Summer escapism? Nice while it lasted. For those who prefer a more riveting, nail-biting variety of TV, one of cable's darkest masterpieces of mayhem is back after a long absence, having lost none of its sinister allure in its fourth season.
For fans of adult, morally murky drama, AMC's criminally intense Breaking Bad is a cause for celebration — though any drinking going on may be just to settle one's nerves. The grim silence is deafening, and the tension nearly unbearable, as the story picks up in the immediate aftermath of last season's climactic shocker, with partners in meth-making crime Walt and Jesse (Emmy winners Bryan Cranston and Aaron Paul) facing the consequences of having murdered their fellow chemist to save their own necks.
Desperation and paranoia soon kick in, as an anguished Jesse reverts to old debauched ways in a futile attempt to outrun his demons, while Walt simmers and seethes like a ticking bomb, the Southwest's least likely and most unexpectedly ruthless outlaw. He desires a showdown with his ice-for-blood boss Gus (the chilling Giancarlo Esposito), but family pressures keep intruding.
Breaking Bad has a way of investing everyday objects — a teakettle, a box cutter, a local car wash — with ominous significance, reminders in a bleak sun-blasted Albuquerque landscape that the wages of sin are messy and a corrupted soul can't be easily cleansed.
Breaking Bad premieres Sunday, 10/9c, on AMC
Here are some more highlights of another busy summer weekend:
Friday Night Lights (Friday, 8/7c, NBC)
A four-hanky alert, as the acclaimed underdog series about small-town life — just nominated for its first-ever best-drama Emmy for its final season — airs its very last episode. As emotionally satisfying as you could hope, this wonderful hour finds the Lions preparing for the state championship while Coach Eric and Tami Taylor continue to weigh options for their future. There's plenty of closure here, and while it's not easy to say goodbye to the wonderful people of Dillon, Texas, Friday Night Lights will continue with repeats from past seasons on ESPN Classic.
Torchwood: Miracle Day (Friday, 10/9c, Starz)
I was away when this provocative sci-fi thriller premiered last week, so here are a few excerpts from my magazine review:
While HBO's hit True Blood feeds our fascination with the undead, the 10-part Torchwood: Miracle Day is all about the undying, or "the death of death." It's an audacious sci-fi premise: What happens when people everywhere suddenly stop dying, even when their time is up? A miracle to be sure, but the economic, ecological and medical implications are catastrophic. Re-enter the remnants of Torchwood, the crack alien-fighting unit that's all too acquainted with mortality.
The only surviving members — dashing Capt. Jack Harkness (John Barrowman), who in a neat twist finds his immortality reversed, and scrappy earth-mother Gwen (Eve Myles) — are reunited to battle a global conspiracy, recruited by a mortally injured yet undying CIA agent (a tiresomely bullheaded Mekhi Phifer) who pledges to get to the bottom of this mystery if it kills him. Because it can't.
Torchwood raised its game when it evolved to a miniseries format in 2009's grippingly horrific Children of Earth, but Miracle Day is double the length, which in the early chapters leads to some ponderous, if topical, mumbo-jumbo about universal health care and sinister Big Pharmaceuticals. Our heroes' new companions may be less than electrifying, but there's plenty of action to compensate — and, as always, sex (though Capt. Jack now asks about protection) — and a chilling adversary in Oswald Danes (Bill Pullman), a psycho killer who survives execution and becomes a perverse cult hero in the media.
I'm impatiently dying to see what dark and freaky places Torchwood will take us to before it's over.
Cyberbully (Sunday, 8/7c, Disney Channel)
The channel takes a temporary break from its summer diet of escapist fluff to deliver a message movie in the spirit of an AfterSchool Special, part of Disney's "Delete Digital Drama" initiative targeting online bullying and emotional abuse. Cyberbully stars Hannah Montana's Emily Osment and No Ordinary Family's Kay Panabaker in the story of a teenage girl rattled to the breaking point by the bullying and nasty gossip she endures on a social-network website.
Zen (Sunday, 9/8c, PBS; check local tvguide.com listings)
Zen isn't a state of mind. In the corrupt though undeniably stylish whirl of Rome, detective Aurelio Zen (a droll, suave Rufus Sewell) may be the last hope for truth. In this clever series of politically and sexually charged Masterpiece Mystery! movies based on books by Michael Dibdin, and beautifully filmed on location, lone wolf Zen finds his reputation for integrity challenged on all sides. Pressured by government justice officials to work sensitive cases, often at cross-purposes with his own cantankerous police boss, Zen walks a precarious tightrope. Thankfully, he finds romantic refuge with an alluring new office worker (Caterina Murino, whose authentic Italian dialect makes all the British accents around her all the more jarring). But even that affair must be kept secret. Zen is seductive fun.
True Blood (Sunday, 9/8c, HBO)
Has this series ever had as much fun with any storyline as it has with Eric in his little-lost-vampire-boy amnesiac state? He was last seen kneeling over Sookie's fairy guardian Claudine, whom he'd just slaughtered, sheepishly offering a "Sorry" to Sookie, as she chastises him: "You just killed my fairy godmother!" This week's episode picks up in the drunken aftermath of Eric's fairy feast, and it's hilarious. But also tender, as Sookie takes the newly vulnerable vamp under her wing — calling in help from one hunky quarter while hiding her charge from former swain Bill. Meanwhile, Jason desperately tries to escape from his were-panther captors while the witches seek a way to reverse the spell against Eric. A very busy episode, delightfully so.
Falling Skies (Sunday, 10/9c, TNT)
The hit alien-invasion thriller kicks off a two-part episode in which the 2nd Mass. base prepares to evacuate its children to a safe haven when word arrives from another militia leader that the aliens are planning to attack our heroes, targeting their offspring. We're a long way from E.T.