At the beginning of March, Vulture set out to discover which of the many brilliant dramas which have graced our television screens could be considered “the greatest”.
We said goodbye to some serious contenders (West Wing, Battlestar Galactica, Deadwood, Friday Night Lights) in round 1. Round 2 saw us bid adieu to other shows that had rabid fan bases (X-Files, Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
And then we were left with 4: Breaking Bad vs The Sopranos and The Wire vs Mad Men.
While any of the 4 could have rightfully claimed victory, the final 2 came down to The Sopranos vs The Wire. Two brilliant and inspired HBO juggernauts that helped change the face of television. Two shows where you weren’t always rooting for the good guy and the concept of “the bad guy” took on new dimensions. Two shows created by guys named David.
So how to decide? Matt Zoller Seitz, New York Magazine’s TV columnist, was given the honor of making the decision. He describes all the shows chosen in this “Drama Derby” as such:
They all defy the musty stereotype of TV as a factory churning out barely distinguishable hunks of junk intended to keep viewers half-interested between ad breaks. They are all, to varying degrees, the work of artists, or at least brilliant entertainers. They left footprints and fingerprints on the medium.
The Sopranos and The Wire have little in common besides frank language and violence; a fascination with crime; a consistently high level of acting, writing and filmmaking; and an HBO pedigree. Forget apples and oranges: This is more like the Metropolitan Museum of Art vs. Grand Central Station.
So how do you compare two icons of New York and more so how do you compare these two shows…? He breaks it down by different criteria and the winner might surprise:
1. Influence and Transformation: how do each of these shows compare to their inspirations? Both surpassed the tropes from which they came (mob movies and cop dramas) and turned them into something new. Seitz declared it a tie.
2. Philosophical sophistication: Both The Sopranos and The Wire are worlds populated by characters who are real and who are not wholly likable. These are people who exist in a world that is larger than what we are shown, and interact completely with that world. But these worlds are on the decline and anyone who attempts to make a change, personal or in society, not only fails but is usually punished for the attempt. And both equally tell these stories without resulting to cliche or glibness. Seitz declared it a tie.
3. Characterization: While both shows created characters that seemed to actually exist outside of the hour or so a week, it is the sheer scope of what they did in The Wire that gives it the edge. We see society from top down and down to the top; those who make the law and those who break it; those who work to improve things and those who work only for themselves. And no one existed just to exist, without a purpose. Each season introduced us to new characters that fit in seamlessly to the world they joined. Seitz gives it to The Wire.
4. Formal daring: The Sopranos for all of its grounded reality, existed in a semi-awake dreaming state. Tony’s dreams began the series and then by the end took on monumental importance. The show allowed itself to tell the story however it was deemed best for that story – sitcom, mob drama, something out of Twin Peaks. Stories could come and go, mean something or mean nothing. The Wire functioned differently – everything had meaning and everything went somewhere. Everyone existed in a meticulously constructed world that had purpose. But for sheer daring and creative structuring, for downright ballsiness Seitz gives it to The Sopranos.
5. Influence on the medium: HBO changed TV, but which show on HBO changed it more? It seems the argument on this one is less controversial – everyone wanted a Sopranos lookalike. The anti-hero took its place in the forefront in many a writers room and the shows continue to try to copy its swagger and commentary. And it came first. Clearly this goes to The Sopranos.
6. Consistency: As high as The Sopranos got, it also got low. The Wire managed its highs with greater consistency and kept its lows from hitting too far down. Individual seasons of The Wire never hit as low as they did on The Sopranos. Seitz gives this one to The Wire.
So who wins? Do certain criteria matter more than others? Seitz says “Where The Wire entertains, upsets, illuminates, and instructs, The Sopranos provokes, offends, startles, baffles, and haunts.” With that you’d think the choice was obvious.
But no. Seitz says that while the final tally based on the above criteria resulted in an all out tie, he found himself making more excuses for The Sopranos than The Wire, that he has to strain less to make evident the greatness of The Wire. He declares The Wire a winner, without asterisks.
Disagree? A concurrent competition on Vulture’s Facebook page when on with the same starting line up. Final round was between Breaking Bad and Buffy. With 62% of the final vote, Breaking Bad won. I suppose meth and Los Pollos Hermanos are too great to pass up.
Opening of episode 1 of The Wire, thrust in media res, always:
Omar, Omar’s Coming!
Beware…spoilers abound here: