Ask anyone what the best TV series of all time is and they’ll probably say either The Sopranos or The Wire. Or maybe Breaking Bad – or possibly, at a stretch, Mad Men. But the most likely answer is either The Sopranos or The Wire. It’ll probably be a 50/50 split. That’s because the true answer to the question of what is the best TV series ever made, really, is that it’s both.
They both achieve the title of greatest show in the history of television in different ways. So, here are 5 Things The Sopranos Did Better Than The Wire (And 5 The Wire Did Better).
10 The Wire: Realism
A lot of episodes of The Sopranos deviate from reality in interesting ways. Take the time Tony ate dinner with Annette Bening in a dream. It’s an exciting sequence and it gives us a deeper look at Tony’s character than we might have in a straight drama set in the real world. But a Twin Peaks-esque sequence like that takes us out of the reality of the characters. The Wire, on the other hand, often feels so realistic with its study of the American city and its cinema verite visual style that it’s like you’re watching a documentary.
9 The Sopranos: Watchability
Both The Sopranos and The Wire are modern TV masterpieces and triumphs of the form, but The Sopranos is by far the most watchable of the two. The Wire is so dense and complicated and intricately plotted that just watching it can be an exhausting experience. It has the complexity and all-encompassing portraits of a Ken Burns documentary – and it’s just as rewarding in the long run, but also just as taxing and tough-going in the short run. The Sopranos, on the other hand, is an easy binge, due the fast, Goodfellas-inspired cuts, incredible sense of humor that makes it funnier than most comedies, and its easy-to-follow, yet just as complex narratives.
8 The Wire: Subtlety
There are a number of subtle moments in The Sopranos – like the surprising “Employee of the Month” reveal in lieu of Tony exacting physical revenge, a scene that speaks volumes about the mentality of rape survivors – but none as subtle as when we see Rawls in the background of a gay bar halfway through an episode of The Wire and it’s never mentioned again, nor is his sexuality ever brought into question. As a series of snapshots from life as opposed to a long, interconnected, novelistic storyline, The Wire had the chance to slip things in more subtly than The Sopranos and it made great use of it.
7 The Sopranos: Toying with genre
The Sopranos and The Wire are both presented to us as the dying words of a well-worn genre. They’re each the definitive work in their own genre – the rise-and-fall gangster saga and the police procedural, respectively – but The Sopranos toys with the conventions of its genre more than The Wire.
That’s not to say The Wire doesn’t do it brilliantly, because it does. Jimmy McNulty isn’t just depicted as the sweary, sexed-up HBO version of Jim Rockford – he’s what Jim Rockford would be like in real life. He’s what all of our favorite TV detectives would be like in real life. Columbo wouldn’t solve the case every time. In fact, more often than not, he wouldn’t. The criminal would walk free. The Wire plays spectacularly with the genre it both lives in and skewers. But The Sopranos beats it in the genre game for its postmodern twists, bringing in surrealism and dark humor to take everything one step further.
6 The Wire: Series finale
This is an obvious one, because the cut-to-black ending of The Sopranos is famously one of the most disappointing final moments of a TV series ever. People thought their TV sets had cut out at a crucial moment, and then the credits rolled, and they were left confused. Neither The Sopranos’ finale “Made in America” nor The Wire’s finale “-30-” give us any real closure on the characters’ journeys in the same way, say, the Friends finale would do.
But in the case of The Wire, the ambiguity works better. McNulty looks around his city as the original Blind Boys of Alabama version of the theme song from season 1 plays over a montage of what all the characters are up to: the cops are still doing very little to stop crime, the criminals are still dealing drugs, some characters we felt sorry for have ended up homeless and hooked on drugs, the bad guys are left with no remorse for their actions, some vehement pursuers of justice have settled into a career practicing law.
The point here is that these characters won’t get closure or happy endings, because they just wouldn’t. That’s not the world they live in. It’s harrowing, and deviously effective as it illustrates the cyclical nature of corruption in the city and how it affects everyone. Each season has shown us a different facet of it and this montage brings it all together so David Simon can hammer it home and deliver the final death blow.
5 The Sopranos: Drama
While The Wire is a more realistic show, The Sopranos is better at drama. It is defined by earth-shattering story beats, whereas The Wire was defined by offering us a window into real life. The scenes in The Wire all feel like they could’ve just been shot by putting a camera inside a real police station or a real drug den or a real mayor’s office. The scenes in The Sopranos exist more in the elevated reality created by TV shows, evoking a sense of the theatrical – kitchen sink plays, opera, even poetry – which works better for engaging drama. This is another example of the two shows being equally great, but in different ways.
4 The Wire: Depicting America
Thematically, The Sopranos and The Wire are both about America: the death of the American dream, the corruption of the American city, and the implosion of the American economy. And while both capture a certain, particularly depressing, moment in American history, The Wire gives a more rounded depiction of what’s wrong with America right now.
Each season picks out something that’s destroying America – the class divide, the failing school system, the underfunded police force, police brutality, corrupt workers’ unions, corrupt politicians, the untrustworthy press – and gives a well-rounded argument for why each need to be sorted out by focusing on the people caught in the middle of it, on the front lines, and how it affects them. The Wire speaks more truth about America than any politician or journalist has done in a long time.
3 The Sopranos: Cast dynamic
Both The Sopranos and The Wire have phenomenal actors in their casts, but it could be argued that The Sopranos’ cast did a better job of building relationships with each other, mainly because, as a family, they all had scenes together, as opposed to The Wire’s sprawling epic tale that kept a lot of people apart. Certain pairings in The Wire developed terrific chemistry – Wood Harris and Idris Elba, Dominic West and Wendell Pierce etc. – but the cast of The Sopranos all worked themselves perfectly into the overall dynamic.
James Gandolfini and Edie Falco were at the center of it as an authentic married couple. Tony and A.J. had a realistic father-son relationship, A.J. and Meadow felt like a real brother and sister – The Sopranos nailed family dynamics more than any other show.
2 The Wire: Ensemble cast
While Friends is often called the first true ensemble show, as it dedicated an equal amount of screen time to everyone in its cast without favoring anyone (even when some of them became mega famous from the show and others didn’t), no show has juggled an ensemble cast like The Wire did. The Wire is like a giant Robert Altman movie with a bunch more characters and a bunch more storylines, but with just as much dramatic payoff.
The writers meticulously kept track of all their characters and what they were up to, ensuring everyone’s story arcs were seen out and no one got more screen time than anyone else. The Sopranos often had meandering plot threads that went nowhere and focused more heavily on Tony than anyone else, despite the show being called The Sopranos and there being a bunch of other people with the name Soprano in the cast.
1 The Sopranos: Influence
The Sopranos has easily had more influence on the TV landscape than The Wire. Everything that made The Sopranos work has been picked apart and ripped off to create the next wave of TV drama. The focus on a flawed and corrupted leading man has been used to form Breaking Bad, Mad Men, The Shield, and countless others. The exploration of a criminal organization and its internal generational clashes has been taken by Sons of Anarchy, Boardwalk Empire, Peaky Blinders, Fargo, and a bunch of others.
The Wire’s influence can only really be seen in David Simon’s own follow-up shows, like Treme and The Deuce. As brilliant as The Wire was, it was too complex to be popular in the mainstream, which is why it always struggled in the ratings, so TV producers aren’t looking to replicate it – nor could they. It’s easier to see what made The Sopranos work, which is why every show since has ripped it off.