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'Breaking Bad' season four preview: Slowed down a bit, but still the best show on TV

July 17, 2011 |  2:00 pm

Breakingbadkey The fourth season of “Breaking Bad” debuts this evening, and if you’re like any good TV fan, you’re probably super excited for the return of Walt, Jesse, Skyler, Hank and everybody else. (I’d say you’re probably excited for the return of Marie, but that may just be me.) And yet in the last few months, so many people have been catching up with the previous three seasons on DVD that it may be time to issue a few warnings, just to make sure we’re all on the same page, and we can eliminate unnecessary grousing.

So here are a few things to keep in mind:

1) “Breaking Bad” is an incredibly deliberate series and can often seem slow-moving on a week-to-week basis. To you "Breaking Bad" vets, this must seem rudimentary. But viewers who just watched earlier seasons on DVD in a matter of days will now be forced to watch this season unfold over a matter of months. This problem also bedeviled new fans of series like “The Sopranos” and “Lost.” Almost all TV shows -– even shows without big, overarching stories like “NCIS” or “Castle” –- are better when viewed on DVD: You can go at your own pace, gobbling up episode after episode until you absolutely must pass out.

But watching only one episode at a time can make some series slow to a crawl. (I’ve gotten to a point where I save up several episodes of “Treme” – a show I really, really like – to watch on long Saturday afternoons, simply because I find the series works better that way.) There’s always some overriding tension hanging over every episode of “Breaking Bad” – and if you’ve seen the season three finale, you can just about guess what the tension will be heading into the season four premiere – and the show is terrific and instantly re-conjuring that tension from week to week. But having a week or more between episodes can make it feel like there’s less momentum than when they're watched on DVD.

2.) Though there’s plenty of tension in this season’s first three episodes, the show has shifted a bit toward more character drama. I’m not going to spoil these episodes for you, but I will say that where season three had the Cousins and season two had Tuco, the fourth season has a much more wide-ranging, far-reaching threat, one that seems more existential than immediate. To say more would be to give away too much, but I hope you’ll see what I mean once we’ve reached the end of episode three.

This is not to say that this is a bad move – indeed, the third episode of this season is one of my favorites  the show has ever done. But it definitely reminds me of season four of “The Sopranos,” when fans of the show groused about how the series wasn’t “whacking” enough people and was too focused on character stories and relationships fraying and falling apart. So if you’re someone who watches this series for the little islands of action – like the gunfight between Hank and the Cousins or Walt saving Jesse at the last minute – you might wonder if the show has lost its mind. But there’s just as much at stake and just as much tension in these relationship stories as there was in the more action-y moments. It’s just a different mixture of the show’s usual elements, choosing to emphasize different things.
3.) This is still the best show on TV. I’m probably warning you too much. (Am I? Yeah, probably.) Vince Gilligan and his writers remain the most unexpected creative team on television, and the cast continues to crackle, with actors who’ve previously gotten little to do –- like Betsy Brandt and Jonathan Banks – being given chances to shine. There are thrills and shocks aplenty in tonight’s premiere, and then there are some truly heart-wrenching moments in the next two episodes. This is a series that’s confidently at the height of its game, and it’s just fun to watch everybody involved figure out where every twist and turn will lead them. If you’ve liked the previous three seasons, you probably don’t need to worry whether you’ll like these first three. This is vintage “Breaking Bad,” and that means it’s better than anything else out there.

And with that, I’ll leave you until tonight’s premiere. Look for my recap to go live at Monday 6 a.m. PDT.

Photo: The cast of “Breaking Bad” awaits whatever horrors creator Vince Gilligan has waiting for them in season four. Credit: AMC

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--Todd VanDerWerff (follow me on Twitter at @tvoti)