The Wire and Breaking Bad – Two American Crime Classics

Breaking Bad recently ended its run on cable with its series finale on September 29, 2013. Like many fans of the show, I was a late arrival. I caught up by watching most of the series on Netflix and then watching the last season as it aired. It seems many others caught up in this same way, and the ratings back it up–the first few seasons, while critically acclaimed, did not have good ratings, but then the final season’s premier was more than double the previous high, and the series finale was the highest rated episode at about 10 million viewers.

With all these new viewers and with the show firmly entrenched in the Zeitgeist, it was all anyone could talk about for several weeks. And because everything needs to be a contest and everything needs to be ranked, conversations turned to whether it was the greatest show ever and whether it was better than The Wire. I am not sure which I prefer, but they are both in the conversation for best American TV drama ever, so I recommend watching both if you have not already.

The Wire

The Wire is driven by sharp, social commentary. Named after the wire that the police set up to eavesdrop on the local Baltimore drug-dealers, the show at times feels so realistic that it almost seems like a documentary. It tackles the futility of the war on drugs, flawed policing, city politics, urban poverty, public education, among many other issues. And the world is expansive–the viewer gets to know a wide array of characters, from detectives and drug dealers to dock workers and school teachers, and the writers expertly tie all of these worlds together.

The last season, season 5, falls off a bit in quality, but the series as a whole benefits from having just five seasons, and not being dragged out by the network to more and more seasons of diminishing quality. If you like detective stories, there are some great scenes, including my favorite, when McNulty and Bunk investigate a cold crime scene and show the versatility of the f-word, using it about 40 times while determining the ballistics of the murder weapon.

Breaking Bad

Breaking Bad, on the other hand, is comparably hyper focused, and the creators concentrate on the story of one man, Walter White, who, in the first episode, receives a terminal cancer diagnosis and then becomes a crystal meth cook. They branch out and introduce more characters but the story primarily revolves around Walt.

Like The Wire, the plot involves the drug trade, but Breaking Bad seems less interested in making any social commentary and more about telling a really dark and entertaining story. The main relationship that drives the story is that between Walt and Jesse–I joke that this is the Ross and Rachel relationship of this show. It is a strange combination of father-son, teacher-student, and master-protégé.

The creators also take more chances stylistically than those of The Wire did. Each director imparts his or her own style on each episode, and you really notice some excellent camera work and shots–one in particular that sticks in my memory is of a terrified Walt, laughing hysterically in crawl space, shot from above while the camera is slowly craned upward.

Urban Crime Drama vs. Modern Western

So if you prefer a gritty, urban crime drama, go for The Wire, but if you prefer a surreal, dark comedy that becomes a modern Western, go for Breaking Bad. Or just watch both (look for them on DVD and streaming services).

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