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Mad Men vs. Breaking Bad
We pit AMC's two champions against each other in a magnificent battle royale.
By Jonathan Weed
If I had a time machine, I'd go back to 2005 and place a bet on the following ludicrous proposition: within five years, basic cable backwater AMC would be home to two of the most lauded original series on TV. AMC's first hit, Mad Men, and its second, Breaking Bad, have made the network mandatory viewing for those of us who want to keep up with the conversation at cocktail parties. But, as Breaking Bad's penultimate season comes to a close this Sunday, we've had enough of all this good-natured mutual backslapping. It's time for a head-to-head fight: which series deserves to be called the best TV show of our time?
Leading Man: Jon Hamm's portrayal of Don Draper on Mad Men is a study in restraint. Draper's nearly always in control, and even when he's not (like in last season's "The Suitcase"), any weakness he displays is quickly retracted behind his relentlessly confident shell. Bryan Cranston's performance as Walter White is equally virtuosic, a tour de force of vulnerability and desperation. Both actors deserve the highest praise, but Don Draper is this decade's Tony Soprano: a cultural icon, the TV character even non-TV watchers can identify by name. It's hard to top that.
Advantage: Mad Men
Supporting Cast (Male): Viewers and critics are sometimes so quick to praise Hamm and Cranston that the supporting casts of both Mad Men and Breaking Bad get short shrift. Mad Men has a wide and ever-expanding class of solid male characters, some of whom are so reliably hilarious (I'm looking at you, Roger Sterling) that Mad Men is, for me, the funniest non-comedy on television.
But even the Mad Men talent pool can't compete with Breaking Bad's Jesse Pinkman, a meth dealer whose missteps in the first season provided the show's comic relief, but whose darkening storyline is now one of Breaking Bad's most gripping. And don't forget late arrival Gustavo Fring. As portrayed by the magnificent Giancarlo Esposito, he's a terrifying TV drug kingpin for the ages. Both men play off Bryan Cranston and each other so masterfully that it's impossible to imagine the show without them. (There's also Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman, the sleaziest lawyer in TV history — worth mention for his one-liners alone.)
Advantage: Breaking Bad
Supporting Cast (Female): TV writing is still largely a boys' club; Mad Men's female-dominated writers' room (only two of the nine writers are men) is a gratifying exception. So it's no surprise that the show has television's best female character, and one of its best characters, period: Peggy Olson, the secretary-turned-copywriter at Mad Men's heart. Her complex relationships to feminism, to 1960s social movements, to business in a male-dominated industry, to sex, to power, to creativity, and to success are enthralling. Plus, Peggy stands in fascinating counterpoint to Betty Draper and Joan Holloway, more familiar visions of the 1960s woman who nevertheless have become deeper and more complex characters as the show's progressed. Apologies to Breaking Bad's Skyler and Marie, but Mad Men has this one in the bag.
Advantage: Mad Men