As if we needed more evidence that there's never a slow time of year for significant TV (except maybe Christmas week), here's a mid-August weekend with so many premieres you might think fall had come early — although the new fall season would be lucky to boast shows remotely this interesting.
The greatest buzz, of course, surrounds the beginning of the end of AMC's darkly entertaining masterpiece Breaking Bad (Sunday, 9/8c), which resumes its climactic trajectory with the first of eight final episodes — and if Sunday's blistering hour is any indication of what's to come over the next two months, we're in for quite the wrenching ride. A ride that's teased by an opening flash-forward which suggests catastrophic consequences for the domestic life of Walter White (Bryan Cranston, astonishing as ever in his swings from mensch to menacing) — whose criminal alter ego is now in danger of being exposed by his brother-in-law/DEA agent Hank (Dean Norris, a world removed from the melodramatics of his new gig Under the Dome).
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It's not a spoiler to remind viewers that the last we saw of Hank, he'd found a link connecting the murder of the chemist Gale to the seemingly benign Walt, in whose bathroom this boom is lowered. Deepening the irony, this last season picks up with Walt feeling confident that he's finally been able to step away from his criminal life, a process complicated by his tormented accomplice Jesse (Aaron Paul) seeking redemption through brazen acts of emotional desperation. Their estrangement forces a confrontation, during which Walt declares: "You need to stop focusing on the darkness behind you. The past is the past."
How nice if that were true, but Breaking Bad remains a powerful parable of irreparable moral rot, once again finding grim metaphorical resonance in Walt's recurring cancer. No matter how you look at it, things appear to be breaking bad for TV's most lethal anti-hero. Bad for him, good for us. Can't wait to see how it all plays out.
BADGES OF DISHONOR: As Breaking Bad begins its triumphant final lap, AMC pairs it with a show that peers even deeper into the criminal abyss: Low Winter Sun (Sundays, 10/9c), which reshapes a two-part 2006 British miniseries into a grim but familiar study of moral and urban corruption in the timely setting of a troubled, broken Detroit.
Mark Strong compellingly reprises his role from the original series as a tormented detective compelled by his partner (Lennie James) to murder a dirty colleague in the opening scenes, a desperate act that tears them apart when an Internal Affairs investigation ensues (led by former Breaking Bad patsy David Costabile). With subplots involving criminals caught up in the local drug scene, Sun aspires to the breadth if not the depth of The Wire. But it's so self-conscious in its existential misery, lacking the leavening humor and humanity of a modern classic like Breaking Bad, that it often feels more punishing than provocative.
NO BED OF ROSES: Like a Masterpiece Classic on steroids, Starz's 10-part historical potboiler The White Queen is ripe with juicy intrigue of the royal and romantic variety, ripping bodices with pay-cable aplomb. (It premieres with a special Friday "advance screening" at 10/9c following the series finale of Magic City, then airs again Saturday at 8/7c, with future episodes in its regular time period of Saturdays at 9/8c).
Adapted from three overlapping page-turners by the prolific Philippa Gregory, this enjoyably propulsive high melodrama replays the classic Wars of the Roses family feud (York vs. Lancaster) from the perspective of the women who are both pawns and players in a violent, turbulent game of claiming and keeping the English throne. "There is no love in this, only business," says the calculating mother of the title character, Elizabeth Woodville (winsome Rebecca Ferguson), a Lancaster widow and commoner who bewitches boyish and newly crowned York monarch Edward IV (Max Irons, son of Jeremy). Theirs is a secret, surprise union of impulsive passion, defying the strategies of "kingmaker" Lord Warwick (James Frain, gloriously villainous) and turning the 15th century court into a hotbed of murderous treachery.
Sound like fun? It mostly is, although you may need to keep a flowchart to track all of the dizzying reversals of fortune and shifting allegiances as brother turns against brother, sisters find themselves on opposite sides of a conflict, and mothers are torn from their titled offspring. With the fates of just about everyone hinging on the birth of a male heir, this becomes a lusty chronicle of pump and circumstance, with Elizabeth turning to magic and her Lancaster rival Margaret "the Red Queen" Beaufort (an intense Amanda Hale) embracing religious mania to further their cause.
History buffs will know that these two women will ultimately become the grandmothers of Henry VIII. But that's another, much better known story. Before the Tudor reign, there was this mess stirred up by the Plantagenets, and it's about time they had a colorful TV series to call their own.
LICENSE TO OVERKILL: Ever the good soldier, the aptly named hardbodied warrior Sgt. Michael Stonebridge wades into treacherous Colombian waters, declaring, "Ours is not to reason why." To which his loose-cannon sidekick Sgt. Damien Scott responds, "Maybe it's time we start."
A little late for that, fellas. Three seasons in, Cinemax's Strike Back (Friday, 10/9c) is the ultimate shoot-first think-later exercise in outrageous mayhem and explosively over-the-top buddy heroics. Graphic in its carnage and carnality (look where it's airing), this show blazed a new trail in hardcore pulp fiction for Cinemax, which raised its game earlier this year with the addictively twisted Banshee. As blunt as its title, Strike Back is an international thriller that follows well-armed and well-toned agents of the clandestine Section 20 — so gun-crazy they could qualify as Section 8 — in their search for an elusive terrorist.
The path, littered by a pile of corpses that just won't stop, leads from the Colombian jungles to Beirut to Eastern Europe (with South Africa and Budapest standing in for all locations), and that's just the first four episodes. As the righteous Stonebridge and the randy Scott, Philip Winchester and Sullivan Stapleton enjoy an easy camaraderie no matter how extreme the circumstances. Almost always outgunned and outmanned, these sitting ducks never hesitate to dive headlong into danger. When one of their associates responds to a display of Stonebridge derring-do by exclaiming, "What the hell is he doing?" Scott replies, "Something brave or something stupid. Can't tell yet."
It's all the same in their world. And if you think these guys are tough, wait till you get a load of their supervisor, the intense Rhona Mitra as Maj. Rachel Dalton, who early on is seen gluing a nasty stomach wound shut so she can get back to bossing the guys around. "Nobody can live this kind of life forever," says a mysterious contact who's either from the CIA or a terrorist tool. This spook is obviously right, but as long as the ammo holds up, Strike Back isn't going anywhere.
HELLO, LARRY: If we can't have a new season of Curb Your Enthusiasm until Larry David decides to make one, we'll just have to settle for his new HBO movie Clear History (Saturday, 9/8c), a perverse parable of envy and misfortune that loses some steam as it turns into a wacky but predictable revenge caper that you know can't end well.
As usual, David is his own worst enemy, playing an irascible marketing maven (unrecognizable in a hippie wig and beard) who misses out on a fortune when he sells back his shares of an electric-car company run by earnest visionary Jon Hamm (very good). Flash-forward 10 years, and David is living under an assumed name across the country, mistaken by all as a nice guy, until Hamm appears, reigniting his apoplexy. Look past the strained farce for some sharp cameos by Michael Keaton and Liev Schreiber, and even when the movie starts feeling way too much like used goods, there's no question that that a miserable Larry David is a funny Larry David. Still, to enjoy this trifle, it's best to curb your expectations.