Critics and audiences seem to agree in large numbers that the greatest continuing one-hour series ever to air on American television is either the recently departed masterwork Breaking Bad or the groundbreaking show that first aired in the previous decade, The Sopranos. Both are gruelingly suspenseful and violent neo-noir crime stories interwoven with searing family drama, intense action and bizarre black comedy. Between them they’ve garnered numerous Emmy awards for their incredible casts, directors and writers.
But which show was best?
Even here at Movie Smackdown© we’re divided on this important public issue and bemoan the rules of our own franchise, which state there can be no ties between combatants, only winners. So we’ve decided to do the only responsible thing and punt the decision to you, our readers, in the hope that we can get this over with and crown the TV King, once and for all (or until the Next Great Drama shows up).
We’ve waited on this Smack until Breaking Bad wrapped up its fifth and final season, allowing us to consider both series with the benefit of hindsight. We’re not so sure that makes things any easier. They both look great and are clearly destined to remain classics of TV.
This is such a hard call but, what the hell, it’s in your hands now…
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 razor-sharp, pregnant wife Skyler (Anna Gunn) and his cerebral-palsey-afflicted teenage son Walter, Jr. (RJ Mitte) with financial security 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.
In the Vince Gilligan-created AMC series, 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. At the same time, 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-creating thrill-ride, the moral compromises he allows in the interest of self-preservation become steadily less justifiable and in fact downright loathsome. And he’s the good guy!
The Defending Champion
Tony Soprano (James Gandolfini) is a New Jersey-based Italian-American mobster who, if Coppola had had his act together, is the kind of character that could have gotten the Godfather franchise a third Oscar. Fortunately for us, we get the gift of a long-running HBO series created by David Chase that goes deep-diving into this complex and often evil man’s psyche.
Chase introduces Tony in the pilot as having panic attacks and needing the services of a psychiatrist (Goodfellas‘ Lorraine Bracco). In between these sessions, Tony lives a dual life, balancing a fairly mundane (but sometimes chaotic) suburban family lifestyle with running a major criminal organization with his hands in everything from extortion, bribery and money laundering to murder. It’s the juxtaposition of all this that makes the series so riveting — ordering the killing of a long-time friend, then going out for Italian with his wife Carmela (Edie Falco) and kids. Tony manages to think of himself as a good guy most of the time, and his relationship with protégé Christopher Moltisanti (Michael Imperioli) ricochets from paternal to pathetic.
The Sopranos gets its Defending Champion designation for good reason. In addition to being the earlier series, it was named in 2013 by the Writers Guild of America the best-written TV series of all time, while TV Guide ranked it as the best television series of all time.
Both these two shows set a standard for novelistic-type excellence in television. Their creators, Gilligan and Chase, are revered as dramatic geniuses by fans, critics and peers. Before The Sopranos, Chase ran the classic comedy-drama Northern Exposure and also had a guiding hand in the even more classic The Rockford Files; Gilligan honed his show-running chops most notably on the beloved X-Files. Chase may have the more venerated résumé, but Gilligan’s star is ascending, given his run of new shows in the pipeline including the hotly anticipated Bad sequel, Better Call Saul.
But the acting — my, oh, my…
The early passing of James Gandolfini last year had everyone remembering his towering performance as Tony Soprano. He played his Mafioso as a man of two extremes — short tempered, violent and cruel but often charming and supportive and highly relatable. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White found the same extremes but his arc was series-long, and viewers watched him metamorphose from desperate public servant to drug kingpin. Cranston made this evolution heartbreakingly believable and is deservedly on fire now throughout the industry. Tough, tough call.
Even the supporting characters are a battle royale. Anna Gunn or Edie Falco? Both won well deserved Emmys for their roles. For a while, the gorgeous Gunn was pilloried for her character’s flaws by a sub-section of fans, an unfair charge that seems to have subsided. She totally delivered on a character evolving quite believably from oblivious to disapproving to willing accomplice. Yet Falco brought an intensity, nuance and sympatico that continues to stick in her post-Sopranos life. She’s currently doing great work with Nurse Jackie. We’ll give a slight edge to Falco head-to-head.
Then there are the two protégés. We all love The Sopranos‘ Michael Imperioli, but it is Breaking Bad’s Aaron Paul (thanks, in part, to Gilligan and his talented stable of writers) who has connected in a pop culture way that has earned him Emmys for his family room, bedroom and bathroom so far. His Jesse is often a hateful, self-destructive snot, but Paul gave him a keen intelligence and a bizarre brand of integrity that has us constantly rooting for him to redeem himself. It is Jesse and Walter’s oddly touching father-son, teacher-mentor, love-hate relationship that forms the backbone of the show. Gotta go Breaking Bad here.
Writing and directing are simply toss-up choices. The writers of both shows deftly crafted long-view story arcs that were both compelling and believable. Each series was aided by collections of directors that made every episode into a must-see mini-movie.
Neither show was, to say the least, for the faint of heart. Breaking Bad had far less sex, but it frequently hit levels of violence previously unprecedented on basic cable and maybe exceeding that of The Sopranos. From a shockingly abrupt and unexpected throat-slitting to the literal dissolving of a key character with acid, Breaking Bad went for it always. The Sopranos killed and maimed with impunity, too, but probably not with the same macabre flourish.
Breaking Bad is one of the rare shows that feels all of a piece, as if it were envisioned in its entirety by Gilligan before it ever aired. The Sopranos feels more like the kind of series that a room full of writers, led by a strong, decisive creator like Chase, made better and refined from episode to episode and season to season. Both series are layered with labyrinthine subplots, memorable lines, inventive camerawork, subtle clues, complex characters, tense confrontations, explosive action, wrenching moments and jet-black humor. Week after week, audiences watching these series felt like they were watching the Great American Novel unfold, and both of them are being binge-watched all over the world as you’re reading this.
We hope you’ll vote in this poll and otherwise Tweet, Facebook, text and turn your friends onto it. We’d also like to read your comments telling us why you favor one show over the other. After that, we’ll seal the package in a 50-year time capsule with full DVD sets to be opened by generations to come. Okay, that part’s untrue. Future generations will have long forgotten what a DVD is, but we’re betting they’ll still be debating the relative merits of these two compelling dramas.