Some comparisons are inevitable. Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin will always be held up against one another. People will always compare LeBron James to Michael Jordan. Gary Busey and Nick Nolte’s shared insanity and similar looks make them an obvious comparison. AMC has a pair of shows that invite just such a situation- Mad Men and Breaking Bad. Let’s size them up with a quick rundown of strengths and weaknesses, shall we? And at the end, I’ll declare a winner.
-brief side note: there’s probably going to be some spoilers in here, so tread lightly
Donald Draper and his Madison Avenue minions excel in a few areas that few shows can. First and foremost, it’s brilliant as a period piece. I’m not sure if it matches the reality of early 60’s Madison Avenue but it certainly taps into the idealized version of it. It’s ripe with luscious curvy women, impeccably dressed dudes complete with fedoras, cocktails that sweat beads of testosterone, and topical plot points (the 1960 election, beatniks, women’s rights issues, the Civil Rights movement, the crappitude of the 1962 Mets, etc…). As a period piece, Mad Men hits a grand slam.
More importantly- and I’m thoroughly convinced that this is why the show is more popular than Breaking Bad– it speaks across gender. Men watching the show can appreciate that the male characters are walking, talking Rat Pack stereotypes. But women can dive into the extremely meaty roles given to female characters. Joan Holloway, Betty Draper, and Peggy Olson all have extremely significant roles, all of which speak to the quickly changing role that women had in society in the mid-20th century. Additionally, these women are all strong characters. It’s a grab bag of characters who appeal to both genders.
Additionally, since I work in the creative industry, Mad Men earns huge bonus points for the way it displays the creative process. Client meetings, brainstorming, concept to completion, I find all of that stuff to be a lot of fun. It’s easily my favorite part of the show because I can relate.
But, the show is most definitely not without flaws (in fairness, what I’m about to say is my opinion- your results may vary). Specifically, the show seems far too driven by outlandish soap opera-style plotlines. Don Draper’s double super secret past life is absolutely ridiculous, and it drives so much of what happens in that show. A humongous part of season 2 is dedicated to it. And then there’s infidelity. It’s just too much, too gratuitous. I don’t mind it, I’m not a prude, it just does nothing for the show. A little bit would make their point. It doesn’t have to be hammered into our brains in every single episode. And the characters don’t really develop. The women have, to a point, but the men are the same guys they were when the show began. This leads me to…
Where Breaking Bad is king is the amazing character arc that Walter White (brilliantly played by Bryan Cranston) undergoes from one season to the next. To date, we’re about to wrap up season three and it’s frightening to think of where Walt was when the show began and where he is now. But it’s not just the character arc that Walter White has gone through. Every character has undergone a major change, “through pressure and time”. Hank? Once a dopey lovable straight-laced uncle and DEA agent who has taken a far, far darker turn. Skyler? Once a loving wife and mother gravely concerned for her cancer-ridden husband is now angry, conflicted, and eyes Walt like a hawk. Jesse? He’s gone from a lovable idiot drug dealer to lovable idiot drug addict to conniving, far less lovable, sober but plotting “sidekick” (and I use the quotes because there’s far too much tension between Walt and Jesse for the two to be considered sidekicks).
All of this was foreshadowed in an early episode- first season- in which Walter White, chemistry teacher, is describing to his students how chemistry is all about the process of change. An early episode actually laid the blueprint for the entire series. And that’s another point in Breaking Bad’s favor. The writing is stunningly brilliant. The characters develop, major events are foreshadowed, bases are covered, it’s thorough, it’s realistic, characters have major consequences for their actions, characters have foils for one another (with the most obvious example being Walt and Jesse), the tension is so thick that you could process it and turn it into methamphetamine.
There’s also a huge dark humor element that appeals to me. I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself laughing at really inappropriate things in that show because they’re set up so well. The bathtub-through-the-ceiling moment in season 1 is when I realized I was hooked, and hooked bad. The give and take between Walt and Jesse creates tons of laughs. Saul Goodman’s character is a guaranteed riot every time you see him.
Speaking of Saul Goodman, Bob Odenkirk is perfect for that role. And that’s just it- the acting is tremendous in Breaking Bad. Bryan Cranston absolutely owns the role of Walter White in a way I can’t recall seeing in a long, long time. Aaron Paul takes a dumb character (and I mean that the character, Jesse Pinkman, is literally not very intelligent, sort of a meth-dealing Phillip J. Fry) and gives him emotion. The performances of Dean Norris (Hank) in two or three pivotal episodes this season should earn him an Emmy. The dudes who play Gus Fring, Tuco, and Don Tio Salamanca (ding! break ding! break ding!) have given those characters more teeth than they probably should have had.
So what are the flaws? It’s not really geared towards a female audience. The only real female protagonist is Skyler and her role is certainly secondary to a lot of other male characters. And, um…. that’s just about it. I honestly wouldn’t identify any other flaws.
The Final Verdict
I suppose it’s apparent by now which way I’m leaning. Mad Men is a fine show- a damned fine show- and I thoroughly enjoy watching it. But Breaking Bad is my favorite show on TV right now. If you aren’t watching it yet, I’d urge you to check it out. It took me precisely one episode to love it and three or four episodes to be hooked like a meth addict. I really don’t have any of the qualms about watching it that I do with Mad Men.