Postcards From New Jersey, Albuquerque, North Dakota, Baltimore And New York

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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!

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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?”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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DEADWOOD 3

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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!”

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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.”

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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.”

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DEADWOOD 2

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.”

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DEADWOOD 1

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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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?”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.”

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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.

sopranos-4

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.

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