Welcome to the semifinals of Vulture’s ultimate Drama Derby to determine the greatest TV drama of the past 25 years. Each day a different notable writer will be charged with determining the winner of a round of the bracket, until New York Magazine TV critic Matt Zoller Seitz judges the finals on March 23. Today’s battle: Author Sloane Crosley judges Breaking Bad versus The Sopranos. Make sure to head over to Facebook to vote in our Readers Bracket, where Vulture fans’ votes have already diverged from our judges’. We also invite tweeted opinions with the #dramaderby hashtag.
No matter what you do, someone’s going to get hurt. The more a television show adheres to this principle, the more successful it will be. If you picture the “what you do” as one tree and the “hurt” as another, the arc of the series is the woven hammock that swings back and forth between them. Without question, The Sopranos and Breaking Bad are two of the best hammocks of the past decade. Ask people who have seen both shows which one is better, and you will get a “That’s obvious,” followed by two words. The problem is those words will be different 50 percent of the time. So which prevails?
HBO’s The Sopranos ended in 2007 and clocked in at six seasons. Show’s over. This might seem like a disadvantage — the show’s nuance has faded, replaced by a general vibe — until you take into account those interest-bearing years. Are there Breaking Bad–themed birthday parties yet? I don’t think there are. Tony Soprano has had five long years to seep into the fabric of our culture, to put a stain on our consciousness harder to remove than blood, etc., so forth. And his family has flourished: Just one year after the finale, his daughter went on to jerk off Entourage’s Turtle on an airplane (she is referred to as “Meadow Soprano”). Tony’s cousin, played by Steve Buscemi, has been more richly reincarnated after being shot in the face: He is now the lead in the network’s most expensive show ever, Boardwalk Empire.
At four seasons (and with sixteen episodes left to go), AMC’s Breaking Bad is in medias res. Prior to being asked to participate in this bracket, I had never seen an episode of Breaking Bad. As a former publicist, I have an acute aversion to hype, and I’d decided to skip the show the way kids decide to eschew a vegetable without trying it. In order to gauge what I was in for, eyeball-strain-wise, I attempted to ask the Internet how long the series had run thus far. I got as far as typing “how many sea” before Google auto-filled “How many seasons of Breaking Bad.”
This I found to be significant. The next most common “how many sea” hunts were, in order, Gossip Girl, Weeds, and Mad Men. For one thing, we all watch way too much TV, and it’s a huge problem. For another, it sparked my highly scientific data analysis: Gossip Girl is result No. 2, no doubt because people demand to know if that show has been going on as long as they think it has. Weeds is No. 3 because not everyone gets Showtime, and they want to know if it’s worth the Netflix commitment. Mad Men is No. 4 because people want an ETA on Don Draper’s return. But Breaking Bad is No. 1 because not only has it inspired massive media adoration in the past few years, but because people are addicted to it. Pun intended. They stumble upon one mid-run episode and start calculating how many vacation days they’re going to burn watching the rest.
It’s hard not to be passionate about Breaking Bad, and because I’ve just recently seen all of it, it has a micro-level advantage here. From the music supervision to the self-referential dialogue (“Oh, hey, Nerdiest Old Dude I Know — you wanna come cook crystal?”), it’s fantastic. On a macro level? Walter White is a man who is backed into a life of crime, then has Stockholm syndrome for said life, then is ultimately freed by it, all the while being steadily haunted by missed professional opportunities and memories of romances past. It’s art. Both of these shows are art. It’s why they’re worth comparing, why eHarmony might set them up based on their “core values,” bypassing superficial traits. This isn’t about the differences between cigars and Sudafed. Nor is it about the similarities between two men who break the law while being responsible for mowing the lawn. Walter White and Tony Soprano both know what this contest is really about: family.
On a wife-to-wife basis, it’s Breaking Bad’s Skyler for the win. The Sopranos’ Carmela has more personality, but the problem is that she does nothing with it. She’s a doormat with low-risk moments of brassy sternness and minor revolts — there’s the brief flirtation with a ponytailed man from Italy, and the exerting of the only power she has: kicking Tony out of the house.
Skyler does that, too. But while Carmela makes a career out of turning the other cheek, Skyler is actively curious about her husband’s activities. What begins as a trite sketch of an uptight wife morphs into a refreshing depiction of a logical woman. She is Skyler “Someone Has to Protect This Family From the Man Who Protects This Family” White. To be fair, Carmela isn’t as curious about her husband because she knew about his job before the show began — Tony Soprano isn’t leading a double life so much as a life and a half. Still, where Carmela is predictable, Skyler is surprising. She’s capable of a level of conniving that puts her meth-manufacturing husband to shame. She’s not “keeping up” by laundering money or vacu-sealing all those Benjamins in sweater bags. In fact, she’s in a position to teach Walt about his operation (that must have been a banner day in the writers’ room, when Skyler’s knowing her way around a spreadsheet emerged as a plot device). Carmela may give a more colorful first impression, but she’s less compelling over the long haul.
Pitting the shows’ girlfriends against each other, it’s no contest: Christophah’s Adriana may be the best part of The Sopranos, period. It’s worth watching the entire fifth season just for her heartbreaking hands-and-knees death. But Jane — the girlfriend of Breaking Bad’s eff-up sidekick Jesse — is irritating without being interesting (of course her heroin addiction is keeping her from her mediocre art, of course it is). When she chokes to death on her own vomit, we have more concern for the sheets than the woman who perished on them. Complexity is a winning trait (see also: the wives), and by this measure alone, Adriana is a shoo-in for the win. But Adriana is also just plain entertaining. Talking of shoes, I’d rather see her gleefully stroking her airbrushed talons over a pile of stolen Manolo Blahniks than go to a Georgia O’Keeffe exhibit with Jane any day.
As for the kids on these two shows, they’re all pretty insufferable, actually. Is it wrong to wish the handicapped further harm? Walter White Jr. is lazily drawn, seeming to appear from an after-school special, his concerns focusing abstractly around discrimination and being a big ingrate when presented with a new car. Speaking of ingrates, A.J. Soprano plays drums in the house, does drugs, and struggles with his identity. But instead of running from it as Walt Jr. does (by demanding his name be changed to the laughably ill-fitting Flynn), A.J. creepily adopts his dad’s mob roots, taking them for a spin within his own social circle. He experiments with violence and with the clout the Soprano name buys him at clubs. Like daddy, he struggles with depression. By the end of the show, he is well on his way to fulfilling his parents’ dreams — and realizing his own potential as New Jersey’s shadiest party promoter. A.J. is more poorly behaved than poorly drawn.
Meadow, meanwhile, is a host body for the outside world. Breaking Bad does not have such a character (Holly is still an infant, so give her time). Meadow shows us how a thinking woman, an honor roll student, would survive in the Soprano house. She shows us what it might be like to date the daughter of a mob boss. The control in the experiment, she represents the real world for the characters and the viewers alike. She may look like a waste of space, but let us remember: It’s her voice that brings a comatose Tony back to life. I’ve always thought this is why she owns the last shot of the show. Meadow is The Sopranos’ answer to the Gossip Girl narrator, only without the voice-over.
Naturally, the whole is greater than the sum of its parts with both of these shows. Moving away from the family to the experimental-episode criteria, The Sopranos reinvented the dream sequence not once, but several times. The episode in which Paulie practically talks Tony to death is one of the better things I’ve seen on television. David Lynch should be proud. Then again, Breaking Bad is conscious of its format and knows how to bend it. The show boasts an entire episode that revolves around Walter and Jesse trying to catch a fly. That’s the whole show. It’s a testament to how little hoopla these two characters need in order to beguile an audience, and despite a seemingly simple plot (fly + swatter, go!), the episode is far more than a State of the Union dream sequence: It furthers the course of events for Walter and Jesse, and its dialogue about equipment contamination reappears when Jesse is shipped down to Mexico to start a new lab.
So if this were a mere contest of which show has more imaginative balls, Breaking Bad would win. You want subtle imagery? Look no further than the increasing incorporation of the color purple until it’s just out of control. You want unusual deaths that would make Six Feet Under stand at attention? Wait here while I dissolve this body in a barrel of chemicals. Or check it out as a guy gets his decapitated head put on an exploding tortoise, the shell of which reads: “Hola DEA!”
But someone has to get hurt … and Breaking Bad is not the better show.
Even if you cut The Sopranos off at the knees, at season four, it wins.
The problem with Breaking Bad is that too many of its supporting characters are built on the exact same structure: Everyone gets to be the hooker with the heart of gold. At first it’s Jesse, the punk kid who means well once you’re on the inside. Then there’s Saul Goodman, the shady lawyer who means well once you’re on the inside (and who’s aided by his henchman Mike Ehrmantraut, who’s not afraid to crack heads, but who — that’s right — means well once you’re on the inside). Even the terrifying Gus makes a killer Chilean stew. I’m waiting for the series to jump the shark and give actual hooker Wendy her own backstory.
Plus, clever as Breaking Bad might be, the show’s plots sometimes feel like they’re scrambling. Tiny loopholes we had failed to spot swing back to either damn or free the protagonists. Sometimes it’s great, sometimes it feels forced. When Jesse puts the keys in the mobile home and the battery drains in season two, that’s a small detail but a solid cause and effect. But as the series goes on, the designation of one problem as big and another as small feels random: Walter decides to take one of Gus’s threats more seriously than others; Skyler is let in on Scheme A, but inexplicably shut out of Scheme B; a batch of meth gets ruined for one reason that maybe wouldn’t have been a problem in a different episode. It gets to the point where every time Walter grits his teeth and says “don’t you see?” I know I’m in for a bit of straw-grasping. These faults are not severe enough to damage the overall genius of the show. But they’re distracting.
I never had that “we’re scrambling” sense in The Sopranos. The construction was so perfect; I knew the logic-hammock would never snap. Besides, nobody but nobody does hooker with a heart of gold like Tony Soprano. The world’s most lovable sociopath wears his crown so well, he has to go to therapy to address it. Toward the end of the show, his therapist, Dr. Melfi, as a means of rejecting his romantic advances, says, simply: “I don’t like your values.” Because the entire universe of The Sopranos so directly spirals out of Tony’s intricate personality, he reacts as if she’s just stabbed him. It’s also an illuminating line because: Duh, none of us have ever liked his values. But this is a show confident enough to point that out, to show us how the salami gets made, as it were.
This is an oversimplification, but: Walter White becomes progressively more free, whereas Tony Soprano becomes progressively more trapped. Which fate is more appealing to the American imagination? Freedom, obviously. But which character is more indicative of how we behave, and thus in a better position to show us something about ourselves? We want escapism, yes, but that can only last so long, and ultimately we want a universe we can relate to, even in the form of a fictional show, and even through the eyes of a sociopath. The Sopranos does it better. Tony Soprano doesn’t thrive on danger, and yet he’s far more dangerous than Walter White. If Tony’s world retained its normalcy, he would be happy. If Walter White’s world did, he’d spiral into depression. The universe of The Sopranos, for all its whackings and goombahs, is more real. (It’s true: The onion rings at Holsten’s really are the best in the state.)
In both shows, the family dynamic is at once mundane (all of the children are to be force-fed breakfast all of the time) and complicated (there’s a whole lot of love/hate), but when Tony leaves the house in the morning, he takes the viewer with him. We’re on the job. For an hour, we are one of The Family, and we feel the pressures of Tony’s world as if they were our own. When Walter White leaves the house, a fantasy begins. It’s extremely entertaining to watch, but as a viewer, I’m ultimately less invested in it.
Perhaps part of this is just loyalty to what came first. But isn’t that what both of these shows are about — loyalty? The Sopranos may have lost its nuance in our memories, but think back to those all-night motel poker games of the first seasons. Imagine the clean group dialogue, the potential for violence mixed with suspense, the utter normalcy of it all — those games make Breaking Bad look downright precious by comparison. If we are to judge these two shows side by side, this is the price Walter White pays for growing into his dark impulses, for becoming less and less of a fish out of water: Number of seasons aside, he can reasonably occupy an even playing field with Tony Soprano. In which case, the contest is over. Tony Soprano owns his world. Walter White is merely renting his. Sorry, bitch.
Winner: The Sopranos