I have an exceptionally low tolerance for subpar television drama.
This is not a cross-genre condition. I will lazily eyeball a hackneyed episode of The King Of Queens or motor through a Storage Wars marathon, both instances leaving me to question my life's trajectory. But drama is one area where I will not skimp. If you expect me to engage in video largely devoid of comedic, documentary, athletic or meteorological merit, it better be gripping.
Enter, Walter Hartwell White.
I am going to go out on a limb to predict this Sunday's final episode of AMC's Breaking Bad will be the best in breed: the best final episode ever.
For this distinction I apply no genre caveat. Stack them all up against each other. Seinfeld. The Sopranos. The Wire. Even the inevitable The Simpsons last hurrah. Breaking Bad feels like the one on which you place your bet.
If, due to a galling lack of self care, you are not caught up on the program, I won't shatter your future pleasure with endless fanboy blather. Between the show's recent Emmy win for Outstanding Drama Series, and the "enough already" volume of Heisenberg T-shirts roaming our hipster enclaves, you have to know something is up in the state of New Mexico.
I can remember anxiously awaiting the premiere episode back in 2008, hopeful it would be an episodic variant of the Michael Douglas-led Falling Down of 1993. I never quite swooned over that film, but I respected its premise, feeling a satiating meal could emerge from the disgruntled work-a-day character Michael Douglas, and ultimately, Bryan Cranston, portrays.
My wife and I watched the first episode, uvulas exposed. It was. The best.
Creator Vince Gilligan had not only hit upon a winning narrative and leading man, he packed so much into the pilot episode I could not reason how Walter White would be alive to see another. Let alone five seasons. (It's not as if the breakneck speed slowed either. By all the math, Walt should have been dead by the fifth hour of programming -- tops -- but this show has its own ideas on how to tell a story.)
Now, as we stare into the chasm of a Breaking Bad-less future, I struggle to place this show in its rightful slot among the pantheon of modern day storytelling. There have been five great American dramatic series. Five. There is not a sixth show -- to borrow an ancient Billboard Magazine phrase -- bubbling under. The sixth show is miles away, dwelling in a land of personal biases, drowning in a sea of thin characters and glaring plot holes. These are the five greatest dramas in television history. In order.
I'm certain the message board will agree.
#5 Mad Men (AMC) 2007 --
I caught a few episodes during the first season's original airing. I quickly surmised, "pretty tight dialogue, fantastic art direction, but wow, I need all these achingly contemptible characters to die in a fire." At my peril, I abandoned the series, having to tuck tail between legs and return when the critical clamor grew too loud a year later.
The critics are correct. Despite a lack of anyone beyond Elisabeth Moss (Peggy) to root for, there has never been a show in television history where so much occurs, hinged on little besides tense dialogue and belts of golden liquor. It is the thinking person's soap opera.
In the most recent season, Don Draper (a creative director played by little-known character actor Jon Hamm) finds himself mid-ignition on a torrid affair with a married woman, and she is having doubts. He stabilizes the situation, holding court and dominance at a restaurant table, in a scene which should be reviewed Day One in screenwriting classes across America. (Before you learn your professor's name you should have to watch this. It is the concluding portion of the scene, which may underwhelm out of context, but in rhythm, is spectacular.)
Mad Men of late, entering its home stretch, is a tad uneven, leaving it vulnerable to a ranking shake-up. Indeed, just this month, it lost its fourth position to Emmy's newest plaything.
#4 Breaking Bad (AMC) 2008 -- 2013
After the brutal elegance of the most recent episode ("Granite State"), and considering the gobsmacking video confession from this final season's third episode, it feels borderline preposterous to proclaim three other dramas superior.
Before you get outraged, keep in mind, dear reader, we're in as-good-as-it-gets territory. There are no losers here. Everyone gets an orange wedge.
To justify my indefectible rankings, there are countless potential points of illumination to summarize Breaking Bad, but I will limit my measurement to one flaw and one strength in explaining how it finds itself at number four. Possibly the key factor keeping the show from being the best of all time is the sometimes-abusive overuse of melodrama. It can be tricky to distinguish if a character has a heavy thought on his or her mind, or if a Los Pollos Hermanos quarter chicken dinner is backing them up. To that end, Aaron Paul's portrayal of Jesse Pinkman is fantastic. Ahem.
Well, I guess, occasionally, I need him to SPIT IT OUT. Betsy Brandt's Marie Schrader character spends almost all of her screen time dwelling in a place to which I cannot emotionally relate. Even Walter White has moments where he slips past the dramatic pause's edge. These tonal choices would be more distracting if they didn't match style with the general directorial aesthetic. Ultimately, they do not clash. The show lives at a fever pitch which is 98% insanely compelling.
For the strongest argument to ranking it even higher than fourth, just look to the title.
The principal character, high school chemistry teacher Walter White, is a familiar middle-class family man who we witness "break bad," or go from being an acceptable neighbour to a guy whose mug shot gets hung in post offices. Vince Gilligan better explains it. Gilligan didn't let his character's trajectory be a one-night dip into darkness though, instead choosing to extrapolate from breaking bad one night to breaking bad over the course of years, going from hero to villian. Breaking Bad effectively demonstrates how a villain is born and Gilligan is incredibly bold to have attempted it, and genius to have achieved it.
#3 The Wire (HBO) 2002 -- 2008
Maybe this series should be listed at the top.
Maybe it's just been too long since I watched it and it spoiled me, foolishly convincing me that other shows might be able to wrap as many dense storylines and innovative characters together so seamlessly.
It might be decades before we see a program capable of coming close. If you've never seen The Wire, if you've never let yourself love so deeply a psychotic drug dealer-murderer, against-type homosexual gangsta thug named Omar, then let me instruct you on how best to introduce yourself to David Simon's masterpiece. Rent, borrow, download or raise a finger in the air until you find a copy of the fourth season. Turn on the first episode. Watch the first scene of that first episode. It takes place in a hardware store.
If you do not have the patience to wait for that copy to emerge -- and I suggest not having the patience -- watch the scene right now. (Did you watch it? Sincerely, the rest of this column can wait three minutes.)
I haven't completed the arithmetic, but I am absolutely confident stating it to be the greatest opening scene of a fourth season of any show. I vigorously doubt there is a better first scene of any show of any season of any era, ever. It was my introduction to the show and I had to stop watching, acquire the previous three seasons, then take in this masterpiece properly. The Wire is a stunning achievement which makes me embarrassed to call myself a writer. And all the while, David Simon had to do his thing while standing in the shadow of Goliath.
#2 The Sopranos (HBO) 1999 -- 2007
Technically, this Goliath is also named David (Chase). The Sopranos is arguably the most rewatchable show in history; I have now watched portions of over 1,300 episodes. Maybe 2,500. They are often vile and cruel and difficult and menacing and self-eviscerating and they are bloody brilliant. With the recent passing of James Gandolfini, I've crawled back through my memories, considering how many of The Sopranos characters make the arbitrary top-whatever-list of the finest characters in the medium's history. Tony. Carmela. Paulie Walnuts. Chrissy. Big Pussy. Vito. Janice. Richie Aprile. Junior. Nancy Marchand as Livia Soprano. The best.
If, by chance, your cave hasn't had HBO carriage, let me offer this episode as an introduction to the show. Chris and Paulie in the woods. Actually, wait. Watch gangster Paulie "Walnuts" Gualtieri visit a psychic.
(Sidenote: I wish there had been a Paulie Walnuts spinoff. Maybe he continues life as a realtor in Boca. Additional Sidenote: Outrageously excited for the Saul Goodman spinoff from Breaking Bad. Can barely believe this is happening. I won't trust the rumours until it's in its third season.)
Of course, none of these shows would exist without the parent to them all, and it bothers me how rarely it gets credit. This is the show that ultimately, in barely over a season, despite an early cancellation, allowed television drama to rise to a level on par with anything anywhere.
#1 Twin Peaks (ABC, somehow) 1990 -- 1991
It seems a long time since 22 episodes of madness and tension and Sherilyn Fenn shocked viewers who had aimlessly switched over from NBC's Thursday lineup (it ran head to head with Cheers), but this show had an All In The Family-level impact on television. Nearly 25 years later it holds up like the freshness of a Mark Twain quote. "Fo shizzle," agreed Twain.
To make a clumsy analogy from an overlapping period of pop culture, Twin Peaks was Jane's Addiction in 1987, smashing a hole through Duran Duran, so Nirvana could come out the other side.
Twin Peaks had no precursor or direct successor, but is the unintentional ancestor to every daring piece of T.V. fiction since, the birthplace of every dramatic moment uncrowded by the advertising-driven necessity of convention. Wide audiences may not have picked up on it, but there isn't a salt-worthy writer or director unaware of its mind-bending aesthetic. I am not much of a David Lynch fan otherwise -- sidenote: another David! -- but he knows how to craft an archetypal character. Before Don Draper and Walter White there was Tony Soprano, Jimmy McNulty, Bunk and Omar Little.
And before them was Special Agent Dale Cooper. Kyle McLachlan's portrayal of Cooper has the kinetic energy of Stephen Colbert combined with the taut delivery of Don Draper in a pitch meeting. Plus, he's really organized.
Despite my aforementioned giddy anticipation of the coming Breaking Bad pseudo-prequel, I'm not typically a fan of the sequel-ization route. The promise of more time with a beloved character excites me because it helps temper the emptiness Breaking Bad's conclusion will leave in my PVR. But if there was ever a show from the past, or some thread of a show from the past, that deserves a renewal, it is Twin Peaks.
And it deserves to be on cable this time.
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