In the pantheon of great, conclusion-defying debates this one ranks up there with “Who’s Better, Willie Mays or Mickey Mantle?” from my Little League days, “The Beatles or The Stones? ” from high school, and, shifting criteria a bit to contemporary matters, “Who’s More of an Embarrassment to Their District, Steve King or Michele Bachmann?” There are no definitive answer. Everything is subjective. The only thing to agree on is that in each case peerage is close enough to warrant a discussion.
So too is the argument over “The Wire” and “Breaking Bad”, the latter of which begins closing out its run as “the best show on television” this Sunday night.
The case I make for “The Wire” is that like anything aspiring to art it made a conscious decision push beyond established convention. It pulled its audience into places, points of moral perspective and reflection that others of its type had not, could not and would not. Specifically, the authentic, unhygienic, street-level culture of the black inner city.
The running joke is that “The Wire”, created and frequently written by crusty, cynical, ex-Baltimore Sun reporter David Simon, is every white liberals’ favorite series, mainly because it is as close as any of them will ever get to scoring crack in the hood and the way it confirms everything we/they’ve ever wanted to believe about why hellholes like that exist. I.e. massive, chronic corruption up and down the political system, resulting in futile-to-non-existent social services, wretched schools, little to no community investment, counter productive police work and a gangland hierarchy that maintains its control by mimicking white-collar criminality.
The reason the black characters, Omar, Stringer Bell, Avon Barksdale, Bodie, “Snoop”, “Proposition Joe”, Marlo Stanfield and the rest were so compelling was that Simon, from his years on the beat with the Sun, had acquired a pitch perfect ear not just for their hustler patois, but for their perverse but comprehensible moral code. That Omar, the gay loner avenging angel, (actor Michael Williams, who will never outlive that role), is almost universally everyone’s favorite character is because he and he alone — cops and politicians included — lived by and remained true to his code. (Major “Bunny” Colvin comes close.) Given a choice of whose word you were going to trust, Omar’s or the Mayor of Baltimore’s, there’d be no hesitation.
The abyss of verisimilitude between Simon’s portrayal of inner city black culture and the routinely bland, lazy caricatures cranked out by traditional “let’s not offend the consumers in their Barcaloungers” Hollywood was well past “yawning”. Ironically, “The Wire’s” central cop figure, the mightily flawed McNulty, is also the show’s most stock creation.
And then there were Simon’s acid portraits of the self-important, effete careerists bleeding newspapers of credibility and leading daily print journalism to its irrelevance, if not death.
In terms of immersion in a culture “the average viewer” thinks he knows but is fundamentally clueless, nothing compares to what Simon did with “The Wire”.
The case for “Breaking Bad”, created by Vince Gilligan, who cut his series-running teeth with Chris Carter on “The X-Files”, rests on its extraordinarily high standard of character development, plotting and cinematic sophistication.
On that last point, in the age of 1080p, “Breaking Bad” is more visually interesting, with better composition, sound and image editing and a more consistent sense of how the framing of a scene delivers tone and information than 80%, hell 90% of movies I pay $10 to see in a theater. (“The Wire”, by contrast, was largely indifferent to cinematic finesse.)
But “Breaking Bad’s” technical sophistication is always in service to character and story, and while Walter White, mild-mannered, repressed everyman high school chemistry teacher turned meth empire overlord isn’t quite as unfamiliar as Omar Little, his steady (d)evolution is fairly unique to mainstream drama. This current “Golden Age” of television — all of it on cable — is full of anti-heroes, from Tony Soprano, to Don Draper to Tyrion Lannister. But only with Walter White do we experience the full rise of self-confidence, authority, lethality and (we suspect) fatal delusion.
But, as with “The Wire”, the entire “Breaking Bad” cast is as well developed as Walter. Jesse. Mike the hit man. Gus Fring. Skyler, Saul, (Saul!). Tio Salamanca. And I can’t think of a series that has pulled off as many superbly plotted predicaments as “Breaking Bad”. Remarkable, obsessive care has been taken with dramatic credibility, even while misting scene after scene with the scent of farce.
As the series moves toward its conclusion, with the betting game on whether Walter survives, and/or at what cost, I’m hoping Gilligan and his team find a way to suggest the catalyst for Walter’s mania. Personally, I keep returning to his relationship with the wealthy couple, she a former lover, he a former college pal, who offered to pay for his cancer treatment. Why did Walter isolate himself from them? Somewhere in the reason for his dissociation from them, (they seem to hold no ill will toward him, much the contrary) lies the root of his compulsive drive to establish himself, unequivocally, as master of his fate.
The compulsion and inevitable futility of controlling one’s immediate universe drives all the great shows of this era. But Walter White, ignored, status-less everyman as we meet him, is the one among the Tony Sopranos, etc. most emblematic of contemporary, invisible middle America. Walter can hide in plain sight because he is perceived as “no one”, one of the millions of unremarkable creatures whose fate is to submit their lives to more powerful forces.
But for some reason, and money is only a way of keeping score, Walter White decided to stop being the victim.
For those reasons, in the never-to-be-decided debate over Willie v. Mickey, I’m giving it to “Breaking Bad” by the fuzz on Heisenberg’s pork pie hat.