They’re both groundbreaking cable dramas about a crime lord who tries to keep his suburban family together while building his empire. Both have also often been called the best drama series of all time. In one corner: HBO’s The Sopranos (1999-2007), which pioneered the serialized anti-hero drama trend. In the other: AMC’s Breaking Bad (2008-2013), which gathered viewers and critical esteem with each passing season until some declared that it had surpassed its predecessor.
Which show was the best? Will the New Jersey or New Mexico crime boss take the crown? We’ll make the case for each—then you’re decide who wins.
Why The Sopranos should win: Simply put, Breaking Bad—and plenty of other shows—wouldn’t exist without the The Sopranos. David Chase’s brilliant drama took a well-worn movie genre and turned it into a weekly must-watch series, fronted by James Gandolfini‘s mesmerizing Tony Soprano. The king of anti-heroes, Tony was a rumbling storm cloud of a man who could shift from oafish charm to frightening rage to heartbreaking self-pity at the drop of a cannoli.
Refusing to fall into a “whack of the week” mob drama trap, The Sopranos took bold creative risks with its narrative (remember Tony trapped in purgatory during his coma arc?) and provided a series finale that—love it or hate it—is still debated by fans to this day. (I recently re-watched the entire series, and found that the cut-to-black diner scene’s intent was clearly telegraphed—as Chase has heavily hinted, Tony was killed in that scene.)
Breaking Bad was less escapist and less fun — a tale of cancer and meth with a stern protagonist who wasn’t nearly as likable or multifaceted as Tony. And while Breaking Bad fans grew frustrated with Skyler White (Anna Gunn), Sopranos‘ Carmela Soprano (Edie Falco) frequently held her own against her husband and was every bit as complex as he was. Finally, season 5’s “Long Term Parking”—which chronicled the agonizing whacking of Adriana La Cerva (Drea de Matteo)—is arguably the best character-death episode in TV history.
Why Breaking Bad should win: Breaking Bad’s writing and acting equaled The Sopranos, but added a superior story and more compelling character arc. While Tony ambled from one season to the next, dealing with threats as they arose, Breaking Bad famously told the story of how “Mr. Chips turns into Scarface.”
We met Walter White as modest and fearful chemistry teacher. His journey to becoming infamous meth kingpin Heisenberg is a riveting progression that impacts everybody around him. Creator Vince Gilligan’s intense focus on the show’s storyline meant nearly every hour advanced the series’ master plot and ended with a cliffhanger. Whereas after Sopranos whacked Adriana, the show self-indulgently meandered for its final two seasons.
Plus, Tony never faced an adversary more thrilling than chicken-restaurant meth lord Gus Fring (Giancarlo Esposito). And regardless of what Chase meant by The Sopranos’ ending, can it really be that great if it left so many fans unsatisfied? Breaking Bad‘s finale may not have been the show’s highest note, but its final season featured several of the show’s finest hours (especially the incomparable “Ozymandias”).
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