When tragedy strikes, what’s a mild-mannered suburban parent to do to support the family but dive headfirst into the illegal drug business? That’s the question posed by two controversial and critically lauded TV series, Showtime’s long-running, half-serious comedy Weeds (Season Seven begins July 1), and AMC’s hour-long, half-funny drama Breaking Bad, whose legion of fans currently awaits its fifth and presumably final season, also scheduled to begin sometime in July.
Both series, in addition to their vaguely similar premises, manage to meld several genres in utterly unique ways, resulting in wildly disparate tones that almost defy description. Weeds is a sort of broadly satirical farce with elements of thriller, romance and domestic drama mixed in; Breaking Bad is largely a gruelingly suspenseful and violent neo-noir crime story, but with generous dollops of searing family drama, intense action and bizarre black comedy.
Both of them have evolved and morphed considerably from their first seasons, so comparing them in their totality is no simple task — which is why we here at Smackdown HQ thought it necessary to load up on a mix of chronic and Walter White’s special Big Blue concoction before diving in. Sadly, we were told by our Smackdown superiors in no uncertain terms that we should think again… So, hepped up on nothing but coffee and chocolate cake, we settle in for the trippiest drugs-in-suburbia Smackdown since Joe Friday took on Blue Boy...
Breaking Bad (AMC)
Walter White (Bryan Cranston) is a nebbishy high school chemistry teacher who, in the show’s opener, is diagnosed with advanced lung cancer. Determined to leave his family — his razor-sharp, pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his cerebral palsey-afflicted teenage son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) — with financial stability after his death, he decides to go into business as a manufacturer of top-quality crystal meth, tracking down Jesse Pinkman (Aaron Paul), an irresponsible but street-savvy former student of his to be his partner and chief dealer.
The two soon find themselves raking in money but way over their heads in the local drug business, where they must face off with ruthless competitors like the ‘roid-raging Tuco (Raymond Cruz) and, later, the chillingly shrewd local kingpin Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito), who runs a fast-food chicken franchise as a cover. They somehow manage, barely, to stay one step ahead of the law, specifically Walter’s chatty brother-in-law Hank (Dean Norris), a prominent DEA agent in Albuquerque, where they all live.
As the business becomes gradually less of a family-supporting necessity for Walter and more of an irresistible wealth-making thrill-ride, the moral compromises he allows in the interest of self-preservation become steadily less justifiable, until, at this point, many of them are downright loathsome. And he’s the good guy!
Recently widowed Nancy Botwin (Mary-Louise Parker) turns to small-time pot dealing in the seemingly wholesome suburban hamlet of Agrestic, California, to support herself and her two sons, the sexually eager teen Silas (Hunter Parrish) and the awkward, scarily precocious eleven-year-old Shane. They are soon joined by Nancy’s unabashedly hedonistic brother-in-law Andy (Justin Kirk), who helps with the business and cooks for the family in exchange for room and board.
Nancy’s pot supplier in the early seasons is the sassy Heylia (Tonye Patano), whose nephew Conrad (Romany Malco) is Nancy’s closest ally, brief love interest, and secret business partner when he develops his own strain of weed. Complicating matters further is Nancy’s nosy, haughty neighbor Celia (Elizabeth Perkins), whose husband Dean (Andy Milder) and city council antagonist (and eventual lover) Doug (Kevin Nealon) are among Nancy’s biggest customers.
In later seasons, we leave the confines of Agrestic for a shady Mexican border town, where Nancy forms an ill-advised partnership with an intimidating, business-savvy drug trafficker (Guillermo Diaz), and an even more ill-advised romantic liaison with a suave politician and cartel leader, played by the recent Oscar nominee (for A Better Life), Demian Bichir. And then things really get complicated.
Both shows give us an inside, matter-of-fact look at the drug trade for what it is: a manufacture and sale business that flourishes because of its criminalization. They both avoid getting preachy about the downside of drugs but don’t shy away from it either. Breaking Bad has no shortage of lives ruined by meth addiction; Weeds revolves around a far more innocuous, non-addictive drug, so the attitude toward it is far more positive. The show presents us with characters like the constantly zonked Doug, who is practically a poster boy for the dangers of over-indulgence. Still, it’s doubtful Nancy Reagan is a fan of either show.
They are also both ideal showcases for the talents of previously under-utilized stars. The indefinable quirkiness of Parker, after years of memorable supporting roles in features (Grand Canyon) and TV (West Wing), has found a perfect vehicle in Nancy Botwin, arguably one of TV’s all-time sexiest and most fascinatingly flawed moms. Likewise, nothing you saw Cranston do on Malcolm in the Middle will prepare you for his brilliant, heart-stopping work as Walter White, for which he’s won three consecutive Emmys and become one of the busiest actors in town. The ruthless Machiavelli he is now is barely recognizable from his dweeb of Season 1, yet Cranston has made this evolution heartbreakingly believable.
Top to bottom, the large ensemble casts for both shows are among the best on television. On Weeds, the indelible Perkins as the bitchy but oddly sympathetic Celia has been a multiple Emmy nominee, as has Parker. Nealon (in a miraculous post-SNL resurrection) and Kirk (Angels in America) are reliably funny scene-stealers; Malco (40-Year-Old Virgin) makes an intriguing partner for Nancy in the early years; and recent Oscar nominee Demian Bichir makes for a seductively suave villain/love interest in the later ones.
On Breaking Bad, the gorgeous Anna Gunn, previously seen in a thankless role on Deadwood (another all-time great, but that’s a different Smackdown) is every bit as fascinating a character, evolving quite believably from oblivious to disapproving to willing accomplice. But the key relationship is between Walter and Jesse, played by the rivetingly intense Aaron Paul (another Emmy winner). Jesse is often a hateful, self-destructive snot, but Paul gives him a keen intelligence and a bizarre brand of integrity that has us constantly rooting for him to redeem himself, and it is Jesse and Walter’s oddly touching father-son, teacher-mentor, love-hate relationship that forms the backbone of the show.
Neither show is, to say the least, for the faint of heart. Weeds has at least flirted with practically every sexual taboo imaginable. Shane, barely past puberty, has an awkward threesome with a couple of groupies; Silas has a torrid affair with a soccer mom (a pre-Modern Family Julie Bowen); Nancy isn’t above the occasional impulsive car-roof quickie with a drug dealer she’s just met; and Andy… we could be here all day. Breaking Bad has far less sex, but it frequently hits levels of violence previously unprecedented on basic cable. A shockingly abrupt and unexpected throat-slitting opened Season Four (a WGA Award-winning episode), and other characters have been dissolved with acid or crushed by toppling ATM machines (yes, the sense of humor is a wee bit dark).
What ultimately separates the two shows, aside from their obvious differences in tone and genre, are their levels of consistency. Creator/show-runner Jenji Kohan’s Weeds started very strong, but its last couple of seasons have shown signs of age, fatigue and lack of inspiration. It’s wandered pretty far from its original premise, and some episodes have been so comically broad, its plot twists so arbitrary and contrived, and its characters (including Nancy) behaving so stupidly and self-destructively, that many of its fans have given up on it. Personally, I think even at its weakest, Weeds is a bawdy guilty pleasure, still more fun than most shows out there; its strongest seasons (arguably the first two) make for great roller coaster rides, by turns startling, arousing and hilarious, but it’s hard to deny that the show’s best days seem to be long past.
Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is one of the rare shows that feels all of a piece, as if it were envisioned in its entirety by creator Vince Gilligan (an X Files writer-producer) before it ever aired. Each episode flows naturally into the next as Walter spirals tragically downward. At heart, it’s a simple Faustian tale, but it’s so layered with labyrinthine subplots, memorable lines, inventive camerawork, subtle clues, tense confrontations, explosive action, wrenching moments and jet-black humor, that each episode feels like a great mini-movie, on par with the very best episodes of The Sopranos (another show to which it’s often compared). I don’t honestly know whether they’re making it up as they go or not, but the feeling that week after week, we’re watching the Great American Novel unfold is among the main reasons why so many are already labeling Breaking Bad one of the genuine masterpiece TV series of all time.
Weeds is the sinful dessert; Breaking Bad is the seven-course meal. Because Weeds episodes are under a half hour, and the first season of Breaking Bad was shortened to seven episodes due to the WGA strike, Season One of both shows can be zipped through in short order, and I can almost guarantee that in both cases, you’ll be salivating to immediately dive into subsequent seasons. The difference is that Weeds, like most shows, gradually loses its novelty and inspiration, whereas Breaking Bad just keeps getting better, its characters becoming more complex and conflicted as the body count rises and the moral barriers dissolve. Though admittedly uneven, Weeds remains an entertaining confection that certainly deserves a look, but Breaking Bad, the clear winner here, is one for the ages. If you’ve never seen it… a) Oh my, do you have a treat in store; and, b) What the hell are you still doing here?