So, this is a superficial ranking post for my own amusement. It’s not too serious or definitive or anything. It also contains ****COMPLETE AND EXPLICIT SPOILERS FOR ALL OF THE SHOWS ADDRESSED HERE.****
The Sopranos, The Wire, Mad Men, Breaking Bad and Deadwood are considered the foundation of the prestige TV boom, and I figured I could add my voice to the internet’s din, since they’ve all been discussed to death already. They are all historically important for the art and commerce of modern TV, and the landscape right now is indebted to them. It’s true that they are favorites of the critical establishment, which has long been white and male, but the shows were far from catering to their needs and impulses.
Each one, in some sense, roughly falls under the umbrella term of ‘gritty’ or ‘antihero’ shows, even as they diverge wildly in how they handle those tropes. For instance, they all feature some of the most wonderful female characters to grace the medium, who are penned, directed and portrayed by immensely talented women. It may seem surprising, but upon inspection, they each have a chastising, guarded portrayal of violence and suffering, no matter how central it is. Furthermore, their formal and aesthetic experimentation blew the doors off of what seemed possible in their day, far beyond the prurient thrills of other white male power fantasy programs. If anything in their social context could be said to be a major drawback (for four of them at least), it’s the lack or tokenization of people of color.
Certainly, these five aren’t the only factors that contributed to the modern television climate, and it’s not as if quality TV didn’t exist before them. But all of them are definitely of a certain era, where possibility and creativity bloomed on cable, and which led to the explosion of remarkable content creators and diverse representation that we have today. So yeah, these may seem arbitrary to group together (although this quintet could easily stand as a symbolic stepwise history of modern America, but I’ll leave that to your imagination). They are limited in a sense, but they’re without a doubt the ‘Big Five’ of television’s golden age, so there you have it. Plus, I’ve seen all of them, finally, which seems like a form of fandom completionism worth bragging about.
Anyway, these color-coded rankings go from my most to least favorite, with three extra-long seasons among them split into discrete halves. I would only consider the last two overall mediocre seasons, and even those are more interesting than some shows, I’ll grudgingly admit. Things like influence, consistency, craft and ambition were all factored in here. After giving a brief summary of my feelings on each season, I list its most famous, worst, and weirdest episodes, as well as an underrated gem I enjoy. Almost all of them contain at least one Big Character Death, as I have termed it, which is a guiding principle of modern scripted TV. Most of these shows feature amazingly well-chosen music as well, so I pick a standout for every one. In addition, I note my favorite storylines and individual scenes, as well as one remarkable performance. Lastly, I threw in a famous line and a pertinent symbol from all 29 seasons. (Also, the majority of the promo art for these shows was terrific, so I’m including them all.)
As far as the shows themselves, I’d have to abstain from calling The Wire the best and instead put it into a superlative class all its own. Then my personal favorites, Mad Men and Breaking Bad, followed by the underrated Deadwood and hugely overrated Sopranos. Now here comes even more rambling!
MAD MEN 5
It’s not perfect, but it’s like nothing else you’ve seen, and it contains multitudes. Also, it’s reasonably close to perfect.
The popular classic: The Other Woman
An underrated one: At the Codfish Ball
The worst one: The Phantom, I guess, since I would strongly defend episodes three, nine, and ten
Best storyline: Megan rises to prominence and changes the show drastically
Best scene: Every episode has at least one candidate. Ultimately I have to pick the ending sequence of The Phantom, but Roger and Jane’s sobering trip in Far Away Places is astonishing.
Song of note: “Tomorrow Never Knows”, Lady Lazarus
Big Character Death: Lane Pryce
Standout performance: Jessica Pare as Megan
Weirdest episode: Hard to define in a season that sprawls in all directions. Christmas Waltz is a side-character filler hangout episode, though. Pretty neat.
Potent symbol: The empty elevator shaft. No way out and a long way down.
Famous line: “Are you alone?”
BREAKING BAD 6
The masterful culmination of a thousand carefully planned steps, leading to utter devastation.
The popular classic: Ozymandias
An underrated one: Granite State
The worst one: Buried, maybe? More like least amazing.
Best storyline: Walt’s, of course
Best scene: Walt returns home after Hank dies and is attacked by his family, Ozymandias (anything else from that episode would be a suitable tie)
Song of note: “Baby Blue”, Felina
Big Character Death: Hank Schrader, Walter White, Steven Gomez, Jack Welker, Andrea Cantillo, Lydia Rodarte-Quayle, Todd Alquist
Standout performance: Dean Norris as Hank
Weirdest episode: Rabid Dog, for some strange turns and focal points
Potent symbol: Walt’s digitally taped confession, using modern storytelling techniques to manipulate and destroy.
Famous line: “I did it for me.”
MAD MEN 6
An intensely experimental, intimate sprawling epic that subtly ties together in a revelatory way.
The popular classic: In Care Of
An underrated one: For Immediate Release
The worst one: To Have And To Hold
Best storyline: Don’s hellacious year, which is very indulgent and meandering yet has an unbelievable payoff.
Best scene: The Hershey pitch, In Care Of
Song of note: “Both Sides Now”, In Care Of
Big Character Death: Ken Cosgrove and Abe could have both easily died, but both live. Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy aren’t so lucky.
Standout performance: Vincent Kartheiser as Pete
Weirdest episode: The whole season is off-kilter and druggy, but this has gotta go to The Crash, which is especially so.
Potent symbol: Don in the pool, watching himself drown.
Famous line: “I don’t like change. I want everything to stay the way it was.”
THE WIRE 3
The peak of the show’s serialization, climaxing a bunch of stuff that’s simmered for two seasons.
The popular classic: Middle Ground
An underrated one: Mission Accomplished
The worst one: Straight and True
Best storyline: Despite the magnificence and complexity of Stringer’s downfall, I would say Hamsterdam.
Best scene: Stringer and Avon reminiscing, Middle Ground. Also one of the greatest TV scenes in history.
Song of note: “Fast Train”, Mission Accomplished
Big Character Death: Stringer Bell
Standout performance: Idris Elba as Stringer Bell
Weirdest episode: Dead Soldiers, for being a kind of diversion/memorial
Potent symbol: Two men on opposite sides of the law, morally brushing shoulders with one another, both cut down before they can finish saying “Get on with it, motherfucker”.
Famous line: “It’s Baltimore, gentlemen. The Gods will not save you.”
BREAKING BAD 5
The horrific rise of one of fiction’s greatest villains, leaving everyone around him to fend for themselves.
The popular classic: Gliding Over All
An underrated one: Live Free Or Die
The worst one: Fifty-One, which is merely the least great
Best storyline: The increased prominence, and tragic death, of Mike
Best scene: Ten guys in two minutes and the time-span montage, Gliding Over All
Song of note: “Crystal Blue Persuasion”, Gliding Over All
Big Character Death: Mike Ehrmantraut
Standout performance: Jonathan Banks as Mike
Weirdest episode: Fifty-One, I guess? But this is the most exemplary eight-episode stretch in probably the whole list.
Potent symbol: Every piece of imagery match-cut in the “Crystal Blue Persuasion” montage, as Walt finally has his empire, from blood to blue to green to clean.
Famous line: “Say my name.”
Has a reputation for being internal and discursive, but it’s likewise the most pulse-pounding narrative in the show, with a terrific villain and an accidentally incredible ending.
The popular classic: A Two-Headed Beast
An underrated one: The Catbird Seat
The worst one: Full Faith And Credit
Best storyline: William Hearst, one of TV’s great three-dimensional villains
Best scene: Johnny’s monologue about ants, Tell Him Something Pretty
Song of note: The show almost always used obscure or gritty traditional period songs to achieve a mood more than subtext, so I’ll try to pick whatever the most modern stuff is to be completely impartial. The show ends with “O Mary Don’t You Weep” by Bruce Springsteen, which is weird.
Big Character Death: Whitney Ellsworth
Standout performance: Molly Parker as Alma
Weirdest episode: Amateur Night
Potent symbol: Hearst is himself a symbol for industry, order, venality and corruption, all at once, and illustrates how America had to fall under the sway of each to become what it is.
Famous line: “Wants me to tell him something pretty.”
BREAKING BAD 3
The show still at the height of its powers, experimenting with different tones, storylines and characterization and somehow keeping all that in flawless balance.
The popular classic: Full Measure
An underrated one: Caballo Sin Nombre
The worst one: Green Light
Best storyline: Everything involving Gale Boetticher, who became a well-rounded and likable character in the span of very little screen time, not to mention a pivotal figure in the plot.
Best scene: The parking lot massacre, One Minute
Song of note: “Horse With No Name”, Caballo Sin Nombre
Big Character Death: The Salamanca Cousins, Gale Boetticher
Standout performance: Anna Gunn as Skyler
Weirdest episode: The ever-controversial Fly
Potent symbol: The decay under everything – stains on shirts, flies in the lab, and rotting pizzas on a family home.
Famous line: “I will kill your wife. I will kill your son. I will kill your infant daughter.”
THE WIRE 4
A searing and slow-building portrait of the countless small failings that keep disadvantaged citizens in stasis, propagate the war on drugs, and entrench local politics, told through the tragic perspective of four young boys in a toxic environment.
The popular classic: Final Grades
An underrated one: That’s Got His Own
The worst one: Alliances
Best storyline: The boys’ intertwining paths, if that just counts as one
Best scene: In a traditionally cathartic sense, the moment Lester figures out the case in Final Grades.
Song of note: “I Walk On Guilded Splinters”, Final Grades
Big Character Death: Bodie Broadus
Standout performance: Jermaine Crawford as Dukie
Weirdest episode: In a technical sense, Boys of Summer is one of the show’s most jarring season premiere revamps.
Potent symbol: Dozens of dead black humans in locked rooms ignored by the government and populace. Pretty overt, but also important.
Famous line: “The world goin’ one way, people another, yo.”
THE WIRE 1
The show’s most traditional cops-and-crooks setup, but still quite revolutionary and uncompromising in its way.
The popular classic: Cleaning Up
An underrated one: Sentencing
The worst one: The Target
Best storyline: D’Angelo Barksdale
Best scene: It’s impossible to pick with this show, so I’m once again going for the obvious choice of the chess scene in The Buys. Or the all-“fuck” scene in Old Cases.
Song of note: “Step By Step”, Sentencing
Big Character Death: Wallace
Standout performance: Lawrence Gilliard Jr. as D’Angelo
Weirdest episode: I guess Game Day, for being centered around one peaceful event.
Potent symbol: The war on drugs as a game of chess. Obvious, but unforgettably written.
Famous line: “All the pieces matter.”
MAD MEN 8
All of the restarts and dead ends led to this impeccably conceived endgame (besides one clunker).
The popular classic: Person To Person
An underrated one: Lost Horizon
The worst one: New Business
Best storyline: Don’s and Peggy’s are naturally extraordinary, but Joan really comes into her own by the end.
Best scene: The ending of the show, but honorable mentions go to the last partners meeting and Peggy and Roger having a heart-to-heart in the gutted remains of SC&P.
Song of note: “Space Oddity”, Lost Horizon
Big Character Death: Betty Draper Francis (implied), Rachel Menken (after the fact)
Standout performance: Christina Hendricks as Joan
Weirdest episode: Besides New Business, probably The Milk and Honey Route, which really forces some character beats, but to necessary effect.
Potent symbol: Pondering the life not led, and “You missed your flight”, Don sees a distant plane and finally changes things.
Famous line: “This is the beginning of something, not the end!”
MAD MEN 4
The general favorite season of Mad Men, being that it lies at the center of the Venn diagram of everything people like about the show.
The popular classic: The Suitcase
An underrated one: Tomorrowland
The worst one: Christmas Comes But Once A Year
Best storyline: The Lucky Strike bust, even though the ending peters out
Best scene: The Letter, and the reactions to it
Song of note: “Tobacco Road”, Public Relations
Big Character Death: Anna Draper, Ida Blankenship
Standout performance: John Slattery as Roger
Weirdest episode: The Summer Man for its series-unique voiceover and weird optimism, or The Chrysanthemum And the Sword for having a strange tone and themes.
Potent symbol: Don tries to open up with a letter – “My life is very….” – and throws it away. He later completes another letter that blows everything up just as much as the first would have.
Famous line: “…it all comes down to what I want versus what’s expected of me.”
BREAKING BAD 2
Turning growing pains and logistical snafus into exceptional TV that hardly seems as if it’s in a creative crisis. A good example of a second-season show in full flower.
The popular classic: ABQ
An underrated one: Better Call Saul
The worst one: Seven Thirty-Seven
Best storyline: Jesse and Jane’s doomed romance
Best scene: The plane crash cold opens and final scene, Seven Thirty-Seven, Down, Over, and ABQ
Song of note: “DLZ”, Over
Big Character Death: Jane Margolis, Tuco Salamanca
Standout performance: Aaron Paul as Jesse
Weirdest episode: Peekaboo, a Jesse-centric bottle episode
Potent symbol: Walt boasting about a secret wall of ill-gotten gains to an innocent pink infant.
Famous line: “Stay out of my territory.”
BREAKING BAD 4
A very compelling slow burn chess match with a cataclysmic last four episodes. Worth the ride, every step.
The popular classic: Face Off
An underrated one: Bullet Points
The worst one: Open House
Best storyline: Walt vs. Gus, the spine of the season
Best scene: The ending of Crawl Space
Song of note: “Tidal Wave”, Salud
Big Character Death: Gustavo Fring, Hector Salamanca
Standout performance: Giancarlo Esposito as Gus
Weirdest episode: Open House or Cornered
Potent symbol: The wayward eye, reminder of the past and harbinger of a constant daily threat, lost in Walt’s lonely apartment.
Famous line: “It’s over. We’re safe. I won.”
THE SOPRANOS 7
The show finally finds some taste, unity and poetry that it had fitfully presented in seasons before, just in time for a suitably depressing and benign conclusion.
The popular classic: Made In America
An underrated one: The Second Coming
The worst one: Chasing It
Best storyline: Given that this is very segmented, there’s scant yet even coverage of everything. You could almost even make a case for A.J.’s gloominess, as corny and obnoxious as it is, because of its aching tragedy.
Best scene: So many incredible ones. A.J. attempts suicide, Tony ponders killing Paulie, the family fight, Tony doing peyote in the desert… But this one has to go to the final scene.
Song of note: “Don’t Stop Believing”, Made In America
Big Character Death: Christopher Moltisanti, John Sacrimoni, Bobby Baccalieri, Silvio Dante (essentially), Phil Leotardo, Anthony Soprano (that’s right, folks – Tony dies)
Standout performance: Steve Schirripa as Bobby – I’ve mentioned all the other biggies, why not? Plus he’s the only inarguably non-obnoxious character on the show.
Weirdest episode: Chasing It, but then again, the Sopranos was never afraid of anticlimactic tangents, so maybe this one isn’t so weird after all.
Potent symbol: The Blue Comet. No matter what you think of that ending, as Bobby could tell you, it’s coming for us all.
Famous line: “I GET IT!”
MAD MEN 2
A beautifully structured season of narrowly averted disasters, as secrets are revealed and sorrowful damage follows.
The popular classic: The Mountain King
An underrated one: Maidenform
The worst one: Flight 1
Best storyline: Don and Pete’s trip to California
Best scene: Don and Anna’s conversation, The Mountain King
Song of note: “What’ll I Do”, The Jet Set
Big Character Death: Actually, not much! The closest one is Marilyn Monroe.
Standout performance: January Jones as Betty
Weirdest episode: The Jet Set and The Mountain King are purposefully meant to be stylistic curveballs that reveal a new setting, but Three Sundays and Six Month Leave are notable diversions for their respective timeframe and focal characters.
Potent symbol: It’s very contextual, but I always loved the montage of the show’s women putting on their brassieres for the day and restraining/beautifying themselves for a man’s world.
Famous line: “That crash happened to somebody else. It’s not about apologies for what happened…. Let’s pretend we know what 1963 looks like.”
MAD MEN 7
Cramming a lot of narrative piece-moving into a surprisingly elegant short episode order, this is a great example of how a season can be functional and yet enjoyable on its own terms.
The popular classic: Waterloo
An underrated one: Time Zones
The worst one: Field Trip
Best storyline: Bringing the agency back together
Best scene: Don and Peggy dancing to “My Way”, The Strategy
Song of note: “Keep Me Hanging On”, Time Zones
Big Character Death: Bertram Cooper
Standout performance: Kiernan Shipka as Sally – why not?
Weirdest episode: Without a doubt, The Runaways, which is commonly thought to be flawed. It’s not, it’s just super duper weird.
Potent symbol: Anything Kubrickian (the black door, the moon landing), as individualistic futurism was narrowly beaten out by old-fashioned collectivism.
Famous line: “Do the work.”
An expansive middle chapter, with plenty of menace, tragedy, and an unforgettable ending.
The popular classic: Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To
An underrated one: Something Very Expensive
The worst one: Advances, None Miraculous
Best storyline: Wolcott’s chaotic machinations
Best scene: Pretty much anything in Boy-the-Earth-Talks-To
Song of note: “Not Dark Yet” by Bob Dylan is the anachronism of the season.
Big Character Death: Francis Wolcott
Standout performance: Kim Dickens as Joanie
Weirdest episode: The Whores Can Come
Potent symbol: The tricycle. Something so unifying can also bring calamity and sadness.
Famous line: “Pain or damage don’t end the world. Or despair or fuckin’ beatings. The world ends when you’re dead. Until then, you got more punishment in store. Stand it like a man… and give some back.”
The beginnings of community, government, and by proxy, the United States. It’s a dense portrait rich with inimitable dialogue and great characters.
The popular classic: Sold Under Sin
An underrated one: The Trial Of Jack McCall
The worst one: No Other Sons Or Daughters
Best storyline: Reverend Smith’s increasing illness
Best scene: It’s easy to see where it’s going, but the Reverend’s storyline really is moving, with a brutal grace note from Swearengen.
Song of note: “Will the Circle Be Unbroken” by June Carter Cash, I suppose. Again, the music of this show is all of a piece, and never individually striking or especially poignant.
Big Character Death: Reverend Henry Smith
Standout performance: Ian McShane as Al
Weirdest episode: Bullock Returns To the Camp
Potent symbol: Wild Bill‘s grave. This won’t be your typical Western, for sure.
Famous line: “You can’t cut the throat of every cocksucker whose character it would improve.”
THE SOPRANOS 5
The best example of this show, with all its shortcomings, impressive risks, bizarre subversions, impenetrable mood and genuinely poetic moments.
The popular classic: Long Term Parking
An underrated one: The Test Dream
The worst one: Rat Pack, although this season is very consistent.
Best storyline: The slow disasters of Carmela and Tony B. getting back into Tony’s life, since I don’t want to just pick Adriana for everything
Best scene: Adriana’s “getaway”, Long Term Parking
Song of note: “Glad Tidings”, All Due Respect (even though they use it like a million times)
Big Character Death: Adriana La Cerva, Tony Blundetto
Standout performance: Drea de Matteo as Adriana
Weirdest episode: Nominally The Test Dream, but in a more critical vein, In Camelot maybe? It’s hard to tell, this season is all over the place in a good way.
Potent symbol: It’s cheating to count The Test Dream, so the threatening bear for sure. The patriarch is back, and as threatening as ever. Plus the echo in the season finale of the animal returning home.
Famous line: “Fuck family! Fuck loyalty.”
THE SOPRANOS 2
An unusually focused and traditional storyline, with great serialization, a doomed undercurrent that would dominate the show, and a few nonsensical missteps.
The popular classic: Funhouse
An underrated one: Bust Out
The worst one: D-Girl
Best storyline: The remarkable pathos of Pussy’s betrayal, and subsequent guilt
Best scene: Either Tony’s fever dream or Pussy’s death, Funhouse
Song of note: “Thru And Thru”, Funhouse
Big Character Death: Salvatore “Big Pussy” Bonpensiero, Richie Aprile
Standout performance: Vincent Pastore as Big Pussy
Weirdest episode: D-Girl (which is unfortunately, not a one-shot examination of Hollywood) or Commendatori
Potent symbol: The shady shell of a bust-out business and the empty, tragic man the crew takes with it.
Famous line: “You were like a brother to me.”
MAD MEN 3
The show’s pattern of slow evolution and cyclical behavior led to some stasis that the writers immediately broke out of with an amazing 1-2-3 punch at the end.
The popular classic: Shut the Door. Have A Seat.
An underrated one: The Gypsy And the Hobo
The worst one: The Color Blue, a redundant and uneventful story
Best storyline: To pick an underrated one, I always liked the spotlight Sal Romano gets this season.
Best scene: This one is definitely cheating, but, um, all of Shut the Door. Have A Seat. The caper segments. Winning everyone over. The divorce subplot. Making a new agency at the end. All of it.
Song of note: “Shahdaroba”, Shut the Door. Have A Seat.
Big Character Death: John F. Kennedy
Standout performance: Elisabeth Moss as Peggy
Weirdest episode: The Fog or Souvenir
Potent symbol: You’ve got your 1960s and it’s going swell and then Guy gets mauled by a lawnmower. Oh, also JFK dies.
Famous line: “Gentlemen, you’re fired.”
THE WIRE 5
Though the newspaper setting is weak by the discerning standards of this classic and the shorter length keeps the episodic stuff from feeling epic, the show’s continuing concerns bow out astonishingly well.
The popular classic: -30-
An underrated one: Late Editions
The worst one: The Dickensian Aspect
Best storyline: So many climaxes, covered elsewhere, are tremendous, but I’ll mention here the tragic endgames for Michael and Dukie.
Best scene: The entire last half-hour; not cheating because it’s the payoff for the show as a whole. Special mention to Bubbles’ last AA speech, which is the most beautiful and devastating single-scene piece of acting I’ve seen in my life.
Song of note: “Way Down In the Hole”, -30-
Big Character Death: Omar Little, Proposition Joe
Standout performance: Michael Kenneth Williams as Omar
Weirdest episode: Also the Dickensian Aspect. Consolidates every kooky thing about season five that fans sometimes dislike.
Potent symbol: The red ribbon – between a fake serial killer and a lying reporter, a fabricated signifier is enough to enact real change.
Famous line: “The bigger the lie, the more they believe.”
THE WIRE 2
This season is very underrated and misunderstood, perhaps because it was the first of several tectonic shifts in the show’s makeup. But it does have a couple iffy characters and a strange structure.
The popular classic: Bad Dreams
An underrated one: Port In A Storm
The worst one: Hot Shots, but it’s frequently impossible to untangle the threads of this show into solitary episodes. This is just the calm before the storm of the rest of the season.
Best storyline: The remnants of the Barksdale operation
Best scene: The bookended pairing of Nick’s weird, probably real, nightmare and the montage of Frank’s walk of doom, Bad Dreams
Song of note: “I Feel Alright”, Port In A Storm
Big Character Death: Frank Sobotka, D’Angelo Barksdale
Standout performance: Chris Bauer as Frank
Weirdest episode: All Prologue, an unusually literary and focused hour
Potent symbol: Bodies in a harbor. Hard to figure out or empathize with its devastation and broad implications, until it’s someone you care about.
Famous line: “We used to make shit in this country, build shit. Now we just put our hand in the next guy’s pocket.”
THE SOPRANOS 6
When the Sopranos had to delay gratification and spin its wheels because of additional episode production, the writers turned out two massively irritating and ill-fitting storylines to fill time (though Vito’s sojourn had its moments), along with some of the most affecting and lyrical TV filmmaking I’ve ever seen during Tony’s time in Purgatory and afterwards.
The popular classic: Members Only
An underrated one: Join the Club
The worst one: Luxury Lounge
Best storyline: Tony in a coma, and recovering
Best scene: Either the Inn At the Oaks (Mayham), or the ending of Join the Club
Song of note: “When It’s Cold I’d Like To Die”, Join the Club
Big Character Death: Vito Spatafore
Standout performance: Michael Imperioli as Chris
Weirdest episode: This season is entirely composed of senseless and bizarre choices, some magnificent and some extremely out of place. But the only one that mostly stands on its own is The Ride, which I quite like.
Potent symbol: The haunting afterlife beacon, which is so memorable it returned in season seven.
Famous line: “Every day’s a gift. It’s just… does it have to be a pair of socks?”
MAD MEN 1
A relatively confident and cohesive debut season, although it’s not without its doldrums. Still quite enjoyable, with at least two absolute classics.
The popular classic: The Wheel
An underrated one: Nixon Vs. Kennedy
The worst one: New Amsterdam
Best storyline: Don’s secret past
Best scene: The Carousel pitch, The Wheel
Song of note: “Don’t Think Twice (It’s Alright)”, The Wheel
Big Character Death: Sgt. Donald Draper, Adam Whitman
Standout performance: Jon Hamm as Don
Weirdest episode: Long Weekend or Indian Summer, for some odd character/story choices that they do a good job of rationalizing.
Potent symbol: What else but the Carousel? Glamorizing the past, capitalizing on human emotion, tying together several characters at work, and channeling pain into prose.
Famous line: “Advertising is based on one thing: Happiness.”
THE SOPRANOS 1
A season that legitimately changed television. Sure, there are some lame episodes and thin characterization and it’s dated in some ways, but the story is comfortably together.
The popular classic: I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano
An underrated one: Isabella
The worst one: A Hit Is A Hit
Best storyline: Establishing Tony’s family/Family divide, and emotional problems.
Best scene: Tony trying to asphyxiate his mother, I Dream Of Jeannie Cusamano
Song of note: “I Feel Free”, Isabella
Big Character Death: Mikey Palmice, if he’s important enough to count
Standout performance: James Gandolfini as Tony
Weirdest episode: A Hit Is A Hit, Boca, Down Neck, and parts of others. Plenty of evidence of how off-kilter and crappy the show would get later.
Potent symbol: This show vastly underutilizes visual storytelling, so all I can think of off the top of my head is the ducks from the pilot. Tony only cares about animals, and they fly away right at the beginning.
Famous line: “I’m in the waste management business.”
BREAKING BAD 1
A malformed debut season plagued and shortened by union problems, which is nevertheless a stunning stylistic TV revolution as well as an amazing narrative hook. Not too shabby to hold up to later installments.
The popular classic: Crazy Handful Of Nothin’
An underrated one: …And the Bag’s In the River
The worst one: Cancer Man
Best storyline: Walt is rock solid as a character from the start, but I appreciate how the show keys in on Jesse by episode seven.
Best scene: I don’t want to champion the show’s bluster over its moral depth, but you can’t beat “This is not meth”, from “Crazy Handful Of Nothin’”.
Song of note: “Tamacun”, Rodrigo Y Gabriela
Big Character Death: Krazy-8
Standout performance: Bryan Cranston as Walt
Weirdest episode: Cancer Man or Gray Matter
Potent symbol: The black hat. Heisenberg rears his ugly head, as Walt perpetually makes cruel decisions over kind ones.
Famous line: “All I have left now is how I choose to approach this.”
THE SOPRANOS 3
A total disaster, with behind-the-scenes deaths, production issues, way too many writing risks that didn’t pay off, uninteresting focal characters, the show’s most discursive plotlines, major tonal issues, and no real momentum. But such free-range madness did result in a handful of legitimately good hours.
The popular classic: Pine Barrens
An underrated one: Another Toothpick
The worst one: He Is Risen
Best storyline: There aren’t really any storyLINES in the Sopranos, more like ugly incoherent pointillism, but Paulie and Chris’ interesting animosity heats up here.
Best scene: The musical montage in Mr. Ruggerio’s Neighborhood or Big Pussy in the mirror in Proshai, Livushka
Song of note: “Living On A Thin Line”, University
Big Character Death: Gloria Trillo, Livia Soprano
Standout performance: Lorraine Bracco as Dr. Melfi
Weirdest episode: Another Toothpick, in that it has narrative motion, continuity, character development and intrigue. What an outlier for this show.
Potent symbol: Ralph killing Tracey. Grotesque, unnecessary, uncompelling, irrelevant, enervating, and incompetently handled. Hooray for season three of the Sopranos.
Famous line: It’s really hard to find good quotes for The Sopranos because its dialogue was so tedious and unremarkable. After painstaking research, I couldn’t find anything suitable for these bottom two.
THE SOPRANOS 4
Blandly, infuriatingly boring, with one of the worst episodes I’ve ever seen of a supposedly good show. Two high-quality episodes with a lot of dross, which is sometimes acceptable at best.
The popular classic: Whitecaps
An underrated one: No Show
The worst one: Christopher
Best storyline: Ralph’s impulsiveness and long-overdue death
Best scene: Tony and Carmela’s fights, Whitecaps (with special mention of Tony’s immigrant dream from Calling All Cars)
Song of note: “Kid A”, No Show
Big Character Death: Ralph Cifaretto
Standout performance: Edie Falco as Carmela
Weirdest episode: I try to not double up, but Christopher. What a pile of crap.
Potent symbol: Pie-O-My, although I like the painting of Tony too.
Famous line: Meh. This show is annoying.