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drama derby

The Greatest TV Drama of the Past 25 Years, the Finals: The Wire vs. The Sopranos

Welcome to the final round of Vulture's ultimate Drama Derby to determine the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years. Each day a different notable writer was charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, and it's all come down to the last two shows standing: The Wire vs. The Sopranos. Today, New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz serves as the ultimate arbiter and makes the last call. 

Two shows enter. One show leaves.

Vulture’s Drama Derby to choose the Greatest TV Drama of the last 25 years has come down to two HBO shows: David Simon’s epic urban drama The Wire and David Chase’s ambiguity-loving domestic drama/gangster saga The Sopranos. But before we start measuring one champion against the other, let’s take a moment to honor the fallen.

The Derby started out with sixteen dramas, selected by the site’s editors and staff. Fourteen have been vanquished: Deadwood. Battlestar Galactica. My So-Called Life and Friday Night Lights. NYPD Blue and The Shield. The X-Files and Lost. Breaking BadThe West Wing. Six Feet Under. Buffy the Vampire Slayer. Twin Peaks and Mad Men. As of this writing, a parallel, reader-driven version of the Drama Derby is winding down on Vulture’s Facebook page, with two very different finalists: Breaking Bad, a drum-tight long-form story that’s about to cruise into a final season, and Buffy, a tirelessly inventive fantasy-comedy-drama whose tireless fans have followed each round of the Derby with evangelical passion and a sports fan’s sorrow in defeat. Each matchup — whether in our writers' race or the readers' — inspired huzzahs and curses and charges that it’s apples and oranges anyway.

And it is. It always is. Every ranked year-end list, every academic canon, every TomatoMeter aggregate and every bar-stool argument about the obvious superiority of This vs. That is likewise guilty. Followed to its logical (or demented) end, this line of thinking makes it almost impossible to compare anything with anything, except maybe identical consumer goods that all rolled off the same assembly line.

But, luckily, none of the shows highlighted in our Drama Derby fit that description. They all defy the musty stereotype of TV as a factory churning out barely distinguishable hunks of junk intended to keep viewers half-interested between ad breaks. They are all, to varying degrees, the work of artists, or at least brilliant entertainers. They left footprints and fingerprints on the medium.

But none of that changes the gut-check reality of that moment when somebody asks you, “What’s your favorite show?” and you blurt out a title, then set about defending your choice. If criticism is, as H.L. Mencken wrote, prejudice made plausible, then everyone’s a critic, stirred to deliver barroom sermons on the superiority of the apple.

The Sopranos and The Wire have little in common besides frank language and violence; a fascination with crime; a consistently high level of acting, writing and filmmaking; and an HBO pedigree. Forget apples and oranges: This is more like the Metropolitan Museum of Art vs. Grand Central Station.

But what the hell. Let’s make prejudice plausible.

Criterion No. 1: Influence and transformation

All shows have influences, but a show that’s defined solely in relation to them cannot be a great show. A great show, like a great book or movie or song, transforms its influences, or at least adds something distinctive. Both The Wire and The Sopranos exceeded this goal early in their runs.

David Chase’s The Sopranos is a modern mob story, hugely indebted to the Godfather series and Martin Scorsese’s Mafia pictures — especially Goodfellas, with which it shared certain cast members (Lorraine Bracco, Frank Vincent, Tony Sirico, et al). But the impact of the gangster tradition isn’t just aesthetic. It affects the characters within the context of the series. Chase’s thieves and killers swap film references as much as lawyers or day traders or cops might trade references to films about their line of work. The influence of sixties and seventies American literary fiction was just as strong. At times, Tony’s misadventures in suburban distress suggested a mobbed-up version of a John Updike or Philip Roth novel, or maybe a Raymond Carver or John Cheever short story. (Tony’s many backyard epiphanies, waking and dream-state, remind me of Cheever’s “The Swimmer,” which manages to seem at once workaday and metaphorical, even magical.) Starting in season two, which slowed down the show’s pace and amped up the black comedy and surrealism, Chase and his writers took The Sopranos to more tonally surprising places, to the point where it seemed to be channeling Stanley Kubrick, Todd Solondz (Happiness), Evelyn Waugh (especially The Loved One), and other satirists.

David Simon’s The Wire started out as a straight-up police procedural about cops surveilling drug dealers in Baltimore’s decaying inner city. In subsequent seasons, it added subplots about other city institutions. Some of these additions seemed imported from the documentaries of Frederick Wiseman (High School, Basic Training, Public Housing). Others evoked the mainstream liberal “problem” dramas that have been part of TV since the early sixties: series such as The Defenders and East Side, West Side, and more recently ER, Boston Public, and The West Wing. News reports and recent history were equally big (and intertwined) influences. I can’t tell you how many times I opened up a newspaper during The Wire’s five-season run and happened upon a story of cop corruption or criminal stupidity or official malfeasance in government that reminded me of something I saw on the show. In addition to his core group of writers, Simon brought in some high-profile novelists from the world of crime fiction, including Dennis Lehane, George Pelecanos, and Richard Price. Of that group, The Wire most resembles Price’s fiction in the way that it balances dark, violent, at times pulpy crime and violence against distress over the decay of the city and the moral murk of politics. Each of these shows transformed its inspirations to the point where they seemed new, unrecognizable, subsumed within the story, or reinvented. The Sopranos seems the winner in this category only if you count modern gangster movies and highbrow fiction and poetry as being innately more worthy of critical respect than documentaries, news, and meat-and-potatoes mystery/crime fiction. I don’t.

Verdict: Tie

Criterion No. 2: Philosophical sophistication

Judged purely as evaluations of the human animal, neither The Sopranos nor The Wire is a heartening show. Both depict America, indeed the industrialized West, as aging empires in a state of decline, perhaps slow suicide. Tony tells his shrink Dr. Melfi in the pilot of The Sopranos that sometimes “I feel like I came in at the end, that the best is over.” Says “Bunny” Colvin, the pushed-out police captain who finds himself working in the public schools in season four of The Wire, “You put a textbook in front of these kids, put a problem on the blackboard, teach them every problem in some statewide test, it won’t matter, none of it. ‘Cause they’re not learning for our world; they’re learning for theirs.” Like the most magnificent TV series (and novels, films, and albums), these dramas aren’t just recounting the goings-on among a group of likable characters who might or might not be connected to a wider world. There is a constant sense that these people are directly and indirectly connected to each other as well as to their society, neighborhood, and government, and that their personalities and attitudes are emblematic of the conditioning that’s been laid down on them, the attitudes they’ve absorbed and the values they’ve been told are important. These aren’t just shows with an attitude or a style, they’re shows with a philosophy, a worldview, a take on the species.

Chase’s The Sopranos balances subjective and objective storytelling, zooming into the consciousness of main character Tony Soprano but also pulling out to give us a view of his blood family, crime family, neighborhood, county, state, and nation. The overall take is pretty despairing. My colleague Alan Sepinwall once summed up Chase’s take on human nature as “people don’t change.” That may be a slight oversimplification; I think Chase sees humanity as capable of change but unwilling or unable to implement it and stick with it. Curiously, although it is often described as a somewhat less bleak series than The Sopranos, The Wire casts an equally skeptical eye on the individual’s potential for evolution and change — and society’s, too. It’s filled with characters who attempt reform and innovation only to be shot down, sometimes literally, sometimes figuratively. The best example of this comes in season three, which saw Bunny Colvin getting pushed out of his job as a police captain after he tried to legalize drug dealing in one neighborhood, and dealer Stringer Bell paying the price for trying to make his and Avon Barksdale’s operation legit. Maverick reformers are met with as much resistance on The Wire as private rebels on The Sopranos: Season six of Chase’s saga showed several characters, including Christopher Moltisanti, Eugene Pontecorvo, Vito Spatafore, and even Tony trying, with varying degrees of seriousness, to change their lifestyles, indeed their whole identities, only to backslide or be destroyed by guardians of the status quo.

Both The Sopranos and The Wire end on purgatorial notes. The former envisions Tony, his compulsively enabling wife Carmela, and their kids Meadow and A.J. trapped in a figurative-seeming restaurant that also suggests a church, a spiritual way station, and death row, with every ring of the front doorbell and every movement of an unfamiliar customer ratcheting up the sense of dread. Tony is still imprisoned in a cage of his own making (and his bloodline’s), yet the series raises the question: If a person lacks the self-awareness to realize he’s a moral disaster, then can any emotional state, however unpleasant, really be considered "punishment"?

The Wire’s fifth season shows representatives of new generations taking slots once occupied by older mentors, colleagues, or enemies. Some get what they want through cleverness or ruthlessness, others through corruption or exhausted compromise. If the implied question of every season of The Wire was, “Why is modern city life so disappointing?” the show answered it with something like, "Because cities are run by people, and people — even the idealistic ones — ultimately prefer comfort to integrity and familiarity to change.” That’s why the most heartening ongoing story on Simon’s show may belong to Bubbles, the drug addict played by Andre Royo. It took him five seasons to get clean, but he finally did it. Society itself has a much harder time giving up the junk.

These are each tough, in some ways pessimistic points of view, but they’re not glibly presented or argued. They’re the result of much thought and careful embellishment of characters, events, and imagery.

Verdict: Tie.

Criterion No. 3: Characterization

If The Wire and The Sopranos had no other virtues but rich characterization, they still might have made it into this contest and endured for one or more rounds. Both created vast, interwoven communities, and no matter how much or little screen time they had, they just seemed to pop. The most vivid transcended the context of their stories. They became emblems of personality types, even existential conditions, that hadn’t been seen before, and claimed their character tics for all-time. Among Wire fans, “Pulling a McNulty” has become shorthand for winging it without authorization and/or fucking up in spectacular fashion, and “The Farmer in the Dell,” Honey Nut Cheerios, and sawed-off shotguns will forever be associated with Omar. When I’ve caught myself in egregious moral rationalizations, I’ve sometimes pictured Carmela giving up her well-earned righteous ire over Tony’s infidelities in exchange for a new car or house, or Tony and Janice regurgitating faux epiphanies and psych-speak as excuses for rotten behavior. (Janice to Svetlana, the housekeeper: “I never should have taken your prosthesis, but it brought me back to the Lord.”) Not a week goes by that I don’t quote Tony Soprano’s post-shooting quip from season six: “They say every day’s a gift, but why does it have to be a pair of socks?” Or Livia’s hateful but sometimes illuminating kiss-off: “Poor you.” These people are memorable and quotable. They’re just words on a page and actors saying lines, but in our minds, they exist.

But I have to award this category to The Wire for the sheer breadth of its achievements. Near the end of its run, as it struggled and succeeded at recalling and polishing characters and subplots dating back five seasons, sometimes hauling out people you’d nearly forgotten about and giving them one last lovely grace note, the magnitude of its achievement became undeniable. At its most magisterial, the show felt like the dramatic version of a journalism-school test in which students close their eyes, open up a phone book to a random page, call whatever person their finger randomly landed on, and try to tell their life story in 500 words or less. Simon’s crew did this over and over and over for five seasons, with black and white characters, rich and poor people, civilians and cops and criminals, teachers and politicians, state senators and grieving mothers: hell, everybody.

Verdict: The Wire

Criterion No. 4: Formal daring

The Sopranos contains a staggering variety of modes and moods. It’s part domestic drama, part sitcom, part gangster epic, part social satire, part inquiry into the relationship between the subconscious and waking life. It works as both a straightforward story that’s about what it appears to be about (gangsters in the suburbs) and as a metaphor for other things (the decline of the U.S. after the sixties; the aging and displacement of the Baby Boom generation; the viciousness and hypocrisy of late capitalism; the constraining effects of race, ethnicity, gender, and social rank; the essential selfishness of people). It’s surely the only series in the history of American TV that’s equally inspired by The Honeymooners and Twin Peaks. It makes space for, and indulges in, flights of fancy whenever it damn well pleases, juxtaposing plotlines for ironic effect, doing so-called "bottle” episodes focused on particular characters, even luxuriating in Tony’s dreams for five, ten, even twenty minutes a stretch, or panning away from a character in repose and craning up into the boughs of a tree as it’s stirred by the wind. (“Sometimes I go about in pity for myself,” says an Ojibwe Indian saying pinned to a hospital room wall in season six, “and all the while, a great wind carries me across the sky.”) The Sopranos never felt bound by the need to be efficient, orderly, and neat. It was expansive, daring, indulgent, and sometimes ostentatiously weird (the dream fish talking to Tony in Big Pussy’s voice was very David Lynchian). It was TV flagrantly trying to be Art, succeeding at least part of the time, and obviously not giving a damn whether you thought it succeeded because it was having so much fun.

Chase still takes a certain prankish pride in having shocked and frustrated loyal viewers, especially the ones who tuned in for the torture, strip-club visits, and gangster intrigue and suffered through, well, all the stuff that makes The Sopranos more than just a gangster TV show. Everything mattered on The Sopranos except when Chase and his writers decided it didn’t. Perversely, but intriguingly, the question of whether a given event would be remembered or forgotten by the writers became part of the excitement of watching the show. Chase’s willful inscrutability as a storyteller was a major, if at times profoundly irritating, part of the series’ identity — and if you prize individuality over fan service, it was a plus. We still don’t know what happened to that Russian in the woods in “Pine Barrens.” And what was that very last scene in the diner but the “Pine Barrens” Russian reimagined as a series finale? You had joined a story already in progress and you were about leave it the same way, like a person entering and leaving a naptime fantasy. The first section of the 1999 pilot is built around Dr. Melfi helping Tony interpret a dream about ducks. The diner scene in the 2007 finale plays like a different kind of dream — one that devoted fans have spent five years interpreting, and that viewers who treat a lack of obvious closure as a personal affront hilariously keep insisting was definite and can be pieced together like a child’s jigsaw puzzle. (If Chase wanted to kill Tony, he would have shown Tony getting killed. As my friend Chris Stangl wrote on a message board right after the Sopranos finale, “‘Open to interpretation’ to me means ‘time to get interpreting’ rather than ‘guess at plot points not depicted onscreen.’”)

The Wire was more conventional in its structure, more clean and direct in its dialogue and dramaturgy, and more thorough — at times fanatically so — in its awareness of who was doing what to whom and why and where it was all going. The scriptwriting was Hemingway to Chase’s Faulkner, Bruce Springsteen (or Steve Earle) versus Bob Dylan in “Desolation Row” mode, working Freud, Jung, and Ezra Pound into dialogue. It’s impossible to imagine David Simon allowing a dream sequence in The Wire wherein Annette Bening plays herself, as happened on The Sopranos, much less allowing subplots to play out for five, six, or even ten episodes and then just sort of stop, fizzle out, or explode in the audience’s face like prank cigars. Simon and his writing staff had a borderline-OCD determination to keep track of every character and plotline. As Simon’s follow-up Treme demonstrates, his great unifying influence aside from Dickens and the daily newspaper might be Robert Altman, who rarely followed one character when he could follow 5 or 10 or 40, and who insisted that each of these characters be accorded comparable screen time and dramatic weight, even if it meant that you were stuck spending five or ten minutes with people you didn’t find interesting. Over five seasons, the show’s writers must have gone through Post-It notes by the ton. And the show’s dialogue, while as rhythmically deliberate as anything on The Sopranos, was ultimately more naturalistic, as lyrical as it could be without crossing the line into showiness. (Bunk: “Boy, them Greeks and those twisted-ass names.”  McNulty: “Man, back off the Greeks. They invented civilization.” Bunk: “Yeah? Ass-fucking, too.”)

The most original thing about the storytelling on The Wire was how it kept adding layers. Season one was cops versus drug dealers; season two kept much of that material while adding another world, the docks and its unions; season three added intrigue at the city hall and in the upper levels of the police department; season four brought in discussion of the failing public schools; and in season five, Simon took a meat ax to his former colleagues at the Baltimore Sun and other media outlets for prizing tabloid dirt over policy journalism and profit over public trust. But even as it stacked layer upon layer upon layer of narrative, The Wire never entirely lost track of its increasingly huge cast of characters. Just because you barely saw Kima or Bubbles or Omar that week didn’t mean the show had forgotten about them, and even characters who’d been fired, sent to jail, or killed might pop up later in a different context, or as part of a story told by a player still in active rotation.

Even when The Wire was making things up as it went along (and given the “What the hell, let’s try it” nature of TV storytelling there were times when it surely was), it always felt organized and purposeful. But the category here is Formal Daring, and The Sopranos valued wildness and inscrutability, and just because those qualities necessarily admit a greater degree of inconsistency doesn’t mean they should be devalued when weighing one series against the other. Fans of The Wire could take comfort in knowing that every time they sat down to watch a new episode, they were probably going to see their favorite character advancing through that season’s story in measurable increments, and saying and doing more or less what you expected them to do. But The Sopranos was the enemy of such comfort. Every time you heard that opening theme, you braced yourself to face the unknown. The show wasn’t just surprising, it was unnerving, sometimes upsetting. What you saw in a given episode could make you laugh, cry, or feel sick to your stomach, sometimes all three.

The Wire had most of those virtues, but it rarely inspired viewers to call each other immediately after the final credits and say, “What in the holy hell did I just see? I don’t get it. I don’t even know if I liked it. Talk to me.” That kind of reaction is rare in any art form, but especially in scripted television. The Sopranos inspired it every two or three weeks.

Verdict: The Sopranos

Criterion No. 5: Influence on the medium

The Sopranos wins this one, hands-down. There is no shortage of series that try to break off pieces of Chase’s show and turn it to their own purposes. The Shield and Sons of Anarchy have often felt like series aimed at people who dug The Sopranos for its criminal intrigue but found the social satire, psychoanalysis, and domestic drama kind of boring. Boardwalk Empire and Mad Men — with their Sopranos-alumni creators Terence Winter and Matthew Weiner, respectively — sometimes seem like the yin and yang of post-Sopranos cable drama, one focusing mainly on politics, violence, and gangster pissing contests, the other on identity, gender relations, the male and female self-image, and the American myth of reinvention. But how many series seem inspired by The Wire? Very few. The Good Wife and Boss are the only current series I can think of that beg comparison to Simon’s urban epic, and those are ultimately more circumscribed, maybe constrained, in what they’re trying to show us about city life. Normally this comparison point would be of minimal interest: After all, who cares whether a show influenced other shows as long as it’s good? But the title of this bracket is “The Greatest TV Drama of the Last 25 Years,” and I don’t think it would be honest to exclude influence from the judging. “Best” implies the quality of a thing itself; “Greatest” implies significance, magnitude, importance.

Added to which: I doubt that The Wire would have gotten onto the air if The Sopranos hadn’t come first. And I strongly suspect that if I put this question to Simon, he’d agree. Chase’s show kicked in the doors of people’s preconceived notions and made a lot of subsequent, risk-taking series possible.

Verdict: The Sopranos

Criterion No. 6: Consistency

If you were to graph the quality of the two shows season by season, episode by episode, and scene by scene, the crests might be as great or greater on The Sopranos, but the troughs would be much deeper. There were times when The Sopranos seemed to be overreaching or running out the clock until it could figure out what, exactly, it wanted to say and do, and it repeated itself more often than The Wire. To its credit, though, Chase’s series built its repetitions into the structure of the series, so that they seemed like expressions of recurring types of characters and situations — but they could still be wearisome. The show relied on the Godfather Part II pattern of introducing an “old friend” or relative of Tony’s that we’d never heard of, then set about pitting him against Tony, then ultimately killing him off.

Nevertheless, even these conflicts were handled with an eye towars spit-take-inducing surprise. My favorite example is still the death of ex-con and Tony rival Richie Aprile, who got shot by Tony’s sister Janice after he hit her rather than expectedly getting whacked by Tony or some other mobster. Richie’s death was so anticlimactic that it attained a perversely original sort of excitement. I know people who were disappointed, even furious, that we didn’t get to see Tony kill him. Then they thought about it for a couple of days and decided they liked it because it was surprising yet inevitable — that is, just right. But on the other end of the scale you have dreck like the anti-anti-defamation episode “Christopher” (a.k.a. the Columbus Day Parade episode), which is as self-serving as anything in the modern journalism-bashing fifth season of The Wire, but lacks the compensatory virtues of wild satire and legit moral outrage. I can think of quite a few weak or outright bad episodes of The Sopranos, but no examples come to mind from The Wire.

And if you rank the seasons of The Wire and The Sopranos by overall quality from greatest to least, I think you’d find that The Wire seasons are more consistently excellent, and more densely and elegantly plotted and executed. (My picks are The Wire: 3, 1, 4, 2, 5, and The Sopranos: 6, 1, 3, 2, 4, 5. What are yours?)

Verdict: The Wire

Conclusion:

My first instinct was to go to the dictionary and compare two adjectives, greatest and best. If this contest were solely about choosing the best drama of the last 25 years — best suggesting the evaluation of the quality of a thing itself, apart from aesthetic innovation and demonstrable impact on other areas of the arts — The Wire would win. It’s one of the most intelligent, moving, and politically astute dramas ever aired on American TV, and a rare series that truly deserves the adjective novelistic. And as mentioned higher up, it’s more consistently excellent than The Sopranos, owing partly to the more inherently unstable, experimental nature of what Chase and company were doing, mixing dramatic and comedic and high art and pop culture like mad scientists laboring to make miracles while knowing that the result might fizzle or detonate.

The Sopranos is simply bigger, more important, more influential, harder to categorize or explain. It has mystery in the way that Twin Peaks had mystery. Where The Wire entertains, upsets, illuminates, and instructs, The Sopranos provokes, offends, startles, baffles, and haunts. It is novelistic, but it’s also short-story-like, and poetic, and at times has qualities of stage drama, opera, and even Renaissance painting and great twentieth-century pop music. And of the two series, which one are people still arguing about, years after its debut, as if it just went off the air last week, grappling with it the way we might grapple with a tantalizing dream that could bring salvation or ruination if we could only get a handle on it? The Sopranos.

But clearly my opinion is torn, as I look back at this piece and see how I was unable to pick a victor for my first two criteria, and when I tally the winners I did pick for the last four, it results in a two-two tie. And yet, as I look carefully back over my adjudications, I find one distinct and telling through-line: my allowing The Sopranos more caveats, qualifiers, asterisks, and sidebar explanations. Deep in the ancient past, the voice of a debate teacher reminds me that if you have to strain to make an argument work, it’s not a compelling argument. I have to strain less when arguing the greatness of The Wire. It’s more conventional than The Sopranos but only in relation to The Sopranos, and to perhaps nine or ten other dramas in TV history, some of which were covered in Vulture’s Drama Derby. Sweep those shows aside and The Wire stands tall as one of the most ambitious, creative, and, yes, audacious dramas, doing more with less, and more with more, than almost any scripted series in TV history. And as mentioned in other sections of this piece, just because a work’s obvious virtues are classical rather than experimental doesn’t automatically disqualify it from being labeled great; it could mean it’s great in recognizable, quantifiable, perhaps inarguable ways. The Wire is altogether the better of the two shows, and different from, yet as great as, The Sopranos.  A winner without asterisks.

Winner: The Wire

Matt Zoller Seitz is the TV critic for New York magazine.