provide Simon with more
      flexibility but a curse in that it would make it more complex to synchronize in a meaningful logical way.

  9. BothAWireAndBreakingBadFan Says:

    One thing I absolutely to believe is The Wire and
    Breaking Bad are head and shoulders above any
    series including the Sopranos and especially the
    very overrated Mad Men.

  10. cburrell Says:

    Thanks again for your comments, BAWABBF. I haven’t watched any more of BB in the meantime, but, upon reflection, I think I may not have been entirely fair to the series. As you say, the two programmes were not trying to do the same thing, and by lining them up against one another I may have failed to judge BB on its own terms.

    Having said that, I don’t like what BB is trying to be nearly as much as I like what The Wire was trying to be, and so my judgment of the superiority of the latter stands, for me at least.

    I agree that both are better than The Sopranos, which I confess I found pretty tedious. I’ve never seen Mad Men.

  11. A fan Says:

    Hmm both are great social commentaries. Breaking bad I think is more or less about pride and ego and how it can corrupt. Everyone is just collateral damage.

    Breaking bad is far mire entertaining to the general audience and the wire is like some academic sociology lesson.

  12. I’ve seen all five seasons of “The Wire” and I’ve seen all current seasons of “Breaking Bad” up to and including S4E11 “Crawl Space” which is the most recent episode aired at time of this posting.

    “The Wire” is the greatest TV show ever created, thus far. It’s probable that no other TV series will be able to reach its level. I have no disagreement with that.

    However, it can be argued that it’s not necessarily BETTER than “Breaking Bad.” I personally wouldn’t agree with that argument, but I acknowledge that the argument can be made, and I wouldn’t ridicule the one who made the argument, as long as he/she gives “The Wire” its props. It reminds me of a review I once read that compared “Huck Finn” to “Tom Sawyer”, saying that “Huck Finn” was a greater book than “Tom Sawyer” (deeper themes, more pointed commentary on social issues) but not necessarily a better book (more entertaining, vibrant, etc). “The Wire” = “Huck Finn” , “BB” = “Tom Sawyer.”

    I would not compare what “The Wire” is trying to be to what “Breaking Bad” is trying to be. “The Wire” set out to show what was broken in the American city systems. This is a very ambitious and encompassing goal, and David Simon’s genius was able to accomplish most of that (newspaper angle in S5 wasn’t really all that). “Breaking Bad” has a very simple goal: Take Mr. Chibs, and turn him into Scarface. On the surface it sounds simple, but the beauty of that trip is in the journey, and the crazy turns and twists that Vince Gilligan has taken in that journey thus far are mind-blowing and tension-inducing. I would not denigrate any of the lead acting on “Breaking Bad”; Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul deserve the Emmys they’ve gotten, and all of the other actors are exceedingly good as well. As evidence, I post this clip of the end of “Crawl Space.” It can be considered a spoiler, but the scene doesn’t talk about the events that lead up to it. I think you can view it even if you’ve never seen BB before; just be sure to watch the entire season to find out what leads up to this scene 😀

    I admit that it took me a while to get into BB, as I started watching the first season and paused my watching sometime into S1 episode 3 when I realized that I would like the series but wasn’t in the frame of mind to continue at that point. Once I was able to start watching again and go up to episode 5 and 6, I got sucked in, especially once Heisenberg appeared 😀 Season 2 was really good, and from Season 3 till now, I’ve been convinced that this show has earned its place on the pantheon just below The Wire, and alongside Ron Moore’s Battlestar Galactica (my former #2 show of all time). In the same way that you have to get through the first three episodes of “The Wire” Season 1 to get hooked, it’s similar to this.

    If you love “The Wire” you owe it to yourself to watch “Breaking Bad.” You’re totally missing out if you don’t.

  13. Anonymous Says:

    Thanks for this, Geoff. You are not the first to point out that I am not exactly comparing apples to apples when I compare these two programmes. They are not trying to be the same thing, and so I ought not to treat them as though they are. On reflection, I think that’s a fair criticism.

    On the other hand, I still think The Wire is far superior. I am no longer quite so sure that that is because of its inherent virtues, or because I like its genre better than I do BB‘s. I suppose it doesn’t really matter. I haven’t seen any more of BB, and I don’t know if I will get back to it. Maybe once the show runs its course, if people are still praising it, I’ll take another look.

  14. cburrell Says:

    ‘Anonymous’ was me.

  15. Matt Says:

    Hi! Stumbled upon this blog after I saw the last episode of Breaking Bad (“End Times”, s04e12) and started pondering this question myself.

    I guess I was one of the lucky few for whom The Wire spoke to immediately. I loved it from the very first episode, and had no problems settling into the world straightaway. I devoured the first two seasons in a week just before the third started.

    My problems with The Wire are two-fold: first of all, I think the final season was a letdown, both in the portrayal of print media and the whole McNulty/serial killer shenanigans. Both these, for me, completely ruined the show’s hard-earned reputation for realism (as a sidebar, the only other time I felt uneasy about The Wire was when Daniels was allowed to put together the old team, including McNulty, too easily in the show’s other slightly-less-than-great season, Season 2). And yes, I am aware that the McNulty/serial killer thing was based on a real-life occurrence, but the whole situation brought to mind Aristotle’s dictum that audiences prefer the impossible but plausible to the possible but implausible. I was taken out of the show by this, and left feeling disappointed.

    My second problem with The Wire is nothing to do with the show itself: it’s simply the whole hagiography that’s sprung up around the show.

    As you’ve now conceded yourself, Breaking Bad is an entirely different beast. I think in its own way it is as great. The Wire has famously often been dubbed Dickensian, but I see BB as being Shakespearian. Before I get slapped very hard for this, I don’t mean in terms of hierarchy or quality. The Wire has the broadest of canvases and is politico-sociological. Breaking Bad is the study of an individual, a Lear, or an Othello, or a Macbeth. As good as Aaron Paul and the rest of the support cast are, Breaking Bad is not about anyone or anything else other than Walter White.

    It’s an absolutely spellbinding performance from Cranston, displaying every tic of arrogance, ego, guilt, pride, desperation to perfection… what’s more, the creative team and the actor have conspired to create a character who becomes more and more unlikeable, but – and this is the stroke of genius – someone who the audience still, at some level, root for and who they will to succeed.

    On top of that, Breaking Bad has tons of the darkest of dark humor and may be one of the greatest tv shows of all time for constantly racheting up the tension to unbearable levels. It’s also a lot more fun to watch than The Wire.

    Um. Long, long post, sorry. My own personal opinion? I think that The Wire may be the greatest TV show ever, but BB is my favorite.


  16. cburrell Says:

    You make some really interesting points, Matt. I hadn’t thought of it that way before, but I think there is something to your Dickensian/Shakespearean contrast between the two shows. I will agree that Cranston is very good in the lead role of Breaking Bad, but I think the writers do him a disservice by surrounding him with characters who are, to greater and lesser degrees, cartoonish. It’s too bad, because the show had more potential than it was able to realize. (Keep in mind I’ve only seen Seasons 1-2.)

    The final season of The Wire was a bit of a let-down, for the reasons you mention, but in a way I was grateful for that: it made it easier to let go. The serial killer story had its silly aspect, but McNulty made it almost believable. I wouldn’t put it past him to do something like that. But it was silly.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts. Apologies for having taken so long to reply. Travel and toddlers kept me away.

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