I've been binging on two shows I came to late during their regular runs - David Simon's "The Wire" and Vince Gilligan's "Breaking Bad." In both cases, I watched the shows in their final seasons, mystified at some of the characters and plot background. That's a habit with me - I also came in late to "Boardwalk Empire," catching up to it in the middle of its run a couple of years ago. Its final season approaches.
"The Wire" and "Breaking Bad" essentially tell the same story from different perspectives: the catastrophe of the "war on drugs," the decline in American education and the corruption and increasing militarization of police. While both shows feature strong women, another central theme is the crisis of the American male, especially boys seeking their place as workers and fathers in the U.S. economy.
All that doesn't sound too funny, yet both shows have black comedy at their cores. "Breaking Bad" holds a surrealistic edge, while "The Wire" comes out ahead in the novelistic depth of its characters and narrative. It helps for "The Wire" to have not only Simon but American novelists Richard Price, Dennis Lehane and George Pelecanos writing scripts. While more TV-oriented, "Breaking Bad's" writers also burn bright.
"Breaking Bad's" suburban white adolescents come off as more impoverished than the poor black kids of Baltimore's ghettos. While the Albuquerque kids have more material possessions, their lives seem more aimless.
The ghetto kids are beset by poverty, violence and the cops' crazy shifts from oppression to condescending support. Yet, they appear more community oriented, still connected by a stubbornly surviving black culture. And, their ghetto talk seems richer and more inventive than the broken dialogue of the inarticulate "Breaking Bad" losers. The ghetto drug runners are tougher and more equipped for life than the sad-sack sensitive Jesse in "Breaking Bad."
Walter White stands apart from a range of strong characters in "Breaking Bad," while "The Wire" has a collection of memorable characters, each equally rich. None dominate as much as Bryan Cranson's White does his show.
White's prominence places "Breaking Bad" closer to the traditional TV model of a central character around whom everyone else revolves, the most significant Tony Soprano in "The Sopranos." "The Wire" is more of an ensemble. Wbile the detective Jimmy McNulty often takes a central role, "The Wire" shifts the focus to different characters, from detective Buck Moreland to street toughs Stringer Bell, "Omar," and "Proposition Joe" to less significant figures like Dennis, the former Barksdale soldier turned community boxing coach. Often called "novelistic," "The "Wire" is more like a connected short story collection.
Both shows make me want to laugh and cry. They indict and condemn America, but brim with love for it, the love that makes for great art.