My Top 10 Ground-breaking Television Series (or why Breaking Bad Glides over All)

There seems to be an internet consensus – if the opinions of a few podcasts and that of Chuck Klosterman are to be taken to be post-modern canon that is – that the best shows in the new millennium on television are: The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, and Breaking Bad. Further, the mandarins of the web think that the dialogs on Mad Men are superior to the rest. Well, I beg to differ a bit on some details. The one that I definitely agree on is that Breaking Bad is pound-for-pound the most intense and most beautifully shot of all four. Let me take a little time here to expound on my impressions of these various shows. The shows are all “dramatic” and are all one-hour in format.

David Chase’s The Sopranos (1997-2005) was probably the first series to combine strong language, violence, and nudity on a prime-time TV show albeit on the exclusive HBO network (I say exclusive because a surprising number of people I know cannot afford neither HBO nor Showtime). HBO seemed to be fearless in bringing us the story of a loveable gangster, Tony Soprano in perhaps television’s first antagonist that was a protagonist. The show was outstanding in its choice of actors, spawning careers for Brea di Matteo for example and really made us want to like Tony despite himself. The violence was hard to watch sometime and the voyeuristic view into the Badda-Bing and Tony’s various bedrooms was always entertaining. The rhythm never really dropped and the ending was suitably (not to say disturbingly ambiguous). I loved Northern Exposure when I was a kid and we sometimes got a hint of the twisted humor of Mr Chase in the Sopranos as well. It will be hard to remove The Sopranos from a Top 5 list because of its novelty and the production quality. It was a truly great show.

For me the next great show was not The Wire (2002-2008) but rather Six Feet Under (2001-2005). Don’t get me wrong, I’ll recap The Wire in the next paragraph, but I think that Six Feet Under deserves mention as being perhaps the most original and improbable screenplay I have ever enjoyed on television. I mean, who would ever have thought of a entire show about a morgue where one of the characters was the father character that dies in the very first episode? The show is responsible for the rocket that is Michael C Hall (better known now for Dexter) and was amazing in so many ways. Quirky characters (I loved Federico) and an amazing format with each episode starting with a death and embalming, it never ceased to surprise and amaze. There was a dramatic lull in Seasons 3 and 4 where the themes were notably darker, but I still loved it and watched all the way through to the conclusion of Season 5 – a finale that few shows have ever come close to topping for originality and conclusively tying up of all loose ends in a reasonably believable manner. Since this show was on in the US and got little press here in France, I actually learned about it 2nd hand from an aunt in California and was quickly hooked. Every person here (at least 10) that I have introduced the show to, have become nearly obsessed with it as well. I think that it deserves to be in the Top 10 if not the Top 5. I have never watched a single episode of Alan Ball’s more recent series True Blood but then, as you may have noticed, I have a full plate where TV is concerned.

What I loved about The Wire was the exhaustive realism from David Simon. I watched a few episodes of The Shield (2002-2008) which I found interesting and which is often said to be a precursor to The Wire and from which many of the actors of The Wire cut their teeth, but Simon’s treatment of the Baltimore drug market from all different angles was ultimately far more interesting. Simon’s background and research yielded probably the most realistic account of criminality this side of the Sopranos but with ever-changing lenses on how we looked at it: the streets and the cops (S01), importing and the dockers (S02), city politics (S03), schools and natural selection (S04), and the press (S05) – almost every possible perspective was offered for our analysis. The fan base of The Wire tends to be almost fanatical and perhaps rightfully so because this show made absolutely no apologies. Rather than having a bad guy that was deep down a good guy like in The Sopranos, we had that here (Springer Bell in particular comes to mind) but our good guys were all pretty sleezy too even if they were good deep down (McNulty). There were no politically correct lines that were taboo here and no commonly-held truths that weren’t turned over to expose their underbellies. It was truly riveting television and in the Top 5, if not the Top 3 of all the shows I have ever known.

While I am on David Simon shows, I actually love Treme (2010-present) from David Simon and Eric Overmyer and featuring many of the actors from The Wire and some amazing cameos (Steve Earle in S01 and S02 was righteous). I think that people don’t like the pauses and the scenes where nothing seems to be happening. Since the show is basically a “slice of life” cutting across the lives of the 10-15 major characters in the show, I feel that the editing and even the silences contribute to the feeling of simultaneity and realism. I am not frightened or annoyed by long scenes and find the story of post-Katrina New Orleans to be poignant and damning for the previous administration. Perhaps the people that diss it are primarily Bush apologists. In any case, just the fact that there is about 15-20 minutes of New Orleans music in every single episode is enough to make this one in my personal Top 10 or perhaps Top 6.

If I were to take a single season of a show in terms of suspense, I’d have to go with Dexter (2006-2014) Season 4 (2009) starring John Lithgow as the Trinity killer. It was full of surprises and ultimately even Dex’s wife gets the serial killer treatment from his arch-enemy and that made it a spectacular season. I think that Seasons 2, 3, 5, and especially 6 were really sub-par, although the first episode of Season 7 was promising, but the quality is too uneven for this to get higher than a Top 10 or 15.

In terms of a single season in terms of dialog, I don’t think any show has ever blown we away as much as Deadwood (2004-2006). Al Swearengen has such a perfect name because there was not two or three minutes that went by without some creative way of adding the word “fuck” to a sentence. There were lines that were so incredibly classic (“Now THAT’S how you clean a fucking blood stain”) and it was hilarious at times. Confession: I never watched the 3rd season of the show, primarily because I knew there was no Season 4 and I was worried about being heart-broken and left hanging at the end. Timothy Oliphant was probably the big winner here because his latest show Justified is among the best shows that has come out in the last two or three years.

Mad Men (2007-present) brought AMC into the lime-light as the new bad boy television network in 2007. Everything about Mad Men is incredibly precise – it looks perfectly 1964 in every way: clothes, cars, music, attitudes…the premise of an advertising company is ingenious and the dialogs are great. Hamm’s Don Draper is a complex character full of depth. Creator Matthew Weiner had also contributed heavily to Seasons 5 and 6 of Sopranos but really came into his own with this show. Now, as for being the “best” of the lot, I think that there are moments when it becomes a little over-dramatic and almost tilts towards Desperate Housewives (particularly with the misadventures of the Betty character). You don’t have to agree with me, but I felt there were moments of weakness in Seasons 2 and 3. That being said, I love the relationship between Megan and Don and of course the rest of the cast is magic most of the time. I find this show to be highly entertaining and picture perfect, and in my Top 5 but perhaps not in my Top 3.

My favorite is, of course, Breaking Bad (2007-2013). I love this show for the transformation of Walt into Heisenberg, for the gorgeous camera work and scenery in Albequerque, Vince Gilligan’s writing, the nail-biting suspense in nearly every episode, and the almost-Sisyphusian way that things just snowball and come back again and snowball. I have watched every episode with relish and delight and terror as well and can’t wait for next year’s conclusion to the odyssey of W.W.

Others that have potential, but that I’ll talk about in detail another time: Boardwalk Empire (Steve Buscemi rules), Justified (Timothy Oliphant is Bullock reincarnate), Magic City (reliving my father’s childhood in Miami), Homeland (it has potential but will it have a long run?), Rescue Me (great but so depressing that I had to stop after Season 2), and Sons of Anarchy (what an alternative life for my cousins in Cali may have been like). Its format is too short to qualify for my hour-long criteria, but In Treatment still probably makes the list due to the raw volume of episodes (102 I believe in only 3 seasons). So, my Top 10?

10. Dexter
9. Homeland
8. Treme
7. Justified
6. Boardwalk Empire
5. The Sopranos
4. Mad Men
3. The Wire
2. Six Feet Under
1. Breaking Bad

How about you? Feel free to give us your list in the comments 🙂

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About mfinocchiaro

IT Architecture Guru for large PLM software company but dabbling in Web 2.0 and other stuff.
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20 Responses to My Top 10 Ground-breaking Television Series (or why Breaking Bad Glides over All)

  1. djmatticus says:

    Great list and great commentary. I’d like to suggest you give Rescue Me another try: it is worth it. And Deadwood season 3 is also worth a watch too. I don’t want to spoil how it ends, but I don’t think you’ll be heart broken.

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      Thanks for the comments 🙂
      Ok, in the off-season (after the current runs of Boardwalk Empire, Dexter, Sons of Anarchy, Treme, and Comic Book Men) and before the new crop (Mad Men, Justified, Game of Thrones), I’ll give Tommy and Bullock another chance.
      Cheers and thanks again for reading!

  2. Ed M. says:

    Here’s my list, in no particular order:

    Lost
    Breaking Bad
    Doctor Who
    Fringe
    Dexter
    Battlestar Galactica
    Chuck
    Firefly
    Torchwood
    Walking Dead

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      Man, I hate to say it, but I am not sure if all that SciFi counts in a list of “dramatic” shows. The only ones that qualify there are Dex and BB. Otherwise, I would have included Game of Thrones rather high on my list. Frankly, I am surprised that it didn’t make it in your Top Ten. IMHO, it is better than Firefly…
      Will check out that original Battlestar Galactica on my trip to Tokyo today though 🙂
      I had to look up two of the shows you mentioned – Fringe and Torchlight – that I had never heard of before, thanks for the tips 🙂

      • Ed M. says:

        I had a bit of a falling out with the USA cable and satellite providers, as well as HBO/Cinemax, and choose not to watch them, so my list is network TV and Netflix-centric. I’m sure all your HBO shows are awesome, but I can’t really comment on them. Also, don’t watch the original Battlestar Galactica, a cheesy 70’s family show, you want the dark and brilliant SciFi channel show 2004-2009.

  3. yaykisspurr says:

    Fringe
    The Walking Dead
    Law & Order: Criminal Intent
    The Mentalist
    Longmire

    These are my top 5. Also love End Game on Hulu. Really the only one on your list I’ve seen is Mad Men. I saw the 5th season and thought it was compelling, not my favorite though. Cheers.

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      Thanks 🙂
      U are the second person to mention Fringe. What do you like about that show?

      • yaykisspurr says:

        I love the characters from Olivia to Peter and especially Walter! Also all the secondary characters too. I really enjoy the supernatural aspect of it and how the writers try to explain how these things happen. The over arching storyline isn’t too bad and they try to change up every season. I hated when they changed to Olivia not knowing Peter…it got rough to watch but we got through it and it redeemed itself.

  4. Erik Spierenburg says:

    +1 for Magic City. I just watched it and loved it. I am pretty sure you will too. Also, Luck (http://www.hbo.com/luck/index.html) is something you might enjoy. I know I did. But you have a great list Fino!

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      Gonna check out Luck tomorrow. That’s try that Magic City’s S01 is great but I think it needs another season to see whether it continues to smolder or it dies out. I reviewed Magic City a few months ago…
      Thanks for the comment 🙂

  5. Pingback: TV Series: The Walking Dead S01 – Slow start but powerful finish | Fino's Weblog

  6. Chris says:

    I think in terms of originality in storytelling, ‘Damages’ definitely deserves to be on that list for its first season.

  7. incarnadine123 says:

    I agree that Six Feet Under and Breaking Bad deserve to be in the Top Three. I’ve never seen The Wire but from what I hear, I really should. I think one show you are missing is The West Wing. Excellent writing (Aaron Sorkin), superb cast, beautiful cinematography.

  8. My best this year
    1/ Breaking Bad which I finished yesterday. Just brilliant
    2/ Borgen. Danish. Really a good show
    3/ Masters of sex. If you like quality pictures, you’ll have a ball. It is absolutely magnificent and the lady is just gorgeous.
    4/ Real humans: the sweed serie about the robots. Totally brilliant and season 2 is coming 🙂

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      Agreed on BB. Never heard of Borgen – how many seasons have I missed? Never got past the pilot on Masters of Sex or Real Humans – so you think these are worthwhile? I’ll make a post in the next couple of days with my best of from 2013.
      Thanks Karine!!

  9. Flash says:

    1) The Wire
    2) Man Men
    3) Frazier
    4) Hill Street Blues
    5) Treme
    6) Rome
    7) Life on Mars (UK)
    8) Northern Exposure

    I realise that some of those are comedies. Missing from this list are:

    The Corner as I’ve yet to watch it.
    Breaking Bad, which I have up on after the season 2 finale, whereby I was unable to suspend disbelief any further.
    Sons of Anarchy for it’s similar lack of realism.
    The Sopranos because it was very episodic, and a trifle dull.

    Have watched couple of episodes of Waking Dead, so might try that next.

    Reluctant to try Game of Thrones because all the heavy metal kids like it.

    Watched some Dexter, but got annoyed because of it’s inaccurate potrayal of psychopathy.

    Any other suggestions?

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      I think you missed out on the best of Breaking Bad which was season 4 but especially the 2nd half of season 4. In any case, thanks for the interesting list! I liked Rome too, but it was killed off rather quickly after a somewhat lackluster season 2. Agreed that Dexter was too uneven, I wouldn’t rate it in the top 10 based on the one excellent season 4. Treme was also killed off prematurely. I think that Boardwalk Empire is missing – it was incredible despite having been killed off way too early. Another missing item here is awesome animated series such as the outstanding Archer and the incredibly imaginative Rick and Morty. I guess I am also nostalgic about Six Feet Under which was the series that got me addicted 🙂

  10. agdmtn says:

    My Top 15 Groundbreaking TV Shows:
    15. Game Of Thrones (Best Season: 2)
    14. The Walking Dead (Best Season: 4)
    13. Seinfeld (Best Season: 4)
    12. Boardwalk Empire (Best Season: 1)
    11. The Simpsons (Best Season 5-10)
    10. Firefly (Best Season: 1 *cries*)
    09. Doctor Who (Best Season: 10)
    08. M*A*S*H (Best Season: 3)
    07. The Wire (Best Season: 4)
    06. The Sopranos (Best Season: 5)
    05. Star Trek: The Original Series (Best Season: 2)
    04. Dexter (Best Season: 1 or 7)
    03. Lost (Best Season: 1 or 5)
    02. The Shield (Best Season: 2 or 7)- Shocked you didn’t list this.
    01. Breaking Bad (Best Season- 5)

    • mfinocchiaro says:

      I wrote my list before watching seasons 1, 2 and 7 of The Shield and I agree that – particularly Season 7 – belongs way up i that list! I never got all that wrapped up in Seinfeld and M*A*S*H was just before my time and I found Lost annoying. I guess I would also disagree on Dexter S07 being superior to S04 with the Trinity Killer which was for me better. What I would add to the list now would be Hannibal, Mr Robot, and Daredevil.

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