Four programs are frequently found at or near the top of all-time-best, television drama lists. They are: Mad Men, Breaking Bad, The Wire and The Sopranos.
What do these shows share in common?
The answer is death anxiety and the many ways the characters react to it, attempt to master it, fail to master it and deny it.
And why not? Death anxiety is an ever-looming theme in our lives, though we generally don't appreciate how much our decisions, our identities, cultures, beliefs and politics represent reactions and attempted adaptations to death anxiety.
In all four shows, death anxiety, predation and questions of culpability play out again and again, from their beginnings, in the first episodes.
Lifted Wikipedia plot summaries for Season 1, episode 1 of each program:
Mad Men: The episode opens with Don Draper, the creative director for the advertising agency Sterling Cooper, having an Old Fashioned at a bar. As a waiter begins to serve him, Don initiates a conversation with him about cigarettes to get a better picture of public perception of Lucky Strike. The waiter states that he prefers Old Gold cigarettes to Lucky Strike. Later, Don discusses with his mistress, Midge Daniels, his meeting with the executives of Lucky Strike. The following day, Salvatore Romano introduces a rough draft for a new advertisement for Lucky Strike. Greta Guttman, a medical researcher for Sterling Cooper, sends a report to Don that reveals that the public's tendency to smoke cigarettes is merely a death wish. Oblivious to the results, he throws it in the trash.
Breaking Bad: Walter White, a 50-year old chemistry teacher, secretly begins making crystal methamphetamine to support his family after learning that he has terminal lung cancer. He teams up with a former student, Jesse Pinkman, who is a meth dealer. Jesse is trying to sell the meth but the dealers snatch him and make him show them the lab, which is in an old RV that Walt and Jesse have purchased. Walt knows they intend to kill him so he poisons them while showing them his recipe.
The Wire: Jimmy McNulty, a Baltimore homicide detective, observes the trial of D'Angelo Barksdale, a young drug dealer charged with murder of "Pooh" Blanchard, a low ranking gang member. The first witness, William Gant, identifies Barksdale, but the corroborating witness, a security guard named Nakeesha Lyles, changes her story and refuses to identify Barksdale. The jury therefore returns a not guilty verdict. Judge Phelan calls McNulty into his chambers, where McNulty reveals that he has noticed that D'Angelo's uncle Avon Barksdale and Stringer Bell have been tied to many murders and tells Phelan that he believes they are major players in West Baltimore's drug trade.
The Sopranos: New Jersey-based mobster Tony Soprano of the DiMeo crime family unexpectedly becomes short of breath and passes out while barbecuing. After his doctors are unable to find any physical problem with Tony, his collapse is diagnosed as a panic attack. He is referred to psychiatrist Jennifer Melfi. In their first meeting, the two discuss the events that led to his collapse. Presenting himself as a "waste management consultant", Tony begins detailing the day of his attack to Dr. Melfi.
Tony is initially uncooperative, expressing scorn for the practice of psychiatry. He tells Dr. Melfi about the stress of his business life—he has a feeling that he has come in at the end of something and describes a reverence for times past. Tony tells Dr. Melfi a story about a family of ducks landing in his pool and nesting there. He has a little stress in his home life with his daughter, Meadow, associating with a friend, Hunter Scangarelo, whom his wife feels is a bad influence. Later he mentions that his wife and daughter are not getting along. Tony also tells Dr. Melfi about the stress of training his "nephew" in the family business. After establishing the ground rules of what will fall under doctor-patient confidentiality, Tony opens up about his career, but keeps the violent details from the doctor.
Tony's Uncle Junior wants to kill turncoat "Little Pussy" Malanga in Artie Bucco's restaurant, Vesuvio. Tony, a friend of Artie since childhood, fears that a mob hit in his friend's establishment could damage Artie's business. However, Junior refuses to move the assassination to another location, explaining Malanga will not meet with Junior unless it is a place he finds safe and familiar. In an attempt to have Artie close Vesuvio's for a time, thereby forcing Junior to kill Malanga somewhere else, Tony offers Artie two tickets for a weeklong cruise. However, Charmaine, Artie's wife, not wanting her husband to get mixed up with the Mafia, demands that he reject Tony's offer. Unable to sway Artie, Tony has his trusted right-hand man, Silvio Dante, detonate an explosion in Artie's restaurant, in the hopes that Artie can claim insurance money without becoming any the wiser of the gangland conflict. Tony instructs Silvio Dante about this plan at their daughters' volleyball game.
At his son's birthday party, Tony and his crew comfort Artie about the loss of his restaurant, and Tony tells Artie he will always help him. Christopher becomes angry and storms off; Tony presses him and discovers he is annoyed at not receiving more recognition for his input on the Triboro Towers garbage conflict. Tony agrees and apologizes to Christopher. Christopher quickly regains his good mood, and all seems well with his world.
However, while giving Livia a ride to the party, an embittered Uncle Junior floats the idea of eliminating Tony if he continues interfering in his business. Significantly, his sister-in-law's reaction is to silently look the other way.