With the final season of Game of Thrones now finally upon us, the biggest TV show of all time is about to conclude. But is it the greatest?
We’ve narrowed the list down to four of TV’s biggest heavyweights. Since there’s so much excellent television being produced at the moment, we decided to set a five season minimum, because greatness surely comes from longevity and consistency.
These are the shows which crop up on every top ten list around. All legendary in their own right, our writers have made their decisions, but which show do you think deserves to be crowned the greatest of all time?
The Sopranos (By Aaron Gunter)
The general perception of The Sopranos may be that it’s yet another Italian-American mob story – a genre done near to death in both film and television. In reality it is one of the most fascinating depictions of any culture on screen.
Placing said mob in New Jersey at the turn of the 21st century, it portrays a changing time in society, a time which outdates the mentalities and traditions of the mafia. It is years and years ahead of its time, essentially tackling toxic masculinity with the most toxically masculine man imaginable.
That man is Tony Soprano, who is potentially the greatest character ever portrayed on screen. A big statement, sure, but James Gandolfini is truly special as he totally inhabits a man stepping up to become a mob boss. Bigoted, backwards and emotionally heavy-handed, he is a guy born decades too late, unable to cope with the reality that as a man (and a man of power at that), he is capable of being emotionally vulnerable.
Tony suffers anxiety attacks and begins to go to psychiatrist Dr Melfi (the amazing Lorraine Bracco). It’s their dynamic which tests Tony as Melfi, frustrated, desperately tries to get something out of him. While they dance around the true nature of Soprano’s “waste management” business, she knows exactly what he does, yet feels genuine sympathy towards him.
The writing is so enveloping that it doesn’t even feel particularly episodic. Instead you just dip in and out of this twisted world of crime, soon becoming obsessed with the dynamic of the Soprano household and the wider crime family, which leaves you with an excellent catalogue of supporting characters and narrative threads.
The Sopranos essentially set the benchmark for television. We might be living in the golden age of TV today but it can all be traced back to David Chase’s masterpiece. It was he who perfected the antihero. He who unlocked the potential of longform storytelling and ensemble casts. It is he who we should thank for all the great TV that followed. And I challenge you to watch this show and not go around Sheffield spouting Italian-American expressions. So take it easy and stop breaking my balls. Marone this show is good.
The Wire (By Angelo Irving)
The crime drama genre didn’t start or end with The Wire, but it certainly perfected the form. Its dedication to moral ambiguity helped it stand apart from other dramas, whilst its depiction of the city as a place of beauty, corruption, growth and decay give credence to it being the greatest television show of all time.
What stands out when you re-watch the show is the quality of the acting. Idris Elba and Michael B Jordan have gone on to be international leading men; Dominic West, Wendell Pearce, Wood Harris and Michael K Williams have enjoyed successful careers on other television dramas and Aiden Gillen had a legendary run on Game of Thrones.
The talent of the actors only further highlights another aspect of the show that made it so iconic: it wasn’t afraid to kill popular characters. Whilst Game of Thrones is famous for killing-off its central characters, The Wire was doing it years before and in similarly brutal ways. Perhaps the most famous aphorism from the show is ‘all the pieces matter’ and this was often shown in the way a minor character from an earlier season would later become crucial.
Creator David Simon had an incredible ability to write the most powerful allegories within a scene of dialogue. Whether it be using a game of chess to break down the hierarchical dynamics of a gang, or a conversation about the working tiers of McDonalds to reflect that of drug dealers.
The Wire is also one of the funniest dramas that television has ever produced. Whether it’s two characters arguing over what kind of human effluence rolls or trickles down a hill, a gang leader politely asking his assistant why he is taking notes on a criminal conspiracy, or a character taking his pet duck to the pub and sharing shots of whiskey with it. The Wire is one of the few shows that can elicit the full range of human emotions from its audience. That is why The Wire deserves the title ‘Greatest TV Show of all Time’.
Breaking Bad (By Lisa Wehrstedt)
Breaking Bad is an incredibly heavy drama that pulls no punches, while also having a striking balance of amazingly compelling characters, style, and even humour.
We know Walter White in a way that few great characters have ever been known. During the show’s five seasons, we truly enter Walter’s mind and his perspective on the world. To the point where we start to think of Skyler as a nagging wife who doesn’t recognise the potential of her husband, while she is in fact only a concerned mother, worried that her husband has become a drug-lord.
The show-makers not only trap us with the characters and their stories but put us in awe of the constructions that are going on behind the scenes, at the storytelling techniques and how they break all conventions.
Breaking Bad starts out as any other hero’s journey, where an ordinary person gets thrown into an extraordinary situation which is bigger than themselves. Except that it is the anti-hero’s journey, and despite having already seen many TV anti-heroes, Breaking Bad subverts that tradition so well, with a hero that never repents and never redeems himself.
There is no turning point when Walter becomes Heisenberg. He gradually unleashes the beast that has always been inside of him. He has always been an egotistical man from the very beginning; he has just finally found a chance to gain power. But at the same time, Walt is never portrayed as a drug lord when he gains wealth and status in the drug world. His behaviours are never glamorised and instead we follow his spiral of moral justifications that hide the true reason: to be remembered beyond the grave.
Breaking Bad is a show about change, about the path from inaction to action. And it has the same appeal to the viewer that chemistry has for Walt: “It is growth then decay. And transformation! It is fascinating, really.” That is why Breaking Bad is the greatest television show of all time.
Game of Thrones (By Gethin Morgan)
Amongst all the blood, dragons and naked bodies, it’s easy to forget just how brilliant Game of Thrones is. And it isn’t just brilliant at a few things. It’s brilliant at everything.
Equal parts political drama, family drama, war and apocalypse show, all under the guise of a fantasy epic, their world building is remarkable. There’s such texture to Westeros and Essos, carefully introducing more and more lands, cultures and houses throughout.
Matching the richness of the world is a ridiculously impressive depth of character. By my count, Game of Thrones has over 70 worthy of remembering, ranging from Starks, Lannisters and Targaryens – given just as many shades as any other show’s leads – to a constant stream of great supporting characters.
It’s what makes the show’s well-known ruthlessness so damn effective. With more strings to their bow than Ygritte, creators Benioff and Weiss can rest easy when offing major characters left right and centre, knowing they have an army of others ready to step up and fill the gap. It also allows a freedom to create beautiful character dynamics by pairing the most unlikely of friends/foes; whether it’s Brienne and Jaime or Arya and The Hound, there are countless combinations of great chemistry on show.
Ultimately though, Game of Thrones is event television. It excels at delivering singular episodes which become legendary. From pure drama (‘Baelor’, ‘The Rains of Castamere’) to battle sequences barely matched by cinema, never mind television (‘The Watchers on the Wall’, ‘Battle of the Bastards’).
Game of Thrones is the most cinematic television show of all time. It makes the boldest decisions, provides the biggest highs and the deepest lows. Quite simply, it is an achievement unmatched in television, or arguably any form of visual storytelling at all. If you play the game of thrones, you win or you die. And if you watch Game of Thrones, you love it, or you’re madder than the Mad King.
Images: Movie DB