Vulture is holding the 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: Writer Bekah Brunstetter judges Breaking Bad versus Twin Peaks. 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.
Loyal TV viewers: I have a lot of respect for us. It’s easy to reductively call us “skilled procrastinators” — picking Netflix over tax returns time after time, and choosing Frasier reruns over “relationships with other human beings” — but I think we’re actually skilled escapists. I’m a playwright who recently relocated to Los Angeles to write for television, and any place — regardless of its weather and its tacos — can be lonely if you’re new. So this was the perfect time for me to be charged with the task of declaring whether Twin Peaks or Breaking Bad is the better show: Not only has my TV work let me see the medium in a whole new light, but indulging in marathon late-night sessions of these two series, each filled with laughs, terror, and pathos, has been the ultimate escape from twinges of homesickness. Especially when paired with tacos. It was a daunting assignment: Declaring a winner between these two pinnacles of the form is like asking me if I’d prefer a really good grilled cheese (quality cheese, quality bread) or a really nice glass (or five) of pinot noir. Because I will have both. But choose, I must.
There are compelling and duh-related reasons that both of these shows are so stinking phenomenal. In case it’s really cozy under that rock beneath which you live, a gentleman named David Lynch created Twin Peaks in 1990 with Mark Frost, just a few years after the success of Lynch’s beautiful cinematic nightmare Blue Velvet, in which he exposed the sinister underbelly of a seemingly idyllic American town. Twin Peaks was a continuation of Lynch’s fixation, but this time for a TV audience. The series opens with the image of a beautiful young girl whose body has washed ashore in a sleepy lumber town, and focuses on Dale Cooper (Kyle MacLachlan), the FBI agent whose investigation of the murder — and of Twin Peaks itself — takes us through deep layers of mystery and depravity. The playwright in me can’t help but adore the show’s theatricality and lush details: the whimsical and lunatic characters; the dusty jazz score; the play-length scenes. There’s something delightfully old-fashioned about Twin Peaks — the way clues are slowly gathered and the way mystery quietly unfolds. It’s neo-noir at its best.
As for the other contender, there are countless reasons to be clinically obsessed with Breaking Bad. Again, if you’ve chosen to make your home beneath a moderately priced slab of granite: Vince Gilligan, formerly a writer for The X-Files, created Breaking Bad for AMC in 2008. The show centers on Walter White (Bryan Cranston), a high school chemistry teacher who finds out he has lung cancer and decides to secure his family’s financial future by making crystal meth. Bad takes the premise of Weeds — good person wrapped up in a seedy world — to a whole new level. As viewers, we find ourselves rooting for a deeply flawed protagonist, a guy who robs, lies, and kills. I can’t get enough of how Bad’s gritty, gripping reality is peppered with funny, weird specifics, from creepy glass eyes to stuffed bears falling from the sky to Walt’s saggy white briefs. Walter White is the most sympathetic villain I’ve ever spent a weeknight with. I’m continuously amazed that I’m still on his side, and that I sort of can’t breathe until season five begins.
So, now that it’s clear how much I love both of these shows, onward to the battle. TO DEATH. Onward, to the arena!
The creators of both Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad are masters at defying convention. Here we have two shows that refuse to be simply comedies or dramas. These are true, dark dramedies, their central mysteries sprinkled with bleak (but always truthful) laughs. We witnessed Cranston’s comedy chops as the dad on Malcolm in the Middle, and he’s just as funny playing Walt. We laugh with and at him, especially when he’s at the end of his rope. The comedy of Breaking Bad stems from the ridiculous things we humans say and do when we’re at our breaking points — such as when Walt, locked out of his house by his wife, Skyler (Anna Gunn), reacts by throwing a pizza onto the roof. (Later on, he wakes up hung-over and alone, and proceeds to grabs his crotch and yell, “I’ve got your restraining order right here!” while standing alone in his underwear.)
Twin Peaks, on the other hand, utilizes the comedy of the totally, totally absurd — not out-of-this-world ridiculous, but everyday moments taken to a new place: The elaborate doughnut arrangements constructed by Lucy, the well-intentioned police secretary; Cooper’s obsessive recordings to his assistant, Diane; and the way reclusive housewife Nadine obsesses over her silent drapes.
In addition to being unexpectedly hilarious, there’s another compelling reason why we love these shows: The creators think we are geniuses. They trust us. With Twin Peaks, Lynch relies heavily on subconscious images and motifs. He trusts us to either recognize these from long-gone episodes, or — if we don’t — still garner some meaning from what we are watching, nonsensical as a scene may seem. A loyal viewer will watch the show come full circle, though it’s never quite spelled out. Intellectually delicious.
Meanwhile, back on Bad, Gilligan trusts that we’ll stick by Walt no matter what he does. He’s created a show focusing on a main character who’s constantly changing, as opposed to the conventional TV protagonist who will fundamentally stay the same from season to season. Walter White is a good guy who becomes the bad guy — and then becomes an even worse guy. As we watch him commit his first murder, strangling a meth dealer to death with a bike lock out of self-defense, we understand why he does it. Gilligan trusts us as empathetic human beings, people who understand that things aren’t always so black-and-white.
Both shows create whole tiny worlds populated by truthful, specific individuals, which is no easy task. From Breaking Bad, I particularly love Skyler for her resolute decision to enter her husband’s world, for being a badass multitasker, and even for managing to assist in an act of blackmail while her baby coos in the car seat next to her. I love her sister Marie’s proclivity for trying to assume a new identity by visiting open houses and stealing things. And Walt Jr. gives us a character with cerebral palsy whose story is not about the disability, but rather about growing up and seeing your parents in a new light. Breaking Bad’s characters are drawn with unflinching honesty behind their behavior and choices. They’re real. When we return to the towns we grew up in, these are the kind of people we pass on the street.
As for Twin Peaks’ cast of characters, they’re also extremely familiar and truthful, but in an entirely different way. They appear to be off their rockers, or drawn from the stuff of soap operas, but behind their actions, we find the root of something deeply human. Audrey, the prim daddy’s girl, at first seems like a villainess-in-training, but behind her attention-seeking sweaters and manipulative virtue is a little girl just growing into herself. Bobby, the teen goon, seems like a dreamy and deluded A-hole until we recognize he’s just a young man in love for the first time. Laura’s father Leland at first seems a maniac, but he’s a man who’s just lost his daughter. (Okay, fine. So it turns out that technically he killed her. But still.)
One final comparison point between those two shows: MURDER. Or, more specifically, how they treat death. When watching Law & Order or Body of Proof, it’s somehow simple to separate yourself from a scene of ghastly demise. You’re safe on your futon, the horror trapped safely within the confines of your screen, with only the possibility that it will visit you later in your dreams. But both Twin Peaks and Breaking Bad make these scenes inescapable and somehow shed new light on something we’ve seen a hundred times before. Twin Peaks makes death beautiful; Breaking Bad, specific and painfully real. And its protagonists respond accordingly.
For the jury — that is, for myself — I present two of the most grippingly memorable scenes of death on television, both of which find of our heroes facing down mortality with entirely different sentiments: Cooper, with reflection, and Walt, with desperate virility.
In Twin Peaks, season one ends with what is by far one of my favorite scenes of the series. Agent Cooper, having rocked the small town with his investigation — and having accrued no shortage of enemies — is suddenly shot by an unknown assailant. As he’s lying on the floor, an ancient hotel waiter in a crisp bow tie brings him a glass of warm milk and innocently asks, “How ya doin’ down there?” On the floor, bleeding out, Cooper proceeds to pontificate on the nature of death itself:
“ … being shot is not as bad as I thought it might be. It’s not so bad as long as you can keep the fear from your mind. At a time like this, curiously, you begin to think of the things you regret. The things you might miss … all in all, a very interesting experience.”
Breaking Bad’s fourth season holds a similarly engrossing (but far gorier) reckoning with fate. Walter and Jesse are being held captive in their meth lab, awaiting their fate at the hands of Gus, the deceptively mild-mannered drug kingpin. They’ve just murdered one of Gus’s most important employees, and they’re unsure as to how their petrifying, bespectacled boss will react. Finally, Gus arrives, and — as we chew on our hair and rip out our fingernails — slowly removes his jacket and shoes, changing into a protective suit. As Walter pleads his case, desperately rambling and justifying his actions, Gus methodically locates a box cutter. Walter, fearing for his life, tries to save face by asserting himself:
“ … This is on you, Gus. Not on me. Not on Jesse. Gale’s death is on you. What did you expect? Just simply roll over and allow you to murder us? Whatever it is you’re planning there, whatever point you’re trying to make here, let me suggest that you keep one thing in mind: Without us, without Jesse and myself, you have no one to make your product.”
Wordless, expressionless, Gus instead takes one of his own henchmen by the hair and slits his throat with the box-cutter — holding his head firm, so that his blood spurts over a stunned Walter and Jesse. They’re forced to watch him die as he gasps for air.
Both scenes represent each show at their absolute best. They’re filled with stunning visuals, whether it’s the slow seep of blood from Cooper’s body, or the violent spurt of crimson hitting Walt’s face. And both moments take a TV trope — the hero, suddenly aware of his own mortality — that we, as skilled escapists, have seen over and over. Yet both scenes manage to hold our gaze, showing us something new about human nature through the lens of two vastly different men. With Twin Peaks, it’s demonstrated through poetry, randomness, and contemplation; with Breaking Bad, through tension, stillness, and anxiety.
Now that I’ve written thorough love letters to each show and slipped them into their lockers, it’s time to decide who’s going to take me to prom. I could definitely introduce Agent Cooper to my parents. He’s strange, he’s handsome, he’s morally sound. Sexy jazz music follows him everywhere he goes. But … I declare Walter White (and Breaking Bad) the winner. Please hold your hatred, applause, or hatred-applause for the end. Though the playwright in me has so much love and respect for Twin Peaks’ theatricality, I choose Breaking Bad for its relevance and its immediacy. We live in a world that, both morally and financially, has become increasingly unstable. More and more, it’s every man for himself, and Walter White embodies this. It’s so easy to hide behind our blankets or popcorn, watching action unfold onscreen and think to ourselves, I’d never do that. But Walt teaches us that yep, you probably would. Behind every human choice is a sympathetic motivation, no matter how deplorable. Breaking Bad dares to go further than any other show has dared — further than Twin Peaks — into the difficult truth behind our motives.
And now you may applaud, hate, or hate-applaud.
Winner: Breaking Bad
Bekah Brunstetter is an L.A.- and Brooklyn-based playwright and television writer, currently working for MTV’s upcoming Underemployed.