If you believe the critics, the most watched shows in America today are Mad Men, Damages, Rescue Me, Breaking Bad and Weeds, and not American Idol, Dancing with the Stars, NCIS, Grey’s Anatomy and CSI: Miami. While average ratings for the big networks are falling, it’s a testament to the profound gravity and cultural triumph of “quality cable” – the roster of dramas airing their short but well-publicized seasons on the middle reaches of the cable dial, either as part of basic cable packages (FX, TNT, AMC) or on premium subscription channels (HBO, Showtime.)

Quality cable hit its zenith a few years ago with two shows that became cultural events – HBO’s Sex and the City and The Sopranos. The former was a frothy but tart shard of zeitgeist that’ll likely subside into a cartoonish shorthand for the gaudy but joyless years on either side of the millennium, much as M*A*S*H summed up post-Vietnam America, but it was the latter that will probably prove to be timeless and a milestone in the disappearance of the stylistic barrier between feature films and television.

While it ran from 1999 to 2007, and even during the long delays between seasons that are an unofficial trademark of quality cable, The Sopranos became the sort of cultural diversion that serious and high-minded people liked to say redeemed the otherwise silly, sordid and formulaic TV wasteland of reality programs, tired sitcoms and police procedurals. By the time it left the air to the strains of a Journey power ballad, The Sopranos had taken the place once occupied by European films, John Updike novels and Shakespeare in modern dress as reliable chat fodder for serious people, which might say something about the state of elites since the heyday of art house cinema.

If you want to diminish the achievements of so much quality cable drama, it’s simple: raise an eyebrow and call them “edgy.” To underline the rigorous commonality, make ironic “air quotes” with your fingers, if you want to stress the likelihood that the show you’re talking about – The Sopranos, Weeds, The Wire, Breaking Bad, Six Feet Under, Damages, The Shield, Rescue Me, Big Love, In Treatment, Dexter, Californication and Nip/Tuck, to name just a few, past and present – will feature a protagonist composed of some combination of criminal, sociopath or neurotic, surrounded by a cast of the same.

Take Californication, for instance, a Showtime series starring David Duchovny as a New York writer bottoming out in Los Angeles, lured there by the promise of easy money and easier fame, and undone by Hollywood’s toxic hedonism. Like the HBO comedies Entourage and Curb Your Enthusiasm, it’s an unabashed celebration of depravity and shallowness run amok in the movie colony – another example of the industry reveling in its long tradition of tolerating perversity as long as it’s conditioned by success.

It’s set in the sort of world where an estranged couple celebrates their reunion by having sex in an empty bedroom at a party full of strangers, a romp turned into farce when the man takes a wrong turn coming back from the bedroom, and ends up in a compromising situation with a woman not his (ex-) wife. Hey – it could happen to anyone, and does, one presumes, in a place where the behavioural norm is a co-ed dorm at an expensive but second-rate college with a beachfront campus and an object lesson in the pitfalls of basing your ideal on the setting of a porn film.

Tony Soprano was a mob boss and murderer and he set the mould for so many quality cable protagonists, which have included a serial killer (Dexter), a suburban mom-turned pot dealer (Weeds), a polygamist (Big Love), and various corrupt, crazed or violent cops (The Shield, The Wire) lawyers (Damages) or firemen (Rescue Me). It’s a world born of Dostoevsky and film noir, but set adrift from the moral imperative that the protagonist, no matter how charismatic, had to suffer the penalty for his actions by the time the credits rolled. Humphrey Bogart in High Sierra gets gunned down by a police sniper even after he’s redeemed by love and charity, while we last see Tony Soprano at the end of six bloody seasons in a diner booth with his family, sharing onion rings and indifferently anticipating the retributive hit that might never come – a controversial ending that split fans of the show as bitterly as the Iraq war polarized U.S. voters.

The most interesting of the current crop of quality cable shows right now is AMC’s Breaking Bad, the story of a high school chemistry teacher with inoperable cancer who cooks crystal meth to make enough money to leave behind for his family. Bryan Cranston plays the transparently doomed Walt White, a man being consumed by bad luck and worse decisions, so that by the time the second and most recent season ends, he’s suffering more from his choice of a second career than from the cancer that’s killing him, and his moral maladies seem to have spread to everyone around him.

Sometimes it’s hard to be certain that quality cable lives up to its awestruck press or whether the artistic renaissance happening there is enhanced by the dismal state of movies today – a low point unmatched since the mid-1960s. With many hours to fill, extended over multiple seasons, really good TV such as Breaking Bad has the privilege of letting the tragedies that come from moral failure resonate as truly and widely as they do in life, with the likelihood that, as in life, a satisfying conclusion might not, ultimately, reward our patience.