Sigourney Weaver, Bryan Cranston

In the latest head-on collision of top-notch Sunday night cable dramas, the return of TV's most chilling dark parable faces the arrival of an irresistible new potboiler. One you can take to the Emmy bank next week; the other you'll be tempted to take to the beach.

As the first half of the final season gets underway for AMC's masterpiece of intensity Breaking Bad (Sunday, 10/9c), mensch-turned-mastermind Walter White (three-time Emmy winner Bryan Cranston) escalates his criminal ways, and a man who once inspired pity now leaves even loved ones quaking in fear.

"You know how they say it's been a pleasure? It hasn't," grouses Walt's gravest critic, the murderous fixer Mike (Jonathan Banks), reluctantly lured back into assisting the ruthless Walt and his tormented sidekick Jesse (Aaron Paul) in their audacious, often humorously harrowing escapades. "You are a time bomb, tick-tick-ticking, and I have no intention of being around for the boom," says Mike, who should speak for himself.

Because we can't take our eyes away from the brilliant Cranston as Walt coolly plots his next move, savoring the thrill — and lately the win — and he's never more unnerving than when he snuggles next to his seriously rattled wife (Anna Gunn) to assure her he's doing it all for family.

Walt has mutated from husband/father/provider to monster, whereas the Political Animals in USA Network's rollicking six-part "event series" about a former first family are only monstrously ambitious. (It premieres Sunday at 10/9c.)

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Like a bawdy, raunchy fusion of Aaron Sorkin and Jackie Collins, merrily ensnaring its brainy power players in outrageously soapy scenarios and displays of bad behavior, this creation of Greg Berlanti (Brothers & Sisters) is high-minded, lowdown fun, way racier than the USA norm.

Animals is also a fabulous showcase for Sigourney Weaver, playing a version of Hillary Clinton who here is called Elaine Barrish Hammond: former first lady, senator, failed presidential candidate, currently Secretary of State serving the man to whom she lost. Only in this scenario, she divorces her Bill (the gaudily debauched Ciaran Hinds as Bud). Elaine now juggles international incidents with family tabloid scandals, ruling both arenas with salty wit, pugnacious resolve and more authority than the milquetoast president (Adrian Pasdar) and her philandering ex.

You could get an estrogen contact high admiring the formidable ladies who dominate this juicy miniseries: besides Weaver, there's the fiery Ellen Burstyn as Elaine's hilariously outspoken and often tipsy mother and the electrifying Carla Gugino as a reporter with uncommon access to this family's secrets, including the latest exploits of the black-sheep gay son (Sebastian Stan).

"Never call a bitch a bitch. Us bitches hate that," Weaver tells Gugino in an airborne one-on-one, a moment so enjoyable you can almost suspend disbelief. More fanciful than HBO's The Newsroom, and less pretentious in its deluxe melodrama, Political Animals is a welcome escape from the current campaign grind, leaving us already hoping for a second term.

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