A couple weeks ago, Chuck Klosterman wrote a piece for Grantland arguing Breaking Bad is actually the best of the four most highly-regarded cable dramas (the others being Mad Men, The Sopranos, and The Wire).
While I can't yet put the show on par with The Wire, I tend to agree with much of Klosterman's analysis. Breaking Bad is my favorite show currently airing, largely on the strength of a stunning third season in which every freaking episode had the dramatic heft of a season finale.
I wouldn't call myself a math fan by any means, but I do love ratings and statistics and whatnot, so I figured I'd break these four shows down into quantifiable numbers would help. Here are the rules:
Shows receive an A-F letter grade in a number of categories. At the end, a grade point average will be determined based on those grade to determine a final objective ranking.
The Sopranos - The head of a New Jersey organized crime family juggles the weight of being a professional criminal, raising a family, and struggling with depression. GRADE: B
The Wire - The death of a city is chronicled, from the street-level narcotics trade to the highest corridors of city government. GRADE: A
Breaking Bad - A man diagnosed with cancer begins cooking meth to provide for his family, then falls deeper in deeper into a life of crime. GRADE: C
Mad Men - A brilliant creative head at an ad agency drinks, smokes, and womanizes his way through the 1960s. GRADE: B
The Sopranos - Present-day New Jersey. GRADE: D
The Wire - Present-day Baltimore. GRADE: C
Breaking Bad - Present-day Albuquerque. GRADE: B (It's far more scenic, I'm telling you.)
Mad Men - 1960s New York City. GRADE: A
The Sopranos - Tony Soprano's actual family, mental health, crime family, and life. GRADE: B
The Wire - The life of an entire city and nearly everyone within it. GRADE: A
Breaking Bad - Walter White's family, his life, his morality. GRADE: B
Mad Men - Don Draper's true identity and success as a rich-ass ad executive. GRADE: F
Storyline (Note: The Sopranos and The Wire have aired fully, so the grades for Breaking Bad and Mad Men are still up in the air.)
The Sopranos - While the series was brilliant as a whole, it had a horrible finale. GRADE: B
The Wire - Epic. GRADE: A
Breaking Bad - Started out with a crazy bang, was a little slow as characters were being developed, then became incredibly taut. GRADE: A
Mad Men - A little languid at times. GRADE: C
Charismatic Lead Actor
The Sopranos - Tony Soprano. Shockingly lovable for being a sociopath. GRADE: A
The Wire - Jimmy McNulty? The show relied on ensembles, so while McNulty was probably the primary character, he doesn't really count as a lead. GRADE: C
Breaking Bad - Walter White. Can be a little grating sometimes, and it's getting harder to root for him. GRADE: B
Mad Men - Don Draper. GRADE: A
The Sopranos - Some colorful folks in the bunch, but nearly all could be wearying with too much exposure. GRADE: D
The Wire - I can't even remember how many compelling characters this show had, there were so many. GRADE: A
Breaking Bad - With the exception of Saul Goodman and Mike, nearly every character has bugged the shit out of me at some point, though I will say I'm finally starting to appreciate Aaron Paul's acting. GRADE: C
Mad Men - Roger, Joan, Pete, Trudie...there are some gems. GRADE B
The Sopranos - This was the first show of it's kind, breaking ground for all others. Plus, I always loved the crazy dream sequences. GRADE: A
The Wire - Pretty much everything was tangible. GRADE: C
Breaking Bad - The New Mexican setting and obscure world of meth dealership makes this show particularly wonderful. GRADE: A
Mad Men - Touches on the triumvirate of undeniable appeal: cigarettes, misogyny, and advertising. GRADE: A
So, let's break it down, shall we?
The Sopranos - 2.7 GPA. A low score for a show that started the television revolution, but it had plenty of flaws. Especially that cut to black. Man, that was bad.
The Wire - 3.1 GPA. No surprise. The Wire reigns as the best show on television.
Breaking Bad - 3.0 GPA. Not quite up there with The Wire, but close. When it comes to pace and tension, no one tops Vince Gilligan.
Mad Men - 2.9 GPA. Considering how little is at stake and how glacial the pace can be, Mad Men's focus on character studies puts it right near the top.
So, there it is. Chuck Klosterman may have his fancy words and wry midwestern sense of humor, but I've got SCIENTIFIC PROOF.