Matt Yglesias pinpoints why The Wire is superior to The Sopranos:
the Wire, though I think it does flag a bit in seasons four and five, absolutely never stops feeling like a single coherent work that deserves to be watched uninterrupted from end to end. The Sopranos is extremely well-made television, but especially after season two it begins to get very “televisiony” — full of occasional digressions and sub-plots that feel like filler or stalling or efforts to spread screen time around rather than being crucial to the development of the story. If The Wire had never existed, one might be inclined to say that this is just intrinsic to the medium, but we while it is endemic to the medium we also know now that it’s avoidable.
I had hoped that <>Mad Men would avoid getting “televisiony”—that is, it would continue to be about capturing the particular historical moment it sought to dramatize rather than becoming about itself. I’m always disappointed when a show becomes more about what crazy thing happens next to the characters, who we are supposed to sympathize with for their own sake and not for what they bring out about the larger theme. Unfortunately Mad Men, like The Sopranos seems to have dropped off from its original concept—which seemed to me to dramatize the advent of the 1960s wave of feminism, and illustrate the role advertising plays in sexism—and now we are supposed to watch to find out what happens to Don. I’m curious to see what will happen, but it doesn’t make me think the way the show did originally. The same thing happened to the Sopranos—the show started out by drawing interesting parallels between the crime family and the American family, between domestic and commercial forms of extortion. But then it became about the audience liking the characters as simplified faux-people we could root for. Yglesias is right; if not for The Wire it would be easy to assume this retreat from thematic exploration was just inevitable.